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The Gradated Diminishing Of Reality – Travel in FRPG

Giraffes in Africa

Photo by Krzysztof Szkurlatowski; Click the image to visit his website.

Another filler article, I’m afraid. I’ve made quite a lot of progress but – due to external factors – simply ran out of time. I’ve been saving this one for just such an eventuality…

For the purposes of this article, “FRPG” is considered restricted to D&D / Pathfinder and similar systems. I know that’s unrealistic, and unfair to all the other game systems out there, but the title was just too long otherwise!

I am writing the first draft of this article (longhand!) while sitting in a train carriage on the way to a belated Christmas with part of my family who I didn’t get to see back in December. This is not a long trip – about three hours by train and bus, if you take the express – but it is travel beyond the city nevertheless, and that has inspired today’s topic of conversation.


The skyline of this landscape is almost identical to that of the Africa picture above – but they are definitely NOT the same place despite that similarity.

How Much Travel Do You Roleplay?

It would be my preference to roleplay every step – well, almost. I want to describe the changing terrain, the evolving weather, the bird-songs and wildlife both recognizable and exotic. I want the PCs to feel what the world around them is like, to immerse them in its colors and textures, and to make the players feel like their characters are part of that world and not simply passing through.

My players, on the other hand, would prefer I mention none of this, unless it is absolutely necessary because something potentially significant is going to occur – and even the “potentially” is a concession. They don’t want me to mention the buildings on the street, or the cobbles beneath their feet – they just want to know where the one building that they are looking for can be found, and is anyone watching?

An Evolved Compromise

Over time, between complaints from both sides of the table, we have evolved a compromise, a gradated diminishing of reality, or – more precisely – a graduated diminishing of the intrusion of reality. The purpose of today’s article is to explain that compromise, and reveal a secret implication or two that my players may not have been previously aware of.

Beginner’s Levels

At very low levels, when the PCs are (mostly) traveling on foot, they get – and are required to give – full detail. They establish protocols and routines with the understanding that they won’t vary these unless presented with compelling reason to do so on, and then only for this one occasion. These include setting up camp at night, breaking camp in the morning, and the “daily routine” of life as an adventurer.

Low Levels

Sometime around 3rd or 4th level, the PCs usually acquire horses, or some other means of conveyance appropriate to the game world. As soon as they do so, the protocols and routines that are not affected by the change of conveyance or the need to care for such mounts as may be involved, are considered fixed and complete. The players can only alter the routines or add a new one if they tell me explicitly that they are doing something different from now on and roleplay the variation a time or two, and I will take it as read that they are performing their routines in the manner established.

At the same time, I begin cutting back on the level of narrative detail – instead of describing every change in surroundings or landscape, I will break each major time period – morning/afternoon/evening – into two (or, more usefully, three) parts of a couple of hours duration each. Given that the PCs travel speed has increased enormously at the same time, descriptions retreat into generalities and summaries.

Of course, exceptions are always made for significant encounters.

Lower Mid-Levels

As the PCs continue to go up in levels, so the time covered by each narrative passage increases – without extending the amount of game time that I am expending on these descriptions. By about 7th or 8th level, I no longer give place names unless these are expected to matter to the PCs (or I am asked explicitly by a player), and the miles are beginning to get seriously compressed. By this point, a single block of narrative covers the entire morning or afternoon, and – if there is not much to distinguish the two – it might even be the entire day.

By this point, there is very little that a CR 1 or 2 encounter with a non-sentient can do to make the PCs even break stride, and the XP- and Treasure rewards from these are also pretty minimal, so most of these get hand-waved as well – but note the narrowness of definition. Every 2 PC levels thereafter, this “Threshold of notification” will increase by 1.

It’s not that the PCs are traveling any faster (though they might be) – it’s just that there is so much less that is relevant to them.


By around character level 11 or 12 – approaching upper mid-level – I am starting to approach the levels of compression that the players want. A whole day’s travel is described in a single paragraph, and unless it is exceptional, weather never even gets mentioned. The same is true of most terrain, though swamp, desert, and mountains usually still rate at least a passing mention.

Most casual encounters don’t rate an acknowledgement, either. Unless it’s a sentient being (who can impart useful information no matter what CR it might be), anything less than CR 4 or 5 is trivially simple for the PCs to deal with, and that takes in an awful lot of ground – and even some sentients aren’t worth mentioning.

This also marks the point at which I can begin to take advantage of the players’ desire to skip over the trivial, because what they are really asking for (without necessarily realizing it) is that they want to ignore context and clues unless these are obviously important or potentially dangerous in a combat sense. The alternative is for me to bury the “important” encounters amongst ones that aren’t important, because of a simple but very important principle:

  • If the PCs can’t tell that an encounter is important, the players should not know it either.

i.e. If there is nothing that would make the encounter stand out as significant to the PCs at the time, the GM should not do anything to make it stand out to the players – though it should get mentioned when the significance becomes clear: “You didn’t think anything of it at the time, but…” If I’m feeling generous, I might even permit a PC an INT check – eventually – to put two and zero together and come up with a speculative “four”.

From this point on, then, the players are increasingly diving into things without knowing what they are getting themselves into, a situation that can only work to the GM’s advantage.

High Levels

This situation can only grow more overt when characters gain Flight, or the ability to Teleport, or the capability of jumping from one Plane of existence to another. The use of such means may save the players from all that arduous, boring travel – but it is also a direct challenge to the GM: “Come on, do your worst – we’re ready for anything.”

The PCs now stride the game world in 7-League Boots (or the equivalent thereof) – Arrogant, Cocksure, and Defiant. What better time to dole out some Humble Pie?

Speaking of 7-league boots, there are some fascinating conclusions and conundrums that arise from the concept of a league when it is applied to RPG mapping – a definite subject for another article sometime!


If it were just a little flatter, this would be exactly the same as the landscapes I grew up with. Photo by “leagun”.

A little context

It would be unfair not to mention that at least part of the motivation behind the players desire to skip through to “the interesting stuff” is that we can’t play any given campaign as much as we would like. There would be more time to waste, and more time wasted on detail, if we played every week, for example. With an average of 11 games sessions per year, maximum, for most campaigns, time is always at a premium. Nevertheless, I am sure that every group, no matter how often they gather, would agitate against encounters that are trivial, meaningless, and/or irrelevant. They always want to get to the adventure, and are only marginally tolerant of the intrusion of realism in the form of “the slow bits” in between.

While most groups won’t have the same pressures that mine do, therefore, the same arguments and compromises still apply.

How much travel do you roleplay – and is it more, or less, than is desirable?

Comments (4)

Ask The GMs: Some Arcane Assembly Required – Pt 2: Sourcing Parts

Ask the gamemasters

This question comes from GM Roy, who wrote:

“I need some inspiration to create cool names for spell components.

I have 5 [scales of rarity = Mike]:

  • Common (flesh, breath, water, dust)
  • Uncommon (earth from a cemetery, humanoid blood)
  • Rare (head of a Medusa, Minotaur’s horn, black dragon blood)
  • very Rare (Essence of the ghost of a mass murderer, Adamantium armor forged in hell by a celestial), and
  • Unique (The Tear of the ancient God of death, Essence of the Terrasque).

I need a lot of these, Where can I find some?”

Series Logo ATGMs 32 Some Assembly Required

I guess it was inevitable that sooner or later there would be an Ask-the-GMs question that was simply too big for a single blog post in response.

The short answer to GM Roy’s question, is to create them yourself. But, like a lot of readers, the first question that had to be answered was “Why Bother?” The popular perception of Material Components is that they are nothing but unnecessary paperwork, after all. Before I could take a solid swing at answering the question, I needed to find an answer to that first question that satisfied me, AND that did away with that popular perception, hopefully by doing away with the majority of the paperwork.

I tackled that task in Part One, “The Sales Pitch”, in which I tried to “sell” the value of Material Components to both myself and my readers at the same time. The consensus seems to be that I hit the mark in that respect.

Along the way, I had to revise the categories offered by GM Roy in such a way that they were logically defined. That proved a little more controversial, largely because, instead of reducing the number of categories, I increased them. That was a direct result of the need to accommodate a spell-design process that I had come up with, based on the Material Component rarity. Because I’m really happy with that system, I’m sticking with the 6-step scale of rarity that I came up with.

Now, it’s time to look at ways of populating those categories, and that’s the subject of today’s article. The obvious place to start is by recapitulating the categories and the examples that I’ve already created for them…


IanG Avatar I’ve relied heavily on past discussions regarding D&D/PFRPG with Ian Gray and in D&D and the Zenith-3 campaign with Nick Deane for these articles. Ian’s contributions were a major element of Part 1 of this series, Nick’s are part of what’s below – possibly morphed beyond his recognition! I also have to acknowledge discussions on the subject with Graham McDonald before he passed away several years ago. Graham was the first to suggest to me a more systematic approach to Material Components in spell design, while echoing the complaints about “Unnecessary Paperwork” that Ian would later make. Nick-Avatar


The Scale Of Rarity (with examples)

My revised scale of rarity is based on the principle of each level being the previous one plus one of four things:

  • Inherently Greater Rarity;
  • Inherently Greater Danger in procurement;
  • An additional process of conversion which is inherently difficult and may be unknown;
  • Greater journeys to procure, even extending into other planes at higher rarity levels;
  • Qualities with a metaphysical significance relevant to the arcane purpose to which the material is to be put.

For most purposes relating to known spells, the first three levels are all you need, and most of those are reasonably readily available. Spellcasters can derive some additional benefits by using material components of one step greater rarity than those which are normally associated with the standard spells, or can have some minor variations on the basic spell results by using variations on components of similar rarity.

It’s in developing new variations on existing spells and standardizing them, or developing entirely new spells and standardizing them, or creating Epic spells, that the higher levels of rarity become important. With those in mind, here are the categories that I have defined and examples of the sort of Material Component that occupies that level of the rarity scale.

  • Common:
    • Flesh, Breath, Water, Dust, Candles, Salt, Leather, Copper, Silver, Gold [D&D / Pathfinder only], Wood, Nails, Hide, Humanoid Blood, Meat,
      i.e. Anything you could routinely obtain from a country fair or marketplace, costing an SP or less. Readily replenished for the Spell Components Pouch.
  • Uncommon:
    • Earth from a cemetery, Inhaled Breath, Spring Water, Swamp Water, Emerald Dust, Ruby Dust or shards, the flesh or blood of an Uncommon creature, Platinum, Spices, possibly tropical plants (tomatoes, banana skins, bamboo), Bat Guano, Amber Sticks, colored candles, candles that burn with a specific color of flame, inks of a specific color,
      i.e. items that are generally available in larger towns and small cities, possibly with a short wait, but that are not going to be routinely available in a small country town. In general, think of Common materials with an extra qualifier.
  • Rare:
    • Body parts of a Rare creature, Gemstones of at least 5gp value, diamond dust, possibly Adamantium, Ethereal Vapor, Breath of a Djinn, Water from one of the Waterfalls of Elysium,
      i.e. anything that is inherently valuable and that aren’t waste products (that’s why ruby and emerald dust don’t fit this category) – (Diamonds are rare enough that even the dust falls into this category), and anything that is inherently dangerous to obtain, or that involves travel to other realms of existence, but is reasonably freely available in the right place.
  • Very Rare:
    • Essence Of A Ghost, Adamantium forged in Hell, Adamantium Forged by a Celestial, Blood of a Celestial, Eyes Of A Demon, anything with an inherent worth of more than about 50gp (larger gemstones, gemstones carved with a particular scene or symbol), shrunken heads, a cursed monkey’s paw, the Blood Of A Tree, the Heart of a Mountain, Bottled Lightning, Essence Of The Terrasque,
      i.e. body parts of a rare creature, or body parts of a creature which is uncommon and only found in an extra-planar location, anything that is inherently dangerous AND only found in an extra-planar location, anything worth more than about 50gp, and anything that is metaphysical and not so rare that it qualifies for the “Exotic” category. The common pattern is either an elevated risk in obtaining the item, or travel that is inherently dangerous and which leads to an opportunity that is itself dangerous. Also anything Rare that requires some form of processing before it is ready to use, the specifics of which are not commonly known.
  • Exotic:
    • Essence Of The Ghost Of A Mass Murderer,
      i.e. Anything very rare with an additional qualification or a third source of danger involved, or that have multiple unknowns that have to be resolved in separate adventures, the personal property or a body part of a specific individual of immense power whose precise location is unknown.
  • Unique:
    • The Tear Of The Ancient God Of Death (with caveats – refer to the discussion in the comments to part 1), Excalibur, a branch of Yggdrasil, the Skin of the Midgard Serpent, the Horn Of Cornucopia,
      i.e Unique items have to be one-of-a-kind or improbably dangerous AND difficult to obtain.

So, now that we’re all caught up, let’s look at general principles of populating the different categories.

Industrialized Adventuring

The first consideration, and most dominant at the low end of the rarity scale, is this question: How Industrialized Is Adventuring In Your Game World?

This is a question that GMs generally don’t consider nearly often enough or deeply enough. I have seen games in which a GM has plunked an “Adventurer’s Store” into every village and hamlet in which anything (including Material Components) that the adventurer might need can be obtained, whether it is a suit of +4 Chain Mail or a spare Wand Of Orcus (I kid you not!) No thought of the chains of suppliers and required infrastructure necessary to make this happen, they are just there.

As GMs grow in experience, they tend to swing the other way, making anything and everything hard to obtain and modeling their game worlds far more strongly on real-world models – usually without enough research into how things worked back then.

Most then settle down into a happy medium – still never having given the real question any thought.

The Fumanor Example

When I was first developing the Fumanor background, this was one of main creative focuses of the game world. I devised a situation in which “Adventuring” was a state-sponsored industry, with training, examinations, incentives, and rewards for successful advancement (which just happened to match those that the “rule book” says characters should receive.

What I didn’t tell the players (leaving the characters to discover it the hard way) was that this was economically unsustainable, but I made it clear that the Kingdom had grown entirely dependent on the adventuring industry. Defensive and Military spending had been undermined, resources diverted to continue funneling money into the Adventuring Programme, for example. Villages had, as their primary economic activity, farming; and a close second was preparing their populace for the life of an adventurer.

Every child was tested for potential, and the top 5% received subsidized further education. From these, at the age of adulthood (15 or equivalent for non-human species), they were tested again, and the top 1% were adopted by the state, gathered at training academies, and given the training needed to achieve first level as an adventurer. The state then outfitted each with the minimum equipment needed, gave each a small starting fund, and tried to get existing adventuring parties to take them on as apprentices – with cash incentives. If no adventuring party wanted the individual, they were encouraged (more cash incentives and group resources) to form their own party with their fellow novices. From that point until they reached 5th level, there was further training, involving state-sponsored dungeon explorations (artificial ones, with salted treasures), mentoring, and so on. From 5th level to 8th level, the mentoring continued, though the adventurers were free to strike out on their own (and soon discovered the difference between a manicured and controlled dungeon “simulation” and the real thing). Beyond 8th level, the mentor became an advisor, but no longer received subsidies from the government.

That’s a huge outlay by the society, and even with the semi-sheltering of simulated dungeons etc, only about 5% of novice adventurers survived to reach independence, so a lot of the outlay was lost. But it was in recovering lost treasures (taxes) and subsequent public service that the Kingdom recouped its expenses (in theory); by the time the PCs entered the picture, this approach was already starting to break down. So long as the Kingdom had continued to expand at breakneck speed, new income sources (ie dungeons to loot) could stave off disaster, but the Kingdom did not exist in isolation, and it was rubbing shoulders with neighbors (who had their own problems) or with impassable physical boundaries. Growth had slowed and was all but stopped. On top of that, other social problems were coming to the surface, such as the loss of revenue-providing resources to the Church, which was wealthy and increasingly corrupt. In such an environment, Adventurers were an elite force, and nowhere near as cost-effective as a large number of relatively untrained conscripts (the more traditional medieval model). The lesson in all this?

I had looked at how the Society would have evolved to accommodate adventurers in the post-apocalyptic environment that I had created, and then projected forward. I had integrated “Adventurers” into the game world as a social and economic factor, looked at what was required to support them, and extrapolated.

(It’s worth noting that this all emerged from the need to explain the existence of traditional dungeons to be looted. That led to the apocalypse a century prior to game-start, and that led to the impacts on society of Adventurers at an economic, social, and political level.)

The Relevance

The more Adventurers are integrated into society, the more society will adapt and evolve to service their needs (and relieve them of their cash). Those needs include Material Components. And the government will want its share. If you have a society in which Adventurers have to fill out income-tax forms and get taxed on the treasure they loot, that’s one thing, but it doesn’t really fit the pseudo-medieval setting, does it? A goods-and-services tax on the merchandise bought and sold by adventurers is a far more logical and easily-administered approach, because it turns every merchant into an internal revenue officer.

All this affects the availability (and price) of common, uncommon, and “rare” material components. Merchants exist to make a profit, so they need to sell regularly to Adventurers, and that means there have to be enough adventurers stopping by to make it worth their while to stock the things that Adventurers are likely to want to buy.

These general principles were already taken into account to some extent in the category definitions provided; I mention it here because changes to the way these principles are embodied within the game world will also affect the contents of those categories, ie what is available, where.

Controlled Substances

Here’s another thought. Bat Guano and Amber Rods. These enable mages to cast Fireball and Lightning Bolt, respectively, spells that can be quite harmful in the wrong hands. Is it unreasonable that a society might seek to restrict the availability of these Spell Components, say by whacking a huge tax on them, controlling their import and trade, and generally pricing them out of the market? Of course, if the proposals regarding alternative spell components are implemented, this won’t work – there are too many things that burn. But if you don’t adopt that flexibility, government control of the Material Components is a practical certainty – for everyone but an elite force maintained by the government, of course. The inevitable result is a Black Market, which will happily supply them to anyone willing to break the law – so you end up in a situation where everyone except the PCs have access to these spells’ components.

Or perhaps, in a half-way point between these extremes, the “ideal” components are restricted, leaving “independent civilian” spellcasters a choice of less-effective Material Component Alternatives?

In Summary:

While the list of material component examples offered above is all well and good in theory, it does not take into account social and economic restrictions that might apply, shifting specific components up or down the rarity scale. Or, to put it another way, the list offered is a theoretical one based on availability in the natural world; Social, economic, political and military factors – which will differ from game to game – will alter the availability within the humanoid world.

Spell- ie Purpose- Driven

There are two possible approaches to populating the categories. The first is to list every possible Material Component you can think of, then look at what spells they might be appropriate for. The alternative is to work from a list of spells available to spellcasters that require material components and think of possible alternatives as and when necessary.

The first is so much work that I definitely and emphatically don’t recommend it. The second is far more practical; for a start, you only have to worry about the spells that the spellcaster can actually cast. Don’t worry about 2nd level spells, and up, until you are dealing with a mage who can cast such spells.

Furthermore, you can decide not to worry about those spells until the mage actually decides to cast one. That’s when you need to know what variation is in the spell component pouch, and what impact (if any) the substitution will have on the spell. Decide that, tell the player, and let him decide whether or not to continue with that proposed action in light of the information.

Anything Goes?

Another approach – at least for the low-level spells that will get cast relatively frequently – is to make this a question for the player. Instead of telling them what they have available for material components, you can ask “What are you using for material component? You need something that…”

If the spell is fire-based, you might conclude that sentence with “…burns or is symbolic of fire”. This permits the choice of component to become part of the personality of the character, especially once the player gets used to the ground rules we’ve discussed. All that is necessary is for him to choose something that plausibly belongs in the rarity category required.

Let’s consider the possible justifications for an item to be the Material Component of a spell.

1. A metaphor or symbol for the spell

I’ve mentioned this one above. Consider, for example, the first level spell, Alarm (Pathfinder version). The spell description lists a small silver bell and piece of silver wire as a focus for the spell. What if you don’t have those? Well, the GM (under these rules) should be willing to permit the substitution of lesser-rarity components that will be consumed by the spell (Silver is a “common” material, available in coins, but requiring it to worked into the specified forms raises the focus into the “uncommon” category. Step 7 on the creating/importing spells process (in Part One) states that a focus raises the rarity level by one, so the non-focus version should revert back to the “common” category. So, what common materials would be metaphoric or symbolic of the spell? Answer: anything that makes a noise. If you wanted to be a little more representative, a nail tied to a horseshoe by a bit of string or fishing line would do. If you’re more generously-inclined, a tin whistle, or a trumpet, or a reed flute, or anything along those lines would qualify, together with a piece of string or fishing line in place of the silver wire.

However, the fact that none of these would be noisemakers if it weren’t for their shape might lift them back up a level, meaning that the GM can either let them be limited-reuse Material Components or even let these substitute directly for the spell focus AS a spell focus.

2. Iconic Representation of the target or target quality

Another approach that has a long history of use in some circles (wax figures, etc), when generalized a little, offers another set of appropriate Material Components.

Consider the Pathfinder 1st level spell, Protection from Evil/Good/Chaos/Law. According to the spell description, the arcane version of this spell uses a material component, but fails to specify what it should be. As a 1st-level spell, barring any other considerations, this should be something common. My first thought, of course, is to use an iconic representation of the spell – a small piece of armor or shell – but that’s not illustrative of the type of component we’re considering. But a piece of paper bearing a symbol of Evil would work for a Protection From Evil, because it is representative of what the caster is being protected against. A coin with the face of an evil (past) Ruler might also qualify. An inverted symbol of good is often considered representative of evil.

Or you could take the position that it’s the caster who is being affected, and not the thing being warded against, so you would need something symbolic of the caster – a uniquely personal item, a depiction of a humanoid, a mirror (contains a reflection of the caster)… lots of choices, but – given that the Material Component is destroyed in the process of casting the spell, a depiction of a humanoid (even a crude stick figure) would be perfect. Put it on a piece of paper an inch or two square, and bob’s your uncle.

But this type of focus is best when considering components for spells whose effect is hard to symbolize, because it gives you something else to symbolize that may be easier.

3. Traditional Reasonings

There are a couple of traditional “rules of magic” that the GM might permit to be used as justification for Material Components.

3a. Contagion

The rule of Contagion holds that any object that was once part of something can be a focus/material component for spells affecting that something. If it was taken unwillingly, the danger level presumably increases, so it is raised one rarity level. It is often an unwritten rule that the caster was the person who took the item, but there are any number of examples of a third party bringing such an item to a witch, so that’s up to the GM to decide.

Personally, I feel that if the caster does their own dirty work, it’s more in keeping with the “increased danger” basis of elevation of rarity, so if the item is to be provided by a third party, such as the Fighter in the party, it must be elevated a rarity level in some other way – something more valuable, for example. The implication is that for a common creature, the mage has to do his own dirty work; if the creature is uncommon, the mage can use the fighter’s leavings for spells that need only common material components, and so on. But I can’t speak for everyone on this issue.

3b. Similarity

It might seem that categories 1 and 2 have “similarity” nailed. I can’t think of any examples that would not fall into those categories, off-hand. But I’m including it here for the sake of completeness; I’ll probably think of an example as soon as I hit “publish,” that’s the way these things usually work!

3c. Traditional Symbolism

Gemstones have long been held to be symbolic of various “supernatural qualities” – this Google Search is full of pages for researching the subject. The same holds true for all sorts of other objects and substances. Flowers, for example – see this Google Search. Even if you only accept a sub-set of these offerings, for example Birthstones as symbolic of a person of particular birth-date, these are too useful to ignore.

4. Iconic Representation of the effect

A perennial favorite of mine (though not necessarily for D&D / Pathfinder). If you want to symbolize an earthquake affecting a castle wall, do a quick sketch of the wall (some crenelations and quick-and-dirty bricks), cast the spell and tear the paper. Maybe, in order to qualify on the rarity scale, it would have to be expensive paper (which is harder to tear).

5. Iconic Representation of the source

Where the effect is coming from somewhere or something, you may be able to get away with symbolizing the source. For an Ice Storm, a piece of steel shaped like a cloud, for example.

Sidebar: Can You Make Your Own Ad-Hoc Divine Focus?

A related question comes to mind: If you are a cleric who has been taken prisoner, and your Holy Symbol taken from you, can you create your own temporary replacement? Ingredients would be something symbolic of the deity and a Bless Spell. Normally, the latter requires a divine focus to cast, but I would – under these general principles – the Bless to bootstrap itself into existence, transforming the symbolic item into a Divine Focus for the duration of the Bless – and consuming it when the Bless runs out. At least, this would give you an opportunity to retrieve your real focus in an adventurous manner!

1001 uses for a piece of string

It used to be that if you stripped a mage, you greatly restricted their effectiveness. The “component substitution” concept makes capturing a mage far more dangerous, by making the mage far more dangerous. To some extent, they can seize anything that’s handy and – depending on their cleverness – use that as the component requirement for all manner of spells.

Regardless of whether or not you allow Spell Pouches for Material Components, there would be a natural trend towards items that can be the Material Components for more than one spell to become part of the standard “kit” of a mage. A polished stone has the qualities of stone, of smoothness, of reflectivity, and so on. String can be tied around the finger (reminders/memory), tied into knots, laid out in a pattern (symbols), burned, producing smoke, used to bind something, unraveled – and that’s all before we start thinking about its color, the material it’s made of, and so on.

No doubt, there will be some shonky operators out there who would try to promote something as “the wonder of the ages, material component for 1,001 different spells” – when it’s actually just cheap junk. Component substitution opens the door for con-men even wider than it was before (ever sell a mage a “diamond” for use in a spell only for it to turn out to be some lesser crystal)?

Compound Components

Common-level components, then, are very easily filled. The world is full of them. The requirements get a little stiffer with “Uncommon” and “Rare” but not onerously so.

Things get more tricky when you start looking to populate the higher end of the rarity scale, and this, I suspect, was the real point of GM Roy’s question. if you have to do something to it (even if you can do that in advance) then you can climb a step on the rarity table. These are what I think of as “Compound Components”.

A Compound Component is a material or substance that has to be processed before it becomes the Component required. This extends to metaphysical components, too – “essence of a Ghost” requires not only that you somehow trap a Ghost, but that you then distill its metaphysical form into an essence somehow. Neither of these are tasks that any given character knows how to do – though it might also be metaphysical language for something more prosaic, reducing the rarity.

Ectoplasm, frequently described as coating something that the ghost passes through, like a wall, might be “Essence of A Ghost”, for example. Still not easy to obtain, but not as difficult as actually reducing a ghost to its essence – and that’s entirely ignoring the moral issues of doing so, which go away if you choose the “Ectoplasm” option.

Another interpretation is suggested by alchemy and early chemistry, where “essence” could refer to whatever is left after a substance is burned – the ash – implying that the burning is driving off impurities, or to the vapor produced by burning when trapped in water or sometimes oil.

In general, taking a (potential) material component and adding a more specific requirement that excludes most examples of the material in question, or adding a preparatory process of some sort, or adding a substantial additional element of danger, produces a compound component. Subsequent iterations or combinations of these additional requirements further carry you up the rarity scale.

Innately Magical Components

Some materials may be considered innately magical, either because it is one property of the material in question, or because it has previously been enchanted in some fashion. These materials may be considered a rarer form of the substance, or may have a restricted use. These usually require some thought on the part of the GM before they can be allocated onto the rarity scale.

In Fumanor, for example, Mithril is not an inherently superior material – in fact, it is brittle and rather difficult to work – but, if treated gently, it is more easily enchanted by Elven Magics (Fumanor Elves practice a different form of magic to that of Humans). The impurities cannot simply be beaten out of it the way you can with steel. If not treated properly, its qualities are those of brass. When correctly prepared, it has the strength of a piece of steel four times as thick, and the weight per volume of silver. This means that you can construct a lighter version of armor that is nevertheless tougher than the equivalent volume in steel. But, the thicker you make it, the less of these qualities that it retains – if you were to make mithril mail as thick as normal steel, it is no stronger than steel, because the magic placed within it by the Elves becomes too diffuse.

Adamantium, on the other hand, is too tough for humans to work; their furnaces don’t get hot enough, for one thing, and they lack the stamina to work it continuously for the length of time required. Dwarves are tailor-made for forging this material, which inherently resists being enchanted – but which is inherently much harder than steel, and can accept a limited amount of enchantment while it is white-hot but in its’ final form.

I have no problem with the Material Component of a prototype 9th-level or Epic-Level Superior Fireball spell being a fully-charged Wand Of Fireballs – price alone makes this a spell to be cast infrequently.

Magical Institutions as Components

Another idea worth contemplating is that Membership in a particular Magical Institution might constitute either a “virtual material component” or might provide a standard component that is upgraded in rarity due to something the Institution does to it.

The result is that mages with such membership, once schooled by the institution, find spells of a nature appropriate to the Institution easier to cast in terms of the material components.

An Institution dedicated to fire magic, for example, might allow for the casting of first level fire-related spells without a material component at all, the Institution Membership being the equivalent of an Arcane Focus of the particular type. They might be able to substitute common components (normally for spell levels 0 to 2 or 3) in spells of 4th level. How much more effective might a fire-mage be if he can use a piece of coal in place of bat guano, especially if the bat guano is a “controlled substance”?

Know your game Cosmology

Some “naturally occurring” materials might also be inherently magical – water from an exotic location (on another plane of existence, for example) might qualify, especially if that location is dangerous or guarded.

Exotic Qualities

Finally, imbuing objects or materials with qualities that they don’t normally posses can create Material Components with greatly increased rankings on the rarity scale. Whether these objects and/or materials qualify for the “Very Rare”, “Exotic” or “Unique” categories is up to the GM and the proposed material in question.

Of course, you can’t simply put two words together to create an exotic material. You can’t blindly add a process to a material that isn’t subject to that process.

Things have to make sense of some sort. There has to be some logical way of connecting the two parts of the idea.

Using these principles, you can fill the middle- and upper- ranks on the rarity scale without too much difficulty.

This epic answer is winding its way to a close! Next Time, in “Tab A into Slot B”, I offer ten exotic materials, all dreamed up by the processes described above in just a few minutes, and available for GMs to use as “exotic substances” even if they don’t adopt any of the proposals in this series. As a bonus, I have high-resolution images for GMs to use in illustrating these components – something that I’ve been putting together for months, now. Originally, there was only going to be one, but then I thought of a second, and then a third, and then, well, you get the picture.

I have to thank my fellow GMs for their time and their insights. While I’ve done most of the talking (hopefully without misrepresenting their views) I could not have done it without their past comments and contributions. Much appreciated!

About the contributors:

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

IanG Avatar
Ian Gray:
Ian Gray resides in Sydney Australia. He has been roleplaying for more than 25 years, usually on a weekly basis, and often in Mike Bourke’s campaigns. From time to time he GMs but is that rarest of breeds, a person who can GM but is a player at heart. He has played many systems over the years including Tales Of The Floating Vagabond, Legend Of The Five Rings, Star Wars, D&D, Hero System, Gurps, Traveller, Werewolf, Vampire, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, and many, many more. Over the last couple of years he has been dirtying his hands with game design. He was a contributor to Assassin’s Amulet, the first time his name appeared in the credits of a real, live, RPG supplement. Recently he has taken to GMing more frequently, with more initial success than he was probably expecting, based on his prior experiences.

Nick Deane:
Nick also lives in Sydney. He started roleplaying in the mid-1980s in high school with a couple of friends who got him into D&D. That group broke up a year later, but he was hooked. In late ’88 he found a few shops that specialized in RPGs, and a notice board advertising groups of gamers led him to his first long-term group. They started with AD&D, transferred that campaign to 2nd Ed when it came out, tinkered with various Palladium roleplaying games (Heroes Unlimited met Nick’s long-term fascination with Marvel’s X-Men, sparking his initial interest in superhero roleplaying), and eventually the Star Wars RPG by West End Games and Marvel Super Heroes Advanced Set. This also led to his first experiences with GMing – the less said about that first AD&D 2nd Ed campaign, the better (“so much railroading I should have sold tickets”). His second time around, things went better, and his Marvel campaign turned out “halfway decent”. That group broke up in 1995 when a number of members moved interstate. Three years later, Nick heard about what is now his regular group while at a science-fiction bookstore. He showed up at one of their regular gaming Saturdays, asked around and found himself signed up for an AD&D campaign due to start the next week. A couple of weeks later, He met Mike, and hasn’t looked back since. From ’98 he’s been a regular player in most of Mike’s campaigns. There’s also been some Traveller and the Adventurer’s Club (Pulp) campaign, amongst others. Lately he’s been dipping a tentative toe back into the GMing pool, and so far things have been going well.

Nick is unique amongst the GMs that Mike knows in that he has done some PbP (Play-by-post) gaming, something Mike neglected to include in an article on the evolution of RPGs and was quite rightly taken to task over (the article was updated within 24 hours to correct the omission).

“I’ve played spellcasters in a number of games and systems. In Mike’s original Fumanor campaign I played a cleric-monk hybrid and later a druid, while in the spin-off, Seeds of Empire, I have run a lawful good Orcish War-priest throughout the campaign. I’ve also played spellcasters in a couple of superhero games – a couple of Marvel campaigns from 1988-1995, and my modern-Norse spellcaster Runeweaver in Mike’s current Zenith-3 campaign for getting on for a decade. I mention this at Mike’s request because it, more than my GMing experience, is how I have been able to contribute to this topic.”

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Signs and Signatures: An essay on uniqueness of style

Bond issued by the Dutch East India Co, modified image

Bond issued by the Dutch East India Co, 1622-1623, some editing (relocated annotation) by Mike, original image by Oost-Indische Compagnie (Netherlands) (Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. You can view the unmodified original by clicking on the image.

We all sign our names differently, and the association between an individual and his unique signature is a cornerstone of modern concepts of identity.

So ubiquitous is this association that the term has made its way into the modern lexicon in all sorts of other ways; law-enforcement people talk about “bomb signatures”, hackers talk about code containing “signatures”, restaurants have “signature dishes”, and so on.

What they are all talking about is identifying an individual by virtue of specific characteristics in the way they approach whatever they do.

The bomb techs are talking about the materials, construction techniques, concealment, and placement of the bomb-maker when they talk about his signature.

The cybergeeks are talking about specific coding habits, specific ways in which computer instructions are ordered and processes are carried out, especially relative to each other, and sometimes about deliberately-placed signatures. In theory, there is only one optimum way of coding a computer program or app; in practice, everything is a compromise between two or more priorities, leaving room for individuality and characteristic flourishes.

The foodies are talking about a dish that either no-one else makes, or that no-one else makes the way this particular food destination does, and again this is a unique identifier for that particular establishment, a point of differentiation between them and everyone else in that line of work.

“Signature Traits” in RPGs

As GMs, we use “signature traits” – not frequently, but regularly. Maker’s Marks on weapons and valuables are a common example; the “valuables” part we get from reality, the “weapons” is an extension of reality. Although some weaponsmiths made dress weapons with maker’s marks, until the 1700s, it was fairly unusual for weapons intended for everyday use to include maker’s marks. In fact, it was the rise of manufacturing in the 1800s and quality control inspections for military equipment that made such things as ubiquitous as they are these days.

In a lot of cases, we are talking about something slightly more abstract – work practices and techniques, a “signature” more in the way the term is used by the bomb techs – as a way of identifying a famous metalsmith who didn’t sign his work because it was intended for “workday” use. Or the great carpenter, or legendary architect.

Making your mark

We speak of people “making their mark”, and some will even recognize the term as relating to another signifier of identification; before literacy was widespread, people used to be identified by someone else of good standing to the civil authorities and would then “make their mark” instead of signing their name. Not all details are correctly remembered by all GMs, however; many are of the impression that such a mark is like someone initialing their work. It wasn’t; the mark was a simple “X”, often shaky and hesitant.

But, it was enough to establish a legal relationship between the individual and someone else, whether that be the state or a private individual, and thereby represented binding identification of that individual that was at least as reliable as a signature.

No Signature

Not everything can be characterized in the form of signatures. There is no such thing as a “signature” way of digging a ditch that yields an individual identification. However, broader identification may be possible; I am reminded of the “famous” line about digging a trench in WWI training: ‘Privates, there are four ways to dig this trench by the book: The French Way, The British Way, the American Way, and My Way. You are going to dig this trench My Way!”

The implication of this amusing anecdote, which I have seen in various forms in any number of places over the years, including Robert A Heinlein’s “Time Enough For Love”, are that the more complex the activity, the more scope there is for individual variation, and therefore, the more scope there is for individuals to develop patterns in the way they approach and execute those activities.

You can probably see where this is going already, but I’ll spell it out: The most complex activity that I know of, excepting only life itself, is GMing an RPG. It follows that the more experienced the GM, the more of a “signature” their games should have.

Signature GMing style

I have observed this phenomenon in real life. I’ve played in games run by many different GMs for many years, and – without being able to put my finger on exactly what the differences are – I had definitely reached the point where I could tell who was running the game just from a description of the action, a lot of the time, and could definitely tell when I was playing. I’m sure that my players would say the same thing about my style – ie that they find it instantly recognizable, even if they can’t actually nominate that distinctive characteristics that distinguish it.

Contaminated Signatures

Bad habits can be just as much a part of a signature as anything else, and you can’t really do anything about them until you’re aware of them. These are worse than most such, however; the implication of their being part of your “signature” is not only that they are present more frequently, but that you have started to incorporate techniques for getting around them, further embedding and encrusting them into your gaming style. Sometimes, your players are so used to these that they don’t even notice them anymore. Only when a player from outside comes into the group and has sufficient self-confidence that he will pull the GM up can the problem be recognized. Even then, a lot of GMs – and the players who are used to the GM’s style – will react defensively to such input, and the bad habit can continue or become even more entrenched!

Spring is approaching in the Northern Hemisphere – I’m sure that for the snow-bound residents of North America, it can’t come soon enough, in many cases – and Spring is traditionally a time for a general clean-up, known as “Spring Cleaning” – generally, catching up on all the chores that could not be performed during winter because of the environmental and climatic conditions. Several years ago, I advocated that GMs should also spring-clean their campaigns at such times.

Spring-clean your GMing Signature Style

Now, I’m suggesting that a half-hour spent mentally reviewing your GMing style and trying to first, identify your “Signature”, and second, looking for any bad habits that have crept into that Signature. Why wait for an unlikely turn of events to bring them to your attention? Take charge of yourself and make your GMing Signature exactly what you want it to be. Ultimately, it’s just a collection of habits – and you can form new GMing habits anytime you want to, with a little effort.

I wrote all day Sunday, but it became evident by the early evening that the next part of the “New Beginnings” series was at best a 50/50 chance of being complete in time (as it happens, it would not have been).

Rather than rush it, overwork excessively, or delay publication (a choice that would have detrimental knock-on effects on subsequent articles), I chose to write and publish the “filler” post that you have just read.

I Hope no-one’s disappointed with what I’ve put together for you to read, but it was the only practical solution.

“New Beginnings” should resume next week.

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Ask The GMs: Some Arcane Assembly Required – Pt 1: The Sales Pitch

Series Logo ATGMs 32 Some Arcane Assembly Required

I guess it was inevitable – sooner or later there was going to be a question that was simply too big for a single blog post in response. And, of course – because I normally break such up into multiple questions when necessary, in advance – it was going to be an article that snuck up on me when I wasn’t looking…

Ask the gamemasters

This question comes from GM Roy, who wrote:

“I need some inspiration to create cool names for spell components.

I have 5 [scales of rarity = Mike]:

  • Common (flesh, breath, water, dust)
  • Uncommon (earth from a cemetery, humanoid blood)
  • Rare (head of a Medusa, Minotaur’s horn, black dragon blood)
  • very Rare (Essence of the ghost of a mass murderer, Adamantium armor forged in hell by a celestial), and
  • Unique (The Tear of the ancient God of death, Essence of the Terrasque).

I need a lot of these, Where can I find some?”

The short answer, of course, is to create them yourself.

GM Roy hasn’t stated why he needs a lot of them, and there are some elements of his rarity scale that also merit closer examination. Some GMs don’t track spell components at all, so the question needs to be asked as a preliminary, “Why bother with spell components at all?”

Part One of this massive ATGMs response, “The Sales Pitch,” is intended to examine that question, and look at some of the other infrastructure questions like the rarity scale. Part Two, “Sourcing Parts,” will then look at principles for generating spell components to fill the various categories. And then, Part Three, “Tab A into Slot B,” will contain a number of examples (mostly from the Rarer end of the scale) and how Spell Components can become game rewards and plot points in their own right.


IanG Avatar I’ve relied heavily on past discussions regarding D&D/PFRPG with Ian Gray and in D&D and the Zenith-3 campaign with Nick Deane for these comments. I tried to get together with them to solicit specific contributions before this article went to publication but we couldn’t seem to get the timing right over Christmas/New Year. Other players in both campaigns have also contributed here and there to the question, but those are dwarfed by these two contributions. On top of that, I did a fair amount of research on the net, in the process gaining contributions from a number of other GMs – some of whom may not have even heard of Campaign Mastery! I’ve been very careful to include links back to these sources everywhere that I’ve sourced contributions. Nick-Avatar


Spell Components – The Controversy

It doesn’t take much research to discover that spell components are one of the most controversial subjects out there, at least in terms of D&D / Pathfinder. Heck, people can’t even agree on what they are – though this is sometimes the result of defining them in terms of their possible origins, and failing to take into account the evolution in style and genre through successive generations of D&D. But before I can discuss them intelligently, I first have to know what I’m talking about (and so do you, or you won’t understand what I’m saying) – so exactly what are Spell Components?


In-game, Spell Components are simple. They come in two varieties – “Material Components” which form part of the construction of energies known as a “Spell”, and a “Spell Focus” which is an item used to bind Verbal and/or Somatic and/or Material components and/or XP into the energy patterns known as a “Spell”. It’s impossible to get any more detailed without getting stuck down the blind alley of “What is Magic?”, a question that I might look into some other time.

But beyond the realm which contains the game, the “game world” if you will, there lies another realm, an insubstantial place of sights and sounds and mind, inhabited by shadowy projections of and extensions of figures alien to both the game plane of existence and the real world. Figures called “players” and “GMs” who are never present in the flesh, but who manipulate individuals within the game world as playthings and puppets, beings rarely visible to the inhabitants of the game, more powerful than Gods. And this Metagame Zone has its own reasons for things, its own rules. Within this zone, Spell Components are seen as something completely different.

Metagame I: Balance Mechanisms

Some think of Spell Components as mechanisms for the maintenance of some ethereal cosmic Balance, making some spells easier to cast than others, and forcing Mages and other spell-casting character classes to spend time obtaining the necessary components on a regular basis. This perception forces players to keep track of exactly what components a given individual has access to, because if they run out of the Material Component, the spell cannot be cast.

This is a lot of bookkeeping which can be a pain to keep track of. Nevertheless, in some instances, this is the correct interpretation, and hence spell components can be a metagame device employed to restrict the availability of certain spells, and to soak up character wealth. In the vast majority of cases, however, this metagame function doesn’t hold water, certainly not having enough substance to justify the effort required to track component usage.

The key to discerning which Spell components are considered justified by this function alone is an examination of the Metamagic Feat, “Eschew Material Component”. If the component can be rendered unnecessary by means of this Metamagic Feat, then that component is not included for reasons of “Game Balance”.

Metagame II: Flavor Content

Others view the fact that many of the spell components are relatively common as a means of imparting flavor to the spell-casting process, flavor with a determinable impact on the game world. The use of particular components can enable an enemy to deduce what spell is about to be cast, making counter-spells a practical consideration. Being clever and nimble, able to hide and/or disguise spell components thus confers a definite advantage in arcane combat or ritualized arcane duels. Spell components, and the way they are handled, can therefore be a reflection of the broader social context of the spell caster, and hence a way to bring that social context to life for the players who manipulate the inhabitants of the game world. To many GMs, this alone is enough to justify the existence of the trivial spell components – those not intended specifically as a balance mechanism.

Metagame III: In-Jokes

As one respondent to a discussion of the subject on the Role-playing Games Stack Exchange suggests, quoting from the Dungeonomicon (which is described by Treasure Tables, the precursor to Gnome Stew (and archived by the Gnomes), as “a lengthy thread on the WotC forums that attempts to justify, explain and tweak dungeons, along with a variety of other fantasy RPG staples”),

Material components are a joke. I’m not saying that they are metaphorically a joke in that they don’t act as a consistent or adequate limiting factor to spellcasting, I mean that they are actually a joke.

Material components are supposed to be “ha ha” funny. The fact that even after having this brought to your attention, you still aren’t laughing, indicates that this is a failed attempt at humor.

Most material components are based on technological gags, when you cast “scry” you are literally supposed to grab yourself a “specially treated” mirror, some wire, and some lemons – which is to say that you make a TV set to watch your target on and then power it with an archaic battery. When you cast “see invisibility” you literally blow talc all over the place, which of course reveals invisible foes. Casting “lightning bolt” requires you to generate a static charge with an amber rod and some fur, “tongues” requires that you build a little Tower of Babel, and of course “fireball” requires that you whip up some actual gunpowder. Get it? You’re making the effects MacGyver style and then claiming that it’s “magic” after the fact.

–excerpt from “Dungeonomicon”

Setting aside the fact that in-jokes don’t need to be funny (and often aren’t), I don’t agree with the above. Magic components may have started as an in-joke when the game was first created, but over successive generations of rules, the game slowly began to take itself more seriously just as did the hobby. While legacies of this aspect of the origins may linger and echo as a nod to the history of the game, this metagame perception makes two mistakes that are fatal to its argument.

First, it confuses the individual case with a collective description. This particular spells’ material component description may be a joke, but that doesn’t mean that the general principle or purpose of Spell Components is a joke, or is even included for no other reason than as a joke delivery system. And second, in most cases (if not all), it’s not necessary to actually make the effects “MacGyver style” to cast the spell, merely to have the components for doing so – a horse of an entirely different color.

Disturbingly, I find these comments excerpted on a number of d20 Wikis that purport to contain the rules of the game. This in turn demonstrates a problem that undermines the credibility of these sites as hosts and arbiters of the rules: not everything said by someone on a WOTC Forum is Canon (not even if said by a WOTC representative), and should not be treated that way. At best it can be a proposed interpretation. Errata are official, forum discussions are not (thought they may lead to something official). D&, I’m looking at you here, though you are far from alone, as a quick Google search for “Dungeonomicon” quickly demonstrates – and at least you told me where you were getting the content from, which puts you at least one half-step above those that don’t!

GMs can replace all the lingering silliness in specific spells’ components without affecting the central question one iota. Yet people persist in treating superficialities as substance. Specific Material Components may be in-jokes; Material Components in general may be jokes (as in “pathetic”), something that has not yet been determined by this article; but the general principle of whether or not spells should require material components is not a joke.

Metagame IV: Historical Legacy

A more balanced view thinks of Material Components as a Historical Legacy, a leftover from earlier editions of D&D, now reduced to the status of optional rules. But again, this confuses origins with purpose, and says nothing about why spells should have Material Components in a D&D / Pathfinder game.

Metagame V: Unnecessary Bookkeeping

If we accept that, with the exception of a restricted number of examples, Material Components do not effectively restrict the casting of spells (except under unusual circumstances), the question then becomes, are they really necessary at all? Certainly, several of my players would argue that they are a waste of time, because the materials in question are so common. Nor would they be alone, as the introduction of the Spell Component Pouch demonstrates. To Quote from the 3.5 Player’s Handbook, “A spellcaster with a Spell Component Pouch is assumed to have all the material components and focuses needed for spellcasting except those that have a specific cost, divine focuses, and focuses that wouldn’t fit in a pouch.” The Pathfinder Core Rules uses virtually the same descriptive language.

This seems a tacit acknowledgement that Spell Components are more bookkeeping trouble than they are worth; certainly, if a GM wants to employ Spell Components as anything more than flavor, he needs to either restrict or eliminate this standard item from the equipment list available for purchase.

The Spell Component Pouch

Is the Spell Component Pouch a golden bullet to explaining what Material Components are – and how they should be employed within the game system? Not really; it simply provides a mechanism by which the GM who wants to ignore Material Components can do so. Certainly the spells still list Material Components, which seems strange. Nowhere that I could find is there a discussion of Spell Components as an optional rule (thought I’m sure that someone will point it out to me if I have missed it), but neither is there any discussion of the implications of the Spell Component Pouch, or the suggestion that the GM might not want it to be available.

It’s almost as thought these parts of the rulebooks had different authors and editors and that there was little or no communications between them.

If you think about the Pouch as something with effectively unlimited quantities of the required material components, the only value to Material Components in game terms and from the GMs point of view is that if the pouch gets stolen, and if the spellcaster doesn’t have a spare, then he will be restricted to casting only those spells for which the components are at hand, or which do not require Material Components at all – unless he has the Eschew Material Components Metamagic Feat, of course.

There’s not much value there. These possibilities seem so remote that I can’t believe the authors of the respective game systems kept material components included as part of the spell descriptions simply to accommodate this improbable circumstance.


There are other problems with the Spell Component Pouch concept that bear examination.

This is a non-magical item that can hold infinite amounts of anything that is described as a material component (with exceptions) provided that a singular example of the item in question is small enough to fit into the pouch. That seems blatantly unrealistic, and extraordinarily generous. There are no rules about replenishment, no rules about item availability, and the assumption seems to be made that unless it has been assigned a specific purchase price within the spell description, it is going to be quite commonplace.

There’s nothing about variations in the contents, just as there is nothing about variations in the spell components listed in most of the spell descriptions. As I said earlier, it seems to be about nothing but ignoring the need for most Material Components. Nor is there any description of how the Spell Component Pouch affects the daily routine of the mage.

And none of this is helped by the absence in the official rules of a simple listing of the spell components outside of the spell descriptions. (There’s one here).

There is another effect, too – the existence of this item severely undermines the metamagic feat, Eschew Material Component. Why would you bother taking this ability when there is such an effective Mundane solution at hand?

Fixing The Concept

Let’s contemplate the benefits of “fixing” the concept of a Spell Components Pouch for a moment.

  • Greater Realism.
  • Source Of Roleplay.
  • Material Components become relevant.
  • Spells can become more interesting through variations.
  • Daily routines are more than memorizing spells.
  • Characters Interact with the environment in more ways.
  • Eschew Material Component becomes valuable.

That’s a lot of benefit for one change (or group of related changes) to one item. Of course, these changes must also provide a way to avoid the most vexing complaints about Material Components, seeking out a half-way house between total irrelevance and the minutia of tracking every component individually. In other words, the Spell Components Pouch still has to represent a solution to the problem of tracking components.

Limited uses

The most obvious change is to confer limited uses on the pouch in some fashion that entails minimal paperwork.

There are four ways that I can see to achieve this. The first is to have the player keep a list of the spells that use Material Components that he’s cast since the pouch was last restocked. Each spell only has to be listed once, number of castings can be tracked with a check-mark. When the character reaches the limit defined by the GM, he no longer has the components needed for that spell.

The second approach is to use a list of all spells that the character knows – he’s got that anyway, or should – and simply make check-marks next to the spell each time it gets cast. Too many check-marks and the material components for that spell have been exhausted.

My third alternative is to have a limited number of slots in the pouch, which the character can fill to his specifications. If he wants to fill it with 20 Fireballs (or whatever the limit is), that’s up to him – but if he doesn’t list that spell amongst the pouch contents, he doesn’t have what he needs to cast the spell. Presumably, the pouch will be refilled to exactly the same specification each time. This is the most paperwork-intensive approach at first glance – but a second glance taking into account the presumption that pouch load-out will change only when needed makes it more practical.

And the fourth is that pouch slots hold one spell-level worth of Material Components, rather than one spells-worth. So a Fireball (3rd level spell) uses three slots. I don’t personally recommend this option, but it’s worth mentioning.

Pouch Variations

As soon as you get restrictions of the third variety, you enable variations. A mage might have a stealth load-out in a pre-packed pouch, and a fireball load-out, and a cold-weather load-out, and all sorts of variations. There is as much work entailed in doing these as the player wants to employ.

All this adds up to a second restricting factor on mages, but one that they can leverage in advance to at least some degree. They are already restricted in the number of spells they can memorize; now they need to keep track of how many spells they have material components for.

If this is deemed excessively burdensome on mage characters, you could abstract it further. Instead of holding only 3 fireballs, the pouch could contain the components for 6 Fire-spells, or 8 divination spells, or whatever. Organizations can be characterized by the load-outs they provide their members in standard spell pouches. As GM, you find yourself with a whole new tool for imparting color and characterization to the game world.

For me, that added bonus is enough of an advantage to make the third alternative preferable over the others, but others might prefer the elegance of one of the first two.

The Spell-casting process

This also introduces a new step into the spell-casting process – for prudent mages, anyway: looking around for naturally-occurring Material Components rather than drawing on the stockpile in the pouch.

This can introduce a new strategic element of choice into combats – if a location has the components for “Burning Hands” on tap, the mage can either use the lower-powered spell and not draw on his pouch, or can cast “Fireball”, eating into his stockpile of Material Components, for example. Spellcasting becomes more than point-and-shoot.

No GM who gives a character a firearm would also give them infinite ammunition. They might hand-wave the replenishment of expended ammo, but that’s as far as it goes. Why should mages expect to be treated any differently with their “ammunition”?


Exclusions should remain the same as now.

The Daily Routine

Some ingredients may be routinely available around camp. The player should specify which of these he is gathering routinely; these slots can be considered auto-refilling except under unusual circumstances that prevent the character from carrying out their normal routine.

Top-ups in town

This should be relatively trivial. Some components will be more expensive than others, but an average price will be good enough – 1 think something like 1sp per slot, others may think more. To some extent this decision is dependent on the social setting and on how you choose to limit the Spell Component Pouch.

However, the mage still needs to find somewhere that sells spell components, and make a shopping trip to that place, in order to refill his pouch. This can be a 30-second almost-handwaved encounter, or it can be a way for the GM to give information to the players about anything from the local economy to local gossip.

The Spell Component Pouch as a plot device

On top of that, the Pouch itself becomes available as a plot device beyond simply having it stolen. Shonky operators may try to skimp on Spell Components (while making it inobvious that they have done so – instead of a ball of bat guano, it might be cow dung with a thin layer of guano wrapped around it, for example). Some items might, from time to time, become rare and hard to find. Players can go exploring for a fresh source of something, or to recruit Dwarven Miners who can work a mine more efficiently / less expensively than humans. By focusing attention on material components just a little bit more, instead of erasing components from consideration, the Spell Component Pouch can become a rich source of new plotlines.

Spell Focus vs Material Component

The primary difference between a Spell Focus and a Material Component is that one gets used up by the spellcasting process while one does not. But another way of thinking about limitations on material components might be somewhere in between these “all or nothing” extremes. Why not Material Components that are good for three uses instead of one? Maybe costing four times as much (you always pay a premium for convenience) or more (and for rarity)?

When you introduce limitations, you introduce ways to exploit or evade those limitations. But there’s one big assumption, a general principle, that needs to be accepted before this can be applied: the substitution of material components.

The substitution of material components

So, why not? Why can’t anything flammable be considered the Material Component for a Fireball spell? This ties back into the concept of Pouch variant load-outs and specialist organizations offering specific Component Pouches.

Why can’t alternatives that aren’t so dramatic as the “rare upgrade” have minor effects? Again considering fireball, some could be slow-burning but harder to ignite, some might be more prone to splash while others produce a more tightly-confined flame – there’s as much room for spell variations as you can invest effort. And that, in turn, permits mages to customize a “signature” pattern of spell use, further individualizing them. All you need to do is assume that the characteristics of the component are analogous to the effects of the spell cast when using it as a component. The default listing remains the standard, of course, against which all variations are measured.

But for this to work, we need a scale of uniqueness, so that we compare only like with like, analogous with analogous. Anything falling outside the spell component’s place on that scale falls into the category of a “multi-use” material component.

Is That A Material Component In Your Pouch, or are you just unhappy to see me?

Spell component pouches can’t hold anything higher on the rarity scale than “Very Common” items except with GM permission, and certainly can’t be automatically or semi-automatically restocked even if they are so permitted. These components are increasingly hard-to-get, and that makes them increasingly unreasonable for such conveniences.

Component Rarity

And so, at last, I think I understand the context of GM Roy’s question. If it isn’t exactly what I’ve described, it will be something similar. He wants to populate a scale of rarity so that it can be utilized for modifying existing spells or creating/converting new ones. With that context understood, I can move on to considering the actual examples that Roy has offered, which is the only form of definition he’s provided as to each of the scales.

GM Roy’s Examples

GM Roy’s examples are great because they clearly articulate the general principle that he used, and show that he’s put some thought into the scale that he’s offering: General to Specific to Specific and Dangerous, and so on. For example, Water to Blood to Black Dragon Blood. While I like the general principles of increasing specificity, I think that there are problems with some of his actual choices, and that the jumps are a little too small in some cases and too high in others.

Let’s look (briefly) at each of his suggestions:


James lists four examples of common Material Components: Flesh, Breath, Water, and Dust. I would include things like candles, salt, leather, copper, even silver, and – in the D&D / Pathfinder universe – Gold. Plus Wood, Nails, Salt, and so on. Anything, in fact, that you could reasonable expect to buy in any common country fair or marketplace from no-one in particular, or that the typical caster would have with him. Nothing on this list should cost more than a silver piece and most would cost less per spell use.

Common items would be readily replenished in the Spell Components Pouch.


There are only two examples of “Uncommon” material components provided, which makes it a shame that I have to disagree with one of them. James suggests “Earth From A Cemetery”, which is absolutely fine, but then suggests “Humanoid Blood”, which I would contend is no more rare than Flesh, even assuming that the latter includes animal skins, hides, or meat. To qualify for “Uncommon” status, the blood should have to be provided by an Uncommon creature.

Other things which I think fall into this category include Inhaled Breath, Spring Water, Swamp Water, Emerald or Ruby Dust or shards, the flesh or blood of an Uncommon creature, Platinum, and Spices. In addition, depending on the campaign setting, Tropical plants such as tomatoes or banana skins or bamboo might qualify.

I would also tend to include Bat Guano and Amber Sticks and the like, and candles or inks of a specific color, or candles that burn a specific color.

Uncommon elements can’t be replenished at just any marketplace, but would be generally available in larger towns and most cities – though there might be a small wait on some items.


James offers three examples of things that represent this category: The Head Of A Medusa, The Horn of a Minotaur, and the Blood of a Black Dragon.

I have no problem with any of these; all three are essentially body parts of Rare creatures. Some spells might permit the blood from any breed of Dragon, that’s up to the GM. I would also include gemstones of at least 5gp value, diamond dust, and possible Adamantium. If it’s dangerous to obtain, or if it’s reasonably freely available in an extremely unusual environment, such as Ethereal Vapor, or Breath of a Djinn, or Water from one of the Waterfalls of Elysium, I would categorize it as Rare.

Rare items include samples of anything that is inherently valuable and that aren’t waste products (that’s why ruby and emerald dust don’t fit this category) – (Diamonds are rare enough that even the dust falls into this category), and anything that is inherently dangerous to obtain, or that involves travel to other realms of existence.

Very Rare

There are two examples offered in this category, and I disagree with both. They seem too specific to fit into the very rare category. Take the first – “Essence Of The Ghost Of A Mass Murderer”. I would argue that the “Essence Of A Ghost” is rare enough and dangerous enough to obtain that this alone is enough to qualify for “Very Rare” status; tacking on the extra requirement that the ghost be that of a mass murderer elevates the component rarity into the “Unique” category.

Similarly, the second example offered, “Adamantium Armor Forged In Hell By A Celestial” also goes too far. “Adamantium forged in Hell” or “Adamantium Forged by a Celestial” would both be rare enough to qualify for this category; any substance that qualified in all three categories should be unique. Certainly, I don’t think Adamantium Armor forged in Hell by a Celestial is going to be any less uncommon than Leather Armor forged in Hell by a Celestial.

Also in this category would be items that would be inherently dangerous to obtain or hard to find AND which require extra-planar travel to retrieve. “Blood of a Celestial”, “Eyes Of A Demon”, and so on, would qualify. Also falling into this category are items with an inherent worth of more than about 50gp, such as larger gemstones, or gemstones carved with a particular scene or symbol. Toss in unusual items like a shrunken head or a cursed monkey’s paw, and the category begins to look complete.

Very rare items would however include for the first time anything that is metaphysical, the obtaining of which is entirely likely to be a side-quest at the very least, and possibly a full adventure. The Blood Of A Tree, the Heart of a Mountain, Bottled Lightning, and so on. Care is needed not to include anything that should reasonably be so rare as to be effectively unique, however – for example, “A bone used as anatomy by three individuals”. At first glance, this should fit the general criteria laid out for “Very Rare” but actual examples would be so unusual as to qualify each as unique.


I’ve already indicated the sort of thing that should be in the “Unique” category. But I have another general principle to expound: As a rule of thumb, “Very Rare” items will have at most one unknown attached to them. If you have to process something and the knowledge of how to perform that processing is known, but the location of the something is unknown, or if the location is known but the process needs to be discovered, it qualifies as a Very Rare item; “Unique” will refer to a specific individual of immense power (a God, A Demon Prince, a Devil Lord), whose location is unknown, or will involve two unknowns. What’s more, they should be reasonable items for any individual in question to posses.

Unfortunately, under these guidelines, there are problems for both the examples that James offers within this category. “The Tear Of The Ancient God Of Death” – assuming that there was an Ancient God Of Death (who is therefore not the current one), he’s not likely to be the type to go around shedding tears, unless that is specifically woven into his mythology (“he mourns for all those whose souls he releases from mortal confinement” for example). Since no such mythology is mentioned, taken at face value, this is an unreasonable item to demand.

The other suggestion is “Essence Of The Terrasque” – but this falls squarely into the definitions of Very Rare. So i don’t think it fits here, either. But that’s all right, since we have derived several examples that do belong, and defined the difference between very rare and “unique”.

Then too, there’s the term itself. I would like to incorporate an extra step between “Very Rare” and “Unique” so that the latter are reserved for when it really is necessary to make things a little more difficult for the PCs. I would call this intermediate value “Exotic” and just about everything that’s been said about the “Unique” category should get applied to “Exotic” instead. This reserves “Unique” for those legendary and mythical objects that are definitely an adventure in their own right to obtain. This elevates “Unique” items to Material Components that are valued as much for their spiritual, metaphysical, inspirational, and symbolic values as for their actual function. “Unique” is for Excalibur, or a branch of Yggdrasil, or the Skin of the Midgard Serpent or the Horn Of Cornucopia.

Applying The Component Rarity Scale

Accepting the principle of component substitution opens up a lot of scope for minor roleplaying opportunities. “We’re out of Bat Guano, but I can let you have a beeswax candle, a flask of mineral oil, a lump of coal, a sheaf of straw, or a patch of cloth smeared with tar.” Which material component you use is then up to you.

Most will be valid for more than one spell. Coal is dark, solid, and burns. It can also be used to write or draw, though charcoal offers finer control. So any spell where the functional characteristic of the material component matches one of these could function with a piece of coal as its material component. This “deregulation” of spell components adds color and flexibility, and compensates for some of the restrictions placed on the Spell Component Pouch earlier, with a little ingenuity.

What is needed is some way to establish a relationship between spells and the rarity of Material Components that may be required. I have devised just such a system, with a view to establishing the components required for (a) variations on existing spells, (b) permanent castings of spells, and (c) creating original spells for the game world (or importing them from other sources – for example, I have a huge writeup of the spells from a fantasy roleplaying computer game that is not based on a tabletop RPG to the best of my knowledge that I always intended to one day convert to D&D.

The way this system works is to determine a base level according to the power level of the spell, then adjust that level to accommodate various parameters of spell construction. Some of the resulting Material Components may be at odds with those officially listed. In such cases, you have the choice of either perpetuating the established standard of rarity, or altering the material component to one that is consistent with the rest of the system.

If you choose the first of these options, you will also want to designate some rationale by which the mages of the game world justify the discrepancy – which may or may not have nothing to do with the truth, of course!

I would add that three common components would add up to one uncommon component, for those spells which have multiple requirements. Two components are not hard enough to come by to achieve this increase in rarity.

Base Component Rarity 0-3rd Level

So, for the common, low-level spells – anything 3rd level or less – I would specify a base Component Rarity of “Common”. These spells are (relatively) easy to cast and should rely on relatively easily obtained ingredients.

Third-level spells are the crunch point; these are the first spells that are generally effective and powerful enough to remain part of the caster’s regular repertoire thereafter. Some might argue that rather than specifying the uppermost reaches of the Common Materials, they should be based on Uncommon ingredients. This is another choice that each GM must make for themselves, but it will make a big difference to the availability of spells like Fireball and Lightning Bolt.

Again, an argument can be made that such an impact means that the proposed mechanics are producing the metagame benefits described earlier, and making the change palpable to the players. For example, Eschew Material Component really becomes quite useful and demonstrably effective with the increase in rarity of required components for these ubiquitous spells. And there are always ways around the limitation if it really binds.

On the other hand, it could be argued that work-a-day spells like these should be most minimally affected simply because of their ubiquitous nature. This is an argument based on the players experiencing minimal disruption to their established understanding of the rules the majority of the time – in other words, you make 3rd-level spells minimally affected by the changes simply because they are so frequently the spells of choice.

Make your own choice. My personal preference would be to keep the players aware of the change by putting 3rd level spells up a category, while my players would vote (and not just for their character’s benefit) for it to remain where I have allocated it. As a concession to them, and to make the whole system palatable, I would accept the 3rd=Common categorization, and so that’s why those spells are included here.

Component Rarity 4th-6th Level

These are not spells that tend to get cast every day even by mages who know them. They are also significantly more powerful than 2nd and 3rd level spells, and this is (from memory) where the first of the “Mass” spells reside. With that difference in spells should come a difference in component rarity, so for that reason, everything up to 6th-level spells gets a base rarity rating of “Uncommon”.

I’ve already discussed the potential controversy over the lower limits of “uncommon materials”, so it should come as no surprise that there is a similar land-mine of contention lurking at the top end. Should 6th-level spells be “Uncommon” or should they be “Rare”?

If you have chosen to make 3rd level spells “Uncommon” then I would consider moving 6th level spells into the “Rare” category – but would probably not do so even under those circumstances. Others might disagree.

Component Rarity 7th-9th Level

7th to 9th level spells are rarely cast, even by mages who know them; they really are a step up in nastiness from those that come before. Based on the definition offered above, I think it appropriate that “Rare” should be the material components Base Category for these spells.

Creating/Importing Spells

Having established the base component rarity, you’re now ready to look at the process of prototyping new spells, whether you’ve created them, or you are importing them from an outside source. The following adjustments should be carried out in strict sequence. If an adjustment would move you beyond the scope of the rarity scale (ie less than Common or more than Unique) that adjustment is not permitted.

1. Prototyping Spells

Casting a prototype spell requires a material component rarity that is two steps higher than indicated, and costs the caster 200XP per casting (more at the the GM’s discretion) or double the existing xp cost of the base spell, whichever is higher. The three patterns are:

  • Common -> Uncommon -> Rare
  • Uncommon -> Rare -> Exotic
  • Rare -> Very Rare -> Exotic

Prototyping is when you are creating a variation on an existing spell, for example a fireball that uses cold effects instead of heat. This is different from using some energy substitution technique (I’ve seen a number of variations on this) because the end result is going to be a standard spell just like any other, with the change fixed within the spell description. It also applies when creating a new spell except that the GM will rule from the spell description you supply what spell level he thinks the base spell will be by comparing it in effectiveness and requirements to other spells of that level.

2. Casting Cost in XP

If you wish to negate the additional casting cost in XP imposed on a Prototype Spell, you can do so at the expense of increasing the Rarity Level of the Material Component required. A +1 increase reduces the excess to half the indicated amount, a +2 increase reduces it to one-quarter the indicated amount, and a +3 increase reduces the extra xp requirement to zero.

The above might seem vaguely worded; that’s to accommodate spells which already have an XP cost built in. If the only XP cost is the 200XP listed above, then the amounts are +1 level -> 100XP, +2 levels -> 50XP, +3 levels -> 0 XP.

If the Base spell already cost 1000xp, then the base increase in casting cost is double that, to 2000XP, for a total casting cost of 3000XP. +1 rarity level halves the increase to +1000xp, +2 halves it again to +500XP, and +3 removes the extra, leaving only the XP cost of casting the base spell.

Note that it may not be possible to both prototype a spell AND remove its XP casting cost in one pass. If the only XP casting cost is the result of this process, once the spell has been prototypes with intact XP casting cost, a variant can then be prototyped in which the spell effects are exactly the same (hence skipping step 1, and enabling you to go to this step with the variant Base Spell).

3. Permanent Effects

Sometimes, you don’t want to cast a variation, you just want to make the effect permanent. Other times, you might want to do both. Either way, Permanence (in addition to any requirements from the game mechanics) requires a material component two rarity levels higher.

4. Somatic Substitution

If the base spell does not have a Somatic requirement, you can include such a requirement to reduce the Material Component one step towards Common. If the base spell already has such a requirement, tough luck – it’s presumed to already be taken into account.

5. Verbal Substitution

If the base spell does not have a Verbal requirement, you can include such a requirement to reduce the Material Component one step towards Common. If the base spell already has such a requirement, you can’t, it’s presumed to be already taken into account.

6. Casting Time Substitution

Multiplying the casting time by 3 after moving it one step up the Casting Time Scale permits one step reduction in Material Components. This can quickly transform spells that would normally take seconds or minutes into rituals taking hours. This adjustment can be carried out multiple times in succession.

The “Casting Time Scale?” What’s That?
Highly unofficial, it goes instant/free action – standard action – round – minute – hour – day – week – year. Conditions are similar to those when memorizing spells – no adventuring, minimal activity on anything else, certainly no spellcasting, etc. The time scale assumes that once you hit a total of 1 day or more, 10 hours per day are consumed with sleep, eating, etc; and not counted toward completing the casting. These can be eschewed at the caster’s will to cut the effective time required down when he’s facing a deadline, but if he falls asleep (or equivalent) during the spell casting, the spell fails and he has to start all over again.

The starting point is always the casting time of the base spell. So a spell that has “standard action” as its casting time goes up to 3 rounds for -1 level, 9 minutes for -2 levels, 27 hours for -3 levels, 81 days for -4 levels, 243 weeks for -5 levels, and 729 years for -6 levels. A spell that has “2 minutes” as it’s casting time (and I’m not aware of any) would yield 6 hours for -1 level, 18 days for -2 levels, 54 weeks for -3 levels, and 162 years for -4 levels. (The GM should permit generational casting efforts for anything that exceeds the lifespan of the casting mage).

Alternatively, the casting time can be reduced by increasing the component rarity, though this is rarely done as an easier mechanism is built into the system.

7. Spell Focus

An increase in component rarity of 1 step permits the Material Component to become a focus for the spell that is not consumed each time the spell is cast, at the GM’s discretion. This is not permitted if the base spell already has a mandated focus.

The First Draft

The first draft of the spell is now defined and ready to cast. Spells can be cast with an aborted effect for refinement and reliability purposes, and – it is presumed – for spellcaster training purposes as well. This costs one step less on the time chart as actually casting the spell would.

Spell Reliability

The spell has an initial reliability equal to the intelligence of the mage plus his caster level, expressed as a percentage. Clerics and Druids may substitute Wisdom for Intelligence.

Additional spellcasters of the appropriate type, of a level sufficient to cast the spell, and who have knowledge of any metamagics incorporated into the spell, may contribute to the spell design and thus improve the reliability. No more mages may participate than 1/2 the primary researcher’s INT, rounding up, which is lost from the initial reliability, but each such mage working under the supervision of the primary researcher adds half his caster level or half his INT, whichever is lower, to the reliability total, to a maximum of 50%.

Spell Refinement: Subsequent Drafts

Each time the spell is cast for refinement purposes, the primary researcher rolls against the spell’s reliability. On a failure, the attempt counts for nothing and produces no improvement.

If the spell succeeds, a modified draft is created which has two differences from the previous draft:

  1. Casting time is averaged with the average for the base spell (round down);
  2. Reliability improves by half the lead researcher’s INT, plus 1 for each subordinate researcher meeting the criteria established above (round up).

Refinement doesn’t have to be a continuous activity, it can be interrupted by periods of adventuring. Prototype spells can be cast for-real if so desired (but the prototyping casting time reduction doesn’t apply). A refinement step can be abandoned part-way through with no penalty beyond having to start that step again when the mage returns to his research.

Spell Finalization

When the casting time is reduced to that indicated prior to any adjustments in step (2) above, the spell is 100% reliable (Saves excepted). All that remains is one for-real casting of the spell, under appropriate field conditions (GM’s decision as to appropriateness). Once that casting is complete, the spell is considered complete and ready to be copied into any other spellcaster’s spell-book (or equivalent), placed in a scroll, used to enchant an item, etc.

The Net Effect

New spells start off unreliable and get more reliable. It’s harder to cast a permanent effect or to place a permanent effect into a magic item that it is to simply cast the spell; it requires either more time or rarer materials, or both. Spells take time to develop and refine. At the GM’s discretion, he may permit the recovery of partially-researched spells (ie they are first draft or later, but the research needs to be completed before the spell is fully functional. Lower-level PCs may occasionally be hired to work on a spell, or to prevent anyone from interrupting the research process if they aren’t the right type of spellcaster. There are a whole heap of plot possibilities that result.

Epic Spells

Epic level spells won’t exist in every campaign. Based on the effect of these spells, the GM should use the prototyping rules above to select between Very Rare, Exotic, and Unique components; the caster of the spell has no say in what the rarity level should be (though he can argue his case to the GM). Spell creation time should also be taken into account through considering the time scale involved. Regardless of the character level of the PC, these should never be “easy” – though the difficulty is going to be a relative thing depending on the character’s level.

As a rule of thumb, the longer the spell is to last, the rarer the material component should be; the longer the spell takes to cast, the lower the material component should be.

Always remember that the primary goal is not to bind the character’s hands, it’s to use these spells as a springboard to further adventure and add enhanced flavor to the game. The mechanics of creation of such spells suck a lot of the roleplaying life out of the campaign; these should serve to put at least some of it back.

Component substitution for Enhanced Game Flavor

I’ve already hinted at this, but want to take it a step further. When a spellcaster refills his Spell Component Pouch, he specifies what spells he wants to be able to cast out of it (even if that specification is “all of them”); that doesn’t necessarily mean that the components in the pouch at the time of delivery will be exactly those in the rulebook, it just means that the components can be used to cast the spell requested, if that is within the limits of the Pouch.

It’s quite likely that as soon as the pouch is refilled, the spellcaster will want to examine the contents and see just what he’s got. Frankly, I can’t think of much that is more dull. There are three ways to handle this:

  1. Hand-wave it, telling the character what he needs to know just before he commits to casting a spell as though he already knew it, thus sparing everyone at the table the mundanity;
  2. Institute a rule that says that spell components removed from the pouch have to be used in a certain period of time or they “go off” somehow. This implies that the components have been prepared somehow, and so the character should get some additional benefit (-1 to saving throws to resist or something), and that the price should inflate accordingly.
  3. Get the player actively involved in coming up with variations for approval by the GM. If it’s his idea, he can’t really complain about it, can he? Then deal with the actual contents by written list, possibly (and preferably!) after the day’s play.

Component substitution as Metamagic Vehicle

The GM can offer as part of a reward a component that is one step beyond the usual in rarity, such that it automatically infuses the spell with a Metamagic effect even if the caster doesn’t know the Metamagic in question, and without further cost to the player in terms of spell levels. Where possible, this may even stack with metamagics included by the casting player. This does require some decisions to be made in advance by the GM.

Component substitution as a Limited Focus

Alternatively, or in addition, an extra step in rarity might permit the Material Component to serve as a Limited Focus, permitting multiple castings of the spell before it is consumed. (If combined with the Metamagic Option above, this should be two steps in rarity – one for the metamagic, and one for the demi-focus status).

Concluding Thoughts

Material Components don’t have to be bugbears of tedium, and they can be a rich source of color, flavor, and adventure – while taking the falls-flat-all-the-time humor and silliness out of the equation (unless you want to keep it, of course). All it takes is a little compromise and creativity. And remember that despite the systems of first resort on this subject being D&D / Pathfinder, the general principles here should be applicable to almost any magic system in any game.

I realize that this doesn’t really answer GM Roy’s question, but I felt it to be a necessary first step in making the answer relevant to more readers.

Next time, I’ll go a step closer to answering his question in “Some Arcane Assembly Required – Pt 2: Sourcing Parts”.

I have to thank my fellow GMs for their time and their insights. While I’ve done most of the talking (hopefully without misrepresenting their views) I could not have done it without their past comments and contributions. Much appreciated!

About the contributors:

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

IanG Avatar
Ian Gray:
Ian Gray resides in Sydney Australia. He has been roleplaying for more than 25 years, usually on a weekly basis, and often in Mike Bourke’s campaigns. From time to time he GMs but is that rarest of breeds, a person who can GM but is a player at heart. He has played many systems over the years including Tales Of The Floating Vagabond, Legend Of The Five Rings, Star Wars, D&D, Hero System, Gurps, Traveller, Werewolf, Vampire, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, and many, many more. Over the last couple of years he has been dirtying his hands with game design. He was a contributor to Assassin’s Amulet, the first time his name appeared in the credits of a real, live, RPG supplement. Recently he has taken to GMing more frequently, with more initial success than he was probably expecting, based on his prior experiences.

Nick Deane:
Nick also lives in Sydney. He started roleplaying in the mid-1980s in high school with a couple of friends who got him into D&D. That group broke up a year later, but he was hooked. In late ’88 he found a few shops that specialized in RPGs, and a notice board advertising groups of gamers led him to his first long-term group. They started with AD&D, transferred that campaign to 2nd Ed when it came out, tinkered with various Palladium roleplaying games (Heroes Unlimited met Nick’s long-term fascination with Marvel’s X-Men, sparking his initial interest in superhero roleplaying), and eventually the Star Wars RPG by West End Games and Marvel Super Heroes Advanced Set. This also led to his first experiences with GMing – the less said about that first AD&D 2nd Ed campaign, the better (“so much railroading I should have sold tickets”). His second time around, things went better, and his Marvel campaign turned out “halfway decent”. That group broke up in 1995 when a number of members moved interstate. Three years later, Nick heard about what is now his regular group while at a science-fiction bookstore. He showed up at one of their regular gaming Saturdays, asked around and found himself signed up for an AD&D campaign due to start the next week. A couple of weeks later, He met Mike, and hasn’t looked back since. From ’98 he’s been a regular player in most of Mike’s campaigns. There’s also been some Traveller and the Adventurer’s Club (Pulp) campaign, amongst others. Lately he’s been dipping a tentative toe back into the GMing pool, and so far things have been going well.

Nick is unique amongst the GMs that Mike knows in that he has done some PbP (Play-by-post) gaming, something Mike neglected to include in an article on the evolution of RPGs and was quite rightly taken to task over (the article was updated within 24 hours to correct the omission).

“I’ve played spellcasters in a number of games and systems. In Mike’s original Fumanor campaign I played a cleric-monk hybrid and later a druid, while in the spin-off, Seeds of Empire, I have run a lawful good Orcish War-priest throughout the campaign. I’ve also played spellcasters in a couple of superhero games – a couple of Marvel campaigns from 1988-1995, and my modern-Norse spellcaster Runeweaver in Mike’s current Zenith-3 campaign for getting on for a decade. I mention this at Mike’s request because it, more than my GMing experience, is how I have been able to contribute to this topic.”

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Incredible Truth and Improbable Stories: Oratory in an RPG


Trailer screenshot, captioned by Me. Licencing information: or just click on the image. And yes, there is a hidden inference in this choice of illustration, but I’m not going to state it in public. It might be actionable.

I was reading reports concerning the credibility problem of Australia’s Prime Minister, Tony Abbott (at least, he was PM as this article was being written – I also read many reports of challengers circling for his position) (see update below), when a Vagrant Thought wandered through my head: “He was credible enough to be elected despite many fearing what his government might do in office, but right now he could say the sky was blue and not be believed.”

That was followed by memories of just how convincing an image that he presented, pre-election, despite his nickname from prior years in opposition (“The Mad Monk”), and the further recollection of how a previous Prime Minister from his party had gotten himself re-elected on the basis of a Big Lie (the “Children Overboard” scandal) – despite not having as smooth and charismatic a style as Mr Abbott had presented in the immediate run-up to the election – and how that Prime Minister had turned out not to be as bad as feared by non-Conservatives in many respects, while the current Prime Minister has utterly failed to connect with anyone except the hardest core of the party faithful.

A little context, Part 1: Children Overboard

In the early afternoon of 6 October 2001, a southbound wooden hulled “Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel” designated SIEV 4, carrying 223 asylum seekers and believed to be operated by people smugglers, was intercepted by HMAS Adelaide 100 nautical miles (190 km) north of Christmas Island. The vessel subsequently sank. Although writs for the 2001 federal election were not issued until two days after the incident, the government had been in “re-election mode” for some time, and struggling somewhat in the polls, which suggested a narrow defeat for the incumbent Liberal-National Coalition. Initial reports claimed that the asylum seekers on-board had thrown their children overboard, either in hopes that they would be rescued by the Australian Naval vessel, the legal equivalent of making “landfall” and creating a legal claim to refugee status. These reports were widely reported, and were the dominant subject of public discussion the next morning. The day after the incident, Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock announced that passengers of SIEV 4 had threatened to throw children overboard. This claim was later repeated by other senior government ministers including Defence Minister Peter Reith and Prime Minister John Howard. Photographs quickly emerged which purported to show children in the water, but these were later determined to have been taken after SIEV 4 sank. (Much of this paragraph is quoted directly from the Wikipedia page previously linked to).

Many Australians had long exhibited a sense of paranoia toward asylum seekers, characterizing them generically as “boat people” even though that label was supposedly reserved for a specific group of such refugees, displaced by the Vietnam War.

My immediate reaction to the reports of children being thrown overboard was that if it was true, it was tragic that people could be reduced to such desperation, and rather than tighten border controls, we needed to be more supportive and helpful. But the allegations were somehow not regarded in that way, and the asylum seekers were demonized for using their children as pawns, deliberately endangering them in order to secure “an easy life” in Australia to which they were not entitled. The story immediately provoked a media frenzy.

Within 24 hours of the first reports of the Children Overboard story, I heard a radio interview with the Captain of the HMAS Adelaide, in which he confirmed that the stories were completely false, and that he had reported the same to the Government. It astonished me that both the Government and Media in general continued to trumpet the allegations and that the public seemed to accept them without question. And yet, they did, and this was later considered to be a decisive factor in the re-election of the Coalition Government despite initially trailing in the Polls by a substantial margin (see Australian Federal Election 2001 at Wikipedia). I still believe that it was the failure of the then-Opposition Leader Kim Beazley to effectively denounce the lie that enabled it to become one of the watershed issues of the Election.

So effective was the Big Lie that despite the truth subsequently emerging, you will still hear the occasional anti-immigration zealot referring to it obliquely in debates, and it still enhances their credibility with audiences who are predisposed to the policy these zealots advocate.

A little context, Part 2: The dissipation of credibility

Charting the collapse in the credibility of the Abbott government is rather more involved. And, ironically, a significant proportion of also comes from Immigration Policy. The balance accrues from the undermining of popular policies established by previous Governments and a series of public relations gaffes of spectacular magnitude. But from day one, the government clamped down solidly on hard news relating to the implementation and impact of its “Turn Back The Boats” policy, all information being disseminated from the weekly press briefings of the Government Minister responsible, provided without means of verification.

To a cynical audience, this meant that the claims of success were dismissed as Government propaganda. Getting caught out in a couple of mis-statements and more outright gaffes didn’t help. As a result, the one area in which it was possible that the new Government had delivered on its promises (whether people agreed with those policies or not) felt to the public like a lie. In every other area prior to its first budget, there had been one bungle after another.

Into this rather poisonous atmosphere came the 2014 Federal Budget containing a string of broken election promises and harsh measures, all justified by claims of a “budget emergency,” a “debt crisis,” and a “debt-and-deficit disaster”. These were immediately unconvincing, and in short order, the internet was exploding with refutations – this one, from Melbourne newspaper The Age, is fairly typical. It didn’t help that the government had been in power for about 9 months, and this was the first the public had heard about the existence of this emergency.

If you don’t buy the justification for a repressive budget, every statement issued in support of that repressive budget just taints the speaker with the same odor of having been caught out in an inept “big lie”. And the Government was very vocal in parroting the justification in the days that followed. With every sound bite, the credibility of the entire Government collapsed. And the gaffes didn’t stop.

Opposition blocked all the centerpiece budgetary measures of the budget, and changing economic conditions necessitated a “mini-budget” in December – following which some sites were able to claim that every pre-election promise made by the soon-to-be-elected Government had now been broken in whole or in part (a slight exaggeration). The result is the situation I described at the start of this article.

An Update

Matters came to a head in Early February following the disastrous defeat of the Coalition in the Queensland State Election (they experienced the second-largest swing against a sitting government in Australian History) and the Prime Minister’s personal decision to grant Prince Phillip an Australian honor, sparking outrage. The honor has since become known colloquially as “Abbott’s Knightmare”. On 6 February 2015 Liberal backbencher Luke Simpkins announced that he would move a motion, at a meeting of the party room, for a spill of the federal Liberal Party’s leadership positions. Simpkins stated that such a motion would give Liberal members of parliament and senators the opportunity to either endorse the Prime Minister or “seek a new direction.” This meeting was scheduled to take place on February 10, but Prime Minister Abbott brought it forward a day, a move widely condemned by the public as attempting to deny opposition the time to shore up numbers opposing him, and producing a further dip in public opinion polls. It has since emerged that Mr Abbott begged for a further 6 months to improve the situation, and to take other conciliatory measures such as consulting colleagues more closely in future. Despite this appeal, almost 40% of his party signalling no confidence in his leadership in the spill motion, and public opinion of the Abbott Government has further deteriorated since, as shown by the latest polls.

Remember that vagrant thought? “He was credible enough to be elected despite many fearing what his government might do in office, but right now he could say the sky was blue and not be believed.”

Oratory In An RPG

All this is relevant to RPGs and how the GM handles Oratory. This is a skill or ability in most RPGs. I most frequently work from the definition offered in the Hero System as a starting point:

This Interaction skill represents the ability to speak to an audience and to deliver a convincing presentation. A good Orator knows how to modulate his voice, use body language, and speak to listeners so they’re receptive to his message. He also knows if he is losing his audience and can extemporize well before a crowd. Oratory does not help characters argue – it’s only useful when the audience isn’t talking back.

Characters who want to be able to lie convincingly or argue effectively should buy Persuasion.

A successful Oratory roll indicates the speaker has held the attention of the audience and convinced them to think about what he was saying. If the roll is made by four or more [on 3d6 – Mike], the orator has swayed the crowd to his line of reasoning (a skilled Orator can be very convincing). A failed roll usually indicates the listeners simply ignore the speaker’s message, but for spectacular failures, it may indicate that they start throwing things or attacking the speaker.

The missing part of the above rules quotation discusses modifiers to the roll, up to +3 for a receptive audience or -3 to a skeptical or hostile audience or if the speaker is heckled. And that’s both vitally important to achieving that “success by four” litmus test – and, as shown by the two political narratives offered at the top of this article, inadequate.

In fact, I have identified five factors, including Receptiveness, that should be taken into account in any Oratory situation, regardless of the game mechanics being used. The exact means of integrating these factors is up to the GM, and a well-designed system may already do some or all of the work for you.


Some crowds aren’t interested in listening. This can be as simple as being too drunk to take in the message to a social disconnect resulting from the speaker’s accent to an antipathy toward the organization that the speaker represents. In addition to being a modifier in and of itself, this should amplify the effects of all other factors because they all get filtered through this constraint on communications.

On the other hand, some crowds are very interested in listening. And some won’t care what the speaker says, the mere fact that the speaker is who he is can be enough to get the crowd cheering his every word.


This is what was described above as “how to modulate his voice, use body language, and speak to listeners so they’re receptive to his message”, or rather, how well the character is able to perform these things.


The message itself is important, in particular whether it is aimed too intellectually high or low for the audience, how well they understand the arguments, how well they are able to connect cause and effect and inference on their own, and how much the speaker has to lead them. Speaking to a mixed audience is even harder than speaking to a more discrete assembly. In theory, of course, every gathering will have at least one thing in common, and if the speaker can frame his point with that commonality, this problem can be negated to some extent. Ultimately, then, this modifier is about targeting the audience and modifying the message content to reach the audience.


The credibility of the speaker, as perceived by the audience, makes a huge difference. It doesn’t matter what the speaker’s real qualifications are, only what credibility the crowd assigns to those qualifications.


If the crowd trust the credibility of the speaker, and he communicates with them at something approaching their level, in a manner that is effective at communication with this specific audience, they will tend to accept what they are told even if they don’t like the message. Every one of those factors that does not line up makes it less likely; and if all of them are opposed, the audience wouldn’t believe the speaker if he told them the sky was blue.

There is one factor not mentioned in the preceding paragraph: context. And yet, context is an on-off switch for everything else; for example, if there is a context of high interest rates, high inflation, and rising pay, telling a union that they have to accept a pay cut is not going to go down well no matter who says it or how clearly they say it. The arguments in favor will simply never get through the context filter.

The converse is not entirely true; telling an audience what they expect to hear enhances the credibility of the message, but does nothing except prevent context from filtering the other flags.

Into Game Mechanics – the simple solution

It’s not necessary to actually alter the game mechanics of whatever game system you happen to be using. All you have to do is be aware of the many factors that influence the reception of a message and stream those together in deciding in a modifier, or whatever the controllable variable is within the game system you are using. Assess the many different factors and combine them into an overall trend towards positive or negative reception.

Into Game Mechanics – a more complex solution

For a more useful solution, ignore delivery and content and even context to get one number, and then allow for these additional factors to get a second result. For the first result, assume that any die rolls produce an average result, and have the person speaking actually make whatever the roll is that’s involved for the second.

The first result is how the crowd will react when the speaker starts talking, and the second is how they will react when he’s had his say. The transition from one to another will be approximately a very bent straight line – the early part of the speech may be about laying groundwork for the persuasive line of argument, and won’t change minds very much, leading to a very sudden change in acceptance toward the end (or to a total rejection, of course).

Into Game Mechanics – the most complex solution

The final technique that I have to offer is more about interpretation of results than processes for determining those results. Most game systems like to boil things down to a simple “yes or no” – yes, the speech is effective, or no, it isn’t. But there’s a whole range of possible reactions to a speech that fall between these extremes.

A far greater degree of sophistication is possible by thinking about the audience as a single individual, with a personality. By treating the situation as a roleplaying encounter between the speaker and the “audience-person”, with the die rolls indicating how well the interaction goes, you can then determine the exact reaction between the two participants in exactly the same way as you might any other encounter.


A lot of people are scared of public speaking. Oratory doesn’t have to be frightening to a GM, though; it’s really fairly simple when you boil it down.

If all goes according to plan, the New Start series will resume next week. If it doesn’t, I have a standalone article on standby…

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The End Of The Adventure


This morning (as I write this) I was chasing down a vague notion about an emotional “color wheel” that wouldn’t quite come together.

While pondering it, I realized that GMs sometimes think that they can end adventures on just about any emotional note that seems appropriate to the circumstances, and that I had never seen anything written about the subject anywhere – let alone here.

Naturally, I immediately decided to do something about that state of affairs!

Final Emotion

How you end an adventure, and especially it’s tonal value, colors how that adventure is perceived, reflects how that adventure fits into the bigger picture of the overall campaign, and provides the context and momentum for the start of the next adventure. All that makes it pretty darned important.

The Tinting Of The Past

In some ways you can look at Adventures as being how you get from an initial situation to an outcome, and that outcome is perceived in terms of the emotional spin imparted by the concluding note of the adventure.

Take, for example, The Empire Strikes Back – overall, a dark movie from the perspective of The Heroes, full of one setback after another. The tone at the end of the original Star Wars was one of jubilation, of celebration, and of an improbable victory with the destruction of the Death Star; the only sour note from their point of view was something that they could not even know about at the time, the survival of Darth Vader.

The tone for the opening sequence in Empire is quite different; despite their victory, the Rebellion is still on the defensive, and losing, badly. Every time they try to set up shop, the Empire shows up and they are forced to flee, losing part of their force in the process (They were still unpacking on Hoth when the Empire came a-knocking, and the crawling text that preceded these events made it clear that this was a continuation of a pattern). Bleeding from a thousand small cuts, they are dying from attrition. As Empire precedes, the rebels get driven off Hoth (losing valuable ships and men in the process), Luke gets sidetracked on his personal mission to Dagobah, The Millennium Falcon (with Leia on-board) has one narrow escape after another, the Empire tightens its stranglehold over the Galaxy by forcing independent contractors like the Bespin mining station to heel (despite old friendships), Han gets frozen in Carbonite and turned over to Jabba The Hut’s bounty hunter, Luke shows up at the worst possible time and in the worst possible way, losing a fight – and his hand – to Vader, and having his spirit crushed by the revelation of his parentage. Even worse, the destruction of the Death Star is shown to be nothing more than avoiding the Executioner’s Block at best – beyond that, not much is actually changed. Oh yes, and C3PO gets dismantled. Depending on how you count them, that’s a score of 11 or 12 victories in a row for the bad guys, or worse.

Balanced against that, Luke rejects the Seduction of the Dark Side, Survives the encounter with Vader, and the Millennium Falcon (with Leia and Lando Calrissian) shows up in time to rescue him and make a clean getaway. Even so, if this was an RPG adventure, there would not be many high-fives going on between the players. And yet, the final note of the movie makes it all acceptable – Luke’s hand is replaced, and Empire ends on a note of Hope and Grim Determination, setting the tone for the rousing opening part of Return Of The Jedi and Han’s rescue, which also serves as Luke’s real coming-of-age. Even the funeral pyre for Yoda manages to sustain this tone of a flickering ray of hope beginning to burn more brightly once again. Times may be dark, but there are the first hints of a turning of the tide.

Watching the movie for the first time, you aren’t aware of that hint of hope until the appropriate scenes; but as soon as you look back, the entire plot changes from one in which the Empire keeps winning, to the story of that hope surviving against all those challenges.

The Framing Of The Big Picture

That is because, in the broader picture of the entire trilogy, it is the solitary spark of hope against the gathered darkness that is the outcome of the middle third of the plot, and how Empire fits into the bigger story. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what the victories of the Empire were, just that they scored win after win without ever quite being able to extinguish hope. As soon as you begin to look back, you begin to segue from a position of reflecting on the immediate past and seeing things from the perspective of the overall plotline. The two are inextricably linked.

The Context Carry-forward

Equally importantly, that tone sets the stage for the next adventure. There were only two options, from the position the situation was left in by Empire – either the light of hope would go out, or it would experience some measure of resurgence. The first holds no box office appeal (and would not have been popular amongst the heroes, either) – so the shape of the first reel of “Return Of The Jedi” was always going to be something akin to what it was, a juggling act between edging as close as possible to that “light goes out” scenario (to generate, sustain, and and intensify suspense) before a rousing victory snatches a small victory (in overall plot terms) from the jaws of defeat (quite literally in terms of the Sarlac!)

If it comes to that, the tone at the beginning of Empire is no less predictable, from the perspective of good storytelling. Look at the end of the original Star Wars again – because no-one knew that it wasn’t going to be a standalone movie, it had to end on a high note of victory, with the implication that this was the end of the Empire, and it was only a matter of waiting long enough for the rest of the dominoes to fall.

Quite obviously, then, the start of the second movie has to be a resurgence of the bad guys in order to give the rest of the trilogy some maneuvering room. The problem with that is that once events start moving in the Empire’s favor, even a little, they are so big relative to the Rebellion, that they are going to keep winning until there is an extraordinary confrontation that begins a new trend – a trend that can only be in the opposite direction. Again, it doesn’t especially matter what the specifics of the victories are; what matters is that the Empire is going to take win after win. So the end of Star Wars dictates the tone of the beginning of Empire, which dictates the tone of the rest of that movie, which in turn dictates the tone for the start of Jedi. Personally, I expected treason on the part of one of the nominally “good guys” to occur in Empire – either one of the principle cast (Han seemed a strong contender) so that he could be reformed in the third movie. Instead, they decided to introduce Calrissian to be the betrayer, and had the reforming of the character take place in Empire, which still feels a little rushed to me, to this day.

Who wants to bet that if everyone knew that Star Wars was going to be a trilogy, the original movie would have been a bit different? I think its’ pretty obvious, myself, and that this would have changed the shape of Empire and possibly even Jedi. Hindsight is, of course, always 20/20.

Many Tones

No-one’s ever put together a a list of ways to end an adventure, at least not that I could find. I’m not even sure that it’s possible to create such a list and have it be truly comprehensive. I suppose that by being vague and generic past the point of all usefulness, it might be possible to generalize something that looks like such a list, but it would be of no value in this or any other discussion.

Having realized that I would have to bite the bullet and attempt the almost-impossible, I gave it my best shot and ended up with a list of 31 possible tones. I’m quite sure that the list is both incomplete and generalized to the absolute maximum; the analysis I’ve performed should be treated as stating a general case that may very well have exceptions (some of which I have identified and will discuss). So even categoric statements should not be taken as gospel.

More important to me was to illustrate the principles articulated earlier in this article (which were actually devised after crafting the list) as diversely as possible so that readers would be empowered to assess their own planned adventures, and – if they deemed it necessary – choose a plot structure that enabled them to attach one of the other concluding tones.

The RPG Restriction

Not all of these will work in an RPG context. Some won’t even work in movies, and others for some forms of TV. Most are suitable for literary efforts. These diverse restrictions are due to the natures of the different forms of media, and specifically how they connect one story to another.

Novels are generally self-contained, multi-volume epics notwithstanding. Thus, they have the full palette available to them, as the only condition they must meet is that they end. Even in those multi-volume epics, there is often considerable time passing in between individual installments, making them essentially self-contained.

Having said that, there are some ending modes that are less popular than others, and so could potentially harm sales. The most dystopian novels rarely end on a downer, unless it is by virtue of a specific literary contrivance, such as a pyrrhic victory, which rarely happen in real life. This was not always the case; Shakespeare wrote a number of tragedies, including arguably his most famous work, Romeo And Juliet, and the ancient Greeks were notorious for them. But it’s very rare for modern tragedies to be unalloyed; in Titanic, Jack may die – but in the process he grants Rose, his love, a long and full life.

Most movies are also designed to be self-contained, though the success of Marvel’s comic movies may alter that. Witness, for example, the need to at least partially reboot the Avatar plotline to make room for the sequels; it has proven necessary to undo some of the finality caused by the self-encapsulation of the original, specifically resurrecting Sigourney Weaver and Stephen Lang’s characters as described on the Wikipedia Page for the original film.

TV shows fall into two categories: those with strong continuity between episodes and those without. As you might expect, this makes quite a difference, but this factor is overshadowed by the short separation between episodes – usually only a week or two, sometimes only a day. Season-ending episodes thus have different rules, falling into two categories: potential ending points for the shows and cliffhangers designed to encourage the renewal of the show for another season. There is also some suggestion that DVD compilations are beginning to have an effect on the way TV shows are structured; when one episode follows another immediately, the two can be treated as a single storyline or can be treated more separately. I have seen it suggested, for example, that first-release limited-edition box sets contain extra “bridging scenes” that connect one episode with the next, which would be subsequently removed from the general DVD releases. So far as I’m aware, no-one has actually done this yet, but the suggestion itself is highly interesting. The purpose, of course, would be to drive sales of the premium-priced product, maximizing early sales.

This shift in thinking makes available certain endings that would have been less palatable in the past, while making other, more “conclusive” options less desirable. As an omnivorous watcher of TV, and possessing a mind of analytic bent, I found these changes very helpful in my analysis.

And that brings me to RPGs. There are some things that can work on TV because the next episode will be appearing in a short time-frame, and won’t work in an RPG simply because the gap between play is longer, and/or less reliable – we’ve all had game sessions canceled every now and then. At the same time, we are not bound by television seasons and the need to seek renewal, and so can plan over a broader canvas. But we also have to contend with the interactive nature of RPGs; the players are participants, not mere members of an audience, and the mindset that we impart in one adventure will shape how characters react at the start of the next. The choice of concluding tone is not just an aesthetic consideration, it’s a tool that can be used to shape the direction of the campaign. In many ways, it’s more closely analogous to the Empire Strikes Back analysis offered earlier (which was why it was so extensive, and why anyone who skipped or skimmed it should go back and read it more thoroughly!)

Analyzing the Options

The list of concluding emotional notes in an adventure is divided into 19 that work and 12 that don’t. There are sure to be others that I haven’t thought of, but these should make it clear by both explanation and example why they fall into their respective categories, and that in turn should furnish the reader with the tools needed to categorize anything else they come up with.

Options That Work

Options that work are either a definitive state used to punctuate the adventure (mandating a cold start next time) or propel interest forward into the next adventure. In fact, all but one are the latter; punctuation is relatively rare, except in very episodic campaigns. For example, I try not to use “punctuation conclusions” in my Zenith-3 and Seeds Of Empire campaigns, as these are very continuous in nature. However, these will sometimes be utilized to good effect in the Warcry, Adventurer’s Club, and One Faith campaigns, and are the normal state of affairs in the Legacies Of Lovecraft campaign, simply because these are more episodic in nature, and I’m happy for time to flow between adventures. The Shards Of Divinity campaign is a different animal again; many of the adventures are disjointed, with internal gaps within the adventure, while the adventures themselves may show strong continuity or be separated by punctuation, as best suits the relationship between the two adventures.

All that having been said, it’s time to look at the concluding emotional tones that usually work in an RPG. There’s a lot of them, so I’ll try not to linger along the way! In the hopes that it will serve as a useful Mnemonic, I have named most of them with song titles, most of which should be known to the majority of readers. Care was taken to ensure that the song in question reflected the tone to which it refers.

1. Peace On Earth and Goodwill to all

Let’s start with an outlier. One time when it’s perfectly satisfactory to bring an adventure to a definitive conclusion with absolutely no forward momentum is with this seasonal tone. These are usually standalone seasonal adventures and may have zero respect for ongoing continuity, even in a continuity-heavy campaign.

Under those circumstances, you can quite happily end on a note of peace, however temporary it might be. There may still be troubles in the world, but all the problems are for tomorrow. For today, trouble is on hold, and all is right in the world.

Strictly speaking, this should be amongst the concluding tones that don’t work simple because there is no forward momentum, but the epitomization of the subject matter overrides that concern.

2. Another One Bites The Dust

Ending with the triumph of the PCs lets them go into the next adventure with a sense of confidence, which is perfect when you’re setting a trap and want the PCs to nibble at the bait, and useful when the PCs are coming out of a period where the opposition have been doing a lot of the winning. Or when there’s a nasty twist coming that is going to subject their world to a little upheaval.

3. Distant Thunder

Ending with a victory can be sweet, but if your next adventure has a slower buildup, or you want to keep your options open, attaching a little epilogue warning of trouble on the distant horizon can put a slight edge on the victory celebration. Or even building such a tonal quality into the adventure in the first place – the current threat is gone, but in the process, the PCs learn that somewhere out there is a bigger threat which will eventually rear its head. Either way, there’s trouble coming, but for now all is well.

4. A Step In The Right Direction

This tone happens when the PCs have been under pressure for a while, when the bad guys have been running rampant, but the PCs have managed to score a small victory against the general run. They may not be out of the woods yet, but they have made progress. It leaves the GM with two options: to restore the usual pattern at the start of the next adventure, or seem to, minimizing the effects of the victory before ending in a similar fashion, and setting a trend towards a hard-won victory achieved by grinding away at the opposition one win at a time; or, choice two, to enable the PCs to build on that victory by picking up where they left off and turning it into a game-equalizing advantage. For me, the nature of the main antagonist of the campaign would be the deciding factor – if there is just one or two – “The Empire” – then choice one is the better (unless the campaign is now heading for a big finish, of course); if this is just one of many threats to be dealt with, let the PCs have their victory, it will keep them busy while the next threat sets up shop.

5. Light On The Horizon

Slightly less decisive victories come under the “light on the horizon” category. Yes, I have a whole string of these, each suggesting a different magnitude of accomplishment. “A Step In The Right Direction” derived from a definite victory that moved the PCs definitely closer to ultimate success; “Light On The Horizon” is slightly darker, and represents an achievement yielding more than a glimmer of hope, and less than a sure and certain path toward victory.

This choice of concluding tone is most effective when the next adventure is all about converting the victory they have just achieved into a more substantial advantage, and this conversion won’t happen automatically but requires braving new dangers. It has far more of an “Empire Strikes Back” (Early reels) feel to it.

6. A Candle In The Dark

One step further removed from a victory worth celebrating comes when the odds are still stacked against the PCs but they have managed to avoid a devastating defeat. Enemies still stand on all sides, but there is still the dimmest flicker of hope. This tone more or less demands that the next adventure follow more or less the same blueprint as the last, but ending with that hope of victory burning a little more brightly again – in other words, the adventure that follows this concluding tone should be “Light On The Horizon”. This is the feeling that dominates much of the third season of Babylon-5.

7. I Won’t Back Down

Orchestrating an adventure which is designed so that the PCs lose is much harder. Here, there is no hope – only a grim defiance and perhaps a touch of desperation. This is one of the most difficult tones to achieve in an adventure, simply because you can do all the manipulating you want, it’s still in the hands of the players how the PCs will react. It’s much easier in a scripted show or novel, when you can control what the heroes feel! Nevertheless, it is possible, especially if NPC allies can set the tone.

It’s pretty much mandatory that this is followed by “Light On The Horizon” or “A Candle In The Dark” – in other words, converting the defiance that characterizes this “darkest before the dawn” into an actual hope of victory.

It’s not really possible to get much farther in this line than “no hope at all”, so the next grouping relate to tones of fear and apprehension.

8. Shadow On The Wall

This is somewhat akin to “Distant Thunder” but without the same certainty as to the nature of the threat that is beginning to loom. The PCs should know nothing concrete, but either have ominous signs, vague warnings, or disturbing rumors with no substance, so there is nothing that they can put their fingers on as the cause but still they have this sinking feeling in the pits of their stomachs.

Fear in RPGs is a subject worthy of its own article sometime. For now, suffice it to say that it’s a tricky proposition; you want the PCs to “feel” it but the circumstances make it difficult for the Players to feel it, and you don’t necessarily want them to do so, and certainly not to the same extent as the characters are supposedly doing. Achieving this is a matter of slowly building up a “creepy” factor over a period of time. Consider, for example, an “adventure” which is all roleplaying encounters, at the end of each, one of the characters spots something out of the corner of their eye, only to find that there’s nothing there when they turn around. Keep that up for several hours, with one or two other small touches, and you should achieve the desired effect.

Trying to achieve the same thing in a small scene is much more difficult; it requires something dramatic and shocking, and those attributes don’t result in fear very often. You need to pull out all the stops and go all-out for “creepy”.

Used too often, these techniques will eventually desensitize the players, and some will resist the effect anyway. So every time you use this, you need to pay off on it in the next adventure or your efforts will be wasted. And that brings me too:

9. A Chill Up The Spine

This is very similar to “Shadow On The Wall”; in both cases, something Scary just happened. The difference is that in this model, the something scary is concrete and can be pointed to. For example, you may have established in the past a villain as being something close to all-powerful (relative to the PCs), and then let the PCs defeat him through sheer blind luck, resulting in his (very definitely confirmed) death. Then you have an adventure in which the PCs are hunting zombies or some other form of reanimated dead; they defeat them, after something of a struggle, and in the final scene, an NPC tells them that the body of that arch-enemy has gone missing…

Although this doesn’t get old in the same way that “Shadow On The Wall” does, it’s still essential that you pay off on the scary event or occurrence at the start of the next adventure by giving the PCs time and opportunity to panic for a bit. Whether you then go on to resolve the event or leave it lurking in the shadows for a while is a more open question and depends on what you’ve got planned. In the example offered, it would depend on how much of the original mind/personality was resurrected with the dead – if a lot, the resurrected character should remain in the shadows; if not so much, then I would press on and give the PCs the opportunity to resolve the situation fairly quickly. And if I were planning it in advance, which I normally would be, I would set the villain up so that being undead removed the vulnerability that enabled the PCs to win the first time around, while introducing a new one!

10. The Calm Before The Storm

From one form of apprehension to a very different one. This tone can be summarized, “The fertilizer is about to hit the fan, and furious action is about to begin (in the next adventure). A great way to end an adventure that has been a mystery-solving exercise is to segue into a portent of action. But the felicity of this tonal conclusion extends well beyond this rather obvious application. Any adventure that ends with a villain/monster (unrelated to the adventure just completed) stepping from the shadows and saying “Let’s Rumble” (or the equivalent) falls into this category. And so does any adventure that ends with the PCs reaching the point of fighting back against something – “All right, [Villain X], now it’s our turn”.

This ending tone promises that the PCs are in a position to commit extreme violence (perhaps after an adventure filled with frustrations) and do not intend to waste it.

As with the fear-related tones, however, there is a problem in that you cannot force the PCs to react in any particular way; you can only engineer the circumstances to encourage a particular reaction. In this particular case, it’s also unwise to try and have an NPC lead the charge, as the player may well feel that you are trying to rush them into taking precipitous action that you will subsequently take advantage of. At best, NPCs can form a cheering section.

As with many of these tones, it is vitally important that the next adventure delivers on the promise; but in this particular case, there can be no delay in doing so. If you can, I would even cut short any bookkeeping and synopsis to enable a ‘with both feet’ jump straight into the action. A couple of other things worth noting: the action should be intense and flashy, and the credibility of the entire campaign can suffer catastrophic collapse if the PCs don’t at least hold their own, and preferably do even better than that. That last point is less significant if the trigger is an unexpected enemy from the shadows, but if the PCs promise some smackdown (and are confident of being able to deliver), don’t get in their way. If that means occasionally fudging enemy capabilities or success downward, so be it – you can even the score on another occasion. Better yet, buy yourself some leeway by fudging in the enemy’s favor in the sequence leading up to this confrontation, artificially heightening the drama of their reversal of fortune.

11. I Can See Clearly Now

A revelation, especially of the solution to a problem that’s been plaguing the PCs for a while, is a great note on which to end an adventure (it can sometimes help to think of such revelations as being the Reward that results from efforts to solve the mystery in question). This also applies when something is revealed that’s been going on in the background for a while without being noticed by the players, or that is more significant than they had thought.

When the Fog of confusion and the veil of ignorance are suddenly lifted in this way, there are a couple of different tools that I sometimes employ. They are pretty much mutually exclusive, so think carefully about which alternative (if any) you are going to employ in any given situation.

  • The first is to get each player to write down their characters immediate reaction while the players are still coming to terms with the surprise, even though they won’t get to actually roleplay those reactions until the beginning of the next adventure. This is specifically to counteract the opportunity to invest thought into the situation in between game sessions.
  • The second is to determine how long the characters are stunned by the shock immediately after the revelation, so that players know that they won’t get to make any immediate response beyond roleplaying surprise when the next adventure begins.

A further trick that can be useful, and which does combine well with either of the above, or on it’s own, is to follow one shock revelation (delivered at the end of the previous adventure) with another at the beginning of the next adventure. Piling twist on twist in this way restores the players to a surprised condition that corresponds with what their PCs should be experiencing.

One GM that I know, with whom I discussed the use of revelation many years ago, was of the opinion that this tone was only possible to achieve if the mystery had been a central point of the preceding adventure, so that the revelation was a payoff from that adventure, but it’s quite easy to demonstrate that this isn’t the case, though he was partially correct in that some investment in the revelation is needed in advance. Let’s say that the PCs have an enemy about whom they know very little who uses a code-name of some sort to identify himself. This enemy opposes them indirectly, working at a distance rather than engaging them directly. Some time after this begins, a new NPC enters the PCs lives and slowly earns their trust while the enemy continues to harass them from time to time, even saving the PCs bacon a time or two. In an epilogue at the end of the adventure to contain the “I Can See Clearly Now” tone, and completely-unrelated to the content of that adventure, the PCs (or an ally) get a lucky break and learn how to penetrate their enemy’s computer systems long enough to identify their enemy’s true name. In a stunning revelation, it is revealed that the NPC Friend/Ally is really their arch-enemy.

Of course, when you tie all the plot threads together into a single paragraph, this is not all that surprising a revelation, but if spread out over a considerable time frame in the way suggested, this should be a far bigger surprise.

The distinguishing characteristic of this form of revelation is that it should pay off into immediate reaction/response/action on the part of the PCs.

12. Joker In The Deck

A variation on “I can see clearly now” is “Joker In The Deck”. This is the discovery, often relatively low-key, of a secret that is going to have far-reaching implications, but is not going to be an immediate action trigger. The best way that I have found to implement this tone is to roleplay the act of discovery (or narrate it to the players if it is being made by an NPC) without actually announcing what the secret actually is as part of the concluding events of the current adventure. That enables you to use the actual revelation as the payoff next time around.

That’s actually the trickiest part to get right. It needs to be significant enough to justify and payoff the anticipation that you create without being “drop everything including jaws” important. The goal is to lead into a mystery/investigation sequence in the next adventure, not to make the PCs drop everything.

Another important element to keep in mind is that this should be an expected revelation. I once had the PCs investigate the cold-case murder of a policeman at the request of the man’s daughter. This was a relatively minor adventure that eventually led to the capture of a low-level criminal who had gone undetected for over a decade. It was only when the PC in charge of doing the paperwork that month was writing up the report of the case that he happened to notice a couple of faces in earnest conversation in the background of a photo of the policeman receiving a civic honor, a photo that had been shown to the PCs several times in the course of the adventure without ever being really closely examined. It showed the then-mayor, now-Governor, in deep and agitated conversation with a building contractor who had disappeared without a trace with $1.6 million dollars supposedly earmarked for the construction of a new city hospital. Subsequent investigation had revealed that the contractor was also laundering money for The Cartel, a relatively insignificant Criminal Organization, and there was a lot of speculation that he had ruffled someone’s feathers way back when, but nothing was ever proven, and neither he nor the missing money were ever seen again. In the course of the next adventure, the PCs discovered that the contractor had laundered nearly 40 million dollars for The Cartel by constructing and then reselling office blocks in the downtown region of Denver, Colorado (because it was one of the least likely places I could think of for such a scheme but still plausible). But the contractor had cut corners, used substandard materials, and stolen at least half if not more of that $40 million – and in such a way that it wasn’t immediately obvious to anyone. $1.6 million in stolen money was a lot of motive to disappear back in the 1970s (when this adventure was set) – but $20 million of stolen mob money in 1974 dollars was a heck of a lot more. What’s more, at least one set of ledgers were discovered to have vanished at the same time – raising the prospect that he had actually escaped, and taken some incriminating “insurance” with him….

It turned out that most of the civic buildings built during the then-mayor’s tenure had been built by mob contractors, and that they in turn had put him into the governor’s office to soften up the ground for legalizing gambling within the state, and that the Governor’s brother-in-law was actually the contractor, having had plastic surgery off-the-books in Asia – and that the same contracting firm, minus it’s missing CEO, but still working for The Cartel, had been responsible for the construction of Stronghold, the prison to which all the captured supervillains got taken, a location chock-full of classified technology – any or all of which might now be in the hands of the criminals. And if Stronghold had also been built with substandard materials and cleverly-cut corners (it had), it might begin breaking down any time now…

It went on from there, but the critical observation to make is amply-illustrated, and that is the way something trivial-but-interesting keeps building up in importance until it becomes the tip of a very large and immediately-threatening iceberg.

13. Eldorado

One of the purest of ways to end an adventure is as the PCs behold a vista or scene of wonder and awe, or simply of tremendous natural beauty. There are two ways to handle this, and which one you choose should depend on the players and the characters that they control.

Option one is to end on the vista depicted through a piece of appropriate eye candy with neither description not explanation beyond the image. This means that the next time you play, the sense of “wow” will have faded somewhat, and the players will be ready to absorb the details and mechanics and how it works and so on. This works when the characters are jaded adventurers who react quickly and feel like they’ve seen it all before, and that’s exactly the tone I would go for in the adventure to follow, set in this scene of wonder/beauty. At best, the characters might regretfully realize that they have become jaded, have lost the capacity to merely appreciate what is before them. I would probably then spin that into an adventure built around the theme from the final chapters of The Lord Of The Rings – “for something to be saved, sometimes someone has to give it up,” to paraphrase.

Option two is to end without the eye candy. I might provide a thumbnail description of the location, which might be complete or select only a single feature, or might end without describing anything beyond the initial reaction – a reaction that will persist only as long as they players choose to wallow in it. I then kick off the next adventure with a very brief synopsis which leads to the revealing of the eye candy, and then an around-the-table pointing out features of the landscape to which each character should have a strong reaction. This means that, rather than targeting the PCs with the sense of Gosh Wow, I’m targeting the players, and doing so in such a manner that they will make decisions while under its influence.

Another factor to take into consideration is what I expect to happen within this location. If there is going to be an epic battle with lots of collateral damage, I might choose option 2 even with relatively-jaded adventurers simply because it will make them “feel” that collateral damage more. Similarly, if there is likely to be a roleplaying encounter with someone that I want to be impressive to the PCs, I might choose option 2 because the sense of “Gosh Wow” will transfer from the location to the resident. On the other hand, if the NPC is to be underwhelming to the PCs, leading them to potentially underestimating him, I might choose option 1 even if the adventurers are still enthusiastic enough to still experience the full “Gosh Wow” factor.

14. A Door Opens

Anticipation – the more edge-of-your-seat, the better – is a classic way to end an adventure (usually in a postscript or epilogue that is actually a preview of the next adventure). “Klaxons sound throughout the facility, a voice from the security office yells “Intruder Alert! Intruder Alert!” over the intercom, followed by “Intruder heading for the [bridge/control room/whatever]”. The PCs get ready, not knowing what to expect, as the Security Office instructs, Lieutenant Havelyn, can you get a visual on the intruder? What are we dealing with?” and the reply comes back, “I don’t believe it – it’s — it’s —” before the signal is lost. And then the door to the [bridge/control room/whatever] slowly opens…” and CUT! Next time…

This is a pretty extreme example of the buildup (At least I didn’t throw in a “…but he’s dead….” on the part of the NPC Lieutenant!), but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The important thing is to be sure that whatever extent you build up to has to be paid off at the start of the next adventure in terms of the identity of the mystery person. The last thing you want is for you to make the big reveal and one of the players responds, “Who?”

Except that it is entirely too likely to give the game away, I’d be tempted to find a way to include the relevant character’s backstory in the previous adventure. I’m sure that you will be tempted to do so when next you encounter this situation. Don’t yield to this desire, it never – well, hardly ever – works out well.

The other way that you can incorporate this tone is to underplay it to generate a sense of menace. “You’ve won! The Darknight Guild are shattered, and while never is a very long time, they are most unlikely to pose any threat for the foreseeable future. In the nick of time, you prevented them from opening the gateway to The Plane Of Nightmare and the Ravening Horde of Exaltreal that waited hungrily to be liberated into the Material World. And yet, energy is can never be created or truly destroyed, and the Darknight Guild had invested considerable force in trying to pry open this crack in the seam-coating of reality. All that energy had to go somewhere, and so it is that deep in an unfathomably remote hyperplane, a door opens between one reality and another…”

Here, the demand is NOT to pay off on the anticipation in the next adventure – or the one after, or even the one after that, for that matter. You want this lurking in the back of the players’ minds, ready to be connected to unrelated events by threads of mounting paranoia…

15. You’ve Made Your Bed, Now Lie In It

Scenes that dramatically narrow the options open to the PCs, especially as a result of previous choices they have made, are a great way to end an adventure. While these can sometimes be pre-planned by the GM, more frequently the PCs will make a choice without fully appreciating the consequences; and still more often, the PCs will make a decision and the GM will later realize that he can attach greater significance to that choice than the PCs imagined at the time. Ending an adventure by revealing some of the more unanticipated consequences helps unify the continuity of the campaign and make the players feel like their choices have consequences, not always ones that are to their liking.

There are a couple of restrictions that should be observed when contemplating this ending. The first is that the permissible interval between decision and consequence is proportionate to the memorability of the decision, ie the immediate consequences. The bigger and more memorable the decision, the longer you can wait before springing the unexpected consequences on the players.

The second is that that the longer the interval between decision and consequence revelation, the more dramatic, surprising, and effective the revelation will be. This is especially the case if there have been other consequences unfolding behind the scenes that went unnoticed by the PCs at the time, but that will be recognizable after the fact. So there is pressure to take the interval to it’s extreme limit, but you can’t afford to go beyond that limit – a knife-edge that is difficult to adjust.

The third is that the longer you wait, the bigger the consequence needs to be when it finally gets revealed. If it is not important enough, the bigger the anticlimax.

Finally, there is an assumption that the consequence that you reveal will form the focus of the adventure that is about to unfold. As with many of these final tones, it represents a promise that you have to pay off right away.

Ultimately, this is all about the PCs having taken their eyes off the ball at some point in the past; you want to smack them right between the eyes with the consequences of that, but doing so should rouse them into a reaction.

16. The Fond Farewell

At first glance, this tone doesn’t seem to generate that forward momentum that has been one of the primary criteria in compiling this list. Nevertheless, an emotional farewell can serve as a great end-of-adventure tone that generates a different sort of momentum if you can conjure a tone of “the end of one ‘chapter’ or era and the beginning of another.”

This tone works best if there is also a sense of inevitability about the transition. The archetypal example of what not to do that I always refer back to is Avengers Vol 1 #16, “The Old Order Changeth”. This was the issue of the comic in which Iron Man, Thor, Giant-Man, and The Wasp all retired from the team, leaving Captain America and a trio of reformed villains – Hawkeye, Quicksilver, and The Scarlet Witch – as the new members of the team.

The problem with the way this was handled was that the decisions to leave all seemed to come out of the blue, with no buildup. Of course, this was in the early days of modern comics; these days I have no doubt that the lessons in storytelling that have been learned through the years would result in foreshadowing of the decision. It’s also a little improbable that all three decisions would be reached at the same time, but that sort of compression can be forgiven, especially if there has been the appropriate foreshadowing and groundwork.

The other way that this tone can be achieved is when the decision is one that is forced on the departing characters (usually NPCs / Mentors, though it may be one generation of PCs giving way to a new one) through injury or major error of judgment that produces a loss of confidence. The latter would not make a very entertaining game without very careful orchestration by the GM and the cooperation of the players, the first can work.

I’m sure someone will want me to expand on that “careful orchestration”. There’s no definitive answer, but I can offer an example: The PCs make a decision. The GM manipulates the circumstances to turn that decision into a major error of judgment. He then offers an adventure in which the PCs – perhaps at great risk, or with great sacrifice – sets their mistake right in the course of their final adventure. With their honor restored, they then bow out and hand the reins to their protégées (the new PCs). Ultimately, it’s all about foreshadowing and justifying the transition.

Of course, a new beginning needs to be followed up with one of two things: either a focus on an existing threat, emphasizing that it might be a new incarnation of the group but the old problems have not all gone away, or a new threat, emphasizing the new beginning. If you go down the “old enemy” path, its important that the new PCs make progress of a sort and degree different to the achievements of the old, which also emphasizes the new beginning by means of the resulting subtext.

17. Turn The Page

This is pretty much the same thing without the goodbye. Presaging a new beginning always works well if the adventure leading to the change is significant enough. Essentially, this is ending one campaign and carrying the PCs forward into a sequel campaign, with continuity and background elements also perpetuated into the new Campaign.

In essence, all the advice offered under “The Fond Farewell” applies here.

18. Misplaced Love

The second-last option that works is again one that carries a different sort of momentum forward – in this case, emotional momentum. An admission of love (especially if that emotion is unrequited) works as a sentimental ending, promising emotional complications to come. Obviously, you can’t control when a PC makes any such deceleration, but you can absolutely control an NPC!

This option is different from just about all the others in that you don’t want to pay it off in the next adventure – if anything, you want to ensure that the target of the deceleration gets interrupted by something vital and doesn’t get the opportunity to respond. You need time for the fuse to burn; letting it get put out right away does no-one any favors!

19. The Sounds Of Silence

The final concluding tone that I recommend for your consideration is one that shouldn’t work by any measure: “All through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse”. This option only works after a climax, but instead of resolving that climax, you end with silence to create a sense of anticipation: What happened? Did it work? Are we alive?

Nature abhors a vacuum, or so the saying goes – and in this case, that vacuum is filled with nervous anticipation…

Options That Don’t Work

The reasons why an option may be unsuitable are a little harder to pin down. Each of the following has a reason why they don’t work well at the end of an adventure, but those reasons vary all over the place. Often it comes down to these options not having the effect that the ones that work do.

If your adventure ends with one of these, the need is to append something from the list above as an epilogue or even as a prologue to the next adventure. That way, you can have your emotional “cake” and eat it, too.

1. The Man With No Eyes

Never end with a death. There is always a shock element to games in which someone significant (including an major enemy) dies, and that arrests game momentum for a while. If this is the final tone in the adventure, it ensures that the next adventure is going to start from a dead stop, and will feel slow and ponderous for a while.

If the death is a climax (and it should be), you need a subsequent scene in which the shock can play out – an aftermath, or a funeral scene, or whatever – and then another scene (which may be an epilogue) with a completely different tonal value, and specifically one that generates some momentum for the next adventure.

There is one exception to this: when it’s been established that a death will have massive repercussions, you might be able to use those potential repercussions to create the momentum by means of “The Sounds Of Silence”.

For example, in the last Zenith-3 campaign (1950s setting), Stalin had received an alien-tech pacemaker following his heart attack in 1945 and biochemical treatment to relieve his high blood pressure, thereby avoiding the stroke that was fatal in our history in 1953. He also took to wearing a steel suit of mechanized armor to support his weakening bones and protect him from assassins. Fully aware that some of his subordinates were ready to seize power if he died, and would not at all be averse to bringing forward that succession if they thought they could get away with it, he had the launch instructions for the Soviet Nuclear Arsenal wired up with a dead-man’s switch connected to his pacemaker. He was confident that without outside “assistance,” his mechanized armor/life support would keep him alive, and wanted to discourage anyone from providing that “assistance”. What he hadn’t counted on were some brainwashed fanatics from the US who had been sent on a suicide mission to force change in the Soviet leadership by assassinating Stalin. When the PCs got wind of all this, they had no choice but to make it a three-way donnybrook, in the course of which, Stalin’s life-support systems were hit. As it happened, I had the time to let the adventure play out on the day, but if time was pressing, I had the option of letting the missiles launch, signaling the death of Stalin, and then fading to black…

2. Sad Songs Say So Much

TV shows can sometimes get away with a sad or bitter tone to end an episode, but it really doesn’t work for an RPG adventure. If this is the tone that you have to deal with at the end of the adventure, you need to either alloy it with something else or to attach some form of postscript to the adventure to introduce a different tone. Ending an adventure on a downer like this generally means that your next adventure is fighting that tone for at least half the day, and that’s assuming that the subsequent adventure has a tone that can be characterized as optimistic in some way.

What do I mean by “alloy it with something else?” Let’s take the case of someone dying of old age or some sort of disease, who has some great regret, perhaps some injustice that he knows of or suspects, or some mistake that he made that he wants to confess or set right before it’s too late. He calls on the PCs to do something about that regret. His condition provides the core of their motivation to succeed, and to do so in a timely fashion. The PCs succeed in doing so, but when they return to the Hospital, they find that the motivating individual has died before he could be told about that success (Sad ending). And yet, the nurse reports that just a few minutes before the end, he relaxed and smiled, almost as though he knew (alloys a sense of victory and satisfaction with the sad ending).

Even though this works, at best it leaves the game in a neutral tone; I would still be tempted to end with an unrelated postscript of epilogue of some kind to generate some interest that will get the next adventure off to a flying start.

3. Back In Black

Even worse in gaming terms, but something else that TV shows can occasionally get away with, is to end with a Funeral. This combines and compounds the downside-effects of both the previous tones, to the point where not even a contrary-toned epilogue or postscript can salvage enthusiasm for the next adventure. If you must have a funeral as part of your plot, make it happen early in the day’s play, precede it with something that will offer momentum to get you through the funerary scenes, then capitalize on that momentum with the rest of the adventure. Nothing else that I’ve tried in a game has worked.

4. Yesterday

Almost as bad is ending on some sort of retrospective look back, unless that retrospective can also be characterized as something else that definitively does work.

Somebody trawling through old records who discovers a hidden plotline that the GM has been building up for some time? That works as a revelation, for example, and a revelation is the most obvious “alternative classification” that can be offered. (I would be tempted to end with some dramatic pronouncement about the discovery and save the details for the opening of the next adventure, simply so that players don’t have to remember – or misremember – those details from one game session to the next).

There is one exception to the above: where events within the adventure hinge on an event or action that was not known by the PCs at the time, it is acceptable for the character involved to “fill in the blanks” at the end of the adventure – though, arguably, this might also be considered a “revelation” reclassification.

Nostalgia might work for Grandpa Simpson and in other forms of media, but it doesn’t work well as an ending tone for an RPG.

5. Black Dog

If sadness doesn’t work, Depression, and its cousin, Hopelessness, are even less suitable. I’ve tried a couple of times, with the plan of bringing in a ray of hope in the course of the next adventure, and it just doesn’t work. You definitely need to postscript these with one of the “hope”-oriented tones.

6. Ironic

Irony rarely works, it’s too transitory. However, it can sometimes be made to work if you can mix in some other tonal quality, but I have been unable to discern any pattern that separates success from failure; it might even be something outside the GM’s control, like the personalities of the players. Because of this unpredictability, I can’t recommend this tonal quality, even if it seems like it will work in your individual case.

7. Roses Are Red

Requited Love is even worse than unrequited love, from the game-momentum perspective. We want consequences, or the threat of consequences; we want drama, or the promise of drama. Exceptions are possible if the love is somehow forbidden, or if it has already been established.

8. I’m Not In Love

Ending on a note of Affection without deep commitment is the same as Romantic endings but more wishy-washy. The lack of commitment will be reflected in how the players feel about the situation, and that is what they will then carry into the next adventure.

9. You’ve Got A Friend

Friendship as a conclusion only works if the new friends were at loggerheads, or even enemies, through the adventure. This distinguishes RPGs from almost every buddy-cop movie out there, where an expression of friendship is the norm for the final tone before the credits roll. The difference is that most of those buddy-cop movies don’t directly lead into a sequel, i.e. into the equivalent of the next adventure, even when they are part of a series. This means that such sequels normally have to re-establish the relationships between the protagonists at the start of each movie, which is effectively the same as starting from a neutral position.

It follows that ending on a note of friendship (except in the case of the exceptions) is also the same as starting from a neutral position, and without the self-generated enthusiasm that is normally felt when first starting a new campaign.

The two exceptions are worth a little exploration.

  • The first works because the renewed friendship after being at loggerheads carries a promise of better days to come, and this positivity has its own momentum; it is important to build on that with the next adventure, however, because the momentum is easily lost.
  • The second works because an enemy has become, at the very least, an ally; this changes the context of the entire campaign, even if it’s only temporary, and that in turn has elements of “Light On The Horizon” and “Another One Bites the dust”, two of the concluding tones that work. In this case, the advice offered under those two categories spells out how the tone of friendship should be utilized in the next adventure; they are listed as items 2 and 5 on the list of techniques that work.
10. No Way Out

Never end with a situation in which the PCs have only one choice of action. Not only is this railroading of the worst sort (unless the narrowing of choice to “none” is the result of the PCs actions or choices), it’s obvious and overt railroading to the players even if this appearance is unwarranted or incorrect. In other words, it doesn’t matter whether or not this is the result of the GM railroading his plots, it will seem to the players as though that is what he is doing. From that point on, protestations of innocence only sound like offering excuses and get the players further offside. This tonal value can be poisonous to a campaign.

11. Blue Bayou

Peace and tranquility may work, when used appropriately, but Serenity doesn’t, it has no forward momentum to offer. If anything, it tends to dampen forward momentum, so it will be even harder to get the players roused and active at the start of the next adventure.

12. I Can’t Tell You Why

Mysteries should work, in theory, but in practice they don’t – because the players will spend at least some time in between game sessions speculating, and the mystery will have all the impact of cold spaghetti when play resumes. Instead, attention will be on all the different theories and possible solutions. Don’t end on a note of mystery (with the exception of “A Door Opens”, where the tone is part of a complex blend of menace, possibility, drama, and mystery), end on the announcement that someone has discovered a mystery, possibly accompanied by a worst-case forecast of the consequences, and leave the actual description of the mystery to the opening scene of the next adventure.

Plot Structures

There are a couple of terms that I’ve been using throughout the preceding sections that I should probably define before this article comes to an end. These all relate to the structure of an adventure.

Adventure End

When the final scene of an adventure is part of the main plot of the adventure, the adventure just ends, to be followed by another one. The ending adventure may even define the context or starting point of the next adventure.

I go back to the standard of the single-sentence summary, with no “ands”, “buts”, etc. Each individual adventure can be summed up in a single simple sentence.


A post-script is an extension of the adventure, often bringing to light unnoticed events or consequences, or providing a fresh context. Post-scripts supply an emotional kick-off point for the next adventure, and may even provide a context for it and future adventures, but have no relationship beyond that with the content of the next adventure. Postscripts don’t directly involve the protagonists of the plot to which they are attached, but may describe how the actions during the adventure have changed the world, or part thereof. The content rarely relates directly to the next adventure, though it can do so.


Epilogues have two forms. The first is virtually synonymous to a Postscript, but does directly involve the protagonists of the plot in an interactive manner. However, by virtue of that interactivity, they more frequently relate directly to the adventure to come, though they don’t have to. In every other way, they are the same as a Postscript.

Epilogue, version II

The other version of an Epilogue is as a prologue to future events, in particular to the next adventure. It can be thought of as a Teaser for that forthcoming adventure, one which gives away as little as possible about the content of that adventure. It may or may not directly involve one or more of the protagonists of the last adventure, but usually does not directly involve a PC, simply because they are pre-scripted to some extent. Quite often, they are repeated as the actual prologue to the next adventure. This variant always relates to the forthcoming adventure.


There’s a lot more to ending an adventure than announcing “You all live happily ever after – or at least until your next adventure.” Your choice of how you end the preceding adventure can be a millstone around your neck, or can enable the next adventure to hit the ground running. The latter means that instead of struggling up from zero intensity, your adventures can be on the go from the very start, enabling you to calm or intensify the emotional intensity as needed to amplify your adventures, taking them to the next level.


A side-subject that needs special attention is the question of downtime, when the PCs are free to study, exercise, or simply live their lives. Downtime doesn’t work when the end of one adventure connects directly with the next. It follows that if you strongly-connect your adventures in this way, you should actively and deliberately build some down-time into you plots – usually at exactly the right time for the enemy’s plans to mature, of course!

Some unhappy personal news
Well, there’s nothing like medical problems to complicate, if not completely disrupt, the best-laid plans. Today is the Sunday before this article is to be published. If all had gone according to plan, it would have been finished on Tuesday last week.

Instead, that Tuesday saw me waiting at the Doctor’s surgery, dealing with unexplained numbness and tingling in my right hand; Wednesday took me to a specialist for a CT scan of my neck; Thursday was always going to be disrupted by life in general, and by final editing and publication of the last part of the One Player Is Enough series; and Friday I was back to the Doctor for the results of the scan. So that’s essentially the whole week lost.

In a nutshell, I appear to have neck problems relating to the C4/C5 joint, where a disc protrusion is pressing (from time to time) on the nerve bundle, causing problems with my right arm, hand, and shoulder. Right now, the symptoms are relatively minor and I am in the early stages.

The uncertain impact of the problem grows when I state that he has referred me to a Neurosurgeon to determine the appropriate course of treatment. In the worst case, this could involve surgery on my neck, which would involve a massive but short-term disruption to activities like writing and publishing articles here at Campaign Mastery; but this is very much considered a last resort. It is far more likely to involve some form of outpatient treatment of still-unknown frequency, producing a long-term, ongoing, but somewhat smaller disruption.

Ultimately, this will manifest as the occasional missed post here at CM. Fortunately, I had built up some cushion. Part 3 of the New Beginnings Series was already written, as was the afore-mentioned conclusion to One Player Is Enough, and next Monday’s article is also partially-written. In addition, I have various guest authors working on articles which may plug gaps here and there. I’m going to play the situation by ear, giving priority to my health, but wanted to warn all you readers out there. More news as it develops.

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New Beginnings: Phase 3: Reinvigoration

new beginnings 04

Can you see where I’m going with these yet?

There are times when we all have to make a fresh start. This series is going to examine the process in detail. The table of contents was in the introduction (part 0).

In Phase 2, short-term measures were used to buy time while doing some fairly tedious work in performing the last rites over large parts of the previous campaign / old campaign, and while those short-term measures should form part of your ongoing repertoire of tips and tricks, they aren’t enough to refill your primary burnout tank – let alone the smaller sub-tank that gets used for gaming stresses.

Reinvigoration, or rejuvenation of you as a GM and of your enthusiasm for the task, is the next step. You may need only a little of this or a lot of it. It’s a process that can be described quite briefly – so this will be a relatively short article – but one that is just as important, and just as lengthy, as any of the other parts.

For reasons that should be fairly clear by now, if you are seeking to rejuvenate an existing campaign, you should consider it to still be a new campaign – it’s just one that inherits more baggage than usual from the previous campaign (but probably less than you expected if you followed the full detox routine presented in Phase 3).

There are essentially two stages to this phase. The first is to get you to unwind and recharge, and the second is to then gradually ramp up your excitement over the prospects that the new campaign has to offer by doing some preliminary structural and conceptual work, teasing yourself with ideas and creating opportunities that you can exploit in the development process to make the new campaign absolutely Killer*.

* Actually, an old-time Australian would say “Bonza”, and a young Australian would probably use “[profanity] Sick”.

Unwind & Recharge

Step one is to unwind to the maximum extent that your non-game schedule allows by doing something that is both fun and completely non-game-related in the time that you would otherwise have spent doing game prep. Depending on how successful your last campaign was, you may need to skip one session, or you may need to take a full week off. Don’t even read gamer blogs (but bookmark posts on the ones you normally read so that you can catch up). Watch a DVD. Go swimming, or surfing, or skiing. Cook an elaborate meal for a change. Avoid reading anything genre- or reference-related. Take a break – but don’t make it so long a break that you start developing new habits; this happens at a different pace for everyone, so I can’t advise on it.

Step Two is to catch up on those Gaming Blogs. Read something that you have found inspirational in the past, something that never fails to get your imagination churning – something that doesn’t require a lot of deep cognition. Watch a genre-relevant DVD or two. Gradually edge from what you were doing to relax into similar activities that are ever-more-closely connected to gaming. Spend as much time doing this as you did Unwinding.

Step Three is to perform one or two exercises that fire up the gray matter and boost morale for gaming at the same time. There aren’t as many of these as you might think (and you probably don’t think there are very many), but there are a few:

  • Re-read an adventure from an old campaign that went fantastically well.
  • List ten positive words on a sheet of paper – preferably different ones each time you perform this exercise – and then, thinking about each, one at a time, marry each positive word the first aspect of gaming that comes to mind when you think of that word. Then draw a big smiley face over the whole page, making sure that it comes into contact with all the words you’ve written.
  • Read a book that is both genre-relevant and an old favorite, and fun. Preferably something that has made you laugh, smile, or guffaw in the past.
  • Watch a non-genre TV show that you find funny – then describe that show to yourself in-genre as though it were the outline for a standalone adventure.

Spend as much time on these activities as you did Unwinding.

At the end of that time, you’re ready to start work – and, if you’re anything like me, by now you will be itching to do so.

I can “just relax” for no more than three to four days before the itch (or perhaps that should be “compulsion”) to write starts getting to me. I can prolong that for another 2 or 3 days by reading gaming blogs and articles and doing the other activities in Step 2, but the urge is a LOT stronger by the end of that step. All during Step Three, I have to stop myself from taking notes or starting to write something that’s been inspired by the Step Three activities. By the end of Step Three, I’m ready to write longhand, if I have to. All sorts of ideas will have occurred to me and most of them will have been forgotten despite my intense desire not to. Even the dull work of vetting baggage for dumping purposes will seem interesting. And that’s exactly the right state to be in.

Note that if you aren’t able to give yourself enough time to unwind and recharge, you will find yourself running out of steam at some later point in the process. That’s fine; simply come back and repeat this step. You may lose some forward momentum, but you will gain enthusiasm for what you’re doing, and that’s more valuable.

Think about that for a moment: what would you rather have: an enthusiasm for the campaign you’re about to start, come the first session of play, or meeting some arbitrary deadline feeling tired and uninspired? What would your players prefer? Seems pretty obvious when put that way, doesn’t it?

You are preparing for something that is going to shape a large part of your social life for the next six months or more. If you’re run-down at the start, you’ll never make it to the finish line.


What is the Main Theme of your New Campaign going to be? Every campaign has one, whether we impose it or leave it to develop of its own accord – but deciding on one in advance at least lets you control the initial direction of the Campaign.

I went into Themes in some detail in Been There, Done That, Doing It Again – The Sequel Campaign Part Two of Two: Sprouts and Saplings so I won’t go over it again here. Look for the second major section, starting about a fifth of the way down the page – currently next to the “Tags” section in the right-hand nav part of the page, though that might not always be the case.

Three Moods

In your campaign development folder or file, create a page with just the word “Fundamentals” at the top. Underneath it, list three moods that the adventures are going to return to, again and again. These three moods will influence the tone of the campaign, the adventures that take place, and the way the PCs are going to fit into the campaign. At least one of these should be a negative emotion, and at least one, a positive one.

This is something I’ve only come up with recently. These moods will form indirect themes, recurring emotional nuances that in turn will point to adventure content. They may touch on villain motivations, on PC motivations – they will be used for all sorts of things before this process is concluded. For now it’s enough to say “These are the three moods that I want the campaign to deliver repeatedly.” (NB: nuance can be important – there is a big difference between ‘hope’ and ‘optimism’, for example.

Three Surprises

Next, list three surprises that you want to form part of the new campaign. These don’t have to be plot twists, and they should be entirely separate from the lists of campaign elements that have been produced so far. They may be pleasant or unpleasant, from the PCs’ perspectives, but should probably be a mix of the three. You should also choose surprises that you intend (at this point) to spring early in the new campaign.

Three Things The PCs will hate but the players will love

A bit harder still. These might be NPCs, or treasures in the wrong hands, or plot developments, or uncomfortable relationships or betrayals, or the unexpected defeat of an enemy who looked super-dangerous or the return of a dead mentor who insists on treating them like small children, or a mole somewhere in the Court, or… well, you get the idea.

Three Things the Players will want to do

Even harder, because the Players have not yet developed their PCs. Which means that you are going to have to base this decision almost completely on the players’ personalities, unless you are retrofitting an existing campaign, in which case this might be a little more predictable. To some extent, this may be about expectations – positive ones if you are looking to follow a successful campaign, or negative ones if the players have a complaint of some kind. Again, the emphasis should be on the start of the campaign; if possible, you are going to build these into the very first adventure.

Preliminary Game Session Structure

There are lots of ways to structure an adventure or a game session. Pick one to be your preferred model. You might start with XP from the previous game session, then a synopsis of the campaign (boiled down to a single paragraph), or a synopsis of last time, or the resolution of a cliffhanger, then a briefing, then mission planning – as I said, there are lots of choices. One GM I’ve spoken to likes to start each game session with a rumor. It might come from an NPC, it might come from something overheard, it might come from the wind. Truth content can be anywhere from zero to saturation. The rumor might be misleading or the genuine article. It’s just something designed to get the players talking in character about the world they live in.

Rulebook Reference Skim

I end this phase of creation with a skim of the rulebooks. I’m not looking for specific information. Rather, I’m looking to list the places that I need to look in order to find the specific information that I’ve identified in the baggage dump and ideas stages – the reference material that I’m going to need in order to carry out Phase four: Campaign Development.

But even beyond that, this is an opportunity to get the general layout of the rulebooks clear in my head after an enforced break.

With some campaigns, the game system itself might not have been chosen at this point. That’s fine – skim over all the candidates and make up your mind which rules best fit the themes and genre.

With the decks cleared, it’s time to start getting creative!

And that will happen in the next part of the series – but before I get into that, I think it reasonable that I write an article for those readers who may not be into this series. It will continue after that brief break…

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The Crochet Masterpiece: One-player games as Campaigns


A brief recap:

This is the final part in a detailed reexamination of singe-player campaigns. If you want to see the full Table Of Contents, it was included in Part One (though it has definitely been updated since that was published). So far, we’ve looked at the effects on combat, characters, roleplay, and how those all contribute to plots and adventures for one-player games. To wrap it all up, it’s time to study the biggest picture of all, campaigns. As always, there may be some recapitulation of past points because of the way they impact campaign-level play, and that’s where we begin…

The Fragility Of Memory

I mentioned in part 3 how fragile eyewitness testimony has been proven to be. Memory is inherently fallible, and the one-player campaign is reliant on one person’s memory. While this avoids some of the contaminant problems that plague group attempts at recollection, the simple fact that you have just one memory instead of a group collaborating on remembering what’s happened makes this a very important campaign-level factor.

Perhaps even more than in a group campaign, the GM needs to help out, taking action to assist the player in overcoming the one-player handicap. It is, after all, no fun for the player to be distracted from play because he’s trying to remember what happened six months earlier and why what he’s involved in now actually matters.

There are two aspects in which the GM’s campaign planning can help prevent this problem interfering in the campaign.

Mnemonic Reminders

The easier of the two is to build in Mnemonic Reminders. These are recaps of the essential action that the player needs to remember. You can either deliver these “voice-over style” – “Previously in campaign X” – or you can put the reminder into the mouth of an NPC – “Remember, Vasili, that the Deviant Orc tricked you once before, when he.,..”

It also helps when you can build into character encounters something distinctive that can serve as a reminder of that character. This can be a verbal trademark or some visual cue – remembering that visuals are muted in a roleplaying campaign, provided through narrative rather than actually being seen.

This goes beyond a mere catch-phrase; it can be a shorthand way of propelling yourself into character. I’ve remarked many times on Peter Jurasic’s use of this technique for getting into character as Londo Mollari in Babylon-5, simply reciting mentally “Mr Garabaldi” in the faux-Hungarian accent that he used to characterize Londo – it didn’t matter whether Garabaldi was in the scene or not. Since you have more NPCs than usual to handle, you should take every advantage that you can get.

The Carry-forward

Something that takes a lot more design effort, and that has a notable effect on the adventures that comprise the campaign, is to limit the information that has to be carried forward. This involves making adventures more self-contained while also keeping continuity very strict. I used the one-sentence summary as a structural testing device for adventure components; well, it works equally well at a campaign level, and it also means that everything that has to be carried forward can be summed up in that single statement.

Of the two techniques, this is by far the most profound. It requires a tying up of loose ends within each adventure, and tight control over the theme of each adventure, and a – I almost wrote “simpler” adventure structure, but as was pointed out in the previous part of this series, Clarity is what’s needed, not Simplicity.

Fortunately, adventures were already heading in that direction – and for exactly the same reason, just on a smaller scale.

What We Have Here Is A Failure To Communicate

Another impact of the “Due North” phenomenon (discussed in part 3) within solo play is that there is no safety net when there is a breakdown of communications between player and GM. The player misunderstands the GM or vice-versa, there are no other players to clarify the situation, and the adventure takes a violent left turn into la-la land as a result.

This happens at the campaign scale as well. In fact, it’s arguable that these are not adventure-scale problems at all; they are campaign-scale problems, because the effects can linger (even post-correction) and affect more than just the adventure in which they appear. That’s because the subject most prone to severe impact is the relevance of the isolated adventure to the collective campaign.

For that reason, campaign structural control mandates the incorporation of a couple of sub-structures into each adventure that permit recovery from the problem before it has time to be cemented into the player’s thinking. Your next play session is too far away; even a post-adventure debrief is too late, because of the impact on human information retention of excitement/adrenalin.

In a nutshell, information received (or self-constructed) during a period of high excitement or an adrenalin rush is given higher associative value within the memory than information delivered in a moment of relative calm, and this difference is magnified when an individual is coming down from such a moment of high excitement. Furthermore, information and situational interpretation that occur during such periods of excitement are prioritized by the mind according to the symbolic threat that they contain and the capacity for successful reaction or response; not only will the player remember an interpretation that poses a greater threat, they will remember interpretations that give them an opportunity to deal with the problem, both in preference to the real situation being described by the GM. Clarity has to be achieved before the climax, or (at worst) during the climax, of an adventure, or any misinterpretations will linger beyond that one adventure, and contaminate the player’s understanding of future confrontations and situations. After the adventure is too late.

In a group game, GMs can use this to his advantage, because players are affected by the phenomenon to varying extents. Some will retain the correct interpretation of events, while others will retain the misinterpretation. This produces the sort of natural confusion that is entirely more likely to occur than a clear understanding of what is going on.

One of the reasons for the emphasis on added verisimilitude in the first two articles is because I know that some of that gain has to now be sacrificed to compensate for another problem that is more severe in single-player games, for obvious reasons – reasons that funnel directly into the “Due North” phenomenon, to bring the discussion full-circle.

In addition to the Clarification Scenes, Plot Shortcuts, and Milestones recommended in the discussion of adventures, there are three types of structural element that I recommend incorporating into you solo-game adventures for campaign reasons: Resets, Logic Breakers, and Rationality Bombs. Because these are all about correctly connecting individual adventures together to form the campaign. I tend to think of these as “superstructure elements” instead of “internal elements”.


“Resets” are catch-your-breath “reality check” moments that give the player clues that a misunderstanding has occurred. Optional scenes that get included just to paraphrase and rephrase past information or question chains of logic without supplying an answer, or any more information that could be used to obtain an answer.

This is something different to a Clarification Scene, which does aim to bring the player closer to a solution to whatever problem or situation he is facing in-game by clarifying facts that may have been misunderstood within the adventure. The purpose of a Clarification Scene is to enable a successful end to the adventure (from a roleplaying satisfaction point of view). A Reset is a pause to enable the player to get his understanding of the significance of the adventure into correct perspective.

I’ll discuss placement and implementation of Resets together with the other types of adventure superstructure.

Logic Breakers

Logic Breakers are Optional Scenes where an NPC guides the player’s thinking back in the right direction to overcome a misunderstanding. These go a step beyond a Clarification Scene, and should only be used when the player’s mistaken interpretation threatens to damage the entire campaign irreparably. Nevertheless, even though they might never be required, it’s important to build them into the adventures so that they are as natural as possible in terms of plot.

A plot breaker requires two things: an NPC who has a very different thought process to that of the PC, and a way for that character to become fully informed of the past events that require interpretation, possibly by overhearing a Clarification Scene, though I would prefer to find more natural ways of achieving this requirement.

Data, in Star Trek: The Next Generation, with his ability to download and investigate the totality of log entries made by another vessel of individuals, and to rule certain interpretations out just for the sake of argument and then completely ignore them is the perfect plot device for delivering a Logic Bomb. Q is another, albeit one that would be more annoying and whose findings would be more likely to be disregarded until there was no alternative.

In the Pulp Campaign, my co-GM and I have Colin Blackstone, an NPC illusionist and master magician, who assumes until proven otherwise that anything he learns in the course of an adventure is because the opposition wants him to know it, in order to mislead him. This enables him to penetrate deceptions and misinterpretations that are otherwise almost impenetrable – in other words, to deliver Logic Bombs when they are needed – although when Blair created the character, he didn’t realize that this was the plot function that I would utilize the character for!

In the Dr Who campaign, more to the point, I have deliberately made Jangshen, the Doctor’s companion, an individual who filters his understanding of all phenomena through his own philosophic perspective. While this means that he usually misunderstands the nuances of how technology works (often in a humorous fashion), it also enables him quite frequently to cut through the technical details to the heart of the situation. Explaining things to him also forces the PC to simplify his own perception of events, which can itself provide clarity. Thus, when the NPC requests an explanation, it is a Clarification Scene, but when he is interpreting and explaining events, it is either a roleplayed scene for comedic relief, or a Logic Bomb – or, occasionally, a Red Herring, as I don’t want the NPC to make the PC Lazy!

Rationality Bombs

A Rationality Bomb is an optional scene that provides a way for the 13th hour to become the 11th hour, effectively buying time for the PC.

These are very difficult to pull off without a Deus-Ex-Machina, which is an undesirable solution for all sorts of reasons that I’m not going to go into here. Nevertheless, I work hard at trying to create a back door through which I can send the PC as a last resort. Despite the fact that they are manipulations of the plot, I want these to seem naturally occurring, and better yet, not to hand everything to the PC on a silver platter; they open onto an opportunity, not a solution. That also helps keep them manageable in scope, and – ironically – makes them easier to create.

My usual technique is identify a solution path that is so unlikely that it would never occur to anyone to even contemplate it, then use the Rationality Bomb to lower the improbability of success to a level that exactly matches the character’s level of desperation. I’ve used the same technique for more than a decade in the Zenith-3 campaign – and in all that time, I think I’ve had to pull the pin on exactly two Rationality Bombs. All right, maybe three.

To make a Rationality Bomb a seamless part of the plot, it’s often necessary to lay the groundwork in advance to justify it. This runs the risk of the player seizing on it as part of his solution to the problem; I don’t have a problem with that.

For example, let’s say that the plotline features an out-of-control reactor that is facing a China Syndrome. I might make mention early on of some upgrade work being done, and not all the manuals being completely up-to-date. If pressed for details, I might mention upgrading pumps and other such infrastructure. Some time later, I might further suggest that it takes quite a lot of power to run the monitoring equipment of the reactors, and that the internal electrical grid is designed to automatically reconfigure to draw that power from wherever it is available.

As the plot approaches it’s climax, the supervillain locks himself in the number 1 reactor chamber, having deliberately caused a Loss-of-coolant accident and jammed the SCRAM sequence (i.e. the normal safety procedure for shutting down the reactor when this happens), so that his energy-absorbing capacity is soaking up massive amounts of radiation, supercharging his powers. Confronting the villain means a lethal radiation exposure that will probably kill before the villain can be defeated – at least, it would if he weren’t absorbing most of the radiation in the reactor chamber – the expected solution is to keep him between the hero and the reactor at all times, or at least enough to make the encounter survivable. However, the other reactors are approaching super-critical, because they are all affected by the conditions he created, but he is not soaking up the power in them.

But, in the event that the players don’t spot this solution until the villain has reached his maximum capacity and torn through the reactor casing, leaving an imminent meltdown with nothing to contain it, I can deploy the Rationality Bomb that I have carefully buried in the first paragraph. Did you spot it? No? You weren’t supposed to, because it’s only partially spelt out – I’ve supplied just enough information to justify it, not enough to make it available to the PCs (unless they ask the right questions).

Because the reactors haven’t all been upgraded to the new spec, some of the SCRAM systems can be manually triggered, shutting down reactors 2, 3, and 4. Second, cut off the connection between the power plant and the outside electrical grid. Third, by then activating every monitoring system on those three reactors, you can trigger the internal power configuration to draw power from number one reactor, which bypasses the computer control systems of reactor one that the bad guy sabotaged; the computer will then read the imminent catastrophe, and shut down reactor number 1 at the last possible second. Some meltdown will still have occurred, but total disaster will be averted. A makeshift cap on the hole in the containment vessel, some fire-hoses to cool the whole mess down (and settle any radioactive particles in the air), and the PCs can get on with the job of corralling the menace they permitted to be born. (Note that simply flooding the chamber through the hole punched by the villain will only produce steam explosions, worsening the crisis).

This Rationality Bomb defuses the immediate emergency if the PCs make the right moves, without completely solving their headaches. That’s all that I would reasonably offer. Nor would I make the solution as obviously effective as I have described above – this would be a chance at success, not an ironclad guarantee of solution, or at least I would make it seem so to the players, no matter what I – as GM – intended to be the outcome!!


Sprinkle your adventure with Resets. Include a Logic Breaker anyplace where the player might commit irrevocably to flawed logic, or where it will be too late to get back on track if you wait any longer. Install a Rationality Bomb at the climax, while ensuring that the groundwork to justify it gets inserted at appropriate places earlier in the adventure. Remember, these aren’t present to solve or salvage the adventure, they are present to ensure that failure to solve the problems posed within the adventure don’t catastrophically impact the overall campaign – if the consequences of failure are not going to be so severe, forgo the Rationality Bomb and force the players to live with the consequences of failure.


Arguably, the bigger trick is disguising these to let the player find his own way out of the problem without solving it for him. Design encounters to Ask Questions, not supply answers. Drop hints without making it obvious what they mean by inserting them into casual conversation. Have another PC react to the significance without seeing the whole answer. Point out every second tree but leave the conclusion that he’s in a forest to the player.

Assembling The Big Picture

What this entails depends on the structure that you have in place for your campaign. There’s a whole spectrum of possibilities along the episodic-continuous spectrum:

  • Totally Episodic – Everything resets at the end of the adventure, Nothing is carried forward, not even XP. PC capabilities are always the same. NPCs can change personality, name, or title; relationships never advance, but stay the same forever. No adventure will EVER have anything to do with a previous adventure. It’s like restarting a computer game. Or The Simpsons – how long can Bart stay eight years old? Another example is The Twilight Zone, where the stories were all completely separate entities. You could even say that each adventure is an entire campaign unto itself.
  • Extremely Episodic – This is what most people think of when they speak of an “episodic” campaign. The PCs and a small core of NPCs develop and advance, though their relationships remain the same. No adventure ever refers back to a previous adventure, they are all completely isolated. Changes to the core characters are Big News and don’t happen often – and are permanent. Many TV shows start off this way and become less episodic over time; for example, in the first seasons of M*A*S*H or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the episodes stand pretty strongly apart. Ditto Star Trek (The original series), and most police procedurals.
  • Incorporated Trends – The first real hint of continuity comes when the individual episodes are isolated but there is an incorporated trend towards something – it doesn’t matter what it is. It feels like time in the background is advancing only very slowly, and hence all the adventures seem very tightly bunched together. It’s rare that there’s a lot of change in a five or ten-year period, and this was even more uncommon back in the middle ages upon which Fantasy games are based; it was not uncommon for change to occur on a generational scale. There is an evolving context within the background, and even overtly similar plotlines will be slightly different as a result of this evolving context, but it still remains rare for one adventure to refer to another.
  • Compartmentalization – With the next step toward continuity, individual adventures are still discrete and isolated, but each frames and evolves the wider context within which the next takes place. Adventures refer to prior adventures having happened, and form part of the collective experience of all participants, but do not directly influence the events of the next save through this collective experience. One good way to view these is as self-contained adventures with an evolving outer “wrapper” provided by the past adventures. Another is to view every past adventure as part of the game background; as soon as an adventure is complete, it adds to that aggregated past, and the next adventure will take place in this updated reality.
  • Serialization – At about the same level of continuity comes this approach, from the olden days of Pulp Magazines, Movie Serials, and early Sci-Fi. The notion is that each “campaign” is broken into a small number of individual chapters – no more than 10-15 – which have some level continuity within them (ranging from not a lot where as soon as the cliffhanger from the previous chapter is dispensed with, a new “adventure” within the greater story begins, to quite strong levels of continuity) but which are then isolated from the next such group. Think of these as a series of however-many-parts stories within an otherwise strongly episodic campaign.
  • Season Arc – Advancing the continuity meter still higher, we come to the season arc concept. While individual episodes may be isolated, or may have broader continuity with reference to other episodes, there is an overall storyline to each season or year of play, or a limited number of such within the year. When one finishes, a new one begins. You can even foreshadow the next season arc within the current one as a trend that is going to become significant. While there is strong continuity between linked episodes, there is much looser continuity from one set of linked episodes to the next. This is what series like Buffy the Vampire Slayer evolve into.
  • Campaign Arcs – Higher again up the scale, and you get the sort of thing that I do in most of my campaigns, where every adventure is, first and foremost, part of a greater whole. Almost every adventure has something to do with prior adventures, or with the collective whole, and are more like a series of books that tell one larger story between them. The primary difference between this and less continuity-conscious approaches is that there is a deliberate story going on behind the scenes, whether the PCs are involved in it or not, and they will rub shoulders with it from time to time. The bigger the campaign, the harder these are to do. This is Babylon-5 territory.
  • Extreme Continuity – Adventures are a seamless stream of events, and nothing is really isolated. A strange shadow in one day’s play may become relevant six months later. This is soap opera territory, where no plotline ever really ends, it just continues to evolve, until eventually it lapses into absurdity.
  • Total Continuity – This turns the entire campaign into a single adventure of many parts. Ironically, this is the other end of the scale writ large, because at the end of the campaign there is a total reboot.

Each of these approaches have their merits and their drawbacks. There is no right way; though choices near the higher end of the continuity scale are often perceived as being “more advanced” than those lower down the scale, first because they entail much more effort and creativity on the part of the GM, and secondly, because the presence of a bigger storyline aids verisimilitude and enables the PCs to make a difference within the world. My campaigns dangle one toe over the line of going too far, and I’m the first to admit that. It’s my belief that the presence of the bigger plotline helps make the smaller plotlines within more interesting.

And, of course, you can mix-and-match with a number of these options. The Dr Who campaign has individual adventures at the Compartmentalization level, but the evolving outer “wrapper” of overall plot forms a Season Arc that will play out over time and several adventures – if all goes according to plan.

Continuity And The Single Player

With only one mind to retain the details of what has happened in the past, there is the need to reduce the amount of baggage that has to be retained from one adventure to the next. I chose “Compartmentalization”-level for the individual adventures so that they would form self-contained plot “bricks”, enabling the player to take each adventure on its’ own terms. Whatever your usual level of continuity, I recommend taking it down a step or two when dealing with a single-player campaign.

This is assisted, and made more important still, by the greater pace of single-player games, which enable you to pack more into each single adventure. As I think I remarked earlier, each adventure in the Dr Who campaign would be a 3-5 part adventure in a group campaign such as Zenith-3.

The “wrapper” provides a need that all higher-end campaigns require – some sort of continuity to give those plot bricks a context. If a campaign is a jigsaw puzzle, the individual adventures are the shape of the pieces, while the continuity is the piece of image printed on the faces of each piece.

Clarity & Confusion

Another way to look at the contradictory needs of continuity vs accessibility is in terms of the creation of clarity and the manipulation of confusion. At the end of each adventure, you need there to be as little residual confusion or mystery as possible, and as much clarity about the significance of what has just taken place as possible. Internally, within each adventure, you can have as much mystery and confusion as you want, but at the end, everything that is not specifically intended to carry over should be wrapped up in a neat little bow (or a series of them).


Getting the right level of flexibility is important. Too much leaves loose ends and plot holes that could be accommodated in a group campaign, but that cause problems due to memory fragility. Too little and you sacrifice one of the primary assets that a solo campaign has, the ability to go anywhere without notice.

The best approach that I have found is to channel the flexibility by blocking certain directions that the plot can unfold in while giving the player free reign within the boundaries you establish.

Solo campaigns are more sensitive than group campaigns in this respect. Group players expect things to be a little fuzzy from time to time because the GM is splitting the plot over all of them and none of them is necessarily getting the whole story and all of the context. This isn’t the case with Solo campaigns; there’s only one player, obviously, so if he doesn’t get a piece of info, no-one does.

You need more a episodic campaign structure than in a group game simply to achieve clarity.


Another important factor that needs to be taken into consideration is Recuperation. You have only one PC; the recuperation of that character is therefore a lot more important than in a group campaign. This is an ongoing need that must be addressed within each adventure.

Even more important, there is only one player and one GM, and the solo game experience is so intense that additional recuperation time between game sessions can be essential. I have GMd a small group game for 30 hrs (with a six hour sleep break after the first 20 hours or so; and I am quite comfortable GMing three different games on three successive days; but I would not attempt to GM a solo campaign for more than 7 or 8 hours (with a break in the middle), or on successive days. In fact, ideally, I’d like at least a week between solo campaign sessions. The greater pace and intensity makes them a lot more mentally wearing than the equivalent group game.

Campaign Emphasis

In a solo game, roleplay is up and combat should be down. There will be a greater emphasis on ideas and concepts, and less on the mechanics of existence. I know from experience that these things will happen anyway; you’re better off not fighting them. Instead, you should be aware of these effects and plan accordingly, and that means making appropriate structural changes to your Adventures, your NPC generation techniques, and so on all the way down the line. Heck, I’ve run entire solo campaigns without ever generating an NPC’s stats, just using characterization and a general indicator of capabilities.

The GMing Challenge

GMing solo campaigns is much more difficult than a typical group campaign. There are more constraints, while the player typically has more freedom and inclination to explore options and pathways. Throw in the greater intensity and all the other elements discussed and you have a serious GMing challenge on your hands.

The Value Of Success

So, why do it? At worst, a single-player game is no more or less rewarding than a group campaign, but at best, it hits a peak – and drives you to a peak of ability – that you simply can’t hit in a group game. There are no delays save those you take into the room with you.

The best action movies are non-stop roller-coaster rides. In comparison to a single-player game at its best, a group game is an action movie with more acting and less action.

Single-player games are Gaming turned up to 11.

And you hit that mark, or close to it, far more often; it’s easier to get interaction with one player up to 10 out of 10 than it is to get everyone in a group up to that mark. Or to 8 out of 10, for that matter. There is a lowest-common denominator factor at play that results from needing to spread your attention.

Single-player gaming isn’t for everyone; the demands are greater, as is the stress. The prep required is at times greater, and at times, less – but it takes time to learn where you can cut corners, because it’s not the same as a group game.

But it’s something that everyone should at least think about trying. You will be a better GM – in any situation – when you come out the far side of the experience.

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New Beginnings: Phase 2: Baggage Dump

New Beginnings 03

These images will all make sense in the end…

There are times when we all have to make a fresh start. This series is going to examine the process in detail. The table of contents was in part 0.

While there are always going to be things that you will want to bring forward from your previous game, there will be a lot of things that you should not want to carry, and things that you might want to dump even if they could be perpetuated.

Why To Dump

In the course of play, especially over an extended period of time, compromises get made, shortcuts and interpretations put in place just to keep play moving at the time, and in general, baggage builds up. Elves are like this, Dwarves always do that, this is how you resolve one spell affecting another, and so on, this is what that rule means. All this is baggage. Some of it you may want to keep, but some of it is nothing but dead weight, a millstone around your neck as a GM, sapping your energy and enthusiasm and zest for the game; clouding your thinking and confining your creativity.

How can you expect players to be enthusiastic when it’s all too much effort for the GM? Are there better answers to the problems that you dealt with on-the-fly? Are there mistakes that have become canon that you want to erase? Are there new ideas to be thrown into the mix? What parts of the status quo will you want to shake up?

When To Dump

When you’re tired, decisions are suspect. Avoiding mistakes that you will have to live with for the duration of the campaign has to be the priority – but for sure you’ll be far more mentally exhausted afterwards (which is why the next step is all about rejuvenation). Ideally, in fact, you would want to Rejuvenate first and then tackle this task with a clear head, but I find that with the passage of time, positions soften – and you can end up keeping something that you shouldn’t simply because it doesn’t seem so bad anymore. Better to exhaust yourself in the dumping process, when impressions are sharp, and then recover.

The other reason for doing your spring cleaning before you rest is that you have an idea for the new campaign (generated in phase one) and that will build in the back of your head while carrying out the dumping process and recuperating, generating enthusiasm and a growing itch to do something about it. This not only aids the recovery stage, it prevents it from being over-extended; new habits are easily formed, and the creative itch makes an excellent tool for the management of this potential problem.

How to Dump

When judgment is potentially impaired by fatigue, one of the most reliable tools that man has discovered for avoiding mistakes is organization and management of the work that needs to be done. A systematic approach is the solution.

The preliminary step should always be clearing your mind of distractions, and I’ve included below a sub-section addressing this specific need. This should precede each step of the process.

Following the sub-section on Clearing your head, I’ve listed a number of things that you might want to dump, discussing each in some detail – especially the why and how. But, in general, the process is broadly similar across all of them – you review game elements that fit the category in question using simple criteria that don’t require massive judgment calls, listing and scoring each. A strong positive score, and the intent if for the element to remain unchanged, at least for now; a Neutral score means that you are ambivalent about the game element, and should consider it gone unless you find it necessary later in the campaign development/rejuvenation process; and a Negative score means that the element should be scrapped if at all possible, and if it’s not, to take a good hard look at why that can’t be done. It might be necessary to replace it with an alternative approach, or the reason might reveal a hidden assumption that bears reconsideration. You may even want to consult your players, once you have a list of specific questions to put to them.

By breaking the labor into many smaller activities, and then dividing those into still simpler tasks, a systematic approach takes most of the work out of the job.

The System For Review

The system that I have devised is generic and straightforward. It consists of Six Questions (and a revision question in 7th place).

  1. Why is it there? Good reason, OK reason, Bland reason, Poor Reason, Bad reason? (+2, +1, 0, -1, -2)
  2. How often does the reason come up? Frequently, Occasionally, Rarely/Never? (2, 1, 0.5)
  3. Does it do what it needs to? Yes, Somewhat/Sometimes, No? (+1, +0, -2)
  4. Is it quick and easy to use? Yes, Somewhat, No? (+1, +0, -1)
  5. Is it free from unwanted consequences? Yes, No but Beneficial ones, Somewhat, No & they aren’t helpful? (+2, +1, -1, -2)
  6. Is it worth keeping? Yes, Maybe it can be fixed, No? (+2, -1, -2)
  7. Why is it there? (Revise answer to Question 1 in light of answers to Q2-Q6 and add to previous score).
Needs/Dump Analysis Processing

Processing is fairly straightforward:

  • Add up the scores of questions 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7.
  • Multiply the total by the scores of question 2.
  • On some scrap paper, draw a box. It doesn’t have to be bigger than say 1.5″ x 1.5″, and probably shouldn’t be smaller than half that size.
  • Divide the box in half, vertically, then divide each of the resulting boxes vertically again. Do it by eye, it doesn’t need to be exact – don’t get out rulers or anything like that.
  • At the bottom of the box, write +4, +2, +0, -2, -4, respectively, under the vertical divisions.
  • Divide the boxes into three roughly equal horizontal bands, and divide the middle one in half.
  • The best score that you can get is “+20″, so write that next to the top left corner. The worst score you can get is -22, so write “-20/-” at the bottom left corner. Write “+0″ next to the line in the middle.
  • Find the score from Q7 across the bottom of the box and make a mark. Then find the score calculated above up the side of the box (just roughly) and make a mark.
  • At the intersection point of these coordinates, draw a dot.
  • Then compare to the chart below.

But, if you want a simpler alternative, score +1, 0, or -1, for each question except Q1/Q7, then double the total and get an intersection point the same way.

With bit of procedural practice, you can start leaving out all but the first three or so steps from the more complex solution.


Here’s the interpretation chart:
needs dump analysis

I know that Campaign Mastery has a few visually-impaired readers (using text-to-voice software), so I’ll now explain the table for those who can’t see it. If you’re confident that you understand it, you can skip the rest of the section.

Broad Interpretation

As you can see, there are only four outcomes, each located in a different corner of the chart.

  • At the top left we find the area of high need and a good solution to satisfy that need; the verdict is to keep the current solution.
  • At the top right, there’s an area low need but a good solution, with a verdict of “Keep” with a question mark. This means to defer the decision until some distance into the development process, when it becomes clear whether or not the need is going to continue at its past levels into the new campaign. This is a “Yes, maybe” verdict.
  • At the bottom left, there’s an area of High Need but the solution that has been in place is unsatisfactory. Clearly, you need to dump the old answer and replace it with something new that will answer that need.
  • Finally, at the bottom right, there is the red zone, the area where you have a poor solution coupled with low need for that solution. In other words, whatever you are considering, it’s far more trouble than it’s worth, and the verdict is to dump it, fairly self-evidently.

Verdict Fringes

As always, though, it’s the fringes that are more difficult and more interesting. And, in this case, more likely to occur.

  • High Need, total greater than zero: Keep.
  • High Need, total between zero and -7: Further decision required: Keep or replace. Make the decision based on whether or not you can find a better alternative.
  • Some need, total score greater than +7: Further decision required: Keep, or Defer Decision to keep after development based on a reassessment of need. Choose between these two alternatives based on the overall impression left from the answers to the questions. Most of the time, the decision should be to defer.
  • Some need, total score between 0 and +7: Defer.
  • Some need, total score less than zero: Replace.
  • Occasional need, total score greater than zero: Defer until after development, then keep or dump according to a reassessment of need.
  • Occasional need, total score less than zero: Dump.
  • Low need, total score zero or more: Defer until after development, then keep or dump according to a reassessment of need.
  • Low need, total score less than zero: Defer until after development, then either Dump, Replace, or Keep according to a completely revised score based on the anticipated future rather than the past.
  • That leaves only the 0,0 point, the hardest decision to make. I would defer the decision until mid-development and then perform a completely fresh appraisal based on anticipated future needs, noting how the position has changed. Any increase in total score results in a Keep verdict; any reduction leads to either a Replace or Dump, the first if there is an increase in need, the second if there is not.

So that, in general, is how it’s done. There may be minor variations for specific “baggage” types, but that’s broadly the technique. Before moving to consider the different types of “baggage” that I have identified, though, I want to show you a technique or two for de-stressing and clearing your head of any negatives that will get in the way of assessing them dispassionately.

Clearing Your Head

There are a number of techniques espoused here and there on the net. Some work really well, others not so much; and as usual, the context of dealing with gaming material and situations makes some more suitable than others. The following are a selected sprinkling of the ones that I have found most useful.

  • Write the three or four most acute negative emotions that you are feeling on a sheet of paper, filling the paper. Use one, or at most two, words for each. Hold it with both hands by the top, gripping it tightly, writing toward you. Concentrating the feelings named on the words on the page as intensely as you can for thirty seconds or so, then rip the page in half, and then rip it again and again, until you can’t rip it any more. Then dump what’s left in the rubbish. It sounds silly but it can really help – and is even more effective when followed by one of the other techniques described.
  • Picture a lake in the mountains in summer. Imagine a cool breeze wafting across you. Feel the sun shining on your face. Lie back on the lake bank on the soft grass (in your mind) and relax. Hold this image in your head for at least two minutes (five is better), blanking out any other thoughts and re-establishing the lake image as often as necessary.
  • Grab a book that is outright fun to read, preferably an old favorite. Read it for 20 minutes or so.
  • Click on this Google Image Search. Look at each of the images in turn for 10 seconds or so, forcing yourself to smile back if necessary. If one of the images makes you feel especially good, calm, or happy, click on it and get the larger size, saving it to a “feel-good” folder so that you can use it repeatedly.
  • Watch a comedy on TV.
  • Play a favorite CD – a relaxing one, even if your preferred genre is Death Metal, pick something calming that you can live with.
  • This one comes from a meditation website: “Visualize your thoughts and simply watch as they pass by – imagine your distracting thoughts as a train – keep the term “train of thought” in mind. Each time a new thought pops into your head, imagine it as another car on the train – attach it to the train as a carriage or throw it into a freight car, and watch it go away. Take a step back and just watch the train pass. Let it go, and let your thoughts go with it.” Alternatively, imagine your thoughts as butterflies, and watch them fly gently away. Spend 10 minutes on this exercise, increasing to 20 minutes as you get the hang of it, if you find it works for you.

stress capacities

Avoiding The Red Line

Using these either in isolation or in a combination that works for you, it should be possible to relieve the accumulated stresses of the past campaign (and there will be accumulated stresses, no matter how successful that campaign might have been), at least for a time. It’s not a full recovery and rejuvenation – that is still to come – but it will put just enough emotional distance between you and the baggage you’ve accumulated in order to assess and appraise it in an unbiased fashion.

Ha! Yeah, right. Here’s what that paragraph should say: It will calm you in preparation for a series of stressful, difficult, and sometimes angst-ridden decisions that will bring back memories occasionally good but more often embarrassing and painful, so that you don’t go over the red line in the process.

Here’s the way I model the process of stress buildup (refer to the diagram above): We all have four stress tanks (I’ve only depicted the first three of them). The first is farthest right, and it is our short-term stress capacity. The second is shown in the middle, and it’s our medium-term stress capacity. The third is shown on the left, and it’s our capacity to cope with long-term stress. The fourth is not shown and that’s our sanity. For the sake of simplicity, even though it’s not accurate, I’m going to assume that all four have equal capacity.

The tanks don’t refill at the same rate, either – the short-term stress refills with a good night’s sleep and a day off; the middle tank refills with a couple of days R&R; the long-term tank requires weeks without stress to fully refill; and the final tank can take months or years to refill.

Each time a stressful incident occurs, it takes a big chunk out the rightmost tank, and a fraction of that from the tank to the left, and a fraction of that fraction from the tank to the left of that, and so on. If there isn’t enough capacity in the rightmost tank, any shortfall also comes off the tank to the left of it, in effect siphoning capacity from that tank to refill the next tank by just enough to fill the immediate need.

The amount of stress caused by an incident is also increased by the amount previously taken from the tanks in aggregate. When we’re healthy, small incidents are taken in stride. Little by little, the short-term tank gets emptied, until eventually we start dipping into the medium-term tank, producing mental and emotional fatigue. At which point, we usually take a day off, and refill the short-term tank, without doing much for the capacity of the medium-term tank. We cope fine for a while, but those minor incidents take a slightly bigger chunk of our coping capacity as a result of the overall loss.

In a shorter time than before, we again find ourselves tapping the medium-term tank, drawing from across the green line, which still has not refilled from the last time. Eventually, it runs out, and we start drawing across the red line from the third tank, and experiencing Burnout. When that happens, we usually take a week’s vacation, which refills the medium- and short-term tanks and partially restores the burnout tank, but doesn’t completely refill it.

For a while, we’re then fine, or think we are. But stressful incidents are still sucking more of our capacity than they were at the start, so before too long, the above pattern repeats again, and over a period of several years, our third tank slowly empties. When that happens, we experience burnout, and if the drains are not stopped for a period of several weeks, we start drawing on our (hidden) fourth tank, and heading for a nervous breakdown. Eventually, even a quite minor incident can become the straw that breaks the camel’s back – if we even get that far, as physical consequences also occur – coronaries and strokes and the like. And, of course, any health issues, aside from being stressful in and of themselves, can also reduce the size of the tanks!

In other words, the modern trend is to to determine the level of recuperation needed based on our symptoms, without adequately addressing the underlying cause until we’re (hopefully) forced to.

Of course, some activities tend to refill our tanks – starting with the short-term tank, and only when it is at capacity, topping up the others in amounts proportionate to the rate that they natural recover. Gaming, at its best, is one of them. Simply being able to set our real-world problems aside for a while and deal with problems that are intentionally solvable in an exaggeratedly short time frame can be incredibly therapeutic. Even the occasional burst of anger, when warranted, can blow off steam and permit other activities to refill the tank.

Sadly, gaming is not always at it’s best, and what it gives with one hand it can take with the other. Simply running even a successful campaign can have – will have stress-inducing events and periods. In particular, game prep – when it ceases to be fun and becomes work – qualifies. Rules disputes, petty complaints, and even minor personal misdemeanors like one player interrupting another, it all adds up. The more of our longer-term capacities we have used up, the more these events take out of us.

Which brings us to the situation these articles are intended to address. You have either just finished a campaign and need to de-stress, or your current campaign has lost its luster and become more stress-inducing than it is fun. You’re draining your medium- or long-term tanks, and have been for a while – and, typically, you’ve taken only enough time off to recharge your short-term tank before beginning the process of coming up with a new campaign. With the best of intentions, you’ve more or less dived right in – and, in fact, this entire phase of the process is predicated on the recent campaign being fresh in your mind.

And that’s where the mind-clearing activities listed earlier fit in. They are ways to replenish your short-term tank, and even to partially refill your medium-term tank. By performing the combination that works best for you, you maximize your capacity to cope with the task at hand despite the certainty that you will be revisiting sources of stress. Even the categories of baggage have been designed to break the overall chore up into smaller, more easily manageable, tasks.

What to dump: categories of baggage

I’ve divided the baggage to be appraised into eight major categories. One of those has been further split, and one needs to be looked at twice – so the overall process has been broken into ten smaller, more manageable parts.

1. Old Assumptions

It would be incredibly convenient if there was a list of these to work through. There are few greater handicaps to creativity than saddling it with old assumptions that might not be valid, and that can breathe new and interesting life into a campaign.

Assumptions are all about their implications. When you assess them, it’s really the implications that you are deciding, and in particular, the plot opportunities that changing the assumptions opens up.

The hard part is spotting the assumptions in the first place.

That’s why the assumptions step is split in two. There are some assumptions that can be identified directly, and those are what this section is all about. During the course of examining categories 2 to 9, an additional requirement is to identify more subtle assumptions in response to the eternal question of “Why?”. Get used to that question, I’ll have anyone applying this process using it repeatedly – that, and its compliment, “Why Not?”.

But that lies in the future; for now, the subject of discussion are directly-identifiable assumptions. The process itself is quite simple:

  1. Identify a source;
  2. Skim that source, looking for the things you always do to leap out at you;
  3. Each time, ask yourself Why do I always do this?

It really is that simple.

Sources I would recommend are: (1) The player’s core rules (if in a separate volume), or the core rules (if not separate); (2) the player briefing notes from your last campaign; (3) your game notes, especially from the last couple of adventures; and, finally, (4) the last three or four adventures themselves.

This really is quite a comprehensive review, taking into account everything from stat interpretation, through character archetypes/classes, races, adventure structures, the campaign world and overall pattern… you name it. Some of the things that you identify will fit one of the subsequent categories of baggage, just make a note of those and move on for now. Things like rules, and campaign background, for example.

My personal advice would be to go through each source twice – once looking exclusively at “Big Picture” items, and once looking at more detailed questions. Ideally, you don’t want to spend more than 30 minutes on each source – so there isn’t time to re-read the rules, you really do have to skim quickly – but a more practical timescale is an hour, maybe two.

Each time you have identified an item,

  1. Write it down in a list to give you a head start next time (and in subsequent stages of the current development/re-development process);
  2. Briefly summarize your answer to the question, “Why?” in writing underneath it;
  3. Ask yourself “Why not do it differently this time?” & briefly answer that in writing, too;
  4. Apply the general scoring process described earlier, or the simplified scoring suggested as an alternative;
  5. Create your needs/dump analysis graph, using the answers already noted;
  6. Using the chart, decide what you want to do about this particular assumption in your next campaign.

The 3.x player’s handbook is roughly 300 pages long. The Pathfinder core rules are roughly 600 pages. Champions 5th edition is about 400 pages, and the Pulp Hero sourcebook is almost 350 pages. Some games have shorter rules volumes, and some have even more pages than these. If you are going to get through any of these in an hour, you are talking two or three handfuls of seconds per page. Every minute spent actually processing identified assumptions eats into that time-frame, and it probably should take about a minute per item – maybe 2 or 3, the first few times you do it. The reality is that you can’t afford to spend more than about 5 seconds skimming most pages. You want things that leap out at you.

  • 300 pages, 5 seconds per page, leaves about 35 minutes in the hour for processing assumptions. You could probably afford an extra second or two per page.
  • 400 pages, 5 seconds per page, leaves a little under 27 minutes in the hour.
  • 600 pages, 5 seconds per page, leaves just ten minutes, not really enough. 4 seconds a page gives a more reasonable 20 minutes.

Some of the sources recommended won’t be as conveniently organized as the core rules are; that’s fine, they are almost certainly going to be much shorter, allowing you to spend more time per page, overcoming that problem.

Doubling the time spent in this activity per source to two hours lets you go to about 8-10 seconds a page, still leaving more time to actually process any issues you identify, and leaving you with a bit of margin. This is actually verging on too much time, it lets you pick up on minutia that aren’t usually as important as the process makes them seem. Keep it fast; there will be time for putting the jigsaw puzzle together into a big picture later.

Next to each entry on the list that is generated, I use a simple code to identify the verdict. A tick means “keep”; a question-mark means the decision has been deferred; a hollow circle means that the item – the assumption in this case – needs to be replaced; and an “×”, of course, means “dump”.

None of these verdicts are set in stone; it’s entirely acceptable to retain something that the process suggests replacing or even dumping, if it happens to fit the development of the new campaign. The main point is to identify the things that you want to actively think about during that campaign development.

And remember, each source should be reviewed in a separate session if at all possible. Short bursts of activity should keep you from infringing too heavily in burnout territory, and it’s often easier to find 30 minutes a night than it is to find two or three hours in any one night.

2 & 3. Old Rules

There are two types of rules that need to be reviewed – House Rules and Official Rules. They need to be treated separately because the questions to be answered are quite different, and they are both sufficiently involved questions that the two types should be reviewed in completely separate sessions.

(2.) House Rules

It is to be presumed that you have your house rules compiled into a document of some sort for easy reference – a Wiki counts :) (If not, why not?).

This is actually the purest form of the analysis process, using exactly the questions listed earlier as being the “standard”: Why is the rule in existence? Does it do its’ job? Does it get in the way? Are you happy with it? Are your players complaining about it? etc.

Ultimately, these all boil down to one more fundamental decision: Do you really need this rule?

However, after your initial pass, answering the questions above, doing the analysis and the keep/dump chart, I recommend working through your house rules a second time, focusing on those that you are keeping, and those decisions you have deferred, and considering a different aspect of the rule entirely: what are the in-game implications of the rule? What does it stop characters from doing, what does it require characters to do? How does it affect the way the character interacts with the world around them? Note that these questions refer not to what the rule is supposed to do, these are about the actual effects.

There are three possible answers: “It stops characters from doing [X]”, “it forces characters to do [Y] in order to [Z]”, (alternatively, “it permits characters to do [Z] using [Y]”), or “Nothing”. Often, the answer will be qualified: “It enables Elvish Characters to…” for example.

  • If the answer is, “It stops characters from doing [X]”, the question is “Why do you want to stop characters from doing [X]?”, and the answer to the latter question is either a background item for later review, or an assumption that [X] should be prevented, which you have now identified and should go ahead and analyze for necessity.
  • If the answer is, “It permits characters to do [Z]”, the question then becomes, “Why do you want characters to be able to do [Z]? Is there something else they could do instead?” Once again, you have identified an assumption that merits examination and review.
  • If the answer is “Nothing”, once again you have to question why that rule is present. This usually means that it’s a rule designed to restrict or affect the players, who should never be the subject of game mechanics unless there really is no better option. It’s always preferable to rephrase, rewrite, or replace such rules so that they affect or restrict the characters instead. In fact, the only real justification for this sort of rule is that it is far more playable than any character-based alternative.

Having trouble coming up with an example? In the Zenith-3 game, ad-hoc spellcasting requires players to construct spells using the game system for immediate casting by their character. Every character-based system for trying to determine how long it took the character to design and “construct” such an ad-hoc spell was far too cumbersome to be used in real play – until I came up with the idea of basing it on how long (in real time) it took the player to “design” the spell in game mechanics, modified by the character’s skill. The more complex the spell, the longer it would take the player to design, which meant that it would also take the character longer. Since ad-hoc spells are usually only required in a combat situation, (and when, for some reason, the mage’s existing capabilities aren’t good enough), this is an essential metric – and it also means that ad-hoc versions are primitive versions of what a polished spell would look like.

We’re still discovering ways in which this player-based mechanic is simulating aspects of character behavior that would otherwise need additional rules – or a compromise with a reasonable reality. For example, by recording the details of such ad-hoc spells, it enables the mage to construct a similar ad-hoc spell in less game time, the next time he needs it – he just has to find the old one in his files.

But that’s just a bonus. The main reward is that this approach reduces the table-time spent on ad-hoc spellcasting to the bare minimum, minimizing the disruption to play. One character-based alternative that was tried and hastily discarded was adding half an hour while both the player and I worked flat-out – and the other players sat around twiddling their thumbs.

As a rule of thumb, I used to assume that all previous house rules were rejected when it came to the next campaign, unless proven necessary during campaign development or subsequent play. This approach is better, wasting less time on blind alleys while actively pushing the GM to make the next campaign different from the one that’s just finished.

(3.) Official Rules

Dealing with official rules is both harder and, often, more rewarding. It’s far harder to work out what the purpose of any given rule is, and for every answer you come up with, others will have a dozen alternatives. That means that a far more pragmatic approach is needed. You might even question whether or not you need to review or vary the official rules at all.

I have two reasons why such a review is worthwhile. First, going beyond the strictures of the official rules open whole new worlds of opportunity; but those sort of changes should arise as a result of campaign development, not now. Second, game designers don’t always get it right, and some rules constructs are so badly flawed that they should be revised or tossed out entirely.

And those are what you are looking for. Rules that are clumsy, Rules that take too long to use. Rules that don’t work. Rules with holes.

Are there any game subsystems that you routinely ignore or hand-wave? Are there any that you avoid invoking? Are there any that are too effective, too over the top? Are there any that always cause problems because there are situations that they don’t anticipate? And, finally, are there any rules that combine in undesirable ways with other rules? It’s rare, but it does happen. It happens a lot more frequently when third-party supplements from different providers are added together to form Frankenstein’s monsters that

The best technique is, once again, to go through the rulebooks, especially the player’s handbook (and GM’s guide, if they are separate volumes) together with any third-party supplements that you intend to include in the new campaign (even before you develop that campaign) – there can be some of these, for example the Mythic levels for Pathfinder or the Epic Levels for 3.x.

Because you will need to look at some areas in more detail, expect to spend longer on some pages than you did when considering assumptions. For example, feats in Pathfinder/3.x need to be considered individually, however briefly – even one or two seconds per feat means those pages will take a number of minutes.

An example of the sort of Red flags to look for are any sort of abilities that take effect only when a condition of some sort is in effect, because these can couple with other abilities that alter the likelihood of that condition occurring. Another of the key signals that I watch for is a section of the rules that look unfamiliar. If you’ve used the game system for any length of time, this immediately makes me wonder why I don’t know that section – is there something wrong with it? On the other hand, if you do recognize the rules section, that usually is a good indicator that you are well placed to assess it quickly.

Most of the rules you will be able to give a passing grade to without even generating a full analysis; if no red flags present themselves, just move on. Only if something causes concern should it be listed and subjected to the full analytic process in order to decide what to do about that potential or known issue. For most of the rules that you are considering, therefore, only a second or two should be enough to decide whether or not to look at it more closely; and this is what makes the Official Rules review practical. Even so, don’t be surprised if you need something closer to 10 seconds just to clear a page that holds no concerns; this stage can be easily twice as lengthy as the assumptions stage. Plan accordingly.

Fortunately, rulebooks are usually broken up into chapters, and there will be some chapters that you can skip completely. This is not the time to go into the flavor text that accompanies different archetypes or races, for example, unless you are reminded of some conflict between that flavor text and the interpretation into game mechanics.

4. Old Rulings

Existing in a quasi-official state somewhere between “real” rules that have been put in writing and the GM deciding things on the spot are Game Rulings. These are undocumented house rules and interpretations of official rules, and sometimes a sign of laziness, adopting an ad-hoc solution when something more substantial is really warranted. Equally, it can be a sign that of a sprawling campaign that has presented a wide range of circumstances, which have resulted in a number of rulings that only apply in certain circumstances – so a lengthy collection of such rulings is not necessarily a bad thing!

The big problem is that these are usually not written down anywhere, although occasionally one will be incorporated into an adventure by the GM (showing that he has anticipated the need for one and devised a solution in advance).

In fact, that’s the best way to bring these rulings to mind: going through old adventures and reminiscing about the important passages of play – important from the perspective of the GM needing to make an ad-hoc ruling.

In the “Assumptions” part of the dumping process, the last few adventures were singled out for attention, simply because these are going to be the freshest in memory. In this stage, the focus will largely be on those same adventures, for the same reasons, but every adventure from the past campaign that exists in any written form should be revisited. And, anytime you find thoughts like “Where did it go wrong?” start intruding, stop and clear your head once again using the exercises listed. While this is an important question, it’s counter-productive right now; it will still be too fresh to really gain any perspective, and you won’t reach meaningful answers.

The process of evaluating these is not all that dissimilar to those of other rulings, but there is a difference in the interpretations of verdicts: “Keep” and “Replace” now mean different things, and “Defer” is not an option as it stands. Only “Dump” is unchanged.

  • Keep: Write the ruling up as an actual house rule.
  • Replace: This indicates that you need an actual house rule, but the ruling isn’t it.
  • Defer: Make some quick notes that can be used to create an actual house rule if necessary, then list that “virtual house rule” for review post-development – when the decision will be to either finish the job and “keep” the actual rule, or to “dump” it for good. There is a difficult balance to be struck; every second of time spent on making these notes might be time wasted, or might count two- or three-to-one in time saved later on, or might even be detrimental, costing the GM time if the notes aren’t clear enough. So the principle is to make the intention clear, and make a note of how you will achieve that target, without actually doing any of the work involved; this offers the best compromise.
5. Old Interpretations

These are even harder to identify and root out. Interpretations in this context has to mean something other than rules, and other than rulings, and those are the first things that come to mind when you hear the term. It is not, however, what I had in mind when I chose the term. No, this is about flavor text in the rulebooks and in the way that you habitually describe scenes, settings, etc.

Once again, the source material is the players handbook and your old adventures. In both cases, the first question to be asked about each item is “How would you describe this?”, the second is “Why do it that way?” and the third is “How else might it be done?”

This step is about rooting out habits that have become entrenched and identifying areas where the GM has become lazy – usually because other matters of higher priority have occupied his attention. There is no need for a formal evaluation; this is all about GM awareness. Instead, at the end of the process, try to synopsize into a single paragraph the things that you want to keep about your style, and the things that you want to change because they have you trapped in a rut.

Keep this, and each time you work on the new campaign, each time you work on an adventure for it, each time you are about to GM a game session, re-read it. Annotate it or revise it if you wish.

The effect of this simple activity is profound and even astonishing. These are things that it is unbelievably easy to lose track of, if you aren’t reminded of them. In time, your subconscious will come to associate these paragraphs as a Mantra to put you into “GMing mode” – but a GMing Mode in which you are aware of the things that are good about your style, and the things that you want to change. They keep these self-improvements on your radar, while still being able to evolve with your abilities as a GM.

And, by falling half-way through the baggage dump process, producing this document also provides a welcome change from doing the same thing all the time.

6. Old Background

These ‘resolutions’ also provide a vital perspective when assessing your old campaign’s background. This part of the baggage-dump process is much easier when creating a new campaign as compared to the problems of refreshing an ongoing campaign. In fact, the differences seem so marked that it might be well to deal with the two separately. And yet, as you will see, they aren’t as different as they first appear.

Old Background, existing campaign

I’m going to describe how to deal with this situation using manual techniques and trust that people can find an electronic equivalent if that’s their preference.

You will need a hardcopy of the campaign background, and two different colored highlighters. Line by line, if necessary, word by word, use one color to highlight things that have been definitely established in the campaign, another for things that have been implied or hinted at but not yet verified. That means that anything not highlighted at all has not yet been revealed in the campaign.

Let’s now put that into context.

  • Anything in white is so unexciting that the campaign needs rejuvenating. Dump it.
  • Anything in color #1 can’t be changed – or can it? I’ll get back to that.
  • Anything in color #2 has been hinted at but not yet verified. It can be changed so long as it stays consistent with those hints – and, assuming that at least some of those hints can be written off as deliberate deceptions, sometimes even when it doesn’t.
  • But that technique is better reserved for sprucing up those “can’t be changed” items as it provides a back-door by which some or all can be changed!

So there it is: Create a new and exciting background and then figure out how much of it you can make look like the old background. You won’t be able to change everything, but you should be able to replace/dump enough to completely turn the tired old campaign on its head.

Nexus Points
The task can be made even easier if you can identify the Nexus Points in your background. These are pivotal or hinge events that define the time-period that follow for multiple races/groups/nations, the “Big History” moments that determine the shape of the era to follow.

The fact that you’re changing history while keeping the old history as a front usually means that you are inserting one or more conspiracies. Get comfortable with that. Conspiracies rarely do something without a reason, however misguided it might be, and however distorted their perception of reality. The reason for the conspiracy is going to become the new Nexus Point behind the most significant alterations to history; get the reason, and you’ll know who did it, what they hoped to gain, and what they have been doing since.

The X-files mistake
Whatever you do, make sure that you avoid the X-files mistake of making everything one big conspiracy. Assume that what the PCs have been told is the “official” version of history, which is full of mistakes, assumptions, and deliberate falsehoods. There are lots of people who lie for all sorts of reasons, especially on the record. Take the PCs through the looking glass. not into never-never land.

The Key Person
I can offer one further hint. Quite often, an awful lot can be explained by the simple mechanism of making one key individual not who or what he seemed. The most legendary figure in history was just a front man? That works. A noble ruler was a lecher and a drunkard – but was so beloved that revealing the truth would have sparked a civil war? Then maintain the fiction for as long as you can – which just happens to be “not very long from now.” Look for one figure who is central to the things you want to change; change that individual, and let the sleigh ride begin!

Old Background, new campaign

With a new campaign, you have only the limitations of your imagination, and the constraints of the rules, to confine you – at least in theory. In practice, coating all of that is the marshmallow restrictions of your habitual background elements. Some of those may have been challenged in preceding sections, but most of them will be lurking in the back of your mind, still.

Are your Dwarves always stuck dwelling underground by preference? Why not make them masters of the air, living in cities suspended from great airships, from which the “mine” filaments and veins of pure metal that float through the sky? Turns your whole concept of Dwarves on it’s head, doesn’t it?

Do your elves always hang around in forests? With the Dwarves gone, why not move the Elves underground into a pellucidar – and have them disguise their comings and goings through the construction of “Potemkin villages” in those forest locations?

Do your drow always emerge from an Elvish Civil War? Why not have the divide begin over some other, uniquely Elven, form of contest – a live poetry-writing contest, for example? With one group accused of cheating? Or perhaps have the divide yet to occur, with the Drow a subversive secret society and sometime domestic-terrorist organization, as I have in my Shards Of Divinity campaign? Or perhaps the whole divide is simply a political subterfuge to drive wedges between the other races preparatory for subjugation by a (secretly-united) Elven Master-Race? Or invert things so that the Drow have become the good guys (but out of practice at it) while the Elves have been corrupted into extremists for whom any end justifies any means – as I have in the current Fumanor campaigns? Or make them Arthurian Nobles under assault from the Zentradi, as one group going by that name are in the Zenith-3 campaign?

One critical analysis of The Lord Of The Rings attempts to equate the various races with national governments in the middle ages – and another with various combatants during World War II. The Elves are usually French, the Orcs are Germans/Barbarian Tribes… While I don’t agree with any of this interpretation, why not take the idea and mix it up a bit? The Elves are tall, fair-haired Scandinavians; Orcs are Mongols; Dwarves are Italian, or perhaps the German tribes living amongst the leafy canopy, which has been transmuted into rock…

Before you can come up with any of these ideas, you need to distance yourself from what has been before. A simplistic suggestion would be to simply do the exact opposite of whatever you did last time, but that assumes there are only two answers, and the above is intended to show that this isn’t the case, and would, in any event, mean that the campaign after next will be exactly the same basic background as the one you’ve just used.

It was while considering this problem that the “keep / replace / dump” approach that I have recommended was developed. The theory is that if something worked, you don’t necessarily have to change it (unless later prompted to do so by development of the campaign concept); only what didn’t work that well needs to necessarily be replaced, that putting the things you keep into a new context is enough to transform them, and that when players get tired of something, it will stop working. Thus, an evolutionary mechanism for campaigns.

That initial concept has, itself, evolved somewhat in the course of writing this article, into something even more significant. The key questions now are,

  1. Do you think you have fully explored the implications of whatever you had in place?
  2. Is background element [X[ becoming predictable?
  3. Are your players still interested in background element [X]?
  4. Are adventure ideas still being inspired by background element [X]?
  5. Are YOU still interested in background element [X]?

Only if your answers are an unqualified “No – No – Yes – Yes – Yes” can you say that the background element is still “Working”. Failure in any one of these categories indicates that its’ time to replace the background element in question, and do something different next time around – or, at the very least, to defer the decision until development of the campaign, when you can see if – like the oft-mooted meeting between an irresistible force and an immovable object – there will be a number of interesting byproducts from putting the old ideas into a new context.

What is a “background element”? I’d hope that the term was reasonably self-explanatory, but I’m afraid it might not be. So, just in case, here’s a working definition.

A “background element” is an essential concept or idea that has been used to construct the campaign background. It can include anything from an interpretation of a race, or a class, or the political structure of the game, or questions about what is considered moral, or the simplest answer to “What is magic?” or “What are the Gods?”.

It takes a lot of reading and effort to extract the background elements from a written campaign background. If you follow the advice offered in “One word at a time: How I (usually) write a Blog Post“, which describes a process that I also use for creating adventures and campaign backgrounds, however, you will have started with a list of campaign elements and then used a paragraph to describe each and the impact that it has, and so can avoid all that hard work and simply work off your list of background elements from the last campaign.

As a general rule of thumb, it can be assumed that there’s one background element in each paragraph of your campaign background. Sometimes there will be less, and sometimes more, but the average will be reasonably close. Each table counts as a paragraph as well. And each one needs to be assessed, so this can take some time. Plan accordingly.

No Written Background?
Oh dear, that’s awkward, isn’t it? Some GMs like to simply take the standard sources and invent twists on it as they go, in whatever direction the PCs have decided to explore. Nothing wrong with that approach, but it does rather lock you into that way of doing things, and makes it that much harder to rid yourself of habitual elements and create something new.

Never fear, I’m here to help! I’m afraid that you will pay for that lack of formal prep with additional work now, but that’s the way the cookie crumbles.

Pretend that you’re writing a letter to another GM, and you want to describe your campaign to him. Start with a single paragraph half a page at most. Then a brief (3-4 line, max) summary of who the major PCs have been, from throughout the campaign. Make sure to mention race and class, if those are important. This should more-or-less fill the first page. Make the page size whatever it needs to be in order to get it to fit, and – if you have to – reduce the font size a little.

On the second page, paste a copy of the first, and change the font color to something else that’s still legible, but easily distinguished from the default black on white. Taking each sentence in isolation, expand on it, explaining it, and adding mention of any related ideas that were parachuted into the old campaign. Use any campaign notes or adventures as prods to your memory if necessary. Simply write “standard interpretation of [X]” if it’s something that never got changed from the official source. This will take multiple pages. Build up a synopsis of the campaign in this fashion.

In theory, each sentence in this expanded version will discuss a single background element. In practice, some may contain two, and others may simply explain an already identified background element, so some interpretation will still be necessary – but what you have built up will be at least as useful a starting point as a properly-written set of campaign briefing materials.

My preferred technique is to start with a copy of the campaign background that I can deconstruct. As I process each paragraph, or sentence, or whatever, I change the text color to something very unobtrusive like aqua or yellow or silver. You can see at a glance where you’re up to when you start each session – because you won’t get through it all in a single sitting.

Now is the time to start making notes for your next campaign’s background, by setting up a series of headings – one for each of the major archetypes/character classes, and one for each of the major races/species that a PC can derive from, or perhaps key types of organization or nations in a mono-racial campaign – into a blank document for “background ideas”, ready for populating.

  • If your verdict is to Keep the background element, write it into the appropriate space in the “background ideas” document.
  • If your verdict is to Defer the decision, write it into the appropriate space with a leading question mark in Bold so that it stands out.
  • If the verdict is to Replace the item, write it into the appropriate space in a different color, such as Red, with a bold leading X to indicate that this is what you are NOT going to do.
  • If the verdict is to Dump the item, place a leading Dash in the section to indicate that you need to come up with a new idea under that heading, and instead of transferring the old background element, make a note about what was wrong with the old idea. Again, this is what you are specifically going to try to avoid the next time around.

When you’ve finished with your campaign background, quickly skim any adventures you have details or notes on, looking specifically for occasions when the PCs went “off-script” and you had to invent something on-the-fly (or between game sessions) in order to cope, or where some fundamental idea changed. If you’re very unlucky, there will be a couple of these per adventure, but most of the time, even a free-wheeling campaign will have only one per.

Subject them all to the same treatment, and you will leave behind the things that you don’t want to repeat.

7. Old Attitude

Because gaming is social endeavor, we are all affected by what happens around the table by virtue of the human being associated with it – whether that’s you, responsible for something unpopular with the players, or one of them having done something that you disliked. Since you are contemplating playing with the same people again, it’s fair to assume that no irreparable damage has been done to your personal relations, and you may even have cleared the air over these issues already. Nevertheless, a little of that emotional bruising can linger, slowly poisoning the new campaign. It’s better for your friendships and your game to ensure that everyone has put any such baggage behind them.

For a change, there’s no analysis involved, no appraisal under the keep / dump model.

Instead, there’s a three-step solution.

Step One: Have a social occasion to mark the ending of the old campaign, or to celebrate the commencement of work on the new one. It doesn’t matter if it’s a party or a wake; what you need is an excuse for everyone to reminisce about the old campaign, what went right and what didn’t, some of the fun moments and some of the mistakes made. It’s important that this be a social occasion and not a series of interviews or an impersonal questionnaire or anything like that; you will be dragging up events that may still engender strong opinions and resentments, and you need a way to take the sting out of them. You’ve been working through your own baggage throughout this process, and by this point in time should be less emotionally invested in the past, enabling you to take criticism with a smile and work at defusing any other hostile emotions that may arise amongst your players.

Step Two: Have everyone play a game that pits you against each other. Civilization. Risk. Poker. It doesn’t matter what it is, so long as it affords everyone the chance to let off any remaining steam. So make it a game everyone can enjoy.

Step Three (the hardest one): play some sort of game that requires cooperation. There aren’t a lot of these out there, to be honest – that’s one of the things that makes RPGs unique. So play an RPG – but rotate characters and the GM’s position every five minutes. The objective: for you all to have fun. Don’t take it seriously, go for the comedic and silly and the fun. Some players may not want to GM – come up with a way for them to buy their way out of it. They give up a slice of cake or something. Oh, and make sure that it’s a genre completely unrelated to either the past game or the next one planned. The goal is to reestablish that everyone is on the same side.

8. Old PCs

The applicability of this aspect of baggage is reasonably obvious when you’re talking about a new campaign, but not so clear when your goal is to revitalize an existing campaign; but this is nevertheless a relevant aspect of both. I think, once again, that it might be clearer to discuss them separately.

Old PCs, New Campaign

I’ll deal with the more straightforward question first.

When you start a new campaign, the players will normally construct new PCs – the occasional sequel campaign (see my 2-part article on the subject: Part 1, Part 2) – notwithstanding).

Often, GMs fall into the trap of designing their new campaign to fix what was wrong but is not going to be relevant from the old campaign. It’s happened to me, and I’m sure that it’s happened to you, too. I first began to overcome that tendency by making it a policy to ask players to design characters that were substantially different from their old ones for the new campaign. Of course, if a player really only wants to play Elves, or Clerics, or whatever, you can’t and shouldn’t stop them from doing so, but even a little encouragement to explore something new has a profound effect on the psychology of the GM; instead of a subconscious expectation that the PCs will be the same, with the same rules problems, same internal relationships, same personality and behaviors, the GM is expecting things to be different – and will design accordingly.

Getting the players to create different characters is actually liberating for the GM, because key parts of the game world will no longer need to accommodate pieces to come out of a fixed and known mold.

Now, while the ideas for the new campaign are still very preliminary, is the right time to explore with each player what his preliminary ideas are – what sort of character does he want, what sort of involvement in the adventures does he want for that character, etc. It should be understood that the GM is not promising to accommodate these desires; you are simply finding out what the development directions are going to be. Both sides should expect everything to evolve from these initial positions as the new campaign and characters take shape, and as play begins.

Of course, it should be obvious why this step follows the previous one, which is designed to liberate both Players and GM from the emotional baggage of the old campaign.

Once again, there is no approvals process for this step, there’s nothing to approve or reject; this is all about resetting mindsets.

Old PCs, Revitalized Campaign

The PCs and players carry just as much baggage forward from the old campaign as the GM does in this situation. Compromises may have been made in character construction on the basis of a set of expectations that were never fulfilled as the campaign evolved through actual play, for example.

The freedom that comes with new characters is so useful to the GM in breaking bonds with the past that it is always worth considering “revitalizing” the PCs. Besides, you’re going to be doing this with the major NPCs, so why shouldn’t the players have the same opportunity?

In campaigns with low levels of continuity, it may in fact be possible to completely replace the PCs with characters of roughly equivalent level/character points to the old ones, or to any other level that GM feels is appropriate. Sometimes I’ve gone with characters of half the levels, sometimes with new first- or second-level characters, and sometimes with unchanged levels. In one instance, I even offered the option of starting selected characters one level higher – with a reduction in XP earned until the others caught up.

If continuity is strong, the approach must be different. In such cases, I start with a discussion between myself and the player about two things: (1) What is the one thing the player would change about his character if he could construct it from scratch; and (2) What is the one thing that most irks or hamstrings me, as GM, about the character as it stands. From these discussions, a consensus should soon appear as to the preferred approach to the handling of the character in the re-invigorated campaign. The GM can make is explicitly clear how much freedom he is giving the player to rebuild his character, and what he expects from the resulting PC, and the player knows it as well.

This is also the time to point out any House Rules or Character Class/Race details that are going to be explicitly altered in the new campaign, and are of relevance to the PC, to the player of that PC, so that the character can be redesigned accordingly. Which also affords that player the opportunity to provide his input on those changes.

Another question that the GM should discuss with each player is the question of a front-of-curtain change vs a behind-the-curtain change.

  • In a front-of-curtain change, the old characters and rules will still be “the way things are” when the campaign restarts, right up to some singular event that will change everything and everyone over to the new in suitably-spectacular fashion.
  • In a behind-the-curtain change, there is no Big Event – the campaign simply restarts with the new conditions and characters as though it had always been that way.

It’s important to settle this question at this point in the process because a “Big Event” affords scope to change even some of those “unchangeable” campaign background elements. This decision tells the GM how far he can go in rewriting the campaign background and back-story; it defines how much of the old campaign needs to be perpetuated into the new, and whether the change has to be seamless or can tolerate a certain amount of discontinuity.

9. Old NPCs

NPCs should be an outgrowth of the intersection between where they come from (campaign background & formative events), the pre-set parameters of class and race, and their role within the plot. Any or all of the above are subject to change in any sort of campaign reboot. Equally, this is yet another case when thinking about a new campaign of needing to identify patterns and determining whether or not to change those patterns.

Do you always provide the PCs with a Mentor, a-la Splinter from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? Then have that Mentor killed in game session #1. And have this death turn out to be a fabrication, making the Mentor the secretive arch-villain who seems to know the PCs every move.

Who are your main villains? Do they always seem to have the same motivation, or a motivation drawn from a limited set? Go looking for something new.

I once came up with a D&D campaign – it never got a name, and was never played – in which the central villain was a Good Man and well-known Hero of the past who had been cursed to have every good deed twist to evil, while making him nigh-immortal; he could only be killed by an enemy, and he had killed all his enemies except the one who cursed him. The best thing that the character could do was nothing, but that was something he was constitutionally unable to do; he couldn’t help himself, whenever he saw injustice or inequality or other evil, he had to try to intervene. There were a lot of unanswered questions that I never got around to solving, like why he hid his identity, and why he tried to keep himself alive (early thoughts on the latter were that he refused to die until he had made restitution to everyone harmed by his curse), and so on.

Are all your sages the same? Are your mad scientist cookie-cutter models? Is every Paladin a holier-than-thou stickler for the exact letter of the law?

Go through your old adventures, looking for such stereotypes – and then decide whether or not they should stay that way.

Remember that all most people know of a character (the PCs included) are their reputation; and that even if the real character differs from that, they can actively seek to perpetuate that image. That means that even characters that the PCs think they know quite well can suddenly sprout hidden layers – with predefined circumstances that will bring those layers to the fore. Add to that the potential for changing circumstances that on their own are enough to change ally to enemy and enemy to friend, and the NPC makeovers are complete.

Except of course that you probably have more experience now than you did when you created many of these characters – so even the characters that are to remain “unchanged” can, and should, get a spruce-up. Not necessarily to make them more effective, or more powerful, but just to make them more interesting and rounded.

It might be going to far to say that every NPC should be re-conceptualized and rebuilt. But not by very much; the question that needs to be answered is really whether or not these changes will be overt or beneath an established public mask.

10. Old Assumptions Redux

Throughout the preceding steps, you should have been discovering and noting assumptions that you missed in your initial sweep. Everything from “Dwarves are short” through “Elves are good with bows” to “Mages cast spells” and “Demons are evil”.

There are a lot more of these assumptions that you are probably going to keep, but the decision to do so should be yours, and reflective of the campaign that you are creating/recreating, not something that happens by default.

And so, the Baggage Dump process ends where it began – by challenging the assumptions that you’ve been making and deciding whether or not they are justified – this time – in staying part of your campaign.

Because that’s the ultimate objective: to define the campaign, and refit everything around that central definition.

What to keep – for now

After all this “justify your existence” challenging of campaign elements, it should be noted that some things in the old campaign were probably fun, and might just be worth preserving. What to keep is anything that made the PCs cool in the eyes of their players – refer The Acceptable Favoritism: 34 ‘Rules’ to make your players’ PCs their favorites for ideas on what to look for – and anything that everyone commented favorably on during the player debrief / emotional baggage dump.

You want to keep the things they liked until they are absolutely, positively, and definitively proven to be incompatible with your plans for the new campaign.

But, be aware that overuse can sap the fun from anything. These “Saved by the fun factor” ingredients won’t last forever – and the day the laughter dies might come before the end of the campaign. Each such item needs to be carefully assessed from that perspective.

Having detoxed from the last campaign – whether it was a success, a failure, or something in between – It’s time to start rejuvenating both you and your campaign-creation agenda. And that’s something I’ll take up in Phase 3 – which will hopefulyl be a short article!

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The Solitary Thread, Frayed: Plots in one-player games


A brief recap:

This is the third part in a detailed reexamination of singe-player campaigns. If you want to see the full Table Of Contents, it was included in Part One. In today’s article, I am going to look at how Plots and Play change in a single-player game. Let’s dive right in…

Heading Due North

While simple player questions are usually quickly answered in an RPG, more substantial decisions take more time in most games. Groups are all about compromise and consensus; while it’s sometimes the case that one dominant personality will make the decisions for all, it’s usually the case that there are several suggestions, and then discussion, and then more suggestions, and then more discussion, and still more discussion, until either a compromise choice is made by the party/group leader, game time for discussion runs out, or everyone agrees – at which point, more discussion often ensues, decisions sometimes get changed, and sometimes the players end up back at square one!

Things can be almost as anarchic when the players have to head into the unknown. Speculation about what might be found there, preparations for just about every possibility, and so on.

Things aren’t like that when you have a single-player game. No group consensus, no compromise. One person decides where to go and what to do, possibly after a brief internal debate – and then does it.
multiprong plot vectoring

Multi-prong Plot Vectoring

This has some unexpected impact on plots and plot structure. Surprisingly, it’s even easier to railroad your plots – because the options are subjected to far less intense scrutiny, there is far less opportunity for the game to go off-track, but when it does, it will do so with the same speed as everything else.

The best counter to this is to present the player with multiple directions in which to head. Instead of treating information dumps and problems as single scenes or encounters, break them into multiple pieces, each incomplete without the others. The illustration depicts three, which is a nice solid number, but use the number that the information/events naturally break into; if the natural division gives two, four, five, or even six, go with it.

Each piece of the “puzzle” then provides context for the others; it doesn’t matter which one the player chooses to investigate first, because ultimately he will get all of them, one way or another.

There are two big advantages to this approach: first, the player is less likely to go off the reservation when he has multiple choices already on offer; and second, if he does, the fact that you have more than one direction in which to steer things back makes recovery easier. The big problem is that it’s more work.

As an aside, I use the same approach for some situations in group games, where the natural division is “one piece to each PC” – and where, if someone goes off-track, I let them go. They usually won’t get the information or plot advancement that they would otherwise have received, at least not at the time (the exception is when they have been Very Clever) and they may get themselves deeper in trouble in the process (even if they have been Very Clever), but the consensus/discussion effect means that anything that’s missing can often be deduced or inferred from having most of the information.

Because greater effort is involved, I do employ this technique as sparingly as I think I can get away with. That entails assessing each scene and plot point more rigorously for opportunities for the character to divert from the expected (not mandatory) path.

Critical Path Redundancy

A variation is employed when the information absolutely has to be delivered to the PC so that the player can correctly evaluate the in-game situation and decide what to do about it. When there’s a piece of information that absolutely has to be delivered, I put some time and effort into coming up with multiple ways for that data to be delivered, or at least drop clues and hints to it through various means.

For example, a scientist might offer a flawed theory, an engineer might offer some measurements and an obviously incorrect interpretation, a military man might make an assessment through tactical awareness but overlook a critical factor known to the player, and a psychic might get a vague impression that is correct but badly incomplete. In roleplay, the PC can become aware of the flaw in the picture presented by the NPC, and develop the correct interpretation. In none of these cases would the solution simply be dropped in the players’ lap; but the raw materials for uncovering the right answer are provided.

This does mean that occasionally, the PC will have to take action without fully understanding some aspect of the situation – at least until after they are committed. You can get away with more of that sort of thing in a single-player campaign, because there’s only one PC to keep track of; It’s actually much harder in a group setting, where there’s the potential for each member of the group to go off in a different direction.

To explain why that matters, here’s an anecdote from an adventure a year or two ago in the Zenith-3 Campaign. Each of the PCs received part of the information about what was going on, but none got the whole story. For that, they would have to talk to each other (shocking idea, I know).

Every single one of them tried to interpret the information they had received and then reported that interpretation, and not the raw information, to the others, and in every single case the interpretation was so wrong that the critical piece of their information were dismissed as irrelevant – and contradicted all the other interpretations, a sure sign that something is being reported incorrectly. I’ve seen it happen with one or two players at the same time, but this was the first time that all four decided to reject the facts in preference to their own theories. For some odd reason, they had trouble making sense of what was going on…. they sorted it out eventually, but there was quite a bit of confusion for a while.

A large part of the reason for this spate of interpretation was that I am only one person, and can only be at one place at a time. That necessitated giving the information sequentially, even though in-game it was supposedly happening simultaneously. That meant that they couldn’t discuss their experiences until each PC had his share of the information. That caused memory failure on the part of those who went first – so they fell victim to the “Eyewitness Unreliability” effect – despite my telling each of them to take notes, at the time. (They wrote down their interpretations, not the raw facts, and confused some of the facts in the process).

Many heads are not always better than one. If there had been a single PC, he would have been a single collection point for all the information, and would at least have had a fighting chance to get the right answers.

Accommodating The Compass Needle

If you are going to have a fur-ball instead of a nice neat plot point / info-dump, the plot itself needs to make room to accommodate the additional interactions. That requires more space for roleplay and less for plot complexity. I’ll come back to this point in a moment or two.
plot skeletons

Global Plot Thinking

One thought that I have found useful from time to time is to visualize your plot as being painted on the surface of a ball in little blocks that are connected to show the relationships between them. The rules of the game are to get from any arbitrary starting point to the Big Finish, touching each block at least once. You don’t have to read much topology to realize that it’s not always possible – see the Seven Bridges of Königsberg problem.

But we aren’t bound by the same restrictions as that classic problem; we can combine two boxes, split one into two, or add more as necessary. The key point, however, is this: that it doesn’t matter where we start, as long as we achieve a valid solution at the end. Most importantly, we don’t have to use all the available “bridges” in our plotting!

The diagram to the left shows an example of what I mean. There are many possible ways of configuring this adventure – I put together the two examples shown more-or-less at random. The first is roughly a capital N, and the second is a very distorted S with a couple of flourishes and twists.

But neither of these needs to be the originally intended layout – when I put the diagram together, I started with the end-point (16), provided three different “final pieces of the puzzle” (6, 7, and 15 in the top diagram), then a layer of three sub-scenes (5, 8, and 14) below that, another trio (4, 9, and 12), a pair (3 and 13), an initial trio (2, 10, and 11) and the starting point (1). Each of these groups represents what would originally have been a single stage of the plot, which had just seven parts.

Are there any ways of getting trapped? Yes, there are, but not too many of them. In terms of the basic plotline, we introduce the situation (using a flash-forward ‘teaser’ in diagram number 2), and give the player the choice of three directions in which to go. Whichever one he chooses then adds more possibilities to his choices of direction, while sometimes subtracting others (NPCs are busy elsewhere or whatever). Aside from the occasional nudge to prevent a blind alley, how the player finds his way from one encounter to the next is up to him.

I might go further, and define each of these not as a fixed event, but as a process – early or preliminary if they receive low numbers, “progressing” with middle numbers, “almost complete” with late numbers – and in that way ensure that the entire adventure (and the game world) is dynamic – from the player’s perspective. More likely, a few would be so treated, while others would represent fixed events – “Professor Plum’s body is discovered in the Dining Room”, that sort of thing.

This particular example has rather more connections than are usually the case (I got a little carried away, I admit) – but that only simplifies the task, in many respects, while increasing the danger of getting stuck in a dead-end with no obvious exit point.

The real point is that I can start the adventure almost anywhere except at one of those final three pieces of the puzzle, or the final confrontation. I would never attempt to run anything this complicated in a group situation; discussion of choices alone would waste half the day, if not more. But it’s completely reasonable as a structure for a single-player adventure.

It’s a paradox: When only one point of view rules, even more global thinking about plot structure than usual is needed. You have more freedom and more flexibility, and you can even pass most of that on to the player; but this is only possible if you have designed your adventure to accommodate it.

The Complexity Conflict

It’s been established that solo games proceed at a faster pace than group games – scratch that; a “MUCH faster pace”, but we’re still working through the ramifications, which turn so many established fundamentals of the usual game on their heads, producing complications, conundrums, and contradictions. The “Due North” phenomenon introduces yet another.

I’ve just recommended simpler plots to make room for additional roleplay resulting from splitting up roleplay encounters into multiple smaller game events that make it easier to keep those plots on track. Yet, the greater pace demands moreplot, not less.

These are, of course, contradictory requirements, and this contradiction is central to plotting for solo games. That’s why I’ve given it a fancy name – “The Complexity Conflict” – and parked it in a section of it’s very own.

Knocking down the Straw Man

The “Complexity Conflict” turns out to be a literary straw man, existing only because certain words have been interpreted to mean the same thing; a lingual relationship that might be true in a group game, but which is not true when it comes to solo games. Length doesn’t equal complexity; perhaps it equals complexity plus detail plus substance plus a few other things, or these have some other relationship to Length, but the point is that the two are not synonymous.

Breaking one piece of plot into multiple smaller pieces of plot (the “Due North” phenomenon) doesn’t increase overall playing length by very much, just the number of paths through the plot that the player can choose to take. Is that an increase in complexity? Yes, a bit, by virtue of the fact that each NPC delivering a piece of the puzzle should have his own personality and ambitions with which to ‘tint’ the information being delivered. But, by and large, there in fact is no contradiction.

- Room to Explore -

The solo game gives more room to explore ramifications and reactions and interesting by-products and side-alleys to the main plot. These all test the internal logic and depth of the GMs’ creativity, without adding to the overall complexity of the main plot. There’s room for NPCs to be more than information- and plot- delivery systems; they don’t have to get to the point, but can engage in repartee and exchanges of personality. Because parts of the plot will go faster, there is time to let it go slower than there is in a group game.

You have time, in other words, to personalize the game and play to your specific audience of one. This fascinating person, the PC, has just swooped into the lives of these NPCs, turning those lives – temporarily – upside down, upsetting established rhythms and routine work practices, dripping with melodrama and life. Explore that, it’s a rare opportunity.

Find out what interests your player – by trial and error, if necessary – and write to those subjects. Give your NPCs some additional color that lets them engage with the player as much as with the PC. The solo game gives you room to stretch, to exercise your capacities for depth, and character, and substance, and significance, and trivia, and fun, and creativity.

Play to the strengths of the one, and be respectful of the limitations of the one, and of the weaknesses that derive from the one being on his own.

The Hollywood Analogy

Here’s a useful way to think of the difference: Take the basic plot and turn it into a two hour movie of reasonable-to-unlimited budget – that’s the group game. Take the same basic plot and turn it into a 10-hour television miniseries of more modest budget but much more screen time, and that’s the solo game. The two, when filmed, are likely to take a similar time-frame – but the movie as filmed is full of bits that will get cut in the final edit. The miniseries will not only have a much tighter ratio of filmed-time to screen-time, it’s even probable that additional material will have to be created and inserted to fill the required number of screen hours. You can either make these vacuous time-fillers, or use them to explore everything in the plot more thoroughly.

The War Of The Worlds is a great example. When you get down to it, there are three groups of lives that produce significant characters within the plot – there’s the Narrator, and his relationships; there’s Pastor Nathaniel and his wife; and there’s the Infantryman. Were I to create a miniseries based on War Of The Worlds, I would spend almost the entire first episode describing normality for these people, building up suspense because everyone knows the invasion is coming. About two-thirds of the way through episode 1, the green flashes on the surface of Mars get noticed for the first time, and the Astronomer, Ogilvy, who was earlier interviewed by the protagonist (a newspaper/magazine writer) gets excited and contacts the protagonist. Only at the cliffhanger climax of the first episode does the first cylinder land.

A movie version, on the other hand, would want to get to this point within the first ten or fifteen minutes of screen time at most to leave room for all the action to come. I might even show the green flashes while the screen credits roll, ending them with the first landing, and the second, and the third – and then introducing the characters as they try to understand the significance of the event. The newspaperman tries to get the inside story, the Pastor gets to preach a sermon on the trickery of the devil disrupting their lives, the artilleryman gets put on standby for crowd control, and so on. No real buildup, just a full-throttle wham! between the eyes.

Do as I say, Not as I say

A bit of an afterthought, this. An awful lot of the advice on Campaign Mastery and almost all the advice you will see elsewhere will assume a group of players. Certainly, some of the best advice I’ve offered, such as the use of Partial NPCs, is designed to make room for inter-player and group dynamics, or to take advantage of those interactions. Unless a piece of advice explicitly specifies that it applies to single-player games, take it with an extra-large grain of salt, because it might not apply.

Take the article linked to, a moment ago. I still make extensive use of partial NPCs for my mono-player campaigns – but the reasons are completely different, and so is the application. I use this character-generation shortcut to have more time to invest in the aspects of the character that are likely to matter in roleplay. In other words, I use it to simplify game mechanics so that I can spend more time developing a rich characterization.

This is almost a complete repudiation of the basic principle offered in the article that describes the technique, which is concerned with using abstract qualities to replace complex skill and characterization. Its value as advice is therefore reduced under the one-player circumstance, but at the same time, it becomes possible to load still more value into it; defining the resulting simplified characters as the “core” of the character defines the development of that character in detail as shaping or refining facets of the “skin” around that unchanged core.

Think about a friend, someone that you’ve known for a long time and who you see regularly. The core of their personalities don’t change, but from week to week there will be variations. Some weeks, the friend may be distracted, or moody, or tired, or unwell, or in the mood to crack jokes. Some days they will be at their sharpest, and other times they may struggle with nuance. Some days, they will be chatty, and other days sullen. That’s the sort of subtle and rich characterization that you need to spend the time on, in a single-player campaign.

Adventure Length

While the overall trend is for adventures to go faster, implying the need for more content within the adventure, a number of the measures proposed in the previous section act to moderate that increase. What should also be clear is that there is far more scope for variability in a one-player game. There is no-one to cover for that player if he has an off-day, or if he just doesn’t get what the GM (speaking through NPCs) is driving at. At the same time, one flash of insight can shortcut great swathes of planned adventure because decision is synonymous with action (in a group game, the correct aphorism is usually “indecision is synonymous with inaction”).

Flexibility in adventure content is required so that you can pad or trim the adventure as needed, especially to accommodate greater losses to confusion and misdirection. And you can expect such confusion to appear from time to time, simply because there is only one mind trying to understand the circumstances within the game and formulate a response. Multi-track thinking is much more difficult for one player than it is for a group, who can – and will naturally tend to – divide and conquer.

Optional Complications

There are three tools that can be used to control the pace in addition to the measures described earlier. The first of these are Optional Complications.

There’s a great tendency to plot in a linear fashion (figure 1), simply because that’s simplest. Even added subplots (figure 2) tend to proceed in a linear fashion, ultimately becoming nothing more than two parallel plotlines (figure 3). There is a natural tendency, whenever we think of something that would complicate a problem, to instantly throw it into the mix as an additional challenge to be overcome. This is especially the case when playing off the cuff. Taking some of those ideas and setting them aside to be used only if necessary is a very effective technique for slowing the pace if it looks like you’re heading for a premature finish.

These can be anything from the enemy getting an unexpected ally or bonus, something needed by the PC is lost, stolen, or sabotaged, a key NPC is injured or taken hostage, or simply suffers a mechanical breakdown en route to wherever he is next supposed to be. Mistaken identities are always a good one. The list of possible complications is endless; pick something that fits the plotline and then put it on standby.

Figure 4 shows the effect of this, plus the other strategies discussed so far: Part A of the plot is divided into three separate scenes to allow for additional roleplay. After the first, the GM has the option of going to subplot part a or diverting via optional complication 1 and then moving into subplot part a. This allows for play starting earlier than expected, which may be rare but does happen. From subplot a, the GM can either go back and finish A, or – if he wants to, he can assume that the player will work out the rest of A and go directly to B1 and then B2. From B2, the plot goes to subplot part b1, at which point the GM can either move directly to b2 or he can introduce Optional Complication 2 along the way. From b2, the player has the option of proceeding with the main plot part C or resolving the complication (optional complication 3a), little knowing that the GM has another standby curve-ball in place (optional complication 3b). Either way, it’s then to main plot part C1, subplot part c1, main plot part C2, main plot part D1, subplot resolution c2, and finally main plot D2, which leads to the big finish of the adventure. But all the A parts are interchangeable, the B parts are interchangeable, the C parts are interchangeable, the D parts are interchangeable, and the b and c subplot parts are interchangeable, so the player still has control over his priorities and choices.

Optional Clarification Scenes

If you have optional complications to add complexity and playing time to the adventure, it only makes sense to have the opposite – optional clarification scenes, where someone can say nothing consequential and simply display their personality, or can make sense of something that is puzzling the player – or at least drop a hint or two. This is both a backstop to prevent the player becoming so confused that the adventure grinds to a halt, and a way to speed the adventure up if time is growing short.

Optional Adventure Shortcuts

Of course, that might not be enough if too much time has been lost early in the game session, if play started late, if the need to implement an optional clarification scene wasn’t recognized early enough, or if the adventure was too big or complicated to fit the available game time to start with. When that happens, it’s time to wheel out the big gun – a shortcut that will avoid the need for one or more scenes completely. These are not easy to create.

  • The worst approach is to hand-wave the need for a problem to be solved by the player. Such a deus-ex-machina has even stronger negative effects in a single player campaign than it does in a group game, sucking all the fun, all the challenge, and all the life out of the game.
  • The easiest solution is to have the villains underestimate not the PC but one of the PC’s allies, who – while not being able to solve the main problem – can simplify it, cutting away the complications, but that won’t work on every occasion.
  • A more generally-applicable solution is to treat even those complications that are not “optional” as though they were. This generally mandates not introducing them up front; instead, they need to be discovered as the adventure proceeds. This can require a complete rearrangement of the adventure – so it’s a lot less work to build this capacity into the adventure from the start.
Set a Kickoff deadline

When creating an adventure, I first produce a rough outline. I then estimate how long the final confrontation or climax of the adventure, plus any epilogue/ending sequences, are going to take to play – in fact, I estimate the minimum and maximum time they
will take. Working backwards from the desired end-of-play time gives me an absolute kickoff deadline for starting that confrontation (using the minimum play time) and a kick-off threshold before which the conclusion should not start.

Because you’re working with a single encounter and a defined amount of time allotted for after-climax roleplay, you can probably estimate these values fairly accurately. i round both estimates up to the nearest 5 or 10 minute mark, just to allow a little buffer – if you run a minute or two late, you can soak it up in abbreviated roleplay, and if you finish a minute or two early, that’s not a problem to cause undue concern.

Adventure milestones

I then break the rest of the adventure into more or less equal parts, in terms of game play. The exact number varies, depending on what seems natural – no more than eight, no less than 3, as a rough guide. Using the conclusion kickoff threshold and expected start time, I divide the playing time available into that number of segments, separated by milestones.

That gives me a deadline for each part of the adventure to end and the next one to start. Whatever the difference was between conclusion threshold and conclusion deadline, I halve it, round up to the next 5 minute mark, and apply the result as a plus-or-minus margin to those milestones, defining a window within which I want to hit the relevant milestone.

For example, let’s say that play is to start at PM and finish at 6PM, less 10 minutes for packing up. The adventure breaks naturally into three pieces plus conclusion, and I think that conclusion will take at least 25 minutes but not more than 40 minutes to play, plus about 7 minutes of roleplay afterwards – a five-minute scene and a 2-minute scene. I round these up from 32 to 35 and 47 to 50, respectively.

  • So the conclusion deadline is 5:50 PM – 35 = 5:15 PM; and the conclusion threshold is 5:50 PM – 50 = 5 PM.
  • The gap from PM to 5 PM is 4 hours exactly, so dividing that by three gives each part of the adventure a length of roughly 1 hour 20 minutes.
  • The difference between threshold and deadline is 15 minutes, and half this (7.5) rounded up to a five-minute mark is 10 minutes.

That means that the game play schedule is:

  • Start – PM
  • Milestone 1 – 2:20 PM ±10 = 2:10 to 2:40 PM
  • Milestone 2 – 3:40 PM ±10 = 3:30 to 3:50 PM
  • Revised Conclusion Threshold & Deadline – 5 PM ±10 = 4:50 to 5:10 PM
  • This means that the game should finish between 5:22 and 5:57 PM.
  • Assuming that the most likely finish in the middle of that range, 5:40 is estimated completion.
  • That means that I have 10 minutes up my sleeve for optional extra play along the way, or for distribution as breaks in play.

But the most important numbers here are the ±10 minutes and the 1 hour 20 minutes.

  • 1 hr 20 is the target length that I should write toward.
  • Optional Complications should add about 10 minutes (the ±value) each, and two or three should be prepared for each section of play.
  • Optional Clarification scenes should be about 10 minutes long (the ±value).
  • Optional Shortcuts should cut 20 minutes out of each section.

By combining these in various ways, I can add two hours to the adventure (complications + clarifications) or take an hour out of it – and the timing can be fine-tuned to within ten minutes of each milestone.

Plot Over-complication

Inevitably, you will produce an overcomplicated plot at some point. Most of the time, once you get used to the pace, all will be fine, but no-one is right all the time, especially in something so variable as the actual playing time of an adventure within a single-player campaign.

The milestones are your warning signs, as are the clarification scenes. If you reach an indicated milestone time with 20 minutes play remaining, you’re right on the edge of running out of time; if you have more than 20 minutes play remaining before achieving the scheduled milestone, you’re behind. Anything less can be accommodated.

  • Can you apply the shortcut for this part of the adventure?
  • If not, plan immediately to implement the shortcut for the next part of the adventure.

As soon as you need to pull a clarification scene out of your back pocket and put it into play, you’ve added playing time to the game, possibly quite a bit. The same two questions apply; it’s always better to come in under time and implement a complication or two to fine-tune the timing.

Of course, these are only general guidelines, because they presuppose that the adventure has been evenly divided. With people in the equation, that’s never something that can be taken for granted; the player might struggle in part one, but solve the conundrums of part two easily.

Eighty minutes – in fact, any span greater than about half an hour – is just too broad to be estimated with any certainty, and even that is problematic. For that reason, I tend to “unofficially” subdivide each section of the gameplay when it is of that sort of length. Half of eighty minutes is 40 minutes, so in the example above, after 40 minutes after achieving each milestone, I should be roughly half-way to the next one. If I’m not, I can start thinking about remedial action in advance of being certain that I will need it. Similarly, the 20 minutes and 1 hour marks should be roughly 1/4 and 3/4 respectively. Subdivide the spans between milestones as often as you have to.

It’s better to use a shortcut and follow that with a complication than it is to be forced to rush the end of the adventure. so come in short, use your safety nets when you have to, and pad with complications.

Plot Oversimplification

Equally inevitably, at some point you will oversimplify your planned plotline. Once again, having these remedial measures built into the plot in advance will come to the rescue. I find it helpful to grade my optional complications according to how difficult – in terms of playing time – I think the complication will make the plot. This lets me choose between them according to the severity of need.

“Nothing in my left hand”

The final essential tool in my kit is Misdirection. This should never be applied on an ad-hoc basis, but should be built into every adventure; it’s essential to verisimilitude and avoidance of overly-simple plots.

The first point is probably in need of some amplification. It doesn’t matter who your villain is, or how much credit he wants for what is occurring, or how big his ego is – if he doesn’t want to be stopped, he will do his best to either misdirect people about his identity, his motives, his goals, and/or his plans. How effective these deceptions will be is another question entirely. If your villain doesn’t employ misdirection in at least one of these areas, even expecting anyone with half a brain to see through it, he will not seem realistic.

“It is better to deceive and be discovered than never to have obfuscated at all” should be your mantra. Smarter villains will go further, and employ layers of deception like Russian dolls, one layer nested within another. And, what appears to be a loose end betraying one level of deception might well be a hook designed to snare the clever in the next layer of deceit.

These subjects of deception are not equal in effectiveness. Deep layers of concealment about identity tends to be nothing more than confusing – no more than two such layers of deception should be allowed, except in very unusual circumstances. Motives should be self-evident once the true identity and the the goals are known, but can be buried under as many layers as you like until then – they are of little consequence. Goals and plans, that’s where things get interesting. Predictability is your enemy here, and yet there should be a sense of inevitability about these once those layers (and those belonging to other aspects of the adventure) are penetrated, ideally at the eleventh hour. There’s not much worse than having to explain, after he’s been stopped, what the antagonist wanted and how he intended to get it. So concealment of these is fine provided that these camouflages will be exposed and the underlying truth made self-evident in the course of the adventure.

One of the best ways of going about this is the use of misdirection – appearing to have one goal or plan, when the goal and the plan for achieving it are something else entirely, and in which the activities in pursuit of the real goal can be buried beneath those that are required for the apparent goal.

Of course, there should be clues that the apparent goal is not the true goal – but these should come in two different grades: extremely subtle, and a bit more obvious (not much more, though). The first are provided in the course of play, the second saved until the time within the plot to discover the real plot begins to get close.

It’s too easy to make any single clue overly-obvious when you only rely on the one big tip-off; this opens the door to a flash of insight on the part of the player that may be premature. Therefore it’s preferable to accumulate a swarm of little details that don’t quite add up rather than having a more overt clue to the fact of the deception.

“…what’s this, in my Right?”

It’s also essential that facial expression and body language on the part of the GM don’t give the game away. I have one simple technique for achieving this: give the antagonist two goals and two plans, and a way that each can give the NPC success in attaining his ultimate goal. One of these will be overt, and the other covert; if the player detects the covert plan through anomalies in the pursuit of the overt plan, and begins to work to overcome the covert plan, assume that this is a double-bluff and the overt plan was the real plan all along – unless you can think of s third plan, one perhaps that can only succeed if the PC is deceived into working to counter the second.

By not deciding which is the real objective until the final confrontation, you can’t give the game away. You can’t reveal what you don’t know yourself.

The Persuasion Effect

It’s time to introduce a new term into the discussion: Clarity. When people say they are aiming for simple plotlines, what they really mean – most of the time – is that they want their plots to have clarity.

While it’s true that too much complexity can obscure the essential details that provide clarity, the two are not necessarily mutually contradictory. This is true to some extent in group games, but the combination of multiple fallible memories and the persuasion effect limit the tolerance for complexity.

“The Persuasion Effect?” I can hear people saying. “What’s that?”

When you have a group of people who are unsure of exactly what they saw or heard, such as a group of witnesses, a sufficiently sure opinion expressed with conviction can persuade the others that they saw a detail that was never there, or that they saw something that they didn’t. I don’t know what the real term for the phenomenon is, but I refer to it as the Persuasion Effect.

I saw it in a demonstration of witness fallibility that was part of a TV show. The question was asked, “What color was the woman’s coat”, and a planted stooge amongst the witnesses responded with great certainty that it was red. Several of the jury agreed, while another planted witness said that it was white. The others couldn’t remember what the color was. In actual fact, the woman had not been wearing a coat at all, but that was the one fact that they all agreed on – after this question was asked.

The same thing happens in a group RPG that has a fair amount of complexity. One or two players misplace or get confused about something, another reports what they thought happened, leaving out the details that don’t fit their explanation, and convinces the others about something that never happened at all, because he has assumed that it had happened and then forgotten that it was an assumption. Instead of reporting the facts they received, they report their impression, explanation, or interpretation as fact.

That doesn’t happen in single player games – not as often, anyway. The player will still occasionally forget what they were told or what they saw in favor of their explanation, impression, or interpretation, but there’s no-one to persuade them of anything except the voices in their own heads.

The Clarity Minefield

Why is the Persuasion Effect important? Because, as GMs, we learn ways of overcoming it, or at least minimizing it, through our plot designs. And when you write an adventure for a solo game, you throw your weight against that door through force of habit, only to discover that it wasn’t closed in the first place. In other words, in the quest for clarity, we either overdo it and oversimplify, or work so hard to avoid doing so that we over-complicate things.

The absence of the Persuasion Effect and the lack of distraction of the one player by another permits greater complexity in your plots than you are used to – so long as you retain clarity – but trying to achieve clarity can lead to oversimplification. A little bit too much one way and you begin to bore your player, a little bit to far in the other, and you can confuse him. This is the Clarity Minefield.

Fortunately, the same mechanisms introduced to control game pace also let you control complexity and clarity. Optional complications and as-necessary optional Clarification Scenes can do the job. But that’s actually a problem, because you can’t separate the two effects. Adding a complication will increase complexity, and playing time. Using a clarification scene will use playing time. You can easily sacrifice game pace control for clarity; the result is a delicate ongoing balancing act.

The other solution is to ensure clarity exists during the creation of the adventure, saving troubleshooting for when you need it. There are four simple criteria that I employ to achieve this.

  1. Each scene of the adventure must be capable of description with a single sentence, with no compound or complex structure. If you aren’t sure of what a compound or complex sentence is, have a read of this wikipedia page, but in a nutshell, it means no “and”s, “but”s, “or”s, or conditions.
  2. That sentence should make sense in association with those before and after it in the planned plot sequence, joining together to tell a brutally simple version of the story.
  3. Each such sentence should make a vital contribution to the plot. Taking it out must cause a breakdown in the logic of the plotline, a character doing things without explanation or justification within the adventure.
  4. Finally, there must be no additional information required in order to understand the story; it must be self-contained.

One or two violations of these criteria are fine; three or four are cause for concern; five or six are becoming alarming; seven or more and the adventure should be redesigned to improve its score.

That doesn’t sound so hard, does it? But for every point at which a logical conclusion is required of the PC in order for the adventure to proceed, or at which he has to analyze something that he has seen but understood only partially, if at all, I score two points extra. So it only takes a couple of such critical points in the adventure, one or two opportunities for confusion, and a reasonably clear adventure (three points) becomes one in need of a redesign.

You can’t do away with all these critical points; they are the opportunities for the player to make a significant difference in the adventure, you could even say they were the whole reason for the adventure, with everything else providing context. The only solution is to aim for a better score from the four criteria.

It’s called the Clarity Minefield because one misstep and the whole adventure could blow up in your face. Getting this part of the adventure design right is one of the most important aspects of the creative process.

Script Divergence

The “Due North” phenomenon can chew up lots of extra time as the player chases dead ends. It’s an iron-clad certainty that he will diverge from the script at some point! Manipulate the time lost to such events to pad or shorten adventures, and make the phenomenon work to your advantage. Think of these as player-introduced optional complications!

Of course, if the digression goes on for too long, or the player is about to perform an action that will irrevocably preclude completing the adventure, you might want to consider intervening. Remember that while a PC death in a group situation can be ruinous to a campaign, you can usually find some way around the consequences; in a single-player campaign, though, the death of the solitary PC is usually nothing short of cataclysmic to the campaign.

Trimming The Fat for a faster resolution

One thing that you definitely don’t want to do in a group adventure is to slam on the brakes just as things are approaching a climax. But, bad though this is, it pales in comparison to the level of anticlimax that results when you make this mistake in a solo game. In the group game, this is like slamming the brakes on in a vehicle big enough to carry the entire group, with you in the driver’s seat. A solo game, in comparison, is a two-seater sports car. It not only travels faster, it feels natural for it to do so, and its brakes are even more effective.

Everything that can be removed from that final run at a climax has to excised and moved to somewhere else in the plot. Your plotline at the point of resolution should have been reduced to the minimum possible story. Loose ends should either have been wrapped up already, or can dangle until after the climax – if they can’t, rewrite things until they can.

Secret shortcuts to success

Although I’ve rarely had to use one, I usually prepare a secret shortcut to success when its’ critical. Success, in this case, is the bare minimum outcome that lets the campaign proceed, which usually sets the bar a lot lower than people initially think. This doesn’t have to be the equivalent of the bacteriological vulnerability that finally ended the Martian invasion in War Of The Worlds – unless they had plans to overcome the problem by, say, grafting human DNA into their own genetic code. If the PCs fail as badly as the protagonist did in that book, I would have no compunctions about letting the Martians – almost – win. A desperate hope, quickly dashed unless taken advantage of immediately and in an organized way. Victory has to be heroic or its’ not going to be satisfying.

Quite often, the secret shortcut that I provide will be almost as bad as total defeat – the keyword is “almost”. It usually hits from a completely unexpected direction, and it can even qualify as a deus-ex-machina (though I have usually dropped a single hint early on in the adventure to justify it – while distracting attention with something flashy). It will also usually rely on a domino effect of some sort. The goal isn’t to win the adventure for an undeserving PC, it’s to give the player a chance to extricate some sort of solution out of the mess that he’s made.

Serendipity is your Secret Weapon

To that end, I employ Serendipity as a secret weapon. While totally unacceptable as a means of solving the main plot, serendipity as a means to giving an advantage to an ally who, on his own, cannot hope to achieve victory, but can sufficiently change the situation to give the PC an 11th-hour chance is quite acceptable.

Those are the secrets of the technique: never affect the PC or the enemy directly, always affect an ally; and the more distance you can put between cause and effect, the better, provided that each link in the cause-and-effect sequence beyond that first lucky break can be perceived as inevitable, given the circumstances and personalities involved.

I would never employ this technique (as described) in a group campaign; there are more players there to think of things, so there is less justification for the GM pulling strings. But a solo campaign is a different story; this is just one of many differences.

Additional Padding with Idle Conversation

This should seem obvious, but there are a couple of wrinkles to take note of.

  • With only one PC to focus on, minor interactions with that character become more important.
  • Top-and-tail encounters and other plot developments with casual conversation.
  • Use idle conversations that you would not normally roleplay as a way to soak up extra time,

Typical adventure length

I guess I can’t dodge the question any longer; this is the final section on the subject of adventure-level solo-player games. So, how much game should you prep?

Even with all the ways of filling up corners and manipulating pace, the solo game still runs at a pace and intensity that simply can’t be believed if you haven’t experienced it before. I once formulated the expression

P(Np) = P(Np-1) / [ 2.25^(Np-1) ]

in an attempt to quantify just how much adding an extra player slowed a game, but I was never completely confident of the analysis. I knew that it was an exponential effect, increasing with each additional player, and that going from two to four players more than halved the pace of play.

But going from N players to 1 player is a special case; so many things change, and you have access to plotting tools that you are normally not able to use in a group game. So I doubt this even holds true in the case of Np=1.

Instead, I rely on my experience, and the tools I’ve described in this article, and a simple rule of thumb: prepare between 125 and 300% as much game as you usually would for the amount of time spend playing with a group. The larger the group being used as a comparison basis, the closer to the high end of that range you want to be. Something like: 2 players = 125-150%; 3 players, 150-175%; 4 players, 175-200%; 5 players 200-250%; 6 players, 250%-300%; 7 or more, 300%.

It’s impossible to be more accurate; there are too many levels of compression that alter how much gameplay there is to each page of adventure plan.

For the first game session or two, both you and the player will be getting used to everything, so don’t expect to need the full amount at first. You will have time to get your act in gear. And that’s a very good thing – because you’re going to need it!

When you string more than one adventure together with the same PCs – or PC in this case – you’re starting to talk about campaigns. And, believe it or not, there’s almost as much to discuss at this topmost level of RPG architecture – when you’re comparing group and solo games, that is…

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New Beginnings: Phase 1: Inspiration

These images will all make sense in the end...

These images will all make sense in the end…

There are times when we all have to make a fresh start. This series is going to examine the process in detail.

Finding Inspiration

You need to start with an idea. While this might be an original concept, many people derive inspiration from existing sources.

Depending on what that source is, the idea may be more or less easily adapted to serve in a roleplaying setting. Each source has its’ own quirks and peculiarities, though some may share their particular brand of headache in common with other sources. This article is going to look at where you can get your ideas from, and what to watch out for, before examining the basic manipulation of those ideas.


This is the obvious first choice for me, because I find it so easy to come up with ideas; it’s always more about which ones I reject, as John West used to say in their advertising. There are two big problems with coming up with your own ideas: the first is that less of the work has been done for you (read: ‘none’), and you will have to make up the shortfall; and the second is that the increased workload can lead to a greater risk of errors, flawed reasoning, and falling in love with your own cleverness. But there are compensations: everything can be more original, with less baggage, and it can be customized to fit the needs of you and your players far more comprehensively. Every other solution is at least partially compromised in these areas. Coming up with your own ideas from scratch is the standard against which all other sources should be measured. All these are favorite topics of discussion here at Campaign Mastery, and will continue to be so into the future, so I don’t think there’s much more to be said in this article on the subject.

Rules Mechanic

There are three ways that a rules mechanic can serve as inspiration. The first is that you can select a rules mechanic that you feel was underutilized or under-emphasized in the previous campaign, but that’s something that should be properly dealt with under “reaction” a couple of items down. That leaves two alternatives: chosen-system inspiration and imported-system inspiration.

Chosen-system inspiration

Get out your rulebooks and game supplements for the game system that you intend to use, crack one of them (chosen randomly) open to a random page, and base your campaign around whatever ideas are inspired by the content on that page. Or, if none of it excites you, grab a different page from a different product. This works by taking the content as a source of ideas but shearing it of context, enabling a deconstruction and subsequent reconstruction into something new.

A long time ago, I came up with an ongoing series of articles to be used as filler when deadlines were looming in which I was going to do just that – grab a page or two from a random games supplement and see what ideas I could come up with, derived from it. I’ve still got that series tucked away in the back of my pocket, never having had to use it – I don’t even remember what it was going to be called now, though I seem to recall it was something clever.

The principle problems that come with this approach is that the ideas may not be all that brilliant. They may not go far enough, they may not be interesting enough, and there may be expectations issues on the part of players who know only what the context was in the original material. Used as a way to kick-start your own thinking, however, it can be brilliant.

By way of example, let me pull out a supplement that I inherited, but have never had time to read: the Eberron Explorer’s Handbook by David Noonan, Frank Brunner, and Rich Burlew. Closing my eyes, I open it to a random page – in this case, pages 30-31. What do we have? There’s a partial set of rules about Airships, there’s a partial example Airship, and there’s a magic item, the “Life Ring”. So ideas are either going to be derived from the concept of Airships, or from this magic item.

Airships first. Off the top of my head (and using magic as necessary to replace technology):

  • Airships can be commonly used as premium freight transports, avoiding the dangers of highwaymen.
  • Orcs were the equivalent of Mongol Hordes a couple of centuries ago, game time, separated from civilization by a range of mountains considered impassable. In the 200 years since, they have been absorbed into another civilization, discovered paper, movable type, gunpowder (explosives and rockets) – and airships, powered by air elementals. Now, here they come again… This idea turns on it’s head the established perception of Orcs as uncouth and uncivilized by making them more advanced than the “civilized” world in many respects. But they are still Orcs…
  • If breathable air extends all the way up to infinity, airships enable travel – and trade – between different worlds. A variant Spelljammer campaign idea.
  • If breathable air doesn’t go all the way up, what might it give way to besides space? Why not the Ether, i.e. the Ethereal Plane? Not the thin, almost inconsequential ether that exists at ground level, but thick stuff that you can (metaphorically) sink your teeth into. Filling your airship gasbags with this Ether creates an Ethereal Airship that permits travel, and trade, and diplomatic relations, between different planes of existence – including the Nine Hells and various forms of the Afterlife. And that, in turn, means that fundamental assumptions about the nature of significant aspects of reality would need drastic rethinking – questions like Life, and Death, and Ghosts and Undeath. Though, given the long association between the Astral Plane and concepts of Astral Travel, perhaps it would make a better choice – even if “Astral Airship” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.

The Ring, next. There are two choices: make a campaign in which the magic item, as written, is central to the plot, or throw away everything but some key part of the idea (like the name) and give the item a whole new meaning. Looking at the description of the item, it’s essentially a life-preserver for an airship – not a lot of inspiration there. But taking just the name, “Life Ring”, and stripping it of that meaning and context, provides far more fertile ground for inspiration – anything from a ring that is the source of all life (and has just been captured by an enemy) through to a ring that extracts the passage of time from the wearer and passes it on to whoever is forced to wear its twin (shades of Dorian Gray. But, having demonstrated the principle above, I don’t feel the need to go into details; suffice it to say that about half-a-dozen ideas came to me almost right away.

Imported-system inspiration

But, if you’re going to strip something of context and build something new around a deconstructed reinterpretation, why not go the whole hog and pull out a source of inspiration that is completely unrelated to the campaign that you intend to run? I’ve grabbed the core gamebook for the Star Trek The Next Generation Roleplaying Game (another inherited item) and randomly opened it to pages 188-189. What inspiration for a fantasy game can I find?

  • There’s part of a description of the Tal-Shiar, the Romulan intelligence service – that idea can be useful. Perhaps applied to the Drow?
  • There’s a description of Artaline-IV and the Artalines, a symbiotic species that is part plant and part animal; we have a description of their society, and the suggestion that they are on the fringes of at least two much larger societies (the Federation and the Romulans). Translating this into a minor kingdom caught between two great empires – one friendly and one not – that struggles to maintain its independence and achieve the respect of their neighbors while preserving the peace – could make for a very interesting campaign. Perhaps stirring in some elements of Harry Harrison’s “Planet of The Damned” regarding symbiosis, but making it more benign. This could serve to separate and distinguish the inhabitants of this Kingdom from those of the surrounding Empires.
  • There’s a writeup on “Collapsar 49″, a dead star that gives off dangerous radiation and possesses a gravity well that tends to drag unwary ships into the star. So… a kingdom where everyone died, that contains, or is rumored to contain, some great secret that keeps dragging people into it. Or perhaps it possesses some sort of siren-like ability. Anyone who attempts to settle there, dies. Everyone is convinced that some terrible weapon is responsible, and that if they can master it, all would be forced to bend the knee…
  • There’s a writeup on the Palmas, an agrarian caste society near the Romulan Borders. The writeup here does nothing for me; the race in question was created for a separate game supplement. (Kudos to the game designers for including it in their core material reference section, though).
  • There’s part of a description of Psellus III, which used to be part of the Romulan Empire but which was left on the Federation Side of the border with the establishment of the Neutral Zone. Before they left, the Romulans blew up everything worthwhile, including the bulk of the locals’ industrial capacity. They have now started to rebuild and recover. There are some intriguing ideas here. A province that fell into the hands of the enemy in a peace settlement? That sort of thing happens all the time, just look at how WWII reshaped the borders within Europe. If we do away with the act of spite and have the province devastated as a scorched earth policy during the retreat of the Empire they used to be part of in order to buy time, local support for their former political relationship could arguably remain high, especially if they were abandoned by a friendly, democratically-aligned Society for one that was repressive or exploitative in one or more ways. Now, the Government is trying to, and achieving some success in, rebuilding. Some subversive factions want to act as spies for their former Political Affiliation; others want to reignite the war in hopes of rejoining their former affiliation; others want peace at any cost; and still others are resentful of having been abandoned and have become wholehearted supporters of the new regime. And some want independence, and not to be the plaything of others. And all of them are capable of, and intend to, pursue radical means of achieving their agendas. Trying to hold the whole thing together are an elite group of PCs – each of whom privately sympathizes with at least one of the factions…
  • Finally, there’s a writeup of a Nebula-class Starship. This is designated a Cruiser, and that brings to mind the original PC computer game, Sid Meier’s Civilization, in which the Cruiser is one of the “Ultimate weapons” of naval warfare, the other being the Aircraft Carrier. So what would happen if some remote Kingdom discovered and restored such a vessel from a long-forgotten past, and tried to use it to conquer the world?

To be honest, the last idea is not my favorite amongst those I’ve up with. I like the Psellus-III multi-faction society idea, because there are lots of groups for the PCs to interact with and the prospect of them having a decisive impact on the game. A sort of Superspy-in-Wizards-Robes idea.

Advantages and Weaknesses

These two variations serve well as sparks to get your creative juices flowing. The first, being specific to the genre that you want, will be more easily adapted; the second offers far wider scope, and is more likely to produce something original, but will require more work to translate genre-incompatible elements.


Another obvious solution is to simply run a sequel to a campaign that worked and was popular with the players. This has the advantage of having lots of time and effort invested in it already, and it suffers from the disadvantage of having lots of time and effort invested in it already. It may save time up front, but it can stifle creativity because so much has already been done. If this avenue suits, I refer you to my two-part series on sequel campaigns, “Been There, Done That, Doing It Again”: Part One, Plot Seeds, is about generating ideas, and Part Two, Sprouts & Saplings, is about developing them.


The fourth major source of inspiration is to look at what was important in the last game, and do the exact opposite. If there was a part of the world or the game system that was underutilized, make it the central plank of the new campaign. When the Rings Of Time campaign was still running, before the untimely death of Steven Tunicliff, one of the two key players, I started generating a campaign to follow it. Rings Of Time was about global politics and multi-planar magic and the role of the Gods and big-ticket themes. The “Shadow-world” campaign was going to be about two people wanting to become “The Ultimate Thief”, but having very different ideas about what that honorific would describe. It was going to be all about small scale interactions, the seductive dangers of Magic as a way of doing things (and the need to indulge in it just to remain competitive), and about the price of ambition. Along the way, the pair would be caught in the periphery of major events, but always the focus was going to be on the two PCs – who would be allies half the time and rivals the other half, repeatedly forced together by the needs of survival and ambition. Some of the thinking behind this campaign also made its way into the Shards Of Divinity campaign, where it formed a minor (but important) textural element.

The big problem that this source of ideas faces is that there might be a very good reason why “X” was not the center of attention. Maybe the players aren’t interested in doing that? Maybe the GM is not as inspired by it? Maybe the game mechanics involved are clunky, or flawed? The big advantage is that there is an automatic contrast between the new campaign and the last, and that means that you will be developing a part of your game that hasn’t had a lot of its ideas tapped yet. If your old campaign was suffering from any sort of Burnout, this may very well be the best answer, an anodyne to the wounds of excess.


If you’re a smart GM, from the moment you start involving players in a campaign, you are taking note of all the things that they say they wanted to do but weren’t able to, and all the things that particularly interested them at the time. Anything that a player would like to be able to do in the current campaign but can’t is something for you to at least consider delivering in the next one. Listen to your players, both compliments and complaints, wishes and winces.


Take on board various inspirational messages and quotes, and look for ways to make them the foundation of your campaign. An early draft of Fumanor was built on the concept of the reluctant messiah, prepared all his life (without knowing it) to fulfill a prophecy that he doesn’t particularly like or want to be involved with, inspired by the suggestion that “The most worthwhile lasting changes are made by those who don’t want to make them” – implying that the desire to achieve something gives the individual an agenda, which in turn devalues the longevity and value of their efforts. It’s not a philosophy that I wholly subscribe to, but the whole point of the campaign at that time was to explore the question.

And that’s the key – choose something that seems to have a grain of truth, but which is not wholly supportable or universally applicable, because that creates a philosophic conflict that can form the foundation of the campaign. Individual expression vs Social Conformity, for example: Instant conflict, instant story potential.

Be wary of the superficial, of the “McNuggets Of Wisdom” as The West Wing once phrased it (if memory serves me correctly). These have the virtue of accessibility but usually lack the depth necessary for meaningful impact on the campaign. The harder you have to think about something to fully extract its value, the more ways there will be for it to manifest within the campaign, and hence the more suitable it will be to serve as foundation.

Which brings me to the other pitfall: these are, of necessity, abstract thoughts. Not everyone excels at finding ways to manifest them into practical nuts and bolts; it’s easy for a campaign to become wishy-washy if this is imperfectly done. A good way to find out if this is one of your abilities (and to get some practice in) is to take some nasty group in your existing campaign and find a way for them to reflect some virtuous philosophical statement, or vice-versa. For example, “a ruthless dictatorship crushes individual freedoms – including the freedom to act corruptly.” Or, “The price of choice is the danger of choosing poorly.” “I hate what you are saying and disagree passionately with every word you utter – but will defend with my life your right to say them, because that right also gives me the right to say what I want to say.”

Art & Music

These can be great sources of inspiration, if used properly – something very few people do. They key to both is not to take them literally, but instead to focus on what they make you feel, what thoughts they inspire when reduced to abstracted principles. One of my favorite works, in terms of inspiration, is Salvador Dali’s “The Persistence Of Memory” with it’s melting clocks. I have deliberately linked to the image and not to the discussion page at Wikipedia about it because I want to strip it of context, including what the artist was trying to express, and what the critics thought he might have been inspired by, and so on.

  • “Time is fluid.” At times, it rushes past us, and before we know it, the moment is gone. At times it crawls languidly, and moments seem to last forever.
  • Can time be dammed? Made to do work? Can it be placed under pressure? Can it freeze, or evaporate? Can it be stretched? Will it snap back? Does it flow, and can the course of that flow be changed? Can you drink time, consume time, bathe in time, wallow in it?
  • “Time changing shape on the ledge” reminds me of the dichotomy between how distant the remote past of our lifetimes seems to be, and yet how close events can sometimes seem.
  • I am always reminded by this work, even though the connection is ephemeral at best, that there is no such thing as time; what humans perceive and measure as time is the pace of change in something. That change might be physical, chemical, electrical, mechanical, optical, or audible. A digital watch or clock doesn’t measure time; it counts oscillations in a crystal or an electrical circuit. The fact that we have agreed that so many such vibrations are equated to a fixed interval of time is self-defeating, in terms of defining time itself; because we you first need the concept that each such vibration requires a fixed interval of time in which to occur.
  • Awareness of Time is an emergent property of consciousness, and it is entirely plausible that a “higher order of consciousness” would view time in an entirely different way.
  • The measurement of time requires a perfect measurement of length (wavelength, to be more precise, in the most accurate clocks that we know how to build) – and yet, quantum mechanics tells us that this is impossible, there is always an uncertainty factor, a limit to resolution.
  • “Time is an illusion, Lunchtime doubly so.” All we ever perceive is “now”. The past is comprised of memories of past “Nows” and the future, the anticipation of “Nows” to come. The fact that the current now seems to connect to the “now” that was a moment ago may be mere illusion; the universe may have been destroyed and re-created a billion billion times in between. It doesn’t matter if we can’t perceive it happening.
  • Because we can’t perceive time directly – it might not even exist, in that sense – we are reduced to speaking of it in metaphor and analogy and through symbolism, through abstract thought and hard numbers that have meaning only because we have defined a common meaning for them to have.
  • Are experiences like waves rippling across the surface of time, traveling with the speed of communications? Has the pace of the modern world really quickened – or are we simply more aware of the events that mark it? Ten years seems like a long time – yet, the turn of the millennium doesn’t really seem that far past, and the turn of the century (even though it’s the same thing) seems to be even closer – at least to me. Your subjective perception might be different. But that brings me back to where I started, so this seems a good point to jump off this sleigh-ride.

I can get lost in such abstract trains of thought for hours, musing on the symbology and meaning of this particular image. And any one thought can then manifest itself as the core of a campaign premise.

In one of David & Leigh Eddings’ novels, there is a form of invisibility created by a Troll-god – he breaks off a portion of each moment between perceptions like the frames in a reel of movie film, and hides his followers within that smaller piece, unnoticed, untouchable, and undamaged by environments that would otherwise kill them. Perhaps this space “between frames” is where Lovecraft’s monsters dwell, in the fringes of reality as the PCs know it. What else might lurk there? I could easily build a campaign around a Wizard who develops the ability to move himself – and others – into the “frame” and exploits that for the military advantage of his realm, or his personal domain, little realizing that he is opening the door to horrors unimagined. Or perhaps he knows, full well, and has taken precautions – but, in the first adventure, the PCs steal the knowledge in order to defend their realm from his armies, without this key knowledge. Six months later, and the realm is ready to put it to the test…

Music differs from a visual image in that any given event is transitory, like a single thread in a tapestry, and it is from the accumulation of many such moments that a broader image appears. In fact, that’s one of my favorite metaphors for the entire concept of a campaign – isolated events that accumulate to form a bigger picture. It follows that a piece of music can serve as inspiration for a campaign, simply by treating the sounds of the current passage as a metaphor for campaign events and translating that metaphor. The results can be far more dynamic than basing your inspiration on a still image. In fact, the two can be complimentary – choose an image, or group of images, of sufficient symbolic depth, and explore it/them through music. Now the music is martial, now wistful, now spiritual, now brash (but with a slightly discordant undercurrent of threat), now uplifting… relating each of these emotional impressions to different stages of the campaign to come gives a war, a tragedy, a spiritual experience, an overconfidence perhaps stemming from a perceived victory that is not as complete as it seems, and then a final victory over something.

Pick a piece of music – a whole album, in all likelihood – and use it as the soundtrack to your campaign (it’s easier if it’s instrumental). But beware of choosing something that’s iconic and instantly recognizable, like the Star Wars main theme, unless you can make that work to your advantage – much trickier to do. Obscurity is your friend!

Lyrics & Poetry

Poetry, and especially song lyrics, are something of a halfway-house between Music and Literature in terms of sources of inspiration. They combine the emotive capacity of the former with the narrative elements of the latter – but necessarily compromise the narrative in favor of the emotion. When I was starting out in RPGs, the two big tickets were Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway To Heaven” and Uriah Heep’s “Demons And Wizards”, but there’s been a whole heap since then.

Where these fail, you can extract inspiration from song titles, dissociating them from the content and context of the lyrics, as I showed back in Melodies & Rests: ‘Euphoria’ by Def Leppard, another of those prototype “open series” that didn’t seem to really take off, and that was rather more work than I was expecting at the time, so it has never reappeared. These are often as useful, if not more useful, than the lyrical content.

Genre Fiction

One of the obvious sources of ideas, but there are several notes of caution to be sounded. The first is that the choices and behavior of the PCs will probably be completely different to the actions in the source novel – so don’t expect to be able to extract an entire plot and have it be viable. The second is that by restricting your selection to genre-specific sources, you run the risk of whatever you come up with being a mere rehash of something that’s been done to death. In any event, you are trading ease of adaption for confinement of inspiration.

Sometimes there’s more than enough inspiration to go around in the source material – No-one has yet plumbed the entire depth of The Lord Of The Rings (and associated writings like the Silmarillion) and I doubt they ever will. Once again, though, the ubiquity makes it hard to be original.

Related-Genre Fiction

The term “related-genre” is a weak compromise, because I simply couldn’t think of a better one. For example, Fantasy as a genre has fantastic elements, and so does Science Fiction, so the two are reasonably related. So do comic books, for that matter. On this basis, Stephen King and co are in (so far as Fantasy are concerned), but John Grisham is out, and so is most (if not all) Tom Clancy.

On the other hand, if the target genre was Pulp, selected Grisham and Clancy might well be in, but Tolkien may be a bridge too far. By far the most osmotic genre is Superhero, because it can steal from just about anywhere – it is the “English language” of genres. Some genres may suit a particular campaign better than others, but that’s about as far as it goes; I have no problem having an encounter between Borg and Daleks in the Underdark, so long as the internal logic holds together. Aliens at the OK Corral? Aside from not liking Westerns very much, I don’t have a problem with that, either. I can even seize and work with Western Tropes without difficulty. And some westerns are at least tolerable, if not favorites – Back To The Future III, Evil Roy Slade, Tremors – and the latter two go beyond tolerance into entertainment for me!

The key is to have a level of the fantastic – however scientifically plausible it might be – that is tolerable within the target genre, facilitating a translation from one setting to another.

The key to turning science into magic is to shuck explanations and replace with flavor, while making the “apparent mechanics” compatible with those within the game system. Instead of refracting a laser beam, you might need a fun-house mirror to serve as an arcane focus, for example. The key to turning magic into science is to strip most of the flavor out and replace it with a pseudo-scientific explanation resting on a foundation of invented jargon – if no-one knows what a “Violic Shield” is, no-one else can say what it can and can’t do – and imposing limitations and interactions on the result. And, above all keeping it consistent. Just because your Laser Rifle has become a “deadly ray” spell doesn’t mean that it should be inconsistent in Spell level, range, duration, etc, relative to all the other spells in the rulebook.

Non-Genre Fiction

Beyond the related-genre works you have the vast world of non-genre fiction. Some of this may be directly relatable to your campaign, for example political thrillers can often be translated relatively simply, simply by compressing everything down into a situation to be encountered by the PCs, or that is at the heart of the campaign. Sometimes, it doesn’t work that simply, and you have to abstract your source material in order to strip them of the absence of the fantastic. And that’s often the key – remembering that your PCs will have capabilities far beyond those of the source material’s participants.

Once again, be very careful not to expect a particular reaction from the players, they will almost certainly react differently. At one point I attempted to convert a political/spy thriller (“The President’s Plane Is Missing”), but the players tumbled to the solution of the central mystery that was supposed to drive the whole plot almost immediately. I had to improvise a very different plot, and it was never as satisfying as the original would have been.


While not every factoid lends itself to being central to a campaign, there is enough value in non-fiction that it should always be a go-to source. Anything from books on political structures to a book like “How The States Got Their Shapes” can be brilliant source material.

For example, let’s pick a book that very few would consider as an RPG sourcebook, “Grand Prix 1988″ by Nigel Roebuck and John Townsend. This book tells the story of the struggle between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost for the 1988 World Driver’s Championship in Formula 1. To translate that into a fantasy campaign, I need simply recast the contest from a sporting one into some other field of endeavor, for example, Politics. The personalities of the two protagonists then translate directly into the differences between two men vying against each other for political supremacy. The structure of the race team, especially the personalities of it’s owners and team bosses, then become the person they are trying to influence and the rest of the court, while the other drivers become the politicians and lesser nobility who might dream of the ultimate power, but will have to settle for a lesser degree of accomplishment – but who can nevertheless prove instrumental in the outcome. Incidents in the course of the season then get translated into political equivalents that will produce the same reactions on the parts of the protagonists. All that you need to do is figure out where this initial foundation will go, plot-wise, and where the PCs will fit in.

Fact (Anecdote/Transposition)

In a similar vein are isolated facts. These can be used in two different ways, depending on their nature; this section will look at the first, which deals with events. For example, you might decide to translate the Boxer Rebellion into the foundation for an RPG campaign. This approach essentially takes the facts and transposes them into an appropriate milieu, be it fantasy, sci-fi, or whatever. Or perhaps the Battle Of Britain (which lends itself to space opera very readily), or the Desert Campaigns of World War II with their myriad of deception and counter-deception.

Fact (Metaphor/Symbolic)

Even more range is available with this approach, because it permits a more diverse selection of source material. Again, some items work better than others.

For example, the duck-billed platypus captures insects not by seeing them, but by sensing minute changes in the electrical field within their “beaks”, according to something I read today. Not much value there, except perhaps for doing something unusual with Dwarves and their mining abilities.

But consider; The stems of one type of wild Iris are not strong enough to support more than one blossom at a time. A flower blooms each morning, then dies that night to make room for the next. Taken as a metaphor for the entire game world, the Prime Material Plane of a D&D / Pathfinder game, you quickly derive some very interesting ideas:

  • the end of the world is supposedly nigh. The barriers that keep the elemental planes separate are breaking down, and soon they will collapse completely, destroying the center of existence (so far as the PCs are concerned). Mutually incompatible, they will be ejected from the heaving mass of energy and matter that results, leaving trails of themselves to crash back together and – eventually – to form a new stable configuration, i.e. a new Prime Material Plane. The Sages and Wizards of the world have detected this; some are cooperating in a vast conspiracy to save what they consider worthwhile, and will stop at nothing to succeed. Others have discovered the same fate, but – lacking the philanthropic egos of the conspirators – have simply given themselves over to the worst forms of debauchery.
  • In part one of the campaign, the PCs stumble across this conspiracy, only slowly coming to realize how widespread it is, and how ruthless it is, but NOT what their purpose is; the participants know that the truth would create panic, and anarchy, and only hinder their efforts. The PCs know too much, and are hunted by the Conspirators against the backdrop of Wizards running amok. When the PCs finally learn the truth:
  • …Part two begins. The PCs can either aid or fight the conspirators, but the first is more likely. They will be turned lose on the “Dark Wizards” who are threatening to bring chaos and anarchy into the world, and who are also hampering the Conspiracy. Along the way, they may be dispatched to retrieve some other priceless goody for preservation.
  • Phase III is the construction of fortresses to contain the goodies somewhere in the outer planes, against some very hostile locals who don’t want to be “invaded” by refugees from the Prime Material Plane.
  • Phase IV brings the PCs back home, as someone has finally let the secret slip; while everyone with power demands – by force – to be rescued from their fate, the PCs have to protect the shipments of artifacts and the conspirators, and retrieve their families, who have earned a place in the Refuges by virtue of the PCs aid.
  • Phase V is when the PCs witness the destruction of the Prime Material Plane, the last to leave, and the Conspirators attempt to set up a new social order amongst themselves; now that their mutual goal is complete, cooperation will soon come to an end. The PCs have to keep a lid on a powder-keg of hostilities, because they are the closest thing around to a neutral party.
  • Part VI brings the creation of the new Prime Material Plane, and the beginning of resettlement, and a fresh round of squabbles – which are abruptly settled when invaders from the outer planes (and survivors from the elemental planes) attempt to invade. The PCs, their lives prolonged unnaturally by magic, have to protect the new beginning. Only when the new plane is finally safe can they rest…

An epic campaign, but one that (for the most part) is fairly localized and confined in nature to small-scale “pieces of the puzzle”, this draws upon sources as diverse as “Nightfall” by Isaac Asimov, “Armageddon”, “Deep Impact”, and “Tobruk”, to name but a few. But at the heart of it all is the fact of the wild Iris, and its tale of death and rebirth.


Why not take a single tale out of mythology, rewrite it a little to change the participants, and make that the central plot of your campaign? You may need to take some parts of it as metaphor, but that’s okay – for example, if you were to base your campaign on the tale of Sif’s Hair, the Hair might need to be a metaphor. As jokes go, it’s not particularly funny. Make each of the participants the exemplar of an entire population or group – so Loki, a deceptive, manipulative trickster who buys and bribes his way out of trouble as often as he creates trouble for his own perverse pleasure, might be Drow, or Demons, or Elves in general, or Dwarves, or the Gods in general. Sif becomes the race/society from whence the PCs derive, and Thor is the PCs themselves, and so on.

People have spent millennia developing and refining myths – why not take advantage of that creative effort?


Take a look around you. The world is full of stories and situations, playing out even as I write. Some of these situations have to be rendered as metaphors for use – the search for the black boxes of the Air Asia aircraft – while others, like your local political situation, can translate far more readily. Or take a domestic activity, and scale it up, mixing metaphor with an extremely literal interpretation of events. The entire population goes shopping at the land-mass-scale equivalent of a supermarket – it might not be for food, though agricultural land will be part of it. What you have is an age of exploration by a new and growing colony.


Radio plays have to tell their stories without visuals, which makes them directly analogous to roleplaying games in many respects. In fact, since we get to use the occasional prop or illustration, we’re one step ahead of the game. Pick a situation from a radio play or serial (if you can find one on the net) and use it as the basis of your campaign. The odds are that your players won’t know it.

Older TV

Older TV – from the time when special effects were simple – can also work quite well. There was a need to compromise verisimilitude for reasons of production capability and budget, but the recompense was a relative freedom of imagination. Adapt an episode of The Twilight Zone to a medieval fantasy setting and call it a campaign. Use Gilligan’s Island as a metaphor for a remnant of a fallen empire. Get creative and liberal in your interpretation and you will discover that there’s inspirational gold to be had.

Newer TV

Newer TV has different compromises to make. In particular, the settings and contents are far more recognizable. You can either take advantage of that – telling the story of a medieval equivalent of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, for example – or sufficiently reduce the ideas into abstract forms that the origins aren’t all that obvious. It can actually be quite hard to separate plot from characters, from “setting”, and too many of the plots are used so frequently that they have become tropes; these are additional hurdles to be overcome.


Movies have an even bigger budget to play with. Everything that was said about Newer TV also applies here, unless you go a LONG way back. But recasting “Metropolis” as a Fantasy? That could work.

Intersections & Collisions

Often, the best ideas occur when one source of input contributes a thought and another offers a second – and the two intersect, or collide, to produce something that is either greater than the sum of their parts, or a point of disagreement between reasonable positions that can be expanded into an idea. An example of this is shown by my 2014 article, “I know what’s happening!” – Confirmation Bias and RPGs, and the earlier Super-heroics as an FRP Combat Planning Tool, both of which owe their existence to such intersections of ideas.

This is more than simple free association; it’s not a connection between random thoughts in the GM’s mind, and nor is there any of the association and contiguity characteristic of a stream of consciousness. Instead, it’s about perceiving a relationship between applications and implications of the ideas themselves. I have the personal belief that this happens all the time, and is in fact the source of many of the original ideas that people come up with; but that we are usually not aware of the process, which can take some time. It’s not a “free” association, therefore, it’s something different (I lack the terminology). Most of the ideas that we come up with are lost; in order to be noticed, appreciated, and implemented, the idea usually has to either offer a clear opportunity to achieve something that the thinker wants to achieve, or be a solution to a problem that has been formulated and the subject of some thought. If neither of those is the case, then immediate documentation is needed, or the idea will melt like yesterday’s snow.

Working with inspiration

Ideas are plentiful – so much so that there has to be something about them that makes them ephemeral and transitory, or we would have many more of them out there. Some problems are harder to solve than others, either because they are very technical, very subtle, not clearly understood, or have other restrictions placed on the solution. That’s why new game rules structures can be difficult to create; it’s not a problem coming up with ideas, it’s a problem coming up with ideas that are playable, that work, that integrate with the rest of the game system, that have the right degree of flexibility, and so on.

In fact, ideas are so plentiful that success or failure in solving a relatively open question like “the basis of a new campaign” has to be more about the ideas that you discard than about those you keep (and about how effectively an idea is developed, something that will be dealt with in Part 4 of this series). If an idea is too small, or too much work, or too complicated – throw it back and catch another one. Or, better yet, write it down somewhere for use some other time!

In fact, let me clue you in on a little secret. One of my players has repeatedly expressed awe at my ability to come up with subjects for articles, week after week, month after month, year after year. Well, while I am helped by knowing about the subject, and by being naturally creative and analytic, and by being able to see both the big picture and a piece of that picture in fine detail at the same time, my biggest asset is this – as soon as I think of a possible article subject, I write it down. And, what works for me, as a writer about RPGs, will work for you as the GM of an RPG campaign. It’s that simple.

In other words, Inspiration is not as important as what you do with it once you have it, and that process has to begin immediately by the rejection of ideas that aren’t good enough. This will be an ongoing theme through the next couple of parts of this series, but the immediate need is such that some notes should be presented immediately.

Don’t Be Derivative

It’s better to have an empty box labeled “idea goes here” than to have an idea that has been employed so often that it has become a cliché within your genre (it’s a little better if you are adapting it to a new genre, but only a little). My art teacher used to rail against what he called “Paint-by-numbers”, insisting that everyone at least attempt something original in his classes, no matter how poorly executed or vaguely conceived. I remember getting high marks for a painting of an old fireplace because I painted the brickwork of the walls and parts of the floor, then deliberately left the picture to dry and fade in the sun for a couple of weeks before painting everything else. It didn’t work, because the paint didn’t fade enough, but the very idea was enough to get me a high pass at the time.

If you’ve seen it on TV, or in a movie, or read it on a page, it’s been done a hundred times before – or soon will have been. Don’t use such ideas as-is – impart some spark of originality to them.

Some aspects of human life are so fundamental that they remain relevant over hundreds of years – which is why Shakespeare is so revered, as the first to codify many of them into narratives that have survived. But anyone who wants to employ a Romeo & Juliet plot needs to find some originality in setting, in characters, and in perspective, or they will be mercilessly attacked for the lack of originality.

Roleplaying games might be perceived as low down on the creative totem pole – they certainly don’t get the recognition for writing as mainstream literature does – but that should not be an excuse for laziness. Even if you’re the only person who will ever read about it, aim to be as original and creative as you can possibly be, within the time and capability limitations that you have to accommodate. Any ideas that are too derivative should be the first on the scrap heap.

Inversion/Subversion has been done before

It’s often thought clever to invert or subvert a meme or trope, to do it backwards as it were. Darth Vader and the Empire are the good guys, and the Rebels are the bad guys. The politician is honest to a fault – which is why he’s being accused of corruption. The maverick scientist is an idiot.

For a week or two, strictly time-limited to an hour a night, explore TV tropes dot org – the restrictions are because the site is a black hole into which time streams, never to be seen before, use a Kitchen Timer! – paying special attention to any inverted tropes. See, for example, the article “Not A Subversion”. You will soon come to realize that if you are being “clever”, it’s been done before. Doing it again is just as clichéd as the original would have been.

The Metaphor Looking Glass

You don’t have to read Campaign Mastery for very long to realize that I love a good metaphor. Heck, this article alone should stand as proof positive of that. There is a temptation to build an entire campaign out of metaphors if you’re even half like me. Don’t Do It.

Metaphors are wonderful things, fresh perspectives, shorthand explanations and descriptions for use when more substance is not required, a way to have your conceptual cake and eat it too. They let you take the substance of an idea, strip it of context and meaning while retaining the relationship between the elements, and then apply them in a fresh way to something else, so that the metaphor actually comes to represent a new meaning within the new context. Since so much of processing ideas is to do all of the above, metaphors naturally lend themselves to manifestations as new ideas.

But every metaphor that you implement in this way makes the end product more ephemeral, less substantiative. They leech solid manifestation out of the campaign premise. Put too many in, and there is nothing left but symbolism and abstract representation, a philosophical discourse that might be very interesting to read or debate, but is not likely to be great to play. Such campaigns don’t exist in any plausible reality; they can only be found on the far side of the Metaphor Looking Glass – which is a one-way mirror with no way back out.

There are things that you can do to ground your campaign. The first is that for every metaphor employed as a conceptual basis for a campaign, you should have one predefined and concrete manifestation of that metaphor incorporated as foundation for the campaign – for each metaphor. Think of these as bricks being laid into the foundations to anchor the metaphor and stop the campaign floating away into never-never land. Three metaphors requires three practical manifestations each, for a total of nine. Four need four each, for a total of 16. Five need five each, for a total of 25.

A measure of practicality can be imparted by the presence of non-metaphors within the campaign construct. Each of these counts as one metaphor-brick each. Without these “universal anchors”, it quickly becomes impossible to meet the requirements I’ve just imposed – well, recommended, if you insist. Rules are made to be broken, after all.

Think back to the “Iris Plant” example, and how grounded in plausibility it was. That one metaphor was spun out into multiple practical manifestations – the helplessness felt by some, the determination to defeat the problem by the conspiracy, the reactions to events of outer-planes residents, the panic and desperation by the ordinary citizens – these are all reasonable reactions to imminent doom. The trick in the example is to frame the course of events in such a way that the PCs get to experience it all in reasonably-isolated chunks rather than in one overwhelming whole. And that lets each stand as a separate “Metaphor Brick”, anchoring the whole fantastic plot in plausibility. Which is, of course, the point.

The Wrong Idea

Any number of times, you can invest heavily (in terms of time and effort) into developing an idea, only to find that it was the interplay of characters with the circumstance or setting that was what you found appealing in the first place. In other words, you can take the wrong ingredients from your source material, only to discover your mistake much later.

Make sure that what you have taken from a source that appeals to you is really what you want to preserve and incorporate before you invest a lot of time and effort into it – and set aside any that are The Wrong Idea.

It’s also worth reminding yourself that you aren’t generating this campaign for yourself; no matter how much you might love an idea, if your players aren’t going to buy it, don’t try and sell it.

Ideas are plentiful, but before they can be properly assessed and correlated, no matter how clearly inspirational they might be, you need to sweep away unwanted preconceptions, biases, and other baggage. You can’t do that before coming up with your initial ideas because some of that baggage is a source of ideas; so a program of “detox” is the next step in inventing, or reinventing, a new campaign.

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A Singular Performance: Roleplay and General Principles in one-player games


The image is “Algarrobo Beach 2″ by Pepo.

A brief recap:

Quite some time back, in an Ask-The-GMs, I discussed singe-player campaigns in what seemed at the time like quite a lot of detail. After recently starting a Dr Who single-player campaign, I decided to review that article to see if there was anything more to be said.

It turned out that there was quite a lot. So much so that what I thought might be a single follow-up article quickly became a major four-part series.

If you want to see the Table Of Contents, it was included in Part One; In Part Two, I am going to look at Roleplaying in the single-player game and offer up some general design principles for solo campaigns and adventures within such campaigns.


The tone of any campaign can be anything you want it to be, whether it is a campaign in which for every two steps forward that the PCs make they take a step back, or one which focuses on low-level gritty street stories, or big sweeping epics; whether the characters can only deal with the little picture, or are capable of sweeping big-picture changes; and so on.

This includes the single-player campaign, but the fact that there is only one PC does have ramifications on the campaign tone.

Imparting & Controlling Tone

In a multiplayer game, the multiplicity of personal character objectives washes out a lot of player input into the tone of the campaign. It’s necessary for the players to compromise with each other, and the result is that it can be a lot easier for the GM – the point of commonality between the players – to impose an overall tone.

In a solo campaign, by definition, the “players” speak with one voice. That gives that one player a much greater capacity to steer and dictate the adventure and campaign tone, and the person who may have to do most of the compromising is the GM.

- Targeting -

At the same time, there are a couple of other influences on campaign tone that also have considerable impact. The first of these is that it can be easier to impart the tone you want within the solo-player campaign than it is in a group campaign, you simply have to use the right bait.

In a multiplayer campaign, you always have to play to the crowd. What one player may react to, the next may not, and a third might react in a completely different way. This means that while the GM can initiate a campaign or adventure tone more easily, it’s very hard to create consistency and equal intensity for all the PCs. Any given tone will resonate with some while others resist, and some try to move the game in a completely different direction in response to the tonal trigger.

This inevitably compromises the purity of the tone, and may overcome it completely. At the very least, those resisting will ensure that overall, the intensity of tone experienced will be weaker, more bland.

That’s not at all the case with a solo-player campaign. If the player is inclined towards the tonal direction that the GM is targeting, the result will be a lot more intense than the GM was expecting. If the player is inclined to resist, they will not yield to the tone the GM is trying to create, and it simply won’t happen even to the extent that it normally would in a multiplayer campaign. For any given adventure, the tone will usually be either much more or much less intense than the GM expects.

To some extent, stability and control can be exerted by employing a principle from ball sports, which is also sometimes used as a metaphor in politics: “play the man, not the ball”. Because you have only the one player, you can fine-tune and tweak the tone to resonate with that particular combination of player and PC. If you want a particular emotional response, include a trigger that you know will induce the player to respond in that particular way. If the potential is for the tone to be excessive, you can soft-pedal it by using cues to which the character will respond but that won’t especially affect the player.

- Reinforcement -

Moods can be contagious. It’s a known fact that if you see a person smile, electrical activity is triggered within the brain of the observer as though they were the person who smiled – which often induces them to smile back, and to feel an emotional response appropriate to their having smiled. (Smiles quite literally brighten other people’s day).

The same is true of all sorts of phenomena. If you see a violin being played, you associate the sounds you are hearing with the movement of the violinist’s fingers, partially learning how to play the violin in the process – preparing the ground to learn, as it were. By reading what someone else has written, you begin to learn how to write yourself. The style and tone of what you read impacts on the style and tone that you put on the page, as well. This phenomenon is the foundation of Empathy, of seeing someone else’s situation and being able to relate to it by putting yourself in their shoes.

In a multiplayer game, GMs can take advantage of this unless the effect is overcome by deliberate resistance. You target one player with a stimulus that you know will trigger a particular response, and that makes it easier for the other players to adopt that response as well. There are no guarantees, of course. Some players will have more effect on the rest of the table than others, some players are more predictable than others, and player reaction should always (in theory) be filtered through the personality of the character.

In a single-player campaign, your options are quite limited – down to one, in fact. There is no reinforcement – the player/PC combination either goes along with the tone that you are trying to establish, or he doesn’t. There are no back doors open to you.

- Tonal Persistence -

The absence of reinforcement also affects tonal shifts within the adventure. Cutting a long story short, the essential phenomenon is the same: in a multiplayer campaign, tone has a momentum that his harder to shift once it is established. In a single-player campaign, tone is able to turn on a bottle-cap. This can require periodic reinforcement of the tone from in-campaign events and/or NPCs, substituting for what other players would normally do for you.

This gives you the freedom to let the tone drift freely after it’s been established; tone can be more of a recurring theme within an adventure than a constant. There is a greater tolerance for the game briefly going “off-message”.

This, in turn, supports some varieties of adventure that don’t work as well in a multiplayer environment – for example, changing the objective multiple times within the adventure as original goals move out of reach and new goals open up. You could have a dark “Empire Strikes Back” plotline in which the bad guys keep winning, overall, while small victories keep hope alive, or you digress into melancholy, or mystery or a party atmosphere, or even a bit of musical burlesque. These adventures don’t work well in a group setting because some players always shift tone less readily than others, lagging behind where the adventure is, “now”. Consider the table of tonal events below:
tone lag1

In this situation, the GM is taking his cues from player 1, and to a lesser extent, player 2. Quick changes of mood, hopes raised and dashed with lightning speed, brief diversions into humor… it’s all too much for players 3 and 4, and player 5 can barely be motivated to try and keep up because the initial sense of doom and gloom is not to his liking, even though only 5 of the 19 game events fall into that category. Eventually, he does get into the swing of things but then persists in being a pessimistic sourpuss for the rest of the game (and, hopefully, having enormous fun in the process, and serving as a foil for players one and two – though that may be optimistic to aim for). The player who really misses out and can’t keep up is player 4, who starts off grim and dark (quite correctly) but who, after a while, finds it impossible to take the adventure seriously, getting stuck in position half-way between optimistic and pessimistic, and always filling the game with inappropriate humor that interferes with player 3 getting into mood.

Ideally, at any given time, 3 or more out of the 5 players would either be responding correctly to the tone of events, or getting into the correct tone. The first quarter of the adventure fits this profile, with a brief humorous interruption that falls flat for most of them – but it then goes completely downhill in the second quarter, and only begins to recover in the third, before falling apart again in the run-up to the conclusion. That’s usually a sign of the GM trying to do too much in one adventure – simply transitioning from one piece of bad news to another until finally a slim ray of hope is revealed, perhaps with the occasional humorous interlude, would be enough.

With just one player, the situation is entirely different. Because everything is targeted at the one player/PC combination, the “player one” pattern, or at worst, the “player two” pattern, is achieved virtually every time.

- Tonal Objective -

Finally, it’s worth noting that the Tonal Objective in a single-player campaign is a lot simpler than that of a multiplayer campaign. Instead of trying to manufacture a consensus of tone and response in such a way that everyone’s happy to enjoy the ride and work within the tonal parameters that you have established, you have only one player to satisfy.

In fact, another way to look at single-player campaigns is to consider them “no compromise” campaigns. It’s not quite true – in fact there are still massive compromises between desire and practicality – but it’s often a lot closer to the truth than any other sort of campaign.

The Tonal Dissonance Problem

Having just suggested that solo games be considered “no compromise” campaigns, it’s time to mandate an element of compromise – one that has less impact on multiplayer games.

A single player means that there will be Less tolerance for disliked gameplay situations, less room for compromise on the part of the player. Well, if the player won’t bend (not having to do so in order to keep other players happy and give them their share of the spotlight), then it’s up to the GM to yield.

But the GM can only bend so far; the needs of plot and verisimilitude in NPC reactions to events can force him into Tonal Dissonance, i.e. adopting a tone that doesn’t fit the prevalent tone at the table, or that the player is unhappy with. The results can be akin to forcing someone to sing and dance on stage for the first time when they don’t really want to, or public speaking.

- The Hand-wave solution -

Fortunately, there is a solution, at least some of the time, and quite a simple one: Consider hand-waving those parts of play that the player dislikes, leaving an NPC ally to supervise if necessary. Why tolerate tedium when you don’t have to?

If the pacing is critical, so that you don’t want to simply skip over the intervening period of game play, add a subplot to occupy the player while the hand-waved activity is taking place.

GMs do this sort of thing regularly, anyway – we hand-wave dialogue if we’re having trouble getting into character, for example, or if it’s likely to exclude large parts of the table for any length of time. I have a rule of thumb that no dialogue scene that doesn’t involve two or more players should go on for more than 6 minutes in total, and should be subdivided if necessary into blocks of 2 or 3 minutes each – and then touch base with at least one other player and what their PC is doing. Anything more than this gets handwaved, or summarized at the very least, unless it’s absolutely plot-critical.

Well, that’s not so much of an issue in a single-player game, for obvious reasons, but the principle can be employed to solve the problem of tonal dissonance instead – again, unless it’s absolutely plot-critical that the PC be involved first-hand.

The effect on game pace, and the problem of the combat monster

One side-effect of hand-waving game-play is an acceleration of the pace of that gameplay. Or, more accurately, a further acceleration, since game pace is already quickened by the deemphasis on combat.

And that brings me to one final element in terms of tone. Every player wants something different from an RPG. Some like problem-solving, some like interaction with NPCs, some want a gosh-wow-awesome, some want great stories and plotlines, some want the limelight, some enjoy putting on their character’s shoes and being someone else for a while – and some like the vicarious thrill of combat.

The last type pose a serious problem for a solo campaign. Combat is necessarily de-emphasized, and the trend is for the GM to hand-wave anything else that the player doesn’t like – and in the case of the combat monster, that’s just about everything. The player might as well not bother turning up, if that’s all they’re looking for.

That last “if” is vital. An answer in the affirmative means that you would both be better off playing a board game or a computer game; a solo campaign is simply not suited to giving this type of player what they want.

Game Pace

Before I got side-tracked, I was discussing Game Pace. The two phenomena mentioned so far are not the only ones to affect this aspect of play.

There are No side Discussions between players. There’s a greater focus on the adventures. There’s less time between (player) idea and implementation because they don’t have to explain it to the other players and persuade them to go along with it. There’s less need for coordination between several plot threads and layers of story. You only have to explain things until one player understands them, instead of continuing until the player who is slowest to understand whatever has caught up.

All of these accelerate game pace massively.

Let’s say that hand-waving combat saves about 25% of seat-time in any given adventure, and that each of these other factors reduces playing time by ten percent. If that’s the case, then an adventure takes 0.75 x 0.9 ^ 6 = 39.86% of it’s usual playing time. Or, to put it another way, you get two-and-a-half times as much game play into any given game session.

Those numbers are quite fuzzy. Combat can be 10% of an adventure, or 50%. Each factor might save 20% in one adventure and 5% in the next. The number given is very much a rough guideline only.

The most extreme result: 0.5 x 0.8 ^ 6 = 13.11%, or 7.63 times as much adventure played in a given time span. The least extreme result: 0.9 x 0.95 ^ 6 = 66.16%, or 1.5 times as much gameplay in a given time span.

But the factors listed aren’t the only ones. There are some that can slow the game – on occasion.

Single-player games can stall more easily. There’s only one player to achieve an understanding, no-one for them to collaborate with besides the GM, no outside inspiration to draw upon. A team that’s not working at cross-purposes is always more functionally effective than one person on their own. And, in general, individual Player strengths and weaknesses are magnified relative to a group situation.

- Playing Time Estimates -

After you’ve run a solo game a couple of times, you will start to get an idea of roughly how long things are likely to take, but it’s an estimate that is very sensitive to slight variations. I divided Dr Who adventure #3 into six roughly-equal parts. By my first estimate, it was going to take about 10 hours to play. My second estimate increased the amount of hand-waving in encounters and decreased the allowances I was making for the above problems, reasoning that while a delay might come up at any point, it was unlikely that there would be more than one or two such delays – and that they would take only ten minutes to resolve, not twenty. That gave me a worst-case scenario of 8 hours play required, and a best case of six – plus a break for lunch, and a possible break for dinner, pushing the whole thing back out to the ten hours mark.

But it’s always tricky making those estimates before you’ve finished writing the adventure, tying up loose ends, etc. I notified the player accordingly, and we decided to start an hour earlier than usual, eliminating the loss of time due to a lunch break, and see how things went. The night before we played, I reviewed the adventure from start to finish, as I usually do, and ended with a result of between 30 minutes and an hour for each of the six parts – an average of 45 minutes each, which totaled 4.5 hours, plus 30 minutes for incidentals and side-chatter between us and set-up and so on. Plus an hour for lunch.

In actual play, one “episode” took 30 minutes to play, one took an hour, lunch only took about 45 minutes, and so did each of the other “episodes” – we started an hour early and finished within shouting distance of our usual time. The final total was about 5 1/4 hours from arrival to completion – 5.5 would have been bang on our usual finishing time. The player and I had freed up our early evenings “just in case” unnecessarily. But I will warn the player once more, if the same thing ever looks like happening, just in case.

Oh, and the actual ratio of game play on that occasion: I estimated that it would be 3-4 sessions of 4.5 hours each, to play the same adventure with the entire Zenith-3 group participating. The five-minute teaser alone, multiplied by 5-7 for the number of PCs/Pseudo-PCs, and perhaps taking an extra five minutes each, would have cost up to an hour. Playing the combat out would EASILY have added another 4-5 hours. Final total would have been 13.5 – 18 hrs, call it about 16 hrs on average. Heck, three lunch breaks would have cost at least 2.5 hours! We got it done, without rushing, in 5.5 hours – a ratio of 2.9 to 1.

You can take it as a given that you’re going to need more adventure than you would normally provide. The only question is, how much more? As a rule of thumb, double-plus is not far off the mark, but rules of thumb deserve to be notorious in this area of game planning.

Intensity Of Play

If you run the pads of your fingers slowly and lightly over a piece of coarse sandpaper, it seems that you can feel each individual grain that is attached, and the sensation is not all that intense. Do it at three times the speed, and you’ll definitely find the intensity to be at least three times as intense, even painful. Increasing the pressure exerted against the sandpaper by pressing more firmly, and there will be another increase again, and definitely be painful, possibly even harmful.

Similarly, you can slowly slide across gravel without injury, but fall off a bike on a gravel road without protection and gravel rash is the minimum that you can expect (Everyone skins their knee when learning to ride). Add mechanical speeds to the mix, and you can achieve severe abrasions – which is why motorcycle leathers are so much thicker and heavier than ordinary clothing. Do the same thing with a heavy load – a backpack, for example, or the bike landing on top of you in the case of a motorcycle – and the effect will, once again, be far more severe.

In an RPG, game pace is the equivalent of speed in these illustrations, and simply increasing the speed increases the intensity of the game. Plot and deliberate intensity resulting from it are equivalent to pressing down with greater pressure or weight.

With more players, this weight is more distributed, so it has less effect than in a single-player game, which has only a point of contact. You can see this for yourself, by analogy: sharpen a piece of 5mm dowel to a point, while smoothing the other end flat (Use a soft wood, it shouldn’t be too difficult). Heck, you can buy this sort of thing for use with toffee apples! Slide the blunt end across a piece of coarse sandpaper two or three times, putting a fair amount of weight on it. While there will be some erosion of the stick – perhaps as much as half a millimeter – it won’t be anywhere near as much as if you repeat the experiment with the sharpened end, where you may well lose two or three millimeters.

Intensity of play is increased by the (relatively) high tempo of the game, and tends to over-respond to any ramping up that takes place as a result of plot and the events within it, and these increases tend to be felt more keenly because there is only a single point of contact taking the full brunt of the effect – at each end of the “stick”, this affects both player and GM.

At the same time, familiarity breeds contempt; you get used to the greater intensity to at least some extent, so there is a threshold of increase due to non-pace factors that must be overcome before any increase is noticed.

All of which takes some getting used to in play, and more getting used to in order to be able to gauge how strongly events within the plot will be felt at the time of writing the adventure.

- Still more intensity-boosting factors -

On top of all that, you need to remember that one player is devoting all his attention to the game, not several, and that you are targeting that character more precisely instead of accommodating a group. There are fewer distractions, and a much greater focus on game events as a result.

These also boost the intensity of the gaming session; in combination with the other factors, to the point where no group session can possibly match it except on the very rarest of perfect storms.


Greater intensity is more exhausting. When you’re tired, you get sloppy and make mistakes. It follows that there is a greater need for breaks within sessions.

I’ve mentioned Australian Public Service guidelines before. In a nutshell, for any computer-intensive duty or task that requires high levels of concentration, the guideline is – or was, anyway – at least 10 minutes in at most two hours. To ensure that every employee had the capacity to work for two hours straight without a break and without violating these OH&S guidelines, the policy when I worked on processing the Census was ten minutes every hour.

Now, playing and running an RPG is fun, no matter how intense it gets – in some ways, the more intense, the more fun it is. So smaller, less frequent breaks are needed. But it is still a mentally-intensive and tiring task which demands high levels of concentration – while multitasking to an extent that most OH&S officers would baulk at; so some breaks are necessary. I basically halve the Public Service requirement – at least five minutes every hour – for solo games. For group games, there’s often a cue to use the facilities etc, so I halve it the other way – ten minutes or more every two hours of play (or so).

Some GMs and players don’t like taking breaks during play. Some even penalize players who do, by making decisions for the characters while the player is away from the table and forcing the player to abide by them. I don’t agree with those practices in general, and certainly not for solo games.


Downtime is something different from a break, because it happens in-game; it’s a deliberate slowing of the pace and easing of the intensity for a while. When designing adventures for solo play, ensure you build some downtime into each game session. The pace can be so frantic and intense that different flavors of scene have a tendency to blend together, after a while; deliberately altering the mood or tone and intensity, even if just for a minute or two, can firewall one type of scene from another.

The problem with building in downtime is the unanswerable question of how much is enough – and how much is too much. The answer changes with every adventure and every game session, and once again the problem of Tone Lag manifests itself. The best answer is to base the amount required on your own needs, since the GM arguably has the most stressful job at the game table, and then to note whether or not this is enough for the players.

Oh, and note that going “Downtime – Break – Whatever” doesn’t work. If Downtime is enough to carry you through to the point where you would normally call a break, finish the downtime sequence and start the active sequence that follows, using it as a cliff-hanger if necessary.

- More On Pace Control -

I’ll have more to say on the subject of controlling the pace, and therefore the intensity, of the game in a few minutes. But first, we need to come at the game from a whole different angle.


Contradictions abound when you start looking into single-player games, because some established elements of RPG theory get tossed on their head while others don’t. There are a mass of influences pulling game content in all sorts of unusual directions.

The Dice Do More Talking

By definition, in a solo game, there is a greater reliance on one central character and one player. This means that any differences between the capabilities of the two are emphasized even more than in a group game, where this is always an ongoing problem. As usual, skill rolls are used to plug the gap – make the roll, and the GM informs the player of what his character knows, and he doesn’t. Or, at least, what the character thinks he knows.

The Dice Do Less Talking

At the same time, there is more hand-waving by the GM of things that he might require a roll for. This is because the game pace has a momentum all its own and both player and GM tend to feel that momentum as a source of excitement – an excitement that goes away if there are too many interruptions.

As a general rule, unless there’s a critical timing element, or it’s a straight up-and-down yes-or-no answer, it can be assumed that the character will succeed eventually in making the roll. So why bother making the player roll? At most, one roll is justified, giving the GM some basis for estimating how long it will take the player to succeed. You then roleplay the character thinking hard (or other appropriate behavior) until either the indicated time is achieved – or the player gets tired of beating his head against a brick wall and looks for an alternative solution. Either way, play never comes to a shuddering halt, and while the momentum of play may be reduced temporarily, it never comes to a shuddering halt.

Controlling the Pace

These two factors combine to provide a tool for controlling the game pace, at least somewhat. You can use die rolls to slow the action down when necessary, and use hand-waving to speed things up when that’s desirable. As an added bonus, because a large part of the increased intensity of the game results from the pace of play, this also gives the GM a tool by which he can manipulate the intensity – if the pace is manipulated properly.

- Controlling Intensity using Pace -

There are two tricks that can be employed to manipulate intensity by means of game pace alteration.

The first is to slow things right down when you get to the scenes that you want to have higher intensity. Going into slow-motion mode, where each tiny slice of the usual pace with which things are done, and the focus is on each tiny detail, implies (subconsciously if not consciously) that those details are especially important, and therefore the scene is of maximum importance. And, when you resume “normal time”, it feels faster and more intense than it is – so use that for the climax of the scene. Then drop back into “Bullet Time” if you need to. (The mention of Bullet Time is very important, because this is exactly how it was used – slow the action right down, change orientation or perspective, focus tightly on the details, then WHAM! action – then slow it down again. It works in the movies, it works on TV, and it will work in an RPG. I’m not so sure about in a book…)

The second is to speed the pace up momentarily immediately prior to a scene that you want to underplay or to have low intensity, then slow it down as though the world beyond the scene has stopped in it’s tracks. Romantic interludes, quiet conversations of deep significance, stunned silences after revelations, anything in that line can benefit from this technique. The speed-up is the equivalent of a long, sweeping camera-crane move that then focuses in on the characters in a tight shot – a technique that’s been used in Hollywood since the 1930s or 40s.

Puzzles & Mysteries

This is a point that I know I’ve made in the previous article, because it was a hard-earned lesson at the time. Whenever you present a Puzzle or a Mystery that needs to be solved, you strike trouble in the solo campaign. Because you have only one mind trying to find a solution, and because these are always plot-critical and shouldn’t be handwaved, gameplay can come to a screeching halt while the lone player grapples with the conundrum you have set before him.

On rare occasions, the player will get the right answer immediately. It happened in Dr Who Adventure #2, and sliced the best part of an hour out of the gameplay. Fortunately, I was able to pad subsequent events enough that it wasn’t all that obvious to the player.

But more often, these are intended to be difficult and they succeed in fulfilling that intention.

There are only two solutions, really.

- Option One: Deemphasis -

Much as you might be tempted, save your puzzles and mysteries for the times when they are genuinely interesting and plot-significant. Anything less than that, and you either don’t incorporate it into the plot, or have the solution come up even if the player operates on autopilot.

- Option Two: Breadcrumbs -

Which implies that there are still going to be times when a Puzzle or Mystery can’t be avoided, or shouldn’t be. When this happens, the only alternative available is to deliberately lay a trail of breadcrumbs that will eventually lead the player to the solution. The fun isn’t about trying to solve the puzzle, it’s about the shape of the puzzle when it is solved. This is usually a relatively minor adjustment to the normal plotting style of an adventure.

- Pacing and Puzzles -

Either way, Puzzles are going to have a substantial impact on pacing when they occur, and an unpredictable one. I’ve seen players solve problems in a few seconds that should have consumed hours of play and investigation of bread-crumbed clues; and I’ve seen players struggle for hours on something that should have taken minutes.

I intend to start incorporating an optional subplot into my adventure designs if they feature a mystery or puzzle that needs solution, to be invoked if the player gets to the solution too quickly, from now on.

The consequences for Pacing of Puzzles and Mysteries once again forms the perfect lead-in to part three of this series, in which Plots and Adventure design (in isolation from Campaign considerations) within the solo campaign are the focus…

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