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Compound Interruptions: Manipulating Pauses

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Photo by Andrew Hill (cropped, edited by author)

Sorry for the delay in posting this – my ISP is conducting maintenance of some sort, and my connection kept dropping out, making it hard to upload and format the article in the usual manner.


So far, I’ve been looking at the different elements of pauses-in-play in as much isolation as possible, going beyond that only when it alters the primary effects that an element has on the game. But it’s in the multitude of combinations possible that the real subtlety and power of manipulating these game elements can be found.

In the third part of this series, I examined 9 types of pause. Compounding two types of pause gives 36 combinations, assuming that the sequence in which they occur makes no difference (72 otherwise); compounding three gives 84 sequence-irrelevant combinations, or 168 sequence-relevant combinations. On top of that, there are the end points of the interruption, characterized into 4 types of pre-interruption content and the same types of post-pause content, for a total of 16 combinations. Putting those together gives:

  • Mono-ply Pause: 144 combinations;
  • Two-ply pause: 576 sequence-irrelevant combinations or 1152 sequence-relevant combinations;
  • Three-Ply pause: 2688 sequence-irrelevant combinations or 5376 sequence-relevant combinations.

If I were to analyze all of these (3408 or 6672 combinations, depending on the relevance of sequencing in the compound interruption types), taking a minute to do each, that’s more than 50 hours work, possible much, much more. If I were to use 1 line to summarize the results of each, the resulting article would be boring – and could be as much as 148 pages long.

Not going to happen. The only approach that makes rational sense is to look at general principles, and let each GM analyze the particular situations that confront them as they come up.

Before I Go Any Further

It’s worth taking a moment to explain a couple of assumptions.

  1. Any analysis of the number of combinations described will show that I have assumed that two breaks of the same type are effectively just a longer version of the one break. There may be an exception if sequence matters – a 1-2-1 combination might mean that the type-1 breaks have different effects – but I’ve chosen to ignore that because it’s irrelevant, given the decision not to analyze different combinations. It would just add to the already excessive total.
  2. I am assuming, however, that the sequence of types in compound breaks does matter, until it is proven otherwise. It might even be that this is dependent on the types of break – that sometimes it’s true and sometimes not.
  3. I haven’t bothered looking at 4-ply combinations because it didn’t seem rational for these to actually occur. My thought was that two break types might easily occur back-to-back, or have a meal break or other third type of interruption in between – so up to three is practical, but more is almost certainly only theoretically possible, and should probably be avoided anyway.

General Principles Of Combinations

I have identified ten general principles. Some of these are derivative of general rules for writing, which were identified as key considerations in my earlier series on Emotional Pacing in RPGs (Part 1, Part 2), but they are sufficiently important to the subject at hand that I’ve included them anyway.

1. Pre-break Content Effects apply over the entire duration of the break

It doesn’t matter what the type of break is, the foundation consideration is always the trend in intensity, excitement, anticipation, and tone established by the pre-break content, which extends for the entire duration of the break, whether that break is simple or compound in nature.

2. Pre-break Content Effects may be modified by Break effects

However, this “trend continues” principle does not mean that the effects of pre-break content override the effects of a break. Break effects compound with the initial impetus. For example, a break that promises the satisfying of anticipation reduces the trend for that anticipation to become frustration; however, if that break is followed by a low-intensity interaction that is not obviously leading to that satisfaction, the “frustration clock” can resume where it left off and even proceed at an accelerated pace. In effect, post-break content of the latter two types (low-intensity interaction and introspection/analysis) can be perceived as an extension of the break, compounding with the effects.

There is a lot of artistry involved in a good script or other delivery mechanism for a plot. The more improv is involved, the greater the flexibility you have, but the less time to refine the sequence of events into a satisfactory flowing of the story – and it’s worth remembering that player contributions are always ad-hoc and improvised.

3. Some Break Effects Compound

If you have two different break types that increase anticipation, the two compound. To a large extent, however, the effects will overlap, so you won’t get “full value” from the second. In general, if two breaks have the same effect, they can be considered one break for the purposes of determining how long that effect has within the game to manifest, and the compound effect will be more extreme than either in isolation.

4. Effects are experienced in succession

Taking a five-minute break and then setting up a combat battlefield may produce a net increase in anticipation, but that only occurs once the process of actually laying out the battlemap begins. If the pre-break content generates anticipation – for example, if conflict appears to be inevitable – then the two effects compound, with the battlemap setup adding to the anticipation and delaying the onset of frustration because it is obviously moving the game towards resolution of the pre-break situation, ie satisfying the anticipation that had built up.

5. Some Break Effects Cancel

If however, the two breaks have antagonistic effects, one that inflates expectation and one that deflates it for example, the two will cancel out overall.

5a. Beware oversimplifying

Just because the net effect appears to cancel overall, events are experienced sequentially – one set of effects will take place, and then the canceling effect will take place. This can generate peaks and valleys in the dynamics of the session even while no play is occurring. Having a peak occur outside play always detracts from the satisfaction levels deriving from the play that does occur.

5b. Sequence Does Matter!

The inevitable conclusion is therefore that the sequence of elements in a compound break does matter – and that it is better for the game’s building of tension/anticipation if any elements that deflate it precede elements that inflate it. Coming later in the sequence gives an element increased emphasis in a compound interruption, and (past a point of immediate reaction) minimizes the effect of the preceding break elements.

In point (4) I used the example of a 5-minute break compounding with a battlemap setup. That example actually reflects the above conclusion to at least some extent. But consider the effects if the battlemap is setup and THEN a five-minute break called: You have an immediate increase in anticipation from both the pre-break content and the preparations to satisfy that anticipation – and then nothing. The frustration begins to build as soon as the pre-break anticipation is unsatisfied, but is masked by the battlemap assembly – but once that assembly is complete, the subsequent break means that anticipation is no longer building, and there is no longer anything to dissipate the rising frustration. The players will be in need of catharsis in the course of the combat when play resumes – so the battle has to be more satisfying than is the case with the break elements the other way around. In effect, the benefits of the battlemap setup have been reduced in comparison to the effects of the five-minute break in play.

6. Peaking Too Soon produces anticlimax

There is a maximum level of anticipation that can be achieved. If that peak is achieved before the actual resolution of the events creating the anticipation, then that resolution will feel anticlimactic even if it is nothing of the sort. The game will be less satisfying to all involved as a result. This is the underlying truth behind the comparison of “5-minute break plus battlemap setup” vs “Battlemap setup plus 5-minute break” – the combat has to “work harder” to overcome this sense of anticlimax.

7. Peak Intensities are unstable

Nor can peak intensities be maintained for very long. If you don’t dissipate the tension by resolving the situation quickly enough, something else – side chatter or table jokes – will do it for you. The results, once again, are an anticlimax when you do get to the point of resolving the situation.

This is the real problem with game mechanics that have slow combat resolution – they delay satisfaction past the point at which intensity can be sustained. A fight that was interesting or exciting to start with bogs down and both interest and excitement wane.

8. Tension and Release

Reaching a peak and then resolving it permits the next peak to be achieved more quickly, so the same level of buildup actually achieves a higher level of anticipation than was possible for the initial peak. This effect only persists for a limited period of time, however; a 30-minute meal break is fine, a 60-minute meal break is dangerously close to the limit. Certainly, the floor is reset to zero after the end of play, necessitating doing it all over again.

My experience is that the more fiction a player reads, the greater their tolerance for retaining this heightened responsiveness, because they are more used to putting a book down and then picking it up again at a later time. TV and movies have more tools at their disposal for the generation of heightened anticipation but less ability to sustain heightened responsiveness. However, having the right lead-in can make a big difference, because the second show can build on the responsiveness and excitement generated by the show that precedes it. It is for this reason that watching multiple episodes of a show in succession can produce a completely different impression of the show than viewing the episodes “in isolation” – you get “tuned into” the show’s world and don’t have to recapture that immersion at the start of the next episode. Some shows capitalize on this better than others; “it’s better on DVD than I thought it was when it was on TV” sums up the effects.

The same thing happens with RPGs. Most of my games are run on a once-a-month schedule, and this is a definite handicap to immersion and sustained excitement. Playing more frequently definitely makes a difference in this respect, and playing on multiple days in succession has an even bigger impact.

The problem with this tension-and-release pattern is that every peak offers a fresh chance to get the timing wrong, producing anticlimax. If there’s one thing that should be clear from the variety of break that I listed in the third part of this article, it’s that there are a lot more breaks in play in a typical RPG than may have been suspected, and that also increases the potential danger of anticlimax. This is why mastering breaks is so important!

9. Underlying Intensity

Every game also has an underlying intensity that derives from the overall situation in-game and the metagame situation out-of-game. At the beginning of a campaign, this derives more from the latter source than the former, and is based on the number of unknowns and general mystery about the new campaign; at the end of a campaign, it derives more from the in-game situation. As a campaign heads toward its conclusion, this underlying intensity increases the “floor” or “zero point” from which in-game manipulation of intensity proceeds.

If the balance between these two is mismanaged, ie the GM plays things low-key for too long, or goes high-key too soon, the results are a lull in the underlying intensity that leaves campaigns vulnerable to all sorts of other problems that can lead to a premature ending of the campaign. In fact, every campaign that I’ve ever experienced that ended prematurely suffered from this problem.

It’s something that even experienced GMs experience. It frequently manifests in the GM being insufficiently inspired to put as much effort into his games as he used to, or in an increased tendency for players to not turn up. My Shards Of Divinity campaign is the most recent one to suffer this fate.

10. Cumulative Sequential Effects

Determining the net total of the effects, in sequence, gives you a modified interpretation of the pre-break Content effect which can then be used to determine the optimum post-break content.

Determining the post-break content and subtracting the influence of breaks in reverse sequence permits the determination of the type of break that best marries this content to that which is going to occur pre-break, i.e. what you should have in-between.

Comparing the contents of one scene with the next that is to occur permits the selection of the optimum placement points of different kinds of breaks.

Some Combinations are Valid…

Some combinations of breaks and endpoints just work. A dramatic situation leading toward a combat encounter, setting up the battlefield, then running the combat immediately, works. Giving out experience at the start of a game session works far better than doing so at the end, or in the middle (unless it is carefully timed) – if that’s practical. Only at the end of an adventure is this general principle not true. Meal Breaks are best preceded by low-intensity situations or revelations; session ends are best preceded by cliffhangers.

…And Some Are Not

Some combinations, on the other hand, just don’t work very well. High-intensity interactions shouldn’t follow post-combat game mechanics; you are better off going straight from the combat into the interaction, and combining the game mechanics with your next five-minute or meal break, or even the end of play for the day. Longer breaks like meals can permit players to come to grips with revelations and plot twists, at the expense of a discontinuity with how their characters should be feeling; roleplaying at least a short period of reaction and confusion before the meal is a far better solution, most of the time.

There are, thankfully, very few combinations that should be willfully excluded; there are rather more that can be useful tools in the right circumstance or crippling mistakes if applied when they shouldn’t be.


It can be argued, in fact, that there are no genuinely invalid combinations; instead, there are combinations that have a more desirable effect and combinations that have a less desirable effect, and that this desirability is a function of what the GM is trying to achieve at any given point. The right choices add to the excitement and interest of the campaign, the wrong choices detract from it.

motorcycle stunt

Photo by Crewe1 (Kevin Dowey) (frame added by author)

Analyzing A Combination

It might seem, with so many possible elements, that it would be quite difficult to analyze a combination, but it’s not all that difficult. Most GMs do it instinctively all the time – and sometimes, as you would expect, they get it right, and sometimes they get it wrong. The purpose of this series has been to put a little more intellect and less instinct into the process.

When it comes down to it, there are only three steps to a practical analysis:

  • The Pre-break Element;
  • The Post-break Element;
  • The Break Type(s).
1. Pre-break Element

There are two facts that you need to extract from the Pre-break element: The classification type and the resulting intensity “trend”.

2. Post-break Element

Using the details provided in Part 2 of this series, you can use the information from step one to understand how well the intended post-break content will connect with the pre-break element, and whether or not this is a suitable time for a break at all. You can also consider scene insertions prior to the “official” post-break content or to the break itself to shape a better connection across the impending gap.

3. Break Type(s) – in sequence, with weighting

The relationship established in step 2 is not the final word, it’s a preliminary analysis. The break types examined in part 3 of the series, together with the general principles discussed earlier in this article, give you the tools you need to modify that relationship to accommodate the impact of the actual break anticipated.

Full Forwards Analysis

This starts with the pre-break content and then applies the influence of the break types successively until you reach the post-break content. Remember that the sequence in which different breaks occur weights their relative impact. If that says all will be well, there’s no need to invest any further thought on the matter.

Correction Options

If, however, there is some indication of a problem, you now have the opportunity of manipulating the course of play to achieve a better fit. You have a number of options for doing so:

  1. Insert a pre-break bridging scene that overcomes the incompatibility with the post-break content;
  2. Insert a post-break bridging scene that overcomes the incompatibility with the intended post-break content;
  3. Reorganize the sequence of break elements to better fit the combination of pre-break and post-break content;
  4. Insert one or more other relevant break elements to better fit the combination of pre-break and post-break content;
  5. Analyze the effects of delaying the break until after the currently anticipated post-break content;
  6. Determine that despite the discontinuity of intensity, having the break now anyway is the lesser of two evils.
Advanced Technique: Thinking Ahead

The earlier you carry out your analysis, the more options you have. If you know that a break is required at some point prior to content scene 4, you can determine where best to place that break. Options include:

  • Before Content Scene 1;
  • Between Content Scenes 1 and 2;
  • Between Content Scenes 2 and 3;
  • Between Content Scenes 3 and 4.
  • Further adding to the available options, there may well be another break type or two at one of these positions, introducing sequencing options.
  • And there may be another break needed at some point post- content-scene 4 that can be brought forward.
  • And if none of these suit the circumstances, perhaps there is a way to actually delay the pause until after content-scene 4.
  • Finally, each of these options are spots to which all the Correction Options can be applied – so each of the above is really five or six options.
Retrograde Analysis

Sometimes, it’s more useful to have a checklist of things that have to happen before a given content-scene, and then determine where best to have those things happen, working backwards during the session/adventure planning in order to deliver the players to that content-scene in the optimum state of mind. This effectively treats breaks as just a different type of content.

Your options approach infinity by the time all of these possibilities are considered.

Really Advanced Technique: Flashbacks

At one point I had a very complicated adventure planned to occur. Essentially, it consisted of a contemporary mystery leading to the PCs being trapped and under siege. Overlapping this was explaining the context of the situation which ultimately related an untold chapter of game history featuring one of the characters, which not only explained the current circumstances but which created, retroactively, the mystery that had led the PCs into the contemporary situation, bootstrapping itself into existence.

The basic adventure could be laid out very simply: Mystery, Siege, Situation Explanation, History/Revelation, Solution, and Escape. But there were several problems with this, not least of which was that it requires a long period of exposition during which most of the players were sitting around twiddling their thumbs. Instead, I chose to break the History/Revelation into a series of flashbacks which could be told out of sequence, triggered successively by elements of the Siege and Situation Explanation. The History/Revelation sequences – the back story of the adventure, in other words – effectively became breaks in the main action. The use of triggers enabled each “chapter” of the flashback story to be relevant to the current situation, and enabled me to present it to the entire group as a “collective vision of the past”; even though they weren’t directly involved, this held their attention and built anticipation toward both the revelation and the next slice of contemporary action. This solved all the problems of the plot and produced a very memorable adventure – one who’s solution hinged on paradox, the multidimensional nature of the multiversal game setting, and the topology of a Klein Bottle as applied to arcane tools, and which re-created the original mystery!

In effect, a major component of the adventure – the narrative section – was broken into a series of bridging scenes that were interspersed with the main content, enabling control over the pacing of the whole adventure. What would have been a very “flat” period was turned into an advantage by “telling” two different stories simultaneously. It took a LOT of design effort to pull off, but the results were well worth it; I would consider adopting this approach in the future if faced with a similar pacing problem, though it’s not a solution that I would pull out of my back pocket at regular intervals.

One final break type/manipulation solution

Do you hand-wave travel from point A to point B? (I wrote an article on the subject a little while back – The Gradated Diminishing Of Reality – Travel in FRPG). Anything that you choose to hand-wave in this fashion constitutes a break of (near-) zero duration in game play, enabling you to skip over a “dull bit” and go from interesting event to interesting event. Which becomes significant only when you realize that because it takes virtually no time, it can overlap any other sort of break required.

PCs set out for a destination – set up battlemap while simultaneously narrating the hand-waved journey in which nothing of significance occurs, but letting the players roleplay social interaction between the PCs – PCs arrive at destination, have an strong-interaction encounter leading to imminent combat – five-minute break – combat (using the battlemap already set up). From the point at which the setup of the battlemap commenced until the point it was eventually used, anticipation was growing.

The same essential technique can be used with ANY hand-waved content in ANY game. A character goes into a library to research answers to a problem the PCs have to solve? Rather than roleplaying a tedious search for information, deal with something else and cover the research with a series of handwaved bridging scenes:

PC A (commencing research) – PC B scene/subplot – PC A (a promising lead evaporates) – PC C scene/subplot – PC A (a new lead materializes) – PC D scene/subplot – PC A (the new lead fizzles out but breathes new life into the first promising lead) – PC E scene/subplot – PC A (gets answers but the GM doesn’t relate them) – All PCs gather and PC A, voiced by the GM, delivers the Answers, with the actual research having been handwaved or handled by a single die roll.

So long as the total screen time for each PC in the above sequence is roughly the same, everyone will be happy – and anticipation of the results will have been building from the moment the research was commenced, lending considerable gravitas to the outcome which can only be paid off with a significant revelation – but which makes such a revelation even more memorable and dramatic. In effect, every scene between the commencement of the research and the GM delivering the results is a Bridging Scene. Because the momentum would be lost, I would not incorporate any other breaks into the above sequence; if any other sort of break was going to be required, I would place it before the first scene. I certainly wouldn’t want a break at the end; I want the players to be “in character” when assimilating and acting upon the research results. However, immediately after a decision is made, a break would begin building anticipation anew.

In The Real World

Not every break can be anticipated. Sometimes, things just happen. The analytic tools provided enable you to get play back on track when the expected takes place, through one final principle: Interruption inherently builds anticipation of resumption.

That means that simply resuming where you left off after an unexpected interruption is sometimes not good enough; you may need to increase the intensity post-break, or even drop in a bridging scene, just to get back to where you were.

The Power of the Pause

The examples shows how powerful the Pause can be as a tool for manipulation of the intensity and tone of a game. Consider that the solo scenes can give each PC a different tone, so that each player will have a slightly different mood alloyed with anticipation at the end – that’s the sort of foundation that makes for good in-character interaction between characters and adds massively to the sense of the PCs being “real people” to the players.

Pauses and breaks in play are game content just as surely as rolling to hit a target or having a conversation with an NPC. Learn to manipulate them to your game’s advantage – or at least to minimize any disadvantage. It will only be a session or two of play before you see the benefits.

And the biggest secret of all: unless they are paying very close attention to what you are doing “behind the curtain”, the players will never be aware of your manipulations; they will only notice the resulting benefits.

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Overprotective Tendencies: Handling Player Risk Aversion


It happens in virtually every campaign. The longer the game runs, the more overprotective of their characters the players become. They become more and more attached to the characters and more adverse to exposing them to serious risk.

The GM, on the other hand, wants to continually raise the stakes and up the ante, in order to keep the thrill of virtual danger alive. The resulting increase in threat levels only serves to increase the tendancy toward caution by the players, who know that one wrong move will kill off one of the characters to whom they have become attached.

I’ve seen proposals from time to time to solve this problem, none entirely satisfactory. The best solution to date has been a gradual shift in attitude on the part of the GM from one of “the PCs may not survive this” to “the PCs may not be able to solve this”. Character survival is an inherant assumption.

But there are a couple of alternatives that I would like to present for consideration in today’s article.

Proposal One: Use-by dates

Characters have a fixed use-by date measured in a maximum number of game sessions before the character has to be retired, one way or the other, even if it is by GM fiat. Missed game sessions still count against this total, so skipping play does not extend the life of your character. As the date of doom approaches, the player will either start to look at ways for the character to either retire gracefully, or to experience a heroic ending. The latter is incompatable with the ultra-cautious approach that naturally tends to arise, leading players to attempt ever-more-spectacular accomplishments before they finally bite off more than they can chew.

As solutions go, this works, but it is not without its drawbacks. First, there is an ultraconservative no-risk alternative built into the proposal. Second, if everyone generates their characters at the same time, they will all expire at the same time, placing group continuity at risk; it would be much better if the infusion of new blood was more gradual. If you run the sort of campaigns that have a high mortality rate a low levels, this will be achieved naturally, so this solution remains viable, but it won’t work for everyone.

There are many variants that use a trigger other than the number of game sessions – it could be character levels (if the system has them), or an xp total (much the same thing, but applies more universally), or a calandar based approach (2 years from the start of play). Ultimately, they all add up to the same thing.

Proposal Two: Sword Of Damocles dates

A variation on this approach is one that preestablishes a use-by date as such, but instead nominates a date at which point a Sword Of Damocles will be (metaphorically) positioned over the character’s head. Prior to this date, the GM will not try any harder to kill the character than he tries to kill anyone else; past this date, the GM will actively seek to forcibly retire the character at any point where doing so enhances the overall plot.

Again, if necessary and useful to the plot, this can be by GM Fiat rather than with the usual escape clauses that might be provided like saving throws, etc. The Adventures the GM designs should offer chances for the character to go down in a heroic sacrifice to save others and provide the PC with a fitting ending.

The biggest problem with this solution is that it deliberately introduces an adversarial element to the game between the Player and the GM. The GM is trying his darnedest to kill off the PC and the player presumably doesn’t want this to happen, and so will fight tooth and nail to avoid it.

On the other hand, it does give the GM the option of leaving the sword suspended until an appropriate ending does manifest itself as an option. So it’s not without its merits, either.

Proposal Three: Mandated Exit Strategies

This only really works in campaigns that require or expect a lot of character development by the player. The idea is that each character has to specify a condition that, if met, will lead to that character retiring as soon as possible. For example, my Co-GM in the Adventurer’s Club Campaign has a character in another friends’ 7th Sea campaign who would almost certainly retire if the character discovered who had sold her into slavery and was able to obtain a reasonable revenge for that act, by the player’s own admission
– or who would die heroically in final battle with that adversary, with the player content if that brought down the villain. What’s more, if that villain presented themselves, there would be no room for a softly-and-with-caution approach – it would be maximum firepower and hell for leather, regardless of the cost, also by the player’s own admission.

Requiring something similar from each player as part of the creation process provides the GM with the ammunition he needs to liven things up as soon as the players begin taking things too cautiously.

The major downsides are that this can disrupt a campaign plan, can be less than satisfying if mishandled by either party, and relies completely on the player’s creativity and the fairness of the circumstances they nominate. It avoids the problems of the first two solutions, but introduces new ones in their place.

Another reason this works is that if the character is still generating general entertainment by not playing it too safe, the GM is unlikely to play that trump card. So there is an incentive for the player to continue to embrace a life of risk on the part of his character. Unfortunately, this reveals a second layer of risk: the player may easily go too far, taking silly risks. These can be just as out-of-character and disruptive to the campaign as the habit of playing too cautiously.

This works really well in conjunction with one of the other solutions listed.

Proposal Four: The Dorian Gray Solution

This uses one of the first two approaches, possibly in conjunction with proposal three above and/or five, below – but permits the player to spend some of his xp to delay the inevitable. The more in excess of the point at which the initial trigger should be applied, the higher the price.

This is especially powerful if you use a system like the one implemented for my D&D campaigns, which presumes that the higher the character’s level relative to the party average, the harder it is to learn anything new from any given encounter, and hence the smaller the individual xp awarded to that character. With this combination, no matter how hard the character runs away from it, sooner or later they become unable to advance further (the danegelt matches the character’s xp “income”), and at some point soon afterwards (when the payment rate further increases), they are unable to put off the inevitable.

This grants the character a grace period in which to “put their affairs in order”, and lets the player prolong the character – for a while – if they really can’t bear to see them go. It gives the player time to get used to the idea that their character has reached the end of it’s tether.

Proposal Five: The Mockery Solution

Picture it: The PCs come across a problem, with a valuable reward up for grabs if they succeed in solving it. They take their time, planning meticulously and, when every contingincy is covered, they put their plan into operation. But the expected opposition fails to materialize; only broken and battered bodies and the scars of battle. Finally, they reach their target, where the reward is seemingly theirs for the taking – only to find it already gone. Despondant and dejected, they return to their base of operations, a tavern, to find the drunken crowd roaring with laughter and toasting the bravery of the heroes who braved the dangers and won through to claim the legendary reward. Everywhere they turn, people are telling and retelling the tale, frequently embellishing it, a constant rebuke against overplanning. And if one of them should reveal that they also went after the reward, only to arrive too late, an element of ridicule will enter the story, compounding the humiliation.

After the second or third such incident, even the thickest player should have the potential pitfalls of overplanning drummed into their heads – for all time. But anytime one seems to forget, all it will take (even in a completely different campaign) to remind them is for someone to start talking about a suspiciously familiar-sounding story…

The elephant in the room so far as this solution is concerned is that it – humiliates – players.

No-one likes being embarressed. People play for fun, and being embarressed and humiliated is no fun at all. I’ve seen players get up from the game table and walk out, for good, over less.

And that makes this the last resort of last resorts. I would prefer to point offending players at this article and tell them to “read proposal five” rather than have to actually put it into practice. But, be warned: once you pull out the “read this” card, you are committed to following through on the threat if it is still necessary.

In an effort to avoid having to do this, it is far better to agree to a metagaming solution in which you overtly warn the players that they are beginning to overplan – “get on with it” – than it is to have to actually carry out your threat. And if they don’t listen to that warning, you have bigger problems – because some players may turn sulky, and petulant, and hostile if you actually carry out your threat, but you will lose all authority if you don’t. Either way, you lose, and you campaign loses.

Perhaps a “Yellow Card (warning) / Red Card (send-off)” system could be implemented as a last-but-one resort – the Yellow Card tells an individual player that they are overplanning and overthinking the problem, being too safe, too cautious, raising too many “what if’s” – and the red card demands that the other players vote publicly on whether or not to keep planning and playing it safe despite the GM’s warnings while the player who recieves the card (because he’s been the most obstructionist or cautious, in the GM’s eyes) doesn’t get a say in that vote. In other words, this demands that the other players decide whether or not to tell the player that the GM judges as most seriously offending to “shut up and get on with it”. It’s still harsh, even too harsh, but it’s better than having to implement the real final resort – if it works.

Proposal Six: The At-The-Speed-Of-Plot Approach

Personally, I employ a completely different approach – though I would like (and intend) to incorporate proposal three with this solution. Why deliberately kill off a character, or force them to retire, until you have started to run out of stories and plot ideas for that character? Or perhaps that should read, “stories or plot ideas that both player and GM find entertaining”. Either way, the question stands.

When the character approaches the limits, when ideas begin to grow thin or dated and repetitive, when the player is forced to contemplate the character’s life becoming a hollow caricature of what they have been until now, that is the time when retirement – one way or the other – should beckon, and may even seem like the most satisfying solution to the player.

In the meantime, the very nature of the plots, if planned correctly, can keep a player from becoming overcautious; the margin of error progressively becoming so knife-edge, the planning time available so scant, that characters are increasingly forced to take risks in order to achieve victory. And, so long as the plots are good, the character enjoyable, and there are stories that remain untold or incomplete, the GM has a vested interest in keeping the character alive (no matter how drastic the odds against them may appear to be).

If the GM simply keeps in mind the villain’s goals and the tactics they are employing to achieve them, and recognizes that the longer the players take to cautiously plan their approach, the longer the villain has to make his own preparations (and the closer to success he becomes), excessive caution becomes the players’ enemy just as much as it is that of the GM. A perpetually-shifting compromise equilibrium will be reached – caution, but not too much caution, becomes the objective, and that becomes the players’ technique, keeping the campaign exciting.

Where other ideas have been antagonistic, this is collaborative. Player and GM work together to give the PC a rousing send-off (one way or another) letting them depart with dignity and honor.

Other solutions?

I’m sure there are other solutions. These are just the ones that have occurred to me. Equally, I’m sure that some groups never have to worry about this problem. When Stephen Tunnicliffe was alive, it was never a problem to me – he was always ready to dive in, boots and all, when one of his buttons was pushed, or the right bait dangled; incorporate such a trigger that you can pull whenever the players are growing too cautious, and let nature take its course.

Far more than solutions, what’s important is to put the problem in front of the GM so that they can watch for it and decide on one if and when a decision is required. I’ve done that – the rest is up to you.

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Status Interruptus: Types Of Pause


African Fish Eagle in flight, Photo by “doc_” (Sias van Schalkwyk). Click on the image to visit his website.

In part one of this series, I demonstrated that a pause or interruption in play can be enormously beneficial, if used correctly. Last week’s article examined before-pause and after-pause content and found that these had to match in order to extract that benefit, and that the type and length of pause was a critical variable that needed to be taken into account…

What Is A Pause In Play?

It sounds like a simple question, doesn’t it? But the more I thought about the subject of pauses and interruptions to play, the more my definition began to broaden.

Most people would probably go along with my initial thoughts – that a pause was an interruption during which no play or other game-related activity of any sort took place. But then I thought about game administration – the awarding of experience points, etc – and realized that these constituted interruptions in play and that the same principles and guidelines could be applied to the before- and after- content that they represented. That then led me to consider pauses while battlemaps etc were set up – same story – and then post-combat game mechanics that were not conducted in-character, which so far as in-character play went, were just as valid cases of an interruption. And then I thought about scenes where the party are split up, with one group in combat while another roleplayed, possibly in an entirely different location, and the realization that even some roleplaying sequences could constitute an interruption in the main focus of play at the time (which could either be the roleplaying sequence or the combat sequence).

By the time I was finished, I had no less than nine different types of pause, and I’m not even sure anymore that I’ve caught them all!

These have been organized very loosely in sequence of greater significance in terms of the scale of the interruption. So I’m starting with things that, until now, might not have been considered an interruption at all, and working my way up to the more obvious items. The reason for this sequence should be fairly obvious if you’ve read the earlier parts of the series, but I’ll reiterate briefly anyway:

Scenes have a certain ‘momentum of emotional intensity’ that continues to affect players (and audiences) subconsciously during a break. However, there is a ‘drag’ akin to gravity that this momentum must continually battle or the buildup of intensity becomes frustration and irritation. If the intensity pre-break is high, this ‘drag’ is also high; if the intensity is low, the ‘drag’ will be low – but so will the plot’s ability to sustain interest over a longer break. The optimum level of intensity post-break is determined by the combination of increase from momentum, the degree of ‘drag’, and the duration these have in which to take effect. Furthermore, the type of content both before and after the break is also a factor. Some types work well together, other types do not.

Understanding the various factors and elements enables a GM to choose the correct intensity and content post-break according to the pre-break content and intensity and duration of pause, or to insert or modify the pre-break content to match correctly with the duration of the pause in play and the nature and intensity of the post-break material dictated as happening next by the plotline, real world, or game mechanics – in other words, to manipulate the pacing of the game content before and after the break to sustain or enhance interest after the break. The cumulative impact of doing it right can be tremendous!

(1) Bridging Scenes

Roleplayed sequences separate to the main action can either drag the intensity level of the main action down (by slowing resolution) or build it up. The key factor that determines which outcome will apply is relevance to the main action.

Hollywood (especially TV productions) have gotten quite good at this. How many times have you seen a dialogue occurring between two characters as a voiceover during a combat or action sequence? How many times have you seen shows cut away from a combat or action sequence briefly for a conversation or other scene only to then return to the combat-in-progress?

  • This technique works if the conversation (a) explains some aspect of the combat that is unclear to one or more participants, usually but not always the protagonist; or (b) increases the danger level presented by the antagonist; or (c) raises the stakes of the outcome of the action sequence. It also works if (d) the voiceover is a flashback in which a plan of action is decided and the action sequence is about the implementation of that plan. In all four of these cases, the interruption enhances the combat sequence.
  • Next most effective is (e) an unrelated sequence of equal intensity that is relevant to the protagonist participating in the action sequence, especially if it threatens to inflict further drama on the life of the protagonist. Two people plotting against the protagonist while the latter is busy dealing with what the audience recognizes as a lesser threat or problem, for example. Because this sustains the emotional intensity of the action sequence, transition back and forth succeeds – at least for a while.
  • Less effective still is (f) an unrelated sequence of equal intensity that is not directly relevant to the protagonist participating in the action sequence (but that is, presumably, relevant to another PC). This is the first subtype of a Bridging Scene interruption that crosses the line from enhancement of the action sequence to potentially damaging it.
  • Worst of all is an unrelated sequence of significantly different intensity. This either makes the action sequence seem mindless and tacked-on (if of higher intensity) or slow and dull (if of lower intensity). Neither is particularly desirable.

The above list is based on my first-draft notes for this article. What I subsequently realized is that it holds true for non-combat in-character scenes as well, ie roleplaying. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about a high-intensity interaction or a low-intensity one. This discovery came about when I realized that the same principles also applied to a bridging scene between two completely unrelated scenes linked by any sort of plot continuity. It might be making a plan and executing that plan. It might be having an argument between a PC and an NPC and then having that PC experience a revelatory/introspection scene as he tries to understand what led to the argument in the first place.

It even applies when you have two groups of PCs, each dealing with their own in-game plotline, both of which might derive from a common source earlier in the game/production, or which might be entirely unrelated. This simply means that from the point of view of one group in one plotline, the other is an interruption, while from the point of view of the second group, the first group’s activities interrupt them.

Which brings me to the following point: All of the cases (a) through (f) listed above can also work in an RPG. If you’re in a combat, simply assign an appropriate initiative number to the “other scene” to indicate when you are going to break to it, and break the other scene up into as many parts as you think there will be combat rounds, less one or two. Intersperse one with the other, and there you go.

(2) Housekeeping/Announcements

“Housekeeping” refers to incidentals such as the handing out of experience points, leveling up (if there is such a thing in the game system in question), and so on. “Announcements” are fairly self-evident – at best they deal with how real-world circumstances will impact on the game, for example “Our next session will be on Saturday”.

These interrupt game play without contributing anything but time. At the same time, because they are a necessary part of play, however, they don’t arouse the frustration problems discussed in respect to the previous type of interruption – they simply permit intensity and anticipation to either build or drain. That makes this an ideal way to end a period of play (which is a useful coincidence), either building anticipation for the next chapter/adventure or permitting the the tension from the previous one to drain away, depending on the nature of the last scene played.

However, there are times when this effect is the last thing that you want, as I’ll discuss under (3) and (4) below.

(3) Pre-Combat Setup

This is usually dead time, but that can be unnoticed as the combination of anticipation of the impending battle is heightened during the set-up of the battlemap or whatever you may be using. Only when the players are not looking forward to the battle does this fail to be the case – and that usually means that the anticipation is of a dull or boring time, which can happen if combat always takes too long, or looks like it might in this particular case, or if the opposition looks trivial, or if there has simply been too much combat lately.

There’s not much that an interruption can do to fix game mechanics problems, I’m afraid. Nor can I do much within this subject to deal with a failure to sell the opposition as a credible but beatable threat. This is a situation in which a drop-in interruption in the form of a bridging scene can help, because you can use it to ramp up the level of perceived threat. Alternatively, you can sometimes use some method of delivering the bridging scene that takes one of the heavy-hitters from the PCs out of the combat – and that makes the opposition automatically more dangerous.

If this particular combat looks like it will take much longer than usual, and be uninteresting for that reason, that’s a failure of combat environment design – there is something missing from the circumstances surrounding the combat that is missing, something that promises to bring the combat to a resolution in a reasonable time-frame. It could be that you need to consult Johnn Four’s series on Hazards Of Combat, or perhaps you simply need to re-frame the combat as a delaying tactic of some sort i.e. it will persist only long enough for something else to happen or be complete. Putting a “countdown clock” of some sort into the circumstance can work wonders, especially if the opposition know the timetable (even vaguely) while the PCs don’t.

As for the “too much combat” problem, that’s a flaw in plot design that pacing can’t solve on its own; you need some other sort of content in the adventure to lengthen the interval between combats, even if you have to add a subplot on the fly. Failing that, contemplate running it as one big combat that contains roleplayed segments or elements – or (my favorite solution to this problem) a more cinematic approach (Hmmm – I’ll have to do a post on HOW to run a Cinematic Combat sometime. One moment while I add a reminder to my post schedule… Done – a three part series to follow this one! So, where was I? Oh, yes).

One way or another, that deals with the pacing/interest problems that can arise during pre-combat setup. So now, let’s talk about the times when they are not an issue.

If some anticipation is good, a lot of anticipation is sometimes better. One problem that I haven’t mentioned yet is the problem of anticipation building up interest to the point where the combat itself falls short of the resulting expectations – an anticlimax. Most GMs deal with this with panic and unwarranted powering-up of the opposition just to create opposition of sufficient potency to match the expectations. This, of course, is one of the worst things you can do; long-term, it will result in players being convinced that the GM is out to get them, a paranoia that encourages cheating and uncooperative attitudes.

Here’s a better solution: tailor the complexity of the set-up (measured by how long it will take you) to the degree of anticipation you want to create, which in turn should match the degree of difficulty that the opposition are expected to provide. You can make this happen in several ways – one is to have the PCs attention focus on the opposition and only notice the “dressings” of the environment when resting or moving or encountering them. In effect, leave the combat space undecorated, or mostly so, and add more to it as the combat unfolds. The first time you do this, the players will probably be unhappy – the second time around, it will seem natural, especially if you add appropriate description that covers why the PCs are only noticing things now. Another trick that I’ve used before is to get each player to make a Perception check on behalf of their characters; every success adds another layer of detail. Because the players can see you adding detail to the battlemap in response to each of their checks in turn, it distracts from the length of time the setup is taking.

But I have one final trick that I need to mention – when a combat is expected to be big, or “epic”. I do my setup before the players arrive, or before play begins at the very least, or even as a side-activity while refereeing. The players can either see this environment lurking, waiting to “strike”, or can see it building up as they play. Either way, it means anticipation of the combat will start from the beginning of the day’s play or earlier and will have reached fever pitch by the time you actually place figures on the battlemap.

You can even – from time to time – change the design as you go, seemingly in response to in-game events that actually have nothing to do with it, just to mess with your player’s heads!

Of course, I also need to point out that there’s virtually no setup if you aren’t using battlemaps and miniatures. This eliminates the dead time of set-up but also eliminates the benefits of the anticipation… so, something of a Catch-22. But it’s something that can be taken advantage of, especially if you want to accelerate the pace of the combat itself using Cinematic Techniques.

(4) Post-Combat Cleanup

There are three types of post-combat cleanup activities, and time for only two of them in most campaigns. You can put things away, ready for the next combat, you can deal with xp and healing and other game mechanics, or you can roleplay the post-combat wind-down.

If you deal with either of the first two, or both (which is what most people do), by the time you get to the third, the players have already wound down. The intensity of play is therefore at a much lower level; the combat itself has acted cathartically, releasing the tension and excitement that had built up, and the real-world and game-mechanics activities function as though they were a pause in play, amplifying that effect. Attempting the third is frequently hollow, with the players engagement levels out of step with what their characters should be experiencing.

There are times when that’s exactly what you want; it permits the players to tackle the next sequence of play with relatively clear heads.

A lot of the time, however, that’s not the state that their characters should be in. The adrenalin should still be pumping, and celebrations of victory should be taking place even as the characters decide on their next step. This state of play is better served by delaying those post-cleanup activities until after the third option has taken place, carrying directly on to the initial decision-making for the next part of the adventure. That gets anticipation building again, making it a far better time to deal with any post-combat cleanup that does not take place in-game. If you go directly post-combat into roleplaying, some of the game-mechanics activities that come under the heading of clean-up get roleplayed, but happen anyway.

For me, a big part of the decision rests with another element of the post-combat clean-up: if the players are going to loot the bodies or catalog treasures, they will be going into downtime anyway; I engage in a brief roleplay post-combat, and then go into a full post-combat break. If, however, the campaign is the type where that sort of activity is unusual, the ideal choice is to actually combine the remainder of post-combat cleanup with the next combat’s set-up, or with the next pause of some other type that is going to occur, and deal with all the intervening roleplay immediately.

You can even use character interactions to tailor and tweak these decisions for individual players by means of their characters – if there’s a player who tends to “crash” post-combat faster than his character should, an NPC buddy who is hyper-“up” after the combat can maintain a more even keel. If a player tends to remain juiced on adrenalin longer than is appropriate for his character, an NPC who always does a critical and emotionless combat post-mortem and critique can bring the player back down to earth a little. After all, nowhere in the GM’s manual does it say that they shouldn’t help the players roleplay more effectively!

In a nutshell, then: if your adventure is better served by a break immediately after a combat, do your post-combat cleanup, possibly after a brief period of roleplay, but before critical decisions are made. If your adventure is better served by keeping the adrenalin flowing and the excitement building, commit to a more extensive “in-character” period post-combat and fold the non-essential game mechanics into the next break to come along – even if that places it back-to-back with setting up for the next combat.

(5) Deliberate “Commercial” or Tease

To a certain extent, we have all become accustomed to advertising breaks in the middle of something we’re watching. In general, those have no place within an RPG, but there is an exception: the “next time on” tease, or “next week we’re playing…” commercial. “Station management” commercials of this sort can serve to build excitement (at the expense of tipping your hand to surprises you have planned) or divert building excitement if your next session is to start at a lower key than the players current mood. This works especially well when the day’s play ends in a battle.

These are a lot harder to achieve than in other media because the GM can’t predict what the PCs will say or do; that means he needs to focus on NPCs and NPC-driven events, or be a little more vague. “Next time: the aftermath of the betrayal” (where the “betrayal” in question has been the focus of today’s play) works perfectly well. And telling the players what the next session is going to focus on as a “teaser” gets them thinking along the indicated lines, rather than going off in some wild direction as a result of between-game reviews and conversations. You can also play the “misleading teaser” card, and it is acceptable to do so with greater frequency than would be tolerated in a TV show, simply because the players know that you are trying to build excitement while preserving the plot twists and surprises that you have in store.

The only real problem with a tease is when it falls flat because the players are totally uninterested in what you’re forecasting. This can happen if they are tired of dealing with the same villain all the time, for example. This doesn’t happen very often, but when it does happen there is generally very little overt warning; you need to watch for subtle signals from the players – body language, tone of voice, side comments and commentary – that may occur at any time, even some game sessions in advance, i.e. the last time you had something similar happen. A tease can be a very effective tool, but it can cut both ways.

In terms of being a type of break, a Tease is a very interesting proposition. It’s in-character play but without any scope for player interaction. It acts as both a break in terms of accentuating whatever the precursor intensity trend was, but compounds that with the emotional and intensity characteristics of the teaser content, enabling you to drive expectations higher or lower. It’s a type of break that has game content.

This type of break is most closely related to the Bridging Scene, but that had (in most cases) PC interaction with some character – either another PC or an NPC, and this does not. That makes it something of a unique animal.

One caveat: once you make a teaser part of your adventure structure, you can never go back, or at least not until the campaign enters a new phase with very different goals and circumstances. It only takes one use for them to become an established element of the game, expected to occur every time, and missed if they are absent. The only time it’s acceptable to do without one is when the day’s play ends on a dramatic revelation of some sort or some other form of cliffhanger, e.g. a sniper attacks and a PC goes down, wounded, or a bomb goes off – the value of the cliffhanger is the mystery of what will happen next, the suspense of what the outcome will be, and that can be totally eradicated by even a well-chosen teaser. Again, players have been psychologically conditioned by television to find this acceptable.

It follows that most of the time, you will need some sort of teaser if they have become an established part of the structure of play. Your job is to choose the most interesting and dramatic event or events that don’t give the plot away, and this can be quite difficult to do, especially if the next adventure isn’t written yet! So think carefully before you use one – but don’t ignore the potential benefits that can result from doing so.

(6) Step Away From The Table

According to Microsoft, the average human attention span is now shorter than that of a goldfish (see The Conversation, 28 May 2015; for a counterpoint, follow that with this article from the New York Times).

I would wager that tabletop gamers score even higher on average than other gamers, who were already noted in the research as having resilient attention spans, but even so, it’s food for thought.

When I was working for the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the Occupational Health & Safety standards were a ten-minute break every hour because that would enable workers to miss one break if necessary without exceeding the maximum threshold of continuous concentration on a task (2 hours). Beyond that limit, error rates increased dramatically as attention to detail and task focus slipped. It was also a known and recorded fact that errors increased even in that second hour, unless at least a five-minute break was taken; it was just that the increase did not exceed the acceptable standards that the ABS had set.

On that basis, I began introducing 5- and 10- minute breaks into my campaigns every 60-to-90 minutes, and found that (a) concentration and focus levels went up; (b) side-chatter at the table went down; and (c) I was better able to focus on what was going on, performing at a higher level as a GM. Although you may not be aware of it, and may even be having a great deal of fun, GMing is an inherently stressful task. Taking a short break lets you de-stress momentarily and do a much better job. Such breaks are now an accepted and standard part of my game formats as a result.

These are breaks in play, quite obviously and by any rational definition, and they impact on the game in the same way as any other break in play. Which means the timing is critical, and the timing is defined by the relationship between the content on either side of the break. You can, through your choice of timing, build anticipation, create frustration, over-excite players or calm them down. They aren’t just a tool to directly help your gameplay abilities, they can make a material difference in the entertainment value of the game itself by manipulating excitement levels and anticipation.

What’s more, because they are relatively short, it’s comparatively easy to analyze the effects that a break has had; for that reason, this is the standard against which all other types of break are “measured”. Meal breaks (the next category to be examined in this article) were analyzed by comparing the effects of such breaks with the effects of these standard 5-to-10 minute intervals, and so on.

Tests have found that there is a maximum tolerance for advertising in TV shows of about 4 minutes, beyond which frustration over the absence of program becomes too great, as does the likelihood of something else on another channel capturing the viewer’s attention while channel-hopping. The frequency of such breaks is also an important factor; the optimum is 2-3 breaks per 30 minutes, or a maximum of 5 breaks per hour. These numbers aren’t hard-and-fast, there is some room for variations, but those are the basis on which most commercial TV operates.

Gaming is a lot more intense and immersive an activity than simply watching a TV show by virtue of the participatory element of a game. It seems to follow that the decompression times, which dictate the tolerable length of breaks, are longer, but the tolerance for frequency of breaks is lower, and my experience in applying such breaks to the gaming session bears this theory out in practice.

That, in turn, helps a GM understand the relationship between frequency and length of breaks and the game content that surrounds them. If the content is low intensity, breaks can be shorter and a little more frequent; if the content is high-intensity, breaks need to be longer and less frequent. However, there is a fine line in the former case; if the content is already low-intensity, and you lower that intensity still further with excessive breaks, it can easily feel like the game has stalled and progress is not being made. This effect is more strongly connected with frequency of breaks, so it’s my general practice to leave that value at the same 60-90 minute standard, and only manipulate the length of the breaks.

(7) Meal Break

At certain times of the day, meal breaks are expected, especially if an activity is expected to persist for some time after a mealtime. Meal breaks are more than several shorter breaks back-to-back; they permit players to digest game events, discuss circumstances and options, and formulate responses. Players are frequently sharper and more focused after such a break.

Within a fairly narrow range, the timing of these breaks is dictated by the clock, making them much harder to manipulate than smaller breaks. The effort required to do so effectively is, accordingly, considerably greater; but so are the benefits to the game of doing so successfully. In a nutshell, if the players are going to be more clearly focused and decisive, having a better understanding of the situation than they did prior to the break, if you can arrange the timing so that this is the circumstance the characters should also be experiencing, gameplay will be far better and more enjoyable.

As a result, there are two types of pre-break content that are especially useful when considering an imminent meal-break. The first is any complex situation or set of boundaries to player activities due to circumstances, where the characters should be more effective at responding than the players might be; the second is immediately following a major revelation of some kind that the characters should be able to take in their stride more effectively than the players will. Detailed planning, or in-depth understanding – those are the outcomes from a meal break to aim for.

The worst kind of pre-break activity are the ones that are generally considered to be the best types before other forms of break – moments of high drama (or melodrama) and combat sequences. That’s because the break is so long that no matter how dramatic and exciting these might be, the excitement and drama has had time to wear off during the course of the meal. Resuming where you left off, character emotions will be so far removed from what the players are feeling that there will be serious discontinuities in emotional reaction.

Deep, meaningful, low-intensity interactions, and introspection/analysis content work well before a meal break, even though they work poorly before any other kind of break; high-intensity interactions and action sequences work poorly before a meal, even though they are the best types of content prior to a shorter break or a longer one! That’s because meal-breaks kill surprise and excitement and adrenalin and anticipation. They really are the complete opposite of most types of game pause!

(8) End Of Play (prior to concluding chapter)

So you’ve reached the end of play for the day, but the particular adventure that you are running has not yet come to an end. Thinking like a TV producer, what you want when faced with this type of break is to end on a hook that will get “the viewers” to tune in again next week. That implies that the most dramatic and over-the-top situations should occur at such times – something memorable and exciting, in other words. The alternative is to treat these like a meal break, ending on a moment of revelation. Cliffhangers or surprises are the ticket.

That actually gives a wide scope in latitude. ANY type of pre-break content can be acceptable; the more important consideration is how that content will play at the start of the next game session, when intensity levels as experienced by the players will be relatively low.

But there’s a cheat that can be used to good effect: the synopsis. You can use the synopsis to rebuild the drama and intensity that had existed at the end of the previous session of play, at least to some extent; or you can even skip the synopsis and simply replay the moment of revelation or dramatic pronouncement from last time. It’s always better to start a session with a combat than to end one with a combat, for example, because simply recapturing the final moments of confrontation that were about to create the combat situation very quickly ramps the excitement up.

The key factor, as identified in previous articles is this: the ending has to point to the beginning that is to come. The pre-break content has to involve a situation that requires resolution at the start of the next session. If the pre-break content meets this simple criterion, anything else can be managed by manipulating the presentation at the start of the next game session.

Here’s a solid tip: In a pinch, any 5-minute break can be turned into an end-of-session break with generally satisfactory results. But that only utilizes part of the range of options available, so that should be a last resort.

(9) End Of Adventure

Things are somewhat different at the end of an adventure. Much depends on whether or not the PCs succeeded in achieving their objectives, and on what relationship (if any) there is between the concluding adventure and the next one. Some GMs think of adventures as volumes in a book, more-or-less independent of each other; others favor a stronger continuity and see adventures as one or more chapters in a book, each shaping the content of the next while propelling the protagonists into a new phase of a larger plotline. Some of my campaigns take one position, others the alternative, because campaign structures are chosen to suit the genre and style of play.

Even within that context, there can be variations. Adventures in the Adventurer’s Club campaign are fairly strongly episodic and isolated from each other, though subplots in one adventure may point to a later one to come; but on the China Expedition (“Things Of Stone And Wood”), we had multiple connecting plots within the context of the one overseas jaunt. First, as a prologue, there was the briefing, against a background of internal politics and dissension within the Adventurer’s Club; that then led to adventure number one in the sequence, in which a PC was kidnapped by his arch-enemy and had to be rescued; which led to adventure number two, a confrontation with river bandits and a supernatural kraken as the PCs made their way up the Yangtze River; which led to adventure number three, supernatural creatures attacking a village decimated by illegal medical testing involving another PCs arch-nemesis; which led to adventure number four, an epic trip into the Himalayas; which led to adventure number five, the confrontation with a resurrected Chinese Sorcerer and Mandarin with power over the elements; which then led to adventure number six on the way home, a Chinese Vampire with the PCs caught in a confined space (their ship); then to adventure seven, a confrontation with bureaucracy and another arch-enemy trying to steal the PCs cargo; which led to adventure eight, a fight between two Yakuza factions, one backed by a demon, and the other with the PCs as reluctant allies, in a bid to stop a Japanese invasion of China; and ending with an epilogue as the PCs returned home from their mission. Few of these missions had anything to do with each other; but they were all connected by the geographic consideration of traveling from A (New York) to B (a Himalayan Mountaintop within remote China) and then back again via C (Japan).

The less successful an adventure, in terms of the satisfactory resolution of outstanding issues of importance to the players/PCs, the more important it is that the end of the adventure propel those PCs forward into the next plotline. This can be most easily done with a “Teaser” as discussed above. It can even be worthwhile having an adventure end midway through the game session and the next start a few minutes later, blurring the lines.

The more satisfying an adventure is, within the above terms, the more the satisfaction that results will generate a momentum of its own to carry you forward into the next. As a general rule of thumb, I will simply announce the title of the next adventure (carefully chosen not to give away any secrets) and leave that to convert the satisfaction of success into anticipation of the adventure to come.

Unlike a meal break, the end of an adventure IS like a lot of smaller breaks back-to-back, but it can also be used in the same way that a meal break can if you have strong continuity or a strong connecting thread.

Impure Interruptions

Several of these breaks refer to combining one form of break with another. While that’s a subject for the final part of this series, I wanted to talk for a minute about a related topic, “Impure” interruptions. Someone needs to use the rest room urgently (it might even be you) even though there is no break scheduled, for example. Or someone’s phone rings. Such interruptions are a part of life; they will inevitably occur on occasion.

The best thing to do in such cases is to take advantage of the interruption by merging it with some other kind of break, then (if necessary) amend the post-break content by inserting a bridging scene before resuming where you were interrupted. This bridging scene need not be one with any PC involvement; it can be perfectly acceptable to resume with a prelude to the next adventure, or even the one after that. You can, in this way, target the players rather than their characters, getting the former into the correct state of mind to resume handling of their characters in the interrupted scene.

It may be necessary, bearing in mind the frequency-of-breaks issue, that this means foregoing the next five-to-ten minute scheduled break, essentially bringing it forward without warning or planning. Use the break to plan how you are going to handle the reentry into play.

You’ve already seen how different pre-break content and post-break content can alter the effect of a break and permit manipulation of the intensity of the game; this article has shown how the nature of the break itself can have just as big an impact. The final part of this article will look at Combinations, and how to choose the combination that meets your game needs at any given time, in other words, the practical application of these principles.

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New Beginnings: Phase X: Beginning

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The final stages of creation bring a new campaign to a glorious full bloom

It’s not easy making a completely fresh start. This series has examined the process of creating a new campaign in detail, and at last, the new campaign is ready for the curtain to lift and the show to begin – right?


This isn’t the first time it has seemed that way since this series began – there have been at least two other occasions when you reach what seems the end of the development path only to start over, adding layers of depth, complexity, and meaning.

So, what’s left to do?

Four little things. Or five, depending on how you count them. Or maybe that should be six.

  1. Revise. Again.
  2. Campaign Prep.
  3. First Adventure.
  4. Adventure Prep.
  5. Begin Again. You heard me.
  6. Enjoy yourself.

No Plan Survives Contact with Reality: Revise. Again. (Just a little).

No matter how clear you thought your vision was, no matter how clearly you think you have explained it, as soon as players begin interacting with your campaign – which they do, as soon as they start generating characters to inhabit your creations – those ideas and concepts begin evolving, filtered and compounded with the interpretations of other people.

If your concepts are exciting enough, the evolution may begin in the form of conversations as players share their thoughts before play starts, questioning and speculating and investing in your creation. Even without that, though, rest assured that your creation is indeed evolving behind the scenes.

It’s happening in your head too, whether you realize it or not. There will be some parts of what you’ve created that will stay in your mind, and other parts that will get lost in there, because that’s the way our memories work – and we then invent or romanticize whatever is needed to fill the gaps even if there is already something in the campaign plan doing that, which has been forgotten. Inevitably, some of these new ideas will feel more attractive or interesting than those already built into the campaign – and about half the time when that happens, they actually are. The rest of the time, the impression is a false one that derives from having lived with the original idea for so long.

Square Pegs in Round Holes

Inevitably, then, some of these new ideas will sneak into the campaign, where they will fit like a square peg forced into a round hole that’s just a little bit wrong in size. The idea itself may be brilliant but it won’t tie into everything the way that whatever has been replaced did, unless you’re exceptionally lucky. Nor do you have time to go back and fully integrate a new idea into the campaign – the countdown clock has started.

As a result, no matter how good the new idea is, incorporating it inevitably dilutes and even corrupts the campaign at least a little. Set your new ideas aside for a new campaign (more on that subject later) – but do it in a separate file so that if or when cracks appear in your plans, you can look for solutions in these derivative ideas.

And then, of course, there’s failure of communications to take into account. For me, this usually comes down to things that seemed so obvious that I didn’t think to put them in writing, like how one idea relates to another; six months or three years or whatever later, the “obvious” has completely vanished. For others, it might be a failure to explain their idea sufficiently for the players to grasp it – something I’ve also experienced from both sides of the gaming table.

Square peg in a lathe: fixing the problems

Make sure that your players know that you want them to ask you about anything that’s unclear. You will hopefully be able to respond, “That will get dealt with in-game” because it was supposed to be a mystery, but sometimes they will reveal unintended failures to communicate. Patch, Clarify, and Notify. Often, another player will respond, “I got what you meant right away” but you can’t rely on that.

It’s also important to remember to make allowance for spending part of your time on such clarification and discussion with the players when you schedule your first session, i.e. set the deadline for have your first adventure prepped. There will be distractions, and it’s also often useful to take a short break to reinvigorate yourself – you have been doing a lot of work creating the campaign, after all.

BUT (and it’s a big but, that’s why it’s in capitals) sometimes there’s been a gaping hole occupying our mental blind spot(s), which usually gets discovered when someone asks a reasonable question or offers some reasonable conjecture based on what they know and you can’t answer them – not even from your secret GM files. Quite obviously, the worst possible time for this to happen is when you’ve already commenced an adventure based on whatever surrounds that blind spot, and the best possible time is whenever you have the most time available to fix the problem before anyone notices.

“Fixing the problem” means inserting an idea that makes sense in relation to everything else. And making a note of the blind spot so that you never get caught by that one again!

Ah, if only it were that simple. Once the problem is fixed, you have a decision between two choices to make: you can either issue an update to the players, with a mea culpa that proves you’re only human after all – and that the campaign was flawed slightly before they saw word one – or you find a reason for the new idea not to be mentioned in the briefing notes, only in your secret GM files – and schedule a revelation of the truth, probably for very early in the campaign if not in the first adventure. But that then requires a reason or cause for the revelation – one that doesn’t expose other secrets, and which doesn’t obviously fail to expose other secrets, and which will still seem reasonable to have excluded those other secrets when they are revealed. Oh, what a tangled web…

Unless I can get a really good adventure or encounter out of the revelation, one that makes sense in terms of the broader campaign structure, AND satisfies all of the above criteria, it’s usually a lot less wearing to admit the flaw and move on. But either way, you have work to revisit and revise.

IKEA, not LEGO: Campaign Prep

A standard part of the process of creating an adventure is the just-in-time principle – commencing the prep work not for the adventure to come, but for the adventure in which the results will be required. That comes with a price-tag: it front-loads the campaign with additional prep. Of course, that’s probably the best time for it – you’re still relatively fresh, should definitely be excited and enthusiastic, and there will never be a point at which the campaign as a whole is fresher in your mind than when you have just finished creating it. (In fact, part of the design process involves inserting low-prep adventures into key moments so that you have time to actually finish the necessary game prep – and making allowances for those tasks that will inevitably take longer than you have budgeted for).

This prep can be broken down into two or three layers (layer three will sometimes be unoccupied):

  • Prep needed for adventure #1 that will be reused in later adventures;
  • Prep needed purely for adventure #1 that you do not expect to reuse in the immediate future;
  • Prep needed for adventures #2 and beyond that you have to start working on now for it to be complete when the time comes.

I distinguish the first of these as being “Campaign Prep” as opposed to “Adventure Prep” (which I will deal with separately a little later). Because it is intended for use in multiple adventures, it repays additional time, effort, and attention to detail – even if you have to cut corners a little on categories 2 and 3.

I use a number of criteria to assess where to short-change myself in terms of game prep:

  • If a corner has to be cut, the item that should be short-changed in terms of substantiative preparation is the one that is going to be needed last, because that offers the maximum opportunity to make up the shortfall at a later date.
  • However, the relative impact of the cuts on the quality of the result, and therefore the amount of time that can be acceptably saved, should also be taken into consideration;
  • And so should the relative importance of the prep to the adventure in question and to the overall campaign.

This makes a simple question rather more complicated. Every situation and every campaign and every GM will be different. That’s why prep management is such a popular and recurring subject for sites like Campaign Mastery!

Rather than trying to resolve the problem here and now, I’ll instead point readers to earlier articles that deal with the subject: It’s Not Like Shooting Sushi In A Barrel: A Personalized Productivity Focus For Game Prep and Game Prep and the +N to Game Longevity, and finally, the comments section of Adventure Structure: My Standard Formatting.

I consider the difference between these categories so important that I deal with campaign prep and adventure prep completely separately when getting ready to first run a new campaign – so much so that I will even delay or reschedule the start date in order to get campaign prep done, but will (usually) find a way to make do without if the adventure prep isn’t finished. After all, when you get right down to it, a lot of adventure prep is garnish and enhancement – important but not critical.

All of which means that different quality standards should apply to the two. Campaign Prep should be done as well as you know how to do it; adventure prep can be a little sloppier, a little more imperfect – a little more short-cutted. Doing the two separately means that campaign prep is worked on until it is complete – and adventure prep is done as best it can be in whatever time remains. As a rule of thumb, I try to allow twice as much prep time for “campaign” items as I think I will need to produce something of workable minimum standard.

The difference between the two really is akin to the difference between Ikea and Lego. Ikea create furniture that is perfectly engineered to be simple to construct, things that are expected to last; Lego is capable of far more spontaneous expression, and just as carefully engineered to be a building block, incomplete in itself, and eminently replaceable with another Lego brick.

The Difficult First Adventure: Creating Work Habits

Theoretically, you can do campaign prep before actually writing the first adventure, and should not do adventure prep until you have at least outlined that adventure and assessed your needs. In practice, the first adventure (like all first impressions) is so important, and ties in with so much campaign prep, that the two generally need to be worked on concurrently.

Why should the first adventure be so much harder than any other? Because of the sheer amount of material that needs to be established. Nothing is “real” until it appears in-game and everything in the first adventure is appearing in-game for the very first time. I therefore make special efforts with the first adventure, way beyond what I would normally exert on any other adventure (except perhaps the grand finale to the entire campaign). Think of a good first adventure as an investment that returns compound interest with every subsequent day’s play.

But even more important than actually completing the creation of the first adventure as a quality product is the establishment of a routine, a pattern, a work habit that will persist throughout the campaign (at least, it is to be hoped). I’ve talked in other articles about the ratio of prep time to play time, and how quickly time can add up if you can just do a little each day, and how each doubling of time spent in prep yields considerably less than a doubling of quality – once you get past a minimum threshold, of course. It’s the point where those returns begin to diminish that I normally define as “the minimum playable standard” (in reality, you can often create something quite playable with far less time invested – but that’s the point of optimum return on prep time invested).

You will never get a better opportunity to actually establish a work habit than before the pressure of actual play begins. I actually double my estimates of how much time I expect to need to reach that minimum standard when I’m talking about the first adventure, and that’s after separating campaign prep from adventure prep.

For example: The first adventure is estimated to be three game sessions of 4 hrs length, in total, for a total playing time of twelve hours. I estimate that the “minimum playable standard” for this particular campaign is approximately 1 hour of prep for every 2 hours of play – a fairly typical ratio – so the demand is for 6 hours of adventure prep. That could be done in a single Sunday – if nothing interrupts you too much – but over six days, an hour a day does the job. Over twelve days, thirty minutes a day is enough. Over 24 days, just 15 minutes a day gets the job done. But this is for the first adventure; so double that schedule: an hour a day for 12 days, or every 2nd day for 24 days, or half an hour every day for those 24 days, or 2 hrs a week for 6 weeks, or whatever fits into your life and is sustainable.

Here’s another way to look at it: If you expect to produce a new adventure every 3 weeks – which is what’s needed if your adventures are all three playing-days in length and you play once a week – then you should give yourself at least 6 weeks to work on the first one, not counting campaign prep or player character creation.

Those last two activities are something that you should be able to perform simultaneously – and that’s also convenient, because it means that you can estimate the minimum time your campaign prep should take, double it (as explained previously), and work backwards from the planned date of the first adventure to specify a “window” for campaign prep – which just happens to be how long you can give the players to read the briefing materials you’ve compiled during campaign creation, generate PCs, ask questions, etc.

LEGO, not IKEA: Adventure Prep, times two or three

Previous articles – heck, whole series – here at Campaign Mastery have focused on the writing of adventures, and how long you should spend doing it. There is a fine line between too little and too much, and it’s very easy to stray to one side or the other. But writing adventures is not the totality of adventure prep; and the remainder is often overlooked or underestimated. Generating NPCs, creating maps, creating treasure lists, finding or creating props and illustrations, and so on and so forth.

My thinking on the question of how much adventure prep should be devoted to writing changes with the wind and season; it’s a question that I’ve visited and revisited several times, usually as an incidental aspect of those discussions on adventure writing. Here’s my current thinking:

First Draft: Preliminary thoughts and existing content
  1. Outline: describes the overall adventure in a few short sentences, a single paragraph at most. Plot without script or structure, the bare minimum that you would need to be able to wing it and still produce something that more or less fits within the campaign plan. Your campaign plan – as generated during the course of this series – contains this, and more. So I start by extracting the details from the campaign plan and filling in any gaps in what’s there, to the point where if I had to describe the adventure, I could answer the fundamental questions of Who, Why, Where, and any Campaign-level goals that I want the plot to achieve.
  2. Entry point: How I think the PCs will get involved with the plotline.
  3. Resolution: How I think the adventure will end if everything goes right for the PCs, the maximum that I want them to be able to achieve, and at least one way that they might get to that point.

That’s the bare minimum that I need in order to run the adventure, and if I have to, it’s enough simply to have all that in my head before play starts. It takes between ten and thirty minutes to achieve, depending on the complexity of the adventure.

Second Draft: Structural Completion
  1. Central Adventure Structure: Bearing in mind any preset format considerations (which were discussed in the previous part of this series), I break the adventure down into acts – as many as I think necessary. Each act gets accompanied by an outline of what’s supposed to happen, in general terms. As a rule of thumb, each sentence in the overall plot summary becomes an Act, but there will almost certainly be additional ones required to get characters from A to B within the plot.
  2. Subplots: Are there any subplots that need “screen time”? List them as additional scenes in the Acts where I think they will best fit into the action.
  3. Screen Time: Does every PC (and “on-screen” ally) have something to do in each Act? If not, create and add encounters or subplots.

This fills in the bare bones of the adventure outline. It can take anywhere from a handful of minutes to a couple of hours.

Third Draft: Essentials Identification
  1. Scene Breakdown: I then break each Act down into the scenes that I expect to have to take place, based on the second draft. Each scene is described by a single sentence.
  2. Flags: I make a note of how the PCs might change the course of the Adventure (Flags), and insert additional scenes and variant scenes into the scene breakdown to reflect this. Some of these simply deal with consequences and ramifications, some deal with getting the plot back on track, and some are simply placeholders. My philosophy is fairly straightforward: so long as I know the NPCs and their goals, plan, and capabilities, I can perpetually adapt an adventure to reflect changing circumstances on the fly, so it doesn’t matter too much what the PCs do or how they get from plot point A to plot point C – even skipping over plot point B entirely, if they are clever enough. So most of my flags and breakdowns are done from the antagonists’ perspective, and detail how they will try to get their plans back on track, what vulnerabilities they become aware of, and how they will attempt to exploit any situations that might arise fortuitously (or how they will minimize the damage and respond if they encounter an unexpected setback).
  3. Breakdowns: in any plot, there are things that have to happen between beginning and end. This is often about ensuring that the PCs have the resources and information they need to understand what is happening to whatever extent I deem it reasonable that they would, and to be able to do something about it. “Breakdowns” are things that can derail the campaign if they don’t happen – once an antagonist has done whatever he needs to do to advance the campaign-level plot, I generally don’t care what happens to him, for example – he has served his purpose. In some cases, I may need to ensure that the antagonist escapes, or at the very least, survives as an antagonist – or that I have a plan to wheel in a replacement to finish the job if he doesn’t. Breakdowns are potential major plot problems and a basic solution.
  4. Plot Sequence: I take that list of scenes and subplots and flags and breakdowns and put them into a logical sequence within each act. This usually simply means dropping the insertions into place.
  5. Location summary: I list the key locations in which activity is expected to take place. As a general rule of thumb, it’s one location per scene, but sometimes there are more. Some of these will already be specified. Each should get a thumbnail description – usually no more than two or three words.
  6. Individuals summary: I list the key NPCs who are going to appear within the adventure in the order of the first scene in which they appear. Each should get a thumbnail description – sometimes this is a personality attribute, sometimes its physical, and sometimes it’s what I need the NPC to be able to do.
  7. Things summary: I make a list of any objects that play a central role in a scene. This might be a bomb, a briefcase, a statue, a jewel, a weapon, a safe.., anything that I think the players might want me to describe. I include any “special effects” that I think necessary. Each gets a thumbnail description of three words or so. These should also be in the order that they appear in the draft adventure.
  8. Important speeches: I make a list of any important passages of speech that need to be prepared in advance. This will often include villain gloating, but may be an NPC briefing on just about anything. I will summarize both what the gist of the statement will be and how it will be delivered.

This stage fleshes out the structure of the adventure and identifies the adventure prep required, as you’ll see in a moment. This set of steps can take an hour or two, or more if there’s an unusually large number or it’s an unusually large/complicated adventure.

Actual Adventure Prep (Take 1)
  1. Everything on the lists of locations, individuals, things, and speeches, needs one or more of five things. The 15th step in adventure prep is to decide which of these each requires. The five are: (a) A description; (b) An image; (c) A prop; (d)A battlemap representation; or, (e) A text.
  2. Once I know what’s required, I prioritize in order of importance. For details of how I plan the fulfillment of my prep list, refer to an article I mentioned earlier: Game Prep and the +N to Game Longevity.
  3. Images: visuals are great because even if you don’t find exactly what you want, you can use what you do find to inspire a description that does fit your needs. Use the thumbnail descriptions to tell you what to search for and how to select the best choices from the options available, then hit Google Image Search or equivalent. A great example: We needed a 1930s Romanian Lawyer for the Pulp Campaign. We searched for Romanian Lawyer. One of the images that came up was Larry Hagman in the role of J.R. Ewing from the original series of Dallas, complete with cowboy hat. I combined that visual with the personality of the Russian Cosmonaut from Armageddon and a few other sources to create a lawyer who was an Americanophile and wannabe-Cowboy in the Wild West. The players may not remember his name, but they’ll still remember everything else about him!
  4. Props: unless it’s paper-based, ie the text on a scroll or a fake newspaper or something along those lines, these will usually take too long to create, so I’ll use a description and/or a visual instead.
  5. A Battlemap representation: Most things smaller than human size can be indicated with a small dice or something along those lines. I often get creative but spend minimal time on these – refer to my article 52+ Miniature Miracles: Taking Battlemaps the extra mile for lots of ideas on achieving high bang-for-buck from this type of game prep.
  6. That leaves only descriptions and fixed blocks of text. Since these two rarely coincide, I do them both at the same time – at least to a minimum standard (bullet-point synopsis, in the former case, without the bullet points to make modification & compilation easier. But I generally don’t start on these until after I’ve handled everything else. Descriptions should be a three-to-five line paragraph maximum. Fixed blocks of text can be whatever length is necessary – but work HARD at compressing them, using the techniques offered in my series on The Secrets Of Stylish Narrative.
  7. I will use no more than half of the prep time remaining after reaching step 15 (above) for this, with the expectation of coming back to it later, after a reassessment of the time available. This is important in assessing the prioritization.

It can take anywhere from seconds to minutes to do each item of this game prep. It’s easy to consume multiple hours of prep-time on it, in aggregate.

Fourth Draft: Other Narrative & Content
  1. I’ll then turn my attention to the adventure itself, once again. Into each scene I will insert any required narrative & other content. This includes numbering and referencing the results of the game prep listed above, which I will use as inspiration. In particular, I will avoid wasting time describing something if I have a visual to offer. This also includes notes to convey information or instructions privately to players. I will make at least one compression/cleanup pass – which will mean nothing to anyone who hasn’t read my series on Stylish Narrative, referenced above.
  2. I’ll then create any NPCs needed, to whatever level of detail is required.

Campaign Mastery has run lots of articles on how to do this, and they are all worth reading, in my opinion. I use all the techniques described on a regular basis. Here’s an incomplete list, in no particular order:

  1. I make sure that at the start of every scene I note who’s supposed to be where, what they are doing, and what (if anything) is supposed to be happening simultaneously with that scene.
The balance of time

That deals with the essentials up to at least a minimum acceptable standard. All that remains is to allocate your remaining time wisely and use it to enhance, polish, and decorate:

  1. Finally, I’ll do a reassessment of the time remaining, adding to the prep time list additional refinement of the most important narrative passages and replacement of any earlier prep results that weren’t completely satisfactory, then apply the prep time that remains at this point to prioritize what’s left to do.

The End is the beginning: Start again.

The time to start gathering ideas and notes for your next campaign is as soon as you have finished creating this one. As I said earlier, don’t try and shoehorn your ideas into holes in your existing design until you confirm that there really is a hole there – something that with this development structure, shouldn’t happen; most of the time, you will find that there is already a solution in place that had slipped your mind, and that there isn’t actually a hole to fill.

But you can never have too many good ideas, and you can be pretty much guaranteed to forget any that you don’t write down somewhere. So start a new ideas file or two.

Why two? One for ideas that you think are or might be compatible with the new campaign – you can never tell when you’ll need a drop-in adventure, character, encounter, situation, location, or Macguffin! And one, obviously, for ideas that you are reasonably sure won’t fit the new campaign, and are saving for consideration when the time comes to create the next.

Because here’s the thing about this entire process: the more you can do in advance, the less work you will have to do when the time comes. It’s easier to create a great campaign if you have 100 good ideas to pick from for content; and that in turn is a lot easier if you’ve compiled 500 ideas against future need.

That’s why, whenever an idea was rejected in creating the plot skeleton for the new campaign, it was put back into the ideas file – so that it would be there for possible future use.

The Secrets To Success

There are several secrets to success built into this entire approach, in addition to those described above, and they are worth spelling out, now that we’re at the end of the process:

  • Organization. The objective of designing a great new campaign is approached in a very organized way that is also very flexible in creative terms.
  • Structure. There’s a rational structure to both the process and the products that result, and both are designed with actual usage in mind at all times – so all you have to do is tick each box as you come to it, and leave the totality big picture to form of its own accord.
  • Deconstruction of tasks into achievable smaller goals. This is a big element of the process. In particular, it focuses on preparing what you’re going to need before you need it, and – if a major task can’t be completed in one step – doing (and using) those elements that you can complete before revisiting the rest.
  • Top-Down overall design. This is something that I learned about when studying Computer Programming. It essentially means getting a fundamental outline, identifying each required detailed element within that outline, and filling in those details one at a time with something that fulfills the needs of that fundamental outline.
  • Stepwise Refinement. Get the basics in place for everything, then refine and polish each element. The basics give strength, making the overall result robust enough to survive actual play; the refinement and polishing makes everything pretty.
  • Top-Down integration of bottom-up components. Instead of simply throwing a lot of ideas at the wall and trying to make sense of the results, this gathers up detailed content and fits it into the structure only if it fits the picture – as though you had a box with five different jigsaw puzzles in place but only wanted to solve one of them, this approach incorporates a process to select the appropriate jigsaw pieces and set aside the rest.
  • Iteration. Simple processes, repeatedly applied, yield dramatic results that are completely out of reach to those who simply start at one end and keep writing and planning until they get to the other. This keeps individual tasks easily achievable without sacrificing the end result.
  • Time Management. Believe it or not, there’s a lot of very careful time management built into the process. That’s because at every point in the process, the focus is on what matters most to the end result, without getting distracted by side-issues. One of the big secrets of iteration is that, in the long run, it actually takes less time to complete the process than doing it by direct methods. Sometimes, a LOT less.
  • Error Correction. Not only is the process itself “error unfriendly”, by virtue of the top-down approach, it actively seeks out and corrects errors, misjudgments, and flawed assumptions as it goes – before these become critical. It’s not impossible to stuff things up using this process, but it’s a whole lot less likely to happen – and it’s far more likely that any errors will get trapped and resolved before they matter.
  • Practicality. There’s an underlying practicality to the process, because it focuses on achieving “deliverables” and “milestones”, on ensuring that the necessary resources for each stage in the process are on hand when they are needed. Small tasks are easily completed if you have the tools, skills, and resources necessary; a lot of small tasks makes a major project something that’s practical to achieve.

These are all proven design principles and techniques. Applied correctly, they can construct software, or a bridge, or a car – or a great campaign. But, even more than that, this is a machine for making such campaigns, one after another after another. And that’s one of the big secrets to success as a GM. Wheels within wheels within wheels – all assembled one wheel at a time.

Enjoy The Fruits Of Your Labors

If you’ve followed this process from beginning to end in creating your campaign, you have worked hard to create a campaign that you can enjoy running, and that your players can enjoy playing. You’re as entitled to vicarious enjoyment of their successes as anyone; you’re also entitled to enjoy putting challenges in their path. Have FUN with what you have created; one of the primary objectives in this whole process has had the hidden subtext of giving you the liberty to relax and enjoy your game. There is always a thrill and a feeling of success when a plan comes together, and this process is all about taking a bunch of wildly unrelated ideas and forging them into something that’s fantastically entertaining. No-one has done more to earn the right to enjoy the campaign than you have. Don’t waste that opportunity; use it to inspire and motivate you.

Which brings me to the end of this epic series of articles. I forecast at the beginning that it was going to be a wild, wild ride, and it’s been all that and more! So I thought it worth taking a moment in this postscript to point out that the entire series was constructed using the same principles that is espouses, and stands as a practical demonstration of that process. I started with a simple breakdown – a list of the major topics to be covered. Each of these became a separate post in the series, and was then broken down into smaller units, which became the major headings as shown in the initial contents list. In some cases, it was obvious that these major headings needed to be further subdivided, and some of those subdivisions were obvious – but most were not.

When the time came to write each part, I was guided by what had already been done – the available resources – and the initial outline, essentially a bullet-point list of the topics to be covered under that umbrella. I was also able to look ahead to future parts of the series, thanks to that initial structure, anticipate the resources that would be needed, and ensure that the creation of those resources was built into the process. Additional sections could be added, sections subdivided into subheadings and even sub-subheadings as the path to explanation became clear. Knowing how it all fitted into the bigger picture also gave me the luxury of being able to pause and examine interesting side-paths along the way.

I had no way of knowing exactly what the end result, this final part, would look like, back when I started; but I had faith in the processes that were going to get me here, having ensured a coherent steady development along the way. But I had fun getting here, despite (or, perhaps, because of) the twists and turns along the way. Just what you want in a finished campaign – for each part, each adventure, to have a purpose within the whole, while possessing the flexibility to let players do as they wish within any given part – and the room to step outside that structure when an interesting option presents itself. Use it with my blessings!

Give a fish, and you feed someone for a day. Teach them to fish, and they will never go hungry. At least, that’s the theory…

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No Article Today

Just a quick heads-up:

Due to a lengthy doctor’s appointment, I am left without enough time to get today’s article finished. I’ll try to get it finished tomorrow, but have another appointment then, so that might not happen, either.

Apologies are tendered, and I’ll try not to let it happen again – though I’m a little surprised (given my current health problems – see the preface to Stealth Narrative – Imputed info in your game and the footnote to The End Of The Adventure) that I’ve been able to prevent it happening sooner!

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New Beginnings: Phase 9: Completion

new beginnings 10

The campaign is on the verge of blooming as growth sprouts in every direction.

It’s not easy making a completely fresh start. This series examines the process of creating a new campaign in detail, a process that is approaching its conclusion.

Campaign Structure

There isn’t much of a structural nature left undone, or so it must seem – and, truthfully, the bulk of the work is done. But there is a small remainder that demands a little intensive thought.

How is everything going to tie together? You have intrusive game mechanics, practical necessities, the need to interrupt play for what might be a day, a week, a fortnight, a month – or some unpredictable combination and/or multiple of those. There is the necessary interface between experience point awards, other rewards, character progression, and plot to take into account – there’s very little worse than an adventure that over- or under-estimates the capabilities of the PCs at that point in time, but that has to happen for the overall plotline of the campaign to make sense.

These are all global decisions, individually small in nature, but combining to wrap the adventure up in an overall look-and-feel envelope that will encapsulate each adventure. Everything from the degree of continuity from session-to-session through to the style in which play will be synopsized (or even if it will be synopsized) fall into this category.

It’s easy to make these decisions. It’s not easy to ensure that they harmonize with each other, and still harder to ensure that they compliment the adventure content. In fact, it’s all most people can do to try and minimize the level of interference that they impose on the campaign content.

What might surprise those who haven’t thought about it before is that this approach is actually just one step removed from successfully completing that much harder task.

  • Make a list of the decisions that need to be made.
  • Order them in sequence of the amount of in-game content.
  • Make your decisions in that sequence.
  • The criteria are to choose the alternative that:
    • reflects the theme,
    • or, if not, compliments the theme,
    • or, if not, reflects the way the players are expected to react to the theme,
    • or, if not, balances the theme,
    • or, if not, that interfere the least with the theme’s expression.

This could be as simple as ensuring that every negative or downside is paired with a positive or upside, regardless of the relative strength of the elements of an individual pair, or as complicated as ensuring that at certain points in the campaign the balance shifts this way or that. It can be as plot-oriented as ensuring that each synopsis contains dark hints at the relevance to the larger picture, or as metagame-based as giving the players the option of “buying” a treasure/reward preference or substitute with XP that would otherwise go to enhancing their character’s capabilities. There are a multitude of options, but the process listed above will enable you to navigate your way through not to the compromise that interferes the least, but to the compromise that enhances the most.

There is one term in the list above that needs a little further discussion. That word is “balance” and it occurs in the second last basis of judgment. “Balance” doesn’t mean contradicting the theme or playing up the opposite; it means (in this context) grounding the game element so that the players aren’t necessarily feeling the same things as their characters, putting some distance between passionate positions and an impartial position that enables the players to enjoy the theme vicariously.

Adventure Format

One of those global elements needs to be singled out for special attention. Over time, your campaign will develop an individual adventure format whether you create one deliberately or not – but there can be a lot of pain, frustration, and lost opportunity in the meantime. A far better alternative is to create something that is close to what will arise anyway and just tweak and refine it, thereafter.

Each of the campaigns that I run has a different mixture of plot and in-character life. In some cases, only a few minutes (per multi-game-session adventure) for each character brings their lives up to date, with the occasional exception where the personal life of a PC provides the lead-in for a particular adventure. In others, I might spend an hour or more on “social in-character activities” for every hour spent actually advancing the plot agenda. Most fall somewhere between these extremes.

In some cases, these occur in deliberately-inserted “quiet moments” inside the plot, in other cases they precede the adventure. In one of my Fumanor campaigns, I target the mid-adventure session breaks with cliff-hanger endings, while bookending each adventure with “social life” – and again target these with a “personal life” cliffhanger. However, that campaign also had “soft boundaries” – which means that i was content for one adventure to end, and another to begin, mid-game session. (“Hard boundaries”, in contrast, mandate that each adventure ending also ends the day’s game session, demanding “padding” mid-adventure to get the timing more or less right – another of those “global choices” that I mentioned earlier.)

I have run campaigns in which experience was handed out after each conflict, campaigns in which experience was handed out after each game session, campaigns in which experience was handed out after each adventure, and at least one campaign where experience was handed out by note (modern equivalent: email) in between game sessions. Where does this metagame element fit into your adventure format?

I have run campaigns that preceded each social interaction session with a political subplot, and others which preceded it with a James-Bond style Teaser action sequence that did not involve the PCs – these targeted the players, but mandated that I provide a channel by which that information ultimately found its way to the PCs. I used a variety of such channels – everything from security footage to speculation to a mystic’s visions (eventually the players figured out that someone was pulling their strings by “showing” them the things the someone wanted them to see, leading them into the final phase of the campaign). This is a perfect example of how the adventure format and these global decisions can operate to enhance a campaign and even form a central element of the plot.

House Rules

In earlier parts of this series, we have made (and extended, and trimmed) a list of House Rules that would be required for the campaign; but with the exception of a few that were retained from earlier campaigns, these haven’t actually been written yet. One of these days I’ll do a more substantial article on the subject of creating House Rules*, but for now I’ll simply hit the high points:

  • Model your house rules on an existing example from within the game system as a first preference, and on an existing sample from a different game system that you know well as a second preference. Something completely original should be a distant third choice, made only when the first two don’t yield a model for you to follow.
  • Each and every House Rule needs to be justified, and that justification needs to be clear on what the rule is intended to achieve.
  • Every House Rule should have notes on a simpler, more abstract alternative in case it doesn’t work as envisaged. (NB: This is a case of “do as I say and not as I do” – failure in this area is one of weaknesses as a GM.
  • Rigorously apply the principles enunciated in one of my earlier articles, The Application Of Time and Motion to RPG Game Mechanics. In particular, if it is going to slow play, the justification for the rule had better be pretty darned good – and possibly even compensated by a simplification to another rules element that is at least as ubiquitous as the rule that slows play.
  • Test the rule to make sure it achieves the objective you’ve set for it.
  • Write a summary that explains the principles behind the rule as though you were explaining them to someone in an email. Maximum of three sentences permitted. This then becomes the introductory/explanatory text to the House Rule.
  • Look for hidden assumptions that might come back to bite you. Look HARD.
  • Go through your campaign plan. Make sure that there is at least one adventure relatively early in that plan in which you expect this House Rule to be showcased. Add to the prep requirements list for the adventure that follows, it a review of the House Rule.
  • Push the House rule to see what happens. So many rules are fine at low stat or character levels but fall apart under heightened stress.
  • Find an online list of feats, abilities, powers, whatever, for your game system. Search it for key terms from your House Rule, looking for unexpected confluences and interactions. Modify the House Rule accordingly.
  • This is an optional step, but one that I strongly recommend: give the House Rule to someone who knows the game system (who might not be a player in your game) and get them to review it for clarity and unexpected applications/flaws. Offer to return the favor if they ever want to call in the debt – and mean it. And accept their comments without a chip on your shoulder!

* One of the major reasons I haven’t done so is the degree of systems dependence that such an article would have and the difficulty of abstracting general solutions as a result. My fear is that it would either be so generic as to be useless or so system-specific that it would be useless to anyone else. As a result, it’s been on my back-burner for years, waiting for an approach to be uncovered that holds some hope of avoiding both these problems.


Your notes should contain everything that a player needs to generate a PC, including making intelligent choices for their prospective character. And they should be organized in logical fashion so that you (and they) can find whatever they are looking for. Creating an index is painstaking and tedious but often worth it.

Right now, neither of these is completely true. Before your campaign is ready to play, you need to change that.

Structural Organization

The organizational structure that I have been using as my guide throughout has been one that’s applicable to D&D (any flavor) simply because it covers all the bases; other game systems may not require everything on the list.

When a player indicates a desire to join the campaign, especially if the campaign is not already ongoing, here’s what they should receive:

  • A summary of the races available for PCs, as they are to be depicted within the campaign. This contains only what “everyone knows” and as such will be incomplete, abbreviated, and possibly even inaccurate.
  • An introduction to the game world and its history, society, geography, etc.
  • A summary – one paragraph at most – of each of the nations from which PCs may derive.
  • A summary of the archetypes or character classes available for PCs, as they are to be depicted within the campaign. This contains only what “everyone knows” and as such will be incomplete, abbreviated, and possibly even inaccurate.
  • The House Rules.

Once the prospective player has shortlisted one, two, or at most, three combinations of race, homeland, and archetype, they should receive the “full” (detailed) files on the chosen races, homelands, and archetypes that contains everything they need to know. In some campaigns and circumstances, they may instead receive an intermediate file that doesn’t reveal a race’s secrets, only getting “the whole story” once they have committed to a particular combination.

Even then, these files should not contain information that the race or archetype doesn’t know, though it may indicate areas of mystery that remain unresolved.

Internal Organization

I can’t speak for everyone, but I find it a lot easier to organize the contents of each document when everything is still in note form, simply because I can see more of the content at the same time. I use a lot of cut and paste to rearrange these notes into a coherent form.

Another trick is to use standardized headings for each file on a particular subject. This helps ensure that nothing has been left out, and generally imposes a level of rationality to the contents’ structure.

Expounding on the notes

Fortunately, even though this is a lot of work, much of it is complete already; you simply need to turn your notes into prose (one file for each nation, race, and archetype) and then edit and prune to get the versions for more general dissemination. Only a few of them should take a full hour to complete, and a reasonable average to aim at is 20 minutes or less.

Now, I know from experience that it takes a lot longer than that to properly create a balanced character class with descriptions of the class abilities. It follows that any such will be outside the boundaries of these estimates, which assume that you are simply modifying an existing class.

Cross-linking to House Rules

As I go, I am careful to cross-link to any House Rules of relevance. If there’s a house rule about extremely high Dexterity, for example, or if the GM has chosen to subdivide the stat into Nimbleness and Manual Dexterity (as I did for my first AD&D campaign), and a race gets a bonus to one or the other but not both, link to the relevant rule rather than repeating it redundantly.

Read-through, spell-check, edit, revise, polish

This should be fairly obvious! This is your final chance to make sure that your prose makes sense – take advantage of it!

Briefings & Backgrounds

Once characters have been generated, the clock to campaign start is definitely ticking. Without play, interest can only be sustained for a limited period of time. It is therefore important to make sure that you have all your ducks in a row before pulling that trigger.

I frequently buy additional time by getting players to generate a character background (which I then vet for compatibility within the game world). As much as possible, I like to make this an interactive process between the player and myself, enabling me to build connections to key plots into the characters, with the player’s approval, in advance. At the same time, I modify the campaign plan to integrate the actual characters – and the personal goals set for them by their creators – into what I have planned.

This frequently involves the preparation of additional briefing material for the player to read and integrate into their background. While it isn’t necessary to complete this material in advance, I do as much as I can find time for, because it eases time pressures later, freeing me up to focus on the individual adventures.

Exit Strategies

A player can choose to leave a campaign at any time. A character can die in any battle. The only certainty is that someone will want to do so at some point. Plan for it in advance!

Such planning consists of two parts: one, if the character doesn’t die, explaining where the character goes when he leaves, and why. Depending on the circumstances, this can be quite tricky – if an Elven character pulls out of the campaign in the middle of a life-or-death quest to save the Elvish Nation, for example. It might be that you need to keep the character around as an NPC until a certain point is reached – but this only defers the problem. Solve it now, and it’s out of the way.

The other aspect involved is to examine future plots for impact as a result of the character being missing. These may need modification.

This is one of the penalties involved in customizing the campaign to integrate the PCs. It’s a price well worth paying, but a little prep – like having a series of exit strategies for each PC that you can pull out of your back pocket whenever you need them – a lot of the angst which normally result can be expiated in advance.

These exit strategies all need to be generated in the context of what’s supposed to be going on in the campaign at the time. That’s why you may need several different ones for each character. Strategy #1 might apply until the fourth adventure, Strategy #2 might apply from adventure number 5 through 12, and so on.

Note that this isn’t the same as a temporary absence, no matter how prolonged it might be. However, it is the same as a player deciding that he isn’t enjoying his current character and wants to trade it in for a new PC.

Initial Adventure

There are also a couple of final decisions to be made in conjunction with the initial adventure. One of the necessities, for example, is to get all the PCs into the same physical location and give them a reason to bond into a group. Only when the characters have been generated do I know where they will be coming from, and therefore where the most sensible place for them to come together is going to be.

I then need to get the group from that point of assembly to wherever the first adventure is supposed to take place. Along the way, I like to incorporate mini-encounters that will introduce each PC to the group in a more substantial manner than a verbal “I’m Alderac, a Wizard from the Western Divide” does.


Finally, I make sure that any necessary infrastructure is in place. This could be anything from photos that give a sense of the world, its architecture, etc, to forms, paperwork, props, and tools. I include the selection of an appropriate miniatures figure for in-game use in this category, but it can also involve making sure that you have enough chairs for everyone who is going to be involved!

There often isn’t much in this category, but that just makes it a quick and easy box to tick – just what you want, approaching the end of a major task!

Oh, and one more thing: I make sure that I have contact information for everyone, and that everyone knows when and where play is expected to commence! This is taken for granted too frequently.

It’s been a long road, but the conclusion is in sight. We’ve taken a bunch of isolated ideas and legacies and forged them into a plan for a campaign, we’ve created everything that we need for PCs, and we’ve signed up a number of prospective players, who are busy reading briefing and background material and creating PCs. It’s time to put that plan into operation…

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Anatomy Of An Interruption – Endpoints


Having established in part one of this series that a pause or interruption to play or to the primary plot being deployed within the game can be more than a necessary inconvenience, it can be a tool whose manipulation by a savvy GM or TV producer can enhance the game or production, it’s time to take a closer look at the anatomy of an interruption.

End, Middle, and Beginning

While studying various television shows as research for this article – all right, paying attention to the breaks and surrounding content while watching – I determined that all the different types of activity pre-interruption could be abstracted into four simple categories, and that the same four categories also described (in the abstract) all the types of activity that followed an interruption.

Having identified those four types of pre- and post- break material, I began to notice that even in the course of presenting content, television programs often interrupt their own content in various ways, to heighten drama, provide narrative counterpoints, infuse irony, or enhance the entertainment value of the primary plot sequence. These were identifiable by the fact that after the interruption, the scene that had been taking place prior to the interruption would continue, though often at a different intensity or with added relevance or emotional context by virtue of the interruption.

By now, I was certain that the observations that I was making were relevant to RPGs, and would form the basis of an interesting article (or series, as it worked out) here at Campaign Mastery. When I began to actually contemplate the application, however, I discovered still more forms that a pause or interruption in play could take, and that some of these were actually almost inevitably built into the mechanics of many of the most popular games simply because that was the most practical time for them to occur.

By the time I was finished, I had 9 types of pause, break, or interruption. Each has it’s own utility from a plot/metagame perspective beyond any intrinsic purpose that it might hold, and each can be manipulated to the benefit of the game, particularly by combining two or more together. But that’s getting a little ahead of myself; Part three four of this series will deal with practical application, though I’m sure a few bits and pieces will manifest as we proceed.

Today’s article defines these elements of a break – the end of the content prior to the break, the beginning of the content that follows the break, and the different types of interruption that can go in-between: End, Middle, and Beginning.

Refining The Concept 1: Pre-pause peaks

Before any sort of pause, the content needs to reach a peak in intensity relative to the starting point of the scene that is being interrupted. Such peaks can be a call to action, a call to interaction, or a call to reflection.

(a) Peaks That Prompt Action

Decisions made that are about to be implemented, confrontations that are about to resolve into combat, or the identification of a need to perform some other sort of action, all are peaks that prompt action. Someone is about to do something.

But before they can begin doing so, there is an interruption or break, which serves to heighten the anticipation of the event that is about to take place.

Such breaks posses two essential attributes that need to be noted:

  • Anticipation can become frustration if the significance of the action does not exceed the negative value of the pause duration.
  • Re-entry into the scene post-break is more readily achieved because of the simple 1:1 relationship between the need to act in a certain way and actually acting in that manner.
  • Emotional intensity is easily lost following a pause if the rejoin takes place at the moment of result rather than the moment of action.

Let me explain each of these a little more substantially:


There are two forces that act during a pause or interruption: an upward trend in intensity caused by anticipation, and a tendency for that anticipation to turn into frustration. The greater the initial impetus caused by the pre-break situation, the longer it takes for the second effect to overcome the first. If you were to plot the emotional demand for resolution, ie the intensity, over time, the intensity is analogous to the altitude of a projectile, the first force to the vertical component of the initial kinetic energy of the projectile and the second to the force of gravity acting on the object.

Successful re-entry into the scene is the equivalent of the projectile reaching it’s target at the initial intensity or higher; once it’s downward velocity exceeds the initial input, frustration dominates, and the interruption will have a negative effect on game-play entertainment value.

The more initial impetus there is, the longer the break can be before negative effects overcome the positive ones. Note that once the “projectile” has been launched, you have little-or-no control over it; the point at which intensity maximizes is more or less fixed.

The more-or-less in that last statement exists because there are some forms of break activity that can act as equipping the “projectile” with a rocket engine: adding relevance in some manner, or players spontaneously speculating on the significance or outcome, for example – in other words, if the break is of a nature that it adds relevance, importance, or drama to the scene that has been interrupted.

Crucially, if the initial impetus is strong enough, one mechanism by which players can relieve early frustration is by venting it through such speculation; this, of course, can only occur if they interact socially during the break. If the group breaks up and goes in different directions, or if the nature of the interruption does not permit such interaction, this effect can’t be used. If the action is of a minor nature, the outcome will not be significant enough or interesting enough to prompt such speculation.

Consequently, the ability to manipulate the entertainment value of such scenes depends on achieving the correct combination of pre-break action and break-type.


Character A decides to do something – at which point, instead of resolving the action, there is an interruption of some sort. When the scene resumes, it is natural to restart it with the character putting that decision into action.

So strong is this relationship that any other sort of reentry into the scene is problematic, and likely to have a negative impact on the entertainment value of play overall. Even if there is to be an immediate transition to some other form of post-break content, it will “play” more smoothly if you permit the character to at least start doing whatever they had decided to do.


It is often considered expedient, especially if available time is running short, to return to the initial scene at the moment that the action produces results, rather than playing through the process of achieving those results. While better than transitioning to some other form of content during the scene continuation by virtue of the decision-action connection described above, the gameplay is never as satisfying to anyone because the action itself is not present to be viscerally satisfying.

This is always a compromise, valuing expediency above satisfaction; being aware of this can enable a more reasoned decision by the GM as to the utility of this compromise.

However, where an action will require considerable game time, a further compromise is possible: the GM can return to the action after the action has commenced but prior to an outcome being achieved. He can then acknowledge the time and events that have occurred “off-camera”, abbreviating the total process but still establishing and utilizing the decision-action connection. Like all successful compromises, the utility of this approach falls somewhere in-between the two alternatives. So this is a better choice than cutting directly to the outcome, while still reducing the time requirement to less than would have been required to play through the entire action.

The more high-paced the scene in question, the more acceptable this dramatic shortcut becomes, making this a useful technique in its own right – one that requires a pause or interruption to the scene in order for it to be useful!

(b) Peaks That Prompt Strong Interaction

Interaction is conversation between a PC and another character, either a second PC or an NPC. Strong interactions are heated, or otherwise possessed of emotional intensity. A character might propose marriage, for example – provided that this doesn’t come completely out of the blue, so that it has some emotional foundation, this would qualify as a strong interaction.

Strong interactions are wonderful in that they can successfully lead to any sort of post-break content within the scene. Take an accusation of betrayal, for example: post-break, this can lead directly to action (a physical response to the accusation), to a continuation of the strong interaction (melodrama), to a weak interaction (non-aggressive emotional response), or to Introspection/Analysis. No other type of pre-break content is as universal. That’s why a break is naturally-tolerated after a melodramatic pronouncement, regardless of the content of the overall production/adventure.

The only time post-break scenes fall flat following such strong interaction is when the subsequent scene does not contain acknowledgement of the strong interaction of some sort. Pretending it didn’t happen might be an occasional human reaction to such a scene, and can be quite satisfactory – but not if there’s a break in between!

But this type of lead-in to a break is even more flexible than it already seems; it’s perfectly justifiable for the content to be of a completely different nature provided that it is going to prompt a strong interaction after the break. Discovering evidence of an infidelity, for example, can precede a break – provided that the next time the action returns to the character making the discovery, they engage in a strong interaction of some sort, i.e. display some sort of intense emotional response to the discovery. This can be anything from having it out with the character in question to discussing the matter with a third party to plotting some sort of revenge, or even a strong denial of the evidence.

(c) Peaks That Prompt Weak Interaction

In contrast, these make the very worst sort of content for preceding a break. They have virtually no intensity, by definition, and next to no momentum to sustain interest through the break. The consequent tendency is to “overact” outrageously when returning to the scene, trying to make it seem more significant and intense than it should be, in order to get some emotional investment in proceedings on the part of someone.

It’s so strongly tempting to say never to use one of these – but that’s too simple an answer. Under the right circumstances, a weak-interaction scene going into a pause can work extremely effectively – can even be absolutely brilliant.

The secret is to engage the players (or the audience/readers) in a way that you aren’t engaging the characters.

EG: The primary character (PC) in a scene is a two-ton gargoyle who is trying to behave in a “civilized” fashion while remaining incognito. The secondary character (PC or more probably NPC) is a normal person who has become upset over something in a previous scene. PC: “I’m told that a hot cup of tea can be very soothing. Would you like me to make you one?” Reply: “That would be wonderful, but we’re out of milk.” PC: “I’ll just go down to the corner store and get some, be right back…”

Okay, this example scene played better in my head when I first thought of it. That’s not the point; it still works as an example. The incongruity of a two-ton gargoyle trying to be inconspicuous signals clearly that a comedic passage of play is to follow; such a passage would also qualify as a low=intensity scene, but because it is engaging the players on an entirely different, meta-game, level, this will work. Despite being low-intensity from the character’s point of view, it nevertheless makes a promise of strong interaction between the GM and the players after the break – and so, it works as any other high-intensity scene would.

(d) Peaks That Prompt Introspection/Analysis

The final category of content to be considered is revelatory in nature. I discussed these in some detail in part one, so I won’t go into too much detail here. Suffice it to say that the revelation needs to be of a nature that it creates buzz, and the more unexpected it is, the more buzz it will create amongst the players as well as amongst the characters.

This sort of scene works as lead-in to a break when the competence and ability to cope with surprise of the characters is greater than that of the players, because it lets the players vent some of their surprise, or come to terms with the revelation, before play resumes. This enables them to decide just how surprised their characters should be, rather than forcing the characters to mirror the reaction of the players.

The scene itself can be of any type; the fact of its ending in a revelation is sufficient to override that nature, though it may remain a secondary characteristic of the content, favoring the use of one type of post-break content over another. A disguise or truth can be exposed in combat; a discovery can be made as a result of actions undertaken; a secret can be blurted out in a heated exchange, or revealed in a whisper; or can be uncovered through the application of painstaking detective work.

It’s also important to realize that once you challenge the players to reevaluate a situation, you cannot stop them doing so at a player level and that the results will filter through into their character’s handling of the situation, whatever it may be. The introspection/analysis will start immediately – internally, if not aloud.

Finally, a truism that must be factored in: whenever you have a break that follows a revelation, it is dramatically almost mandatory that the scene that follows relates to that revelation. Exceptions can be crafted by skilled writers, but these are so rarely successful that they would hardly bear mentioning, if it weren’t for the one thing that these exceptions have in common: a break in between. In this case, one form of discontinuity (the break) can neutralize another (the content) provided that the break is substantial enough in nature to signal the beginning of a new chapter of the plot. This works because we expect a discontinuity in between chapters of a story. A very useful technique….

Refining The Concept 2: Post-pause activity

As you can see by the preceding, the attributes of all three elements of the interruption must operate in harmony in order to achieve an optimum outcome from the break. As a general rule, you have full control over two of the three, with the exigencies of current play, plot, or the reasons why a break is mandated, dictating the third. However, also as intimated, it is sometimes possible to gain some measure of control over the third element; the technique for doing so depends on the element to be controlled.

Where the initial action is defined by what the players are doing, or what their PCs are doing in-game, which is the most frequent circumstance, you can gain control over this by deliberately inserting a scene of optimum type to precede the break and tie in with the content to follow. This is the optimum solution when a break of some sort is necessary, but you have control over the timing, and avoids the problems of breaking at the wrong time.

Where the break is being forced on you, it usually means that don’t have that option – whatever was happening has to be suspended for some real-world reason, which will also dictate the length and nature of the break. However, rather than simply restarting where you left off, you can deliberately re-start with a compatible scene that (at least partially) regenerates the tension, intensity, and mood that existed before the break, enabling a smooth resumption of play. Furthermore, you can compound one type of break with another, further manipulating the tone of the game in a positive way in terms of its entertainment value.

The final circumstance is where the tonal character of the scene that will occur post-break is known and can’t be changed. This generally occurs because the pre-break scene has already been played and the anticipation/frustration combination is already at work; you can’t insert a new back-from-the-break-scene because you need to pay off that anticipation before the game’s entertainment value falls off a cliff. This might seem as though it locks you into one course of action, but in reality it simply demands that you be a little more creative in applying the principles that this series outlines. You could, for example, compound the existing and mandated break with one that gives a “lift” to the action/intensity by increasing the significance or danger level of the scene that’s already underway. This then allows a third type of break to be inserted before the intensity curve levels off and begins to plummet into frustration which completes the connection between pre-break and post-break intensity and content.

That means that it’s essential to understand the different types of content from both ends of the break, as well as the characteristics of the interval in between. Having looked at the pre-break content, and the post-break content that most successfully connects with it, we now have to look at the other end of the plot element: the post-break content.

(e) Post-Pause Action

While it’s theoretically possible for any type of pre-break content to lead to a post-break action sequence, there is a definite hierarchy of content in terms of the general success of the overall game.

  • A pre-break peak that prompts post-pause action is a natural match, so long as you haven’t waited too long. If you have, it’s often better to “cushion the fall” with a lower-intensity post-break sequence before transitioning to the action sequence, and this is so much more effective if the lower-intensity sequence adds value to the action sequence.
  • A pre-break peak that prompts a post-break high-intensity interaction can work, but can feel awkward and forced if player emotions have had time to cool during the break – so this combination suffers from exactly the same problems, in a way, as the call-to-action frustration issue. The same solution also applies; so your choices are to transition via the break from a high-intensity interaction either to action or to a low-intensity interaction that enhances an action sequence that follows it. This is one circumstance in which you can also achieve success by targeting the players in a different way to their characters; that’s because the problem isn’t that the PCs have cooled off, it’s that the players have, and hence will no longer bring the same intensity of motivation to their play. Doing something to fire up the players again therefore solves the problem.
  • A pre-break revelation that prompts a post-break action sequence is almost as natural as going from a moment of high melodrama into an action sequence, but the nature of the revelation must support a transition to action. Quite often, a revelation doesn’t create a clear course of action in response; it is more about providing context to events that have already occurred, and inducing a threat within current or future events that cannot be combated until those events transpire. It is often more effective to segue post-break into a period of weak interaction or even further reflection/contemplation/introspection/analysis; but that can leave the game dragging and limp after a while, so it is best to only permit so much of that before inserting a sequence of mindless and unimportant action, which has the sole purpose of lifting the energy levels and pace of the game. Both roads ultimately lead to an action sequence, in other words, but some (perhaps most) revelatory content mandates getting there the long way around.
  • Worst of all is transitioning from a low-energy or weak interaction – a quiet chat between allies, or neighbors, for example – straight into an action sequence. No matter how relevant the action sequence is to the overall plot, it always feels tacked on. The solution to this problem is to redefine the scope of “action sequence” to include low-intensity actions. If your low-intensity interaction leads to a character intending to go shopping, play the shopping expedition. Then transition from the low-intensity action to a call to medium-intensity action – while the character is shopping, someone attempts to rob the store. It is then easy to transition from the medium-intensity action to full-on action – the robbery has been thwarted, the store is surrounded by Police, and the news helicopter overhead is making live reports – which lead the antagonists of the real action sequence to the PC. Alternatively, you can simply have a medium-intensity melodramatic statement – a low-key threat when the PC is discovered in a tense situation, leaving the door open for a quick-witted quip on the part of the PC and then into the action sequence! (James Bond movies have been using this trick of a rapid-escalation for decades (especially leading into the pre-title action sequence), as have the writers of Spider-man). Either way, the technique is to elevate the intensity to a medium-level in one step and thence to further elevate it into the action sequence, rather than trying to complete the jump in one step.
(f) Post-Pause Strong Interaction

I described strong interactions as the most universal of the content types when used as the closing moment of a pre-break sequence. It is almost as universal in the post-break position.

  • Going from an action sequence to a Strong Interaction works – unless there’s a break in between. Even if the game system calls for a post-action-sequence break, you are better off deferring it until after the ensuing strong interaction. I’ll talk some more on this subject in a little while, because the nature of the break shines light on how to handle this. For now, suffice it to say that the post-action break should be deferred until after the strong interaction, even if that interaction is likely to lead to a further action sequence.
  • Going from one strong interaction sequence to another can be really problematic, because there’s no contrast. Only if the tone of the two interactions is completely opposite would I contemplate it – one couple declaring their love for each other while another scream verbal abuse into the wind in a heated argument, for example, has enough contrast to make it work. Indeed, you could argue that the contrast heightens the significance of both sequences.

    Under any other circumstance I would deliberately separate the two with a low-intensity interaction or an introspective moment. Since these don’t work very well pre-break except under very restricted circumstances, the better choice most of the time is to position the low-intensity interaction post-break. However, that means that the atmosphere generated by the high-intensity interaction will persist through the course of the break, which is only acceptable if the tone was positive in some way. The lesser of two evils is often to insert low-intensity interactions on both sides of the break, even though that can be problematic in itself; tying one of the two into one of the high-intensity interactions can lift it just enough to make the transition palatable. A brief interlude in which a third character asks one of the participants in the first high-intensity exchange, “Are you OK? I can’t believe the nerve of that [fill-in-the-appropriate-term]…”, for example.

  • Going from a low-intensity interaction to a stronger interaction can happen naturally if it builds on an existing trend or undercurrent in the low-intensity interaction, and involves the same characters. Under any other circumstance, the best approach is to insert a scene or pre-scene sequence after the break which lifts the intensity to a medium level; the simplest such is to recap – in the most biased and prejudicial way possible – the reasons that the high-intensity interaction is about to take place. The bias to employ is the one that best leads to the high-intensity interaction, so it has to match in tonal value.
  • Finally, going from a period of introspection or analysis that has led to a revelation, to a high-intensity interaction, works perfectly IF the subject of the interaction is the revelation and vice-versa. Yes, this is highly melodramatic – but so long as you accept that, there’s no problem (I have a lengthy example to offer, but don’t think it’s warranted). Instead, let me turn my attention to the alternative situation – where the subject of the interaction bears no relation to the revelation. There is only one way that I know of to make this succeed, in terms of the broader narrative and overall entertainment value, and that is to employ a break that possesses attributes associated with the “end of a chapter”, as described earlier. It follows that if the break is not of that nature, you need to compound it with a break that is.
(g) Post-Pause Weak Interaction

It’s always a problem transitioning to a weak interaction after a break. There are occasions when this transition is natural, however, and not to be obstructed.

Going from any sort of high-intensity situation to a low-intensity situation only works under very limited circumstances: either the low-intensity situation must relate in subject to the preceding high-intensity situation, in which case it is effectively a winding-down of the characters involved; or the weak interaction must connect in subject to a future high-intensity situation and precede the break.

An example of the first: after the big fight, letting the victorious participants interact with each other is very natural and normal. Give the PCs time to celebrate before moving on and they will enjoy the game far more than they would otherwise – while never realizing that it is this release that boosts the entertainment value so highly. Note that it can be argued that this scene is even more effective if the break is delayed until after it takes place – even if that means inserting another low-intensity scene post-break!

An example of the second: after the big fight, the GM cuts to a scene that the PCs cannot possibly observe, showing a villain (unnamed) watching the PCs deal with the high-intensity situation, and talking ominously to himself in a manner that signifies an eventual threat to the PCs. This sort of scene is natural in comics, and occasionally shows up in movies and television as a teaser for future developments – Thanos’ appearances in various Marvel movies being a great example. This works in an RPG because it speaks directly to the players, while passing completely unnoticed by their characters; in media parlance, it breaks the fourth wall to promise “even more interesting events” in the future lives of the PCs.

The value of this type of scene can be maximized if it falls somewhere close to, but prior to, a chapter-ending break. A perfect example is showing that Darth Vader survived the final attack on the Death Star in the original Star Wars movie; this is THE scene that promises a sequel, because it shows that the threat has only been abated, not ended.

Despite the problems that go along with the proposition, going from one low-intensity scene pre-break to another, post-break, is often the most natural transition. As noted previously, the major difficulties are with the turgid, even soporific, pacing that results. If you can spice things up before and/or after such scenes with a more dynamic sequence, this can be anywhere from tolerable to brilliant. I’ve already discussed using this form of transition as a bridge between other content types, so there isn’t a lot more to add here.

(h) Post-Pause Introspection/Analysis

This works so poorly that I can’t think of a single instance of it being successfully employed. When the premiere of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was shown on Australian Free-to-air (commercial) TV, they cut to an ad break just before Cisko found himself speaking to the “wormhole aliens”. While this emphasized the discontinuity with normality that he experienced at their hands, it also meant that it had all the impact of a wet noodle – especially when they did the same trick of timing again, and again, and again.

There is only one solution that works, and that is by harnessing the power of melodrama (ie a moment of high-intensity interaction) – a dramatic revelation can be followed by a break and lead into a post-interval period of analysis or introspection. The usual rules of a revelation apply – it is pretty much mandatory that the subsequent scene be all about the revelation.

In our previous episode…

There is one special case that deserves closer attention: the presentation of a synopsis at the start or re-start of play. Technically, this qualifies as a post-break introspection/analysis scene. However, it works for one particular reason: the synopsis aims to recapture the situation prior to the break after summarizing the path that led to that situation; and the post-synopsis scene should pick up after the events described. This need not be immediately afterwards, in game time; minutes, hours, even days, can have passed in between, provided that the situation at the end of the previous play session did not demand instant action, and did not mandate decisions on the part of the players. The synopsis becomes something of a break-content hybrid, a bridge between game sessions. Note that the revelation rule still applies: if the previous session ended with a revelation, the first scene after the break should be about the revelation, even if it’s a low-intensity conversation between the characters about the revelation, or an introspective moment as a lone PC tries to gather further information relating to the revelation, or whatever.

When the PCs come up with a plan, there is sometimes no need to play through all the steps of preparation; instead, contemplating a hard-cut to the PCs beginning to put their plan into operation. That’s how Return Of The Jedi begins – with a plan to rescue Han from Jabba the Hut, a plan that begins with two Droids carrying a message from Luke to Jabba – and smuggling a weapon into his throne room in the process.

I’m completely out of time and haven’t even started on analyzing the nine types of break yet! Oh well, that will have to wait…

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New Beginnings: Phase 8: Enfleshing

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Just as spring brings new sprouts and buds, so the Enfleshing process sprouts the final structural elements of a new Campaign.

It’s not easy making a completely fresh start. This series examines the systematic process of creating a new campaign in detail, from start to finish. The contents (updated with each post) can be found in “part zero” of the series.

Bone, Cartilage, and Flesh: A metaphor

Everything that’s been done so far has been in the nature of generating ideas and content in note form and linking these together to create a structure. Nothing has been included without a good reason for it’s being there, and in many cases, content “boxes” have been created but not filled because those contents were not deemed critical to the campaign.

Before actual campaign construction (as opposed to design) can begin, those empty boxes need to be filled. In metaphoric terms, “flesh” has to be put on that “skeleton”. But even before we can do that, there are a few more boxes to add in order to be sure we’ve got everything covered. These aren’t skeleton, essential to the structure of the campaign, but they are essential to connecting everything together and defining the final shape of the flesh to be added.

The goal is be able to simply unfold the content in its final form and wrap it around all the underlying structure like a blanket; there should be no deep thinking involved, no need to pause or delay at all, it should simply flow. To reach that point, these remaining boxes need to be put in place, and where necessary, linked to ideas. If the flesh is muscle, and the work that remains to be described in today’s article is something in between muscle and skeleton, the closest analogy would be cartilage.

There are five different categories under this one general heading: Archetypes, Races, Adversaries, Key NPCs, and Locations. In most of these subjects, a lot of work has already been done – the task for today is turning the decisions that were made into adventures, encounters, and situations that reveal the substance of the game world. It is always better if the fundamental content makes itself apparent by being significant to a situation rather than seeming tacked on afterwards.

A Tale for each Archetype

When it comes to archetypes, we’ve gone to some trouble to identify one or more aspects of the base concepts that are unique and distinctive to this game world, and – where necessary – we’ve revised them in whole or in part to ensure that they are compatible with the concepts on which the world has been based. We’ve also tried to link them in some way to the campaign themes and various other fundamental principles of the planned campaign.

Wouldn’t it be a shame if all that went to waste?

The PC Assumption

A lot of the work has been done on the basic assumption that each archetype might be chosen as the basis of a PC. Where this proves to be a correct assumption, an adventure built around that archetype becomes a starring role for the PC – either in the role of the character around whom the adventure is based, or can present a situation in which a professional colleague of the PC is central, giving the PC a different chance to shine. The latter presents greater control over the situation for the GM because it doesn’t require the PC to behave in a predictable manner – that can be left to an NPC under the GM’s control. However, it can also be assumed that such an adventure is less necessary when a player is putting the archetype on display on a routine basis.

Where no player chooses to build a PC on that archetype, the only way they – and the aspects of the game world that they embody – will get featured is where an plot is built around an NPC to deliberately display the archetype.

Archetype Tales

The notion, then, is to craft an adventure for each archetype that highlights one or more of the unique aspects or interpretations of the archetype or that has the archetype as central to that adventure. These should be standalone in nature so that if they aren’t out-of-the-ballpark ten-out-of-ten adventure ideas, and a PC is putting the archetype on display anyway, they can be dropped. They are important to the campaign but not an essential part of the structure.

However, it is even more useful when an existing adventure – one that is therefore central to the broader campaign plot – can be used as a vehicle for this information, because it integrates it even more closely, binding the archetype concepts to the campaign.

Archetype Tales 1: The Procedure

The first step, to be performed for each of the archetypes, is to review each of the adventures you already have outlined in the campaign structure, assessing each for its suitability for highlighting the archetype then under examination.

If there is no such adventure, the need is to specify a standalone adventure, and the most important decision to be made is where in the Campaign Plan the adventure can best be located. By definition, the metagame purpose of this adventure is to reveal additional elements of the game world to the players; so the decision is best made on the basis of the central importance of the information to be revealed. That often hinges on the way the information relates to other facts – if the adventure in question can be used to reveal something that will be a key factor in future player decisions, it should be presented early in the campaign; if it’s simply shining a light on some aspects of the world that might otherwise go unnoticed, you have more latitude.

This is where the work in Phase 7 (‘Skeleton’), connecting the archetypes to the Nexii, becomes invaluable, because this specifies exactly how that particular archetype can link to different parts of the campaign plan – early, middle, or late. Once you have decided where the most effective location within the campaign plan is going to be, it’s a simple matter to insert an adventure “slot”.

Once the relevant adventure has been positioned within the plan, the next step is to make note of exactly what the adventure is going to be about. For this, you may need to consult your ideas file; and, if nothing suitable is found there, go looking for ideas on the net or in relevant sourcebooks. I’ve made my opinions on list products clear in the past (Listing to one side: The problems of List Products), but this is one occasion when the right list can save your bacon – and that’s why Campaign Mastery presents such lists from time to time (most recently in the occasional “Casual Opportunities series.

What you want is a situation in which the distinctiveness of the archetype makes a difference in the situation, either creating it, complicating it, or holding the solution to it. That’s actually a rather broad remit, leaving plenty of scope for the choice of adventure to reflect themes.

A clarification: It isn’t necessary to have an adventure for every unique or modified aspect of an archetype. The presumption is that the other basic concepts will be displayed along with the aspect that has been selected for prominence; and that you will have made that selection after contemplating the significance of the different concepts embodied within the archetype. In other words, you’ve picked a difference that matters – because that’s the easiest thing to build an adventure around – and the rest can be assumed to come along for the ride. They will be noted if they are important enough, and can be ignored if not. It isn’t going to be necessary to explain everything; a lot of it can simply be taken as exemplified within this one example of the archetype.

This in turn means that other aspects of the archetype can be highlighted if and when it is used as the foundation for a relevant NPC. You are going to have a fair number of those, after all, and some of them will probably be representatives of this archetype!

Once the basic premise of the adventure has been filled in, it’s time to give it the same treatment that all the other adventure ideas received in the “Organization” stages of Phase 4, ‘Development’ – listing the unanswered questions of Where, Who, Antagonist, etc, and cross-referencing with other campaign elements as appropriate. And then you can move on to the next Archetype – subject to the Caveat below, of course.

Archetype Tales 2: Revising the Archetypes

There’s one major reason why all this is vital and must be done at this stage of campaign creation: it provides a final “reality check” on the ideas. Something can sound great in theory but be so hard to work with, or be so alien to the way your creative mind works, that it becomes untenable. This is your final chance to catch and reform such campaign-harming “bright ideas” – all those things that sounded good at the time…

If you can’t build an adventure featuring an archetype that displays how that archetype fits into the game world or is unique or simply distinctive, it’s a sure bet that the archetype won’t work as a PC, either. Now is the time to revise it if necessary.

A Tale for each key Race

Having gone into the process in detail for Archetypes, there isn’t all that much more that needs to be said regarding the second of the subjects – races. Each of the major races needs an adventure in which they, and especially anything distinctive or unusual that you’ve added or changed, can feature. If you can make this an adventure that’s already in the campaign plan, so much the better; if not, you need to add one.

However, speaking from experience, every PC emphasizes different aspects of the Race from which they derive; it is by no means certain that having a player choose a race will highlight what you consider to be the important differences. Sometimes the player simply can’t get his head around the ideas that you’ve incorporated – it happens. Unlike the archetype, then, you can’t rely a race being represented by a PC to communicate the uniqueness of that race – and that leaves it up to you.

A Tale for each Significant Adversary

Having grown used to the basic process while dealing with the easy subjects, it’s time to get into something a bit more complicated: the Adversaries that you intend to feature within the campaign.

The first question that needs answering is a criterion for judging whether or not an adversary is “significant”. Each GM needs to find his own answer to this, taking into account the intended length and scale of the campaign. In some cases, it might be that every adversary who features in an adventure is considered significant, in others, the accolade may be reserved for those adversaries who have a role to play in multiple adventures. In still others, foes might be divided into two categories – “mundane” and “supernatural”, or “common” and “political” – with only one of these being deemed “Significant”.

Personally, I usually lean toward the “multi-adventure” profile, plus any who have a significant part to play in altering the direction of the campaign (even if they only make a single appearance). But I have used all of the working definitions offered as examples, and more besides.

For each Significant Adversary, there are nine, or perhaps, ten “boxes” that need to be ticked, ie to have content allocated.

Adversary Tales 1: Introductions, Please

Before a significant adversary makes his first appearance, it’s usually necessary to lay some groundwork. This can be an adventure in itself, or an encounter, or simply a background element to another encounter.

What do I mean by “groundwork”? Here are three examples:

  1. The Beholder: If I’m going to use a Beholder as an Antagonist in a D&D or Pathfinder adventure, I will want an encounter or scene that establishes that Beholders exist and that they are very bad news. I don’t need a living Beholder for this; a dead one, or a rumor of one, or a tapestry that features the defeat of one, or any of several alternatives will do. Basically, I want an excuse to tell the players anything that their characters know about Beholders (in case they don’t know it already), and just as importantly, to make sure to define what it is that their characters don’t know. I will also make sure to have at least one “fact” that is different from published canon, purely to warn the players that the details of the monster may have been changed, as a specific warning that encounters from other games (or having memorized the rulebooks) will be (at best) an unreliable guide to the strategy that they should adopt when encountering one. And since I don’t believe in idle threats, I will actually change something significant about them – like giving them a phasing ability that lets them pass through walls and material obstacles, and ignore (at least partially) any damage that occurs in a round after they have acted.
  2. The Last Dragon: If the adversary is intended to be the last Dragon to have survived into “modern” times, I will want to highlight the fact that the Dragons are all dead, and how they are believed to have died. Again, I’m looking for an excuse to give background information and misinformation to the Players before it becomes important. Including that information in the adventure in which the adversary is revealed is far too clumsy if presented after the revelation, and far too obvious if it precedes the revelation – and (at the moment of revelation), the players have more urgent things on their minds! The only solutions are to present the information when it no longer matters (which is rather pointless) or before it becomes important.
  3. The Crime Czar: Finally, let’s say that the antagonist is going to be a crime boss of some sort. Before the first Lieutenant shows his nose, the players should become aware that there is a significant level of crime and that the authorities are not getting very far in curbing it. This then gives the Lieutenant some context when he makes his initial appearance, and that in turn gives context and significance to the Adversary when he finally makes a direct appearance.

In a nutshell, then, this “box” is about how a significant adversary will be “introduced” into the PCs lives – and the player’s consciousness.

Adversary Tales 2: The Initial Confrontation

There are writers and directors who suggest that the initial confrontation between a hero (PCs) and villain (antagonist) is the most important scene they will share. The villain either makes an impression, or everything subsequent falls flat. In the case of a minor villain – i.e. one without Significance – that doesn’t matter too much; but for a Significant Adversary it’s close enough to be a serious consideration.

I’m a firm believer that while spontaneity is good, a little bit of prep goes a long way. At the very least, a note or two is warranted on how to ensure that the antagonist’s first entrance (or his unmasking, if he’s been hanging around in disguise for a while prior) is suitably dramatic and impressive.

Adversary Tales 3: Adversarial Destinies

Karma. A campaign may not have it as an overt theme, but it’s something that every GM should strive to bring about – at least in terms of the important Adversaries getting just what they deserve in the end. So what fate is befitting? What is appropriate? What will be viscerally satisfying to the players? They may or may not get to deliver the coup-de-grace; that depends on how successful they are. But the adversary should fail, and fall, eventually – their karmic destiny should be inevitable (if impossible to predict) even before the final confrontation begins. Again, this is not likely to happen by accident – so do at least some preliminary planning in advance.

Adversary Tales 4: Reaction to Setbacks

How the adversary reacts to setbacks is going to form a significant element of their in-game persona, all going well from the player’s point-of-view. It has to be consistent with the rest of the adversary’s personality, but in most cases it will involve a significant divergence from the way that personality has been expressed previously in the encounter.

Some will be hotly furious, lashing out with unthinking violence. Others may be coldly furious, making the architects of their reverses targets for some utterly ruthless action – while some will take it out on their underlings. Others may decide to try to bargain. A few may have trouble even recognizing that they’ve been thwarted, or may obsess over finding a way to achieve that goal at any cost. Some will simply rant and rave, while others may plunge into deep depression – for a while. A few might retreat into isolation to brood until coming up with a new and better plan – or simply an appropriate vengeance.

Make the decision, and ensure that this choice is consistent with the behavior of that adversary in subsequent encounters. It might be that the PCs don’t get to witness the reaction; but it should shape how the antagonist behaves, and at some future point, word may leak out and reach the PCs ears.

Adversary Tales 5: Reaction to Failure

The reaction to setbacks has only superficial resemblance to how the antagonist will react when their plans actually fail. The reactions will either be more extreme or less, but this will be no less critical – if only because it will usually get displayed in front of an appreciative PC audience! A great deal depends on the flexibility and confidence of the antagonist, as compared to the scale of the failure, and who he holds responsible. The best time to think about this is before you need to know it, so that when and if the time comes, you don’t have to think about it – just roleplay what you have already specified.

Adversary Tales 6: Master Plans

Every adversary needs a master plan of some sort. Even your combat monster has some sort of master plan – it’s just vague and built around the size of his biceps. The master plan bridges from what the adversary can do right now to what the adversary wants to achieve, at least in their own mind; it’s what they are doing now, and what they intend to do next. No master plan takes specific account of PC actions, at best there is an allowance for “obstructions” and a plan to deal with them if and when that becomes necessary.

Before I conclude this subsection, I should point readers to a quartet of my articles from a couple of years ago that are still popular:

Adversary Tales 7: Flaws

Every villain needs a flaw or two. A blind spot, or an obsession, or whatever. These can be justified in his mind as part of his personal style, but this is often lying to himself to justify something he would ditch in a heartbeat if he were as coldly ruthless at self-analysis as he is at everything else.

Take Ernst Stavro Blofeld from the James Bond franchise as an example. He has three notable flaws: His love of Turkish Angora cats; his fondness for grandiose plans; and his boastfulness when in a position of self-perceived dominance. Of these, the last and first are the most serious; the last because the self-perception is often flawed, and the first because no matter how much he changes his appearance and identity, the cats and the manner in which he handles them are an easy means of identification. No doubt he has resolved a dozen times not to boast too soon, not to count his eggs before they hatch; but he just can’t help himself, a weakness that he would never tolerate in a subordinate. And as for the cats….

Adversary Tales 8: Flaw Impacts

It’s one thing to have a flaw. To be truly useful to the GM, he should work out several ways in which that flaw might impact on the adversary’s activities. Flashes of hot anger? A subordinate might get scared and be willing to make a deal. Tends to get obsessed with removing obstacles? Hires an assassin to stalk the PCs. Punishes perceived personal slights or disrespect? Hatches a scheme to humiliate someone even at the risk of damaging his operation.

Why do this in advance?

If things always went to plan – your plan, not the adversary’s – it wouldn’t be necessary, you could interpret the flaws and their impact on in-game events in advance. Enter the PCs, who rarely follow the GM’s plan of action, and that will constantly force you to improvise the reactions and subsequent actions of the adversary in response. That, in turn, is a lot easier if you have at least some basics worked out in advance – and that’s what this box is all about.

Adversary Tales 9: The Ultimate Objective

It’s great having the villain’s immediate plans worked out, up to the point where you expect the PCs to stop those plans dead – but you should always have the ultimate objective spelt out. This gives you the adversary’s motivation, and offers a guideline to the changes he will make in his plans as opportunities open and close.

Until recently, I would not have included this; I would have felt it was enough to have The Master Plan, in fact I did. But, when my co-GM and I were working on the next Pulp Adventure, “Prison Of Jade”, something just wasn’t right. We knew what the villain was doing, we knew what he would achieve if not stopped, but in the “Why” column – the Ultimate Objective – we had a political goal in the “world domination” category, and it simply didn’t fit his modus operandi and the history and reputation that we had created for him; it was far too prosaic. Between us, we came up with two or three alternatives, and then blended two of those together (with a little research) to identify an alternative that ticked all the right boxes – and ultimately made the villain a far more interesting character. I can’t go into details now; that will have to wait until after the adventure gets played – but he became the villain he was reputed to be, and someone worthy of the insidious Master Plan we had already devised.

As soon as I realized that the problem with the villain as he was lay in a failure to identify an appropriate ultimate objective (as opposed to a merely realistic one), I realized that this box needed to be included in this checklist.

Adversary Tales 10: A Preliminary Encounter?

That’s quite a lot of information, and it’s all the things that the GM really needs to have sorted before play. But is there so much information that it’s worth contemplating a preliminary encounter with the antagonist that at least hints at some of this material, or establishes it? Again, this is a decision for each GM to make for themselves – but if one is needed, this is the time to insert it. So, for each antagonist, ask yourself the question – and follow it up with a second, before committing yourself: Would a preliminary encounter steal any element of surprise that you are counting on? If the answer to this second question is “no,” it doesn’t matter what your answer is to the first – a “yes,” to the first question simply indicates that the GM is going to have to work that much harder in constructing the currently-planned first encounter with the villain.

Again, the example that presents itself is Blofeld. It’s one thing for the PCs to get told about his cat fetish – it’s quite another for them to have already encountered a villain who exhibits that trait, without appreciating the significance at the time. But it means that the second time a villain with that habit is encountered, even if he doesn’t look anything like he did the first time around, the players should recognize the trademark!

A Tale for each key NPC

Every campaign contains a few NPCs of special significance. Allies at key moments, or guides and mentors, or simply people who seek to use the PCs to their own advantage (or who do so), for example. Authority figures who will work against the PCs best interests in pursuing circumstances that benefit themselves or their cause. Even something as simple as a recurring barman and his lovely daughter can qualify!

As with Adversaries, the first step is to decide just what you mean by the term “Key NPC” in the context of this particular campaign. Once you know that, work through your list of adventures (which may already have expanded as a result of the work on Archetypes, Races, and Adversaries that has been done already) and generate a list of NPCs that meet this criteria.

Once again, I have nine key things to be noted about each of these NPCs. This is not a full character-generation process; it’s simply getting preliminary designs down on paper. However, by defining these NPCs as “Key characters” within the campaign, you are also indicating that they are too important for blind character generation to be anything but a starting point; the NPC, as generated later, has to fit the definitions and characteristics that are defined within this section, and not the other way around.

NPC Tales 1: Plot Relevance

Why does this NPC matter? What is their relevance to the plot, their purpose? You’ve determined that they are going to be a Key character in the campaign – why? Everything else in the NPC’s design needs to be subordinated to this purpose as a primary requirement.

NPC Tales 2: Position & Place

What is their in-game position? Where? What is their social rank? Which social circles do they move in, and in which circles are they comfortable? And where, physically, is that job performed?

NPC Tales 3: Personality

What sort of personality should the NPC have in order to fulfill that purpose? You don’t need a full profile, but some highlights and keywords are important. Usefully, this also lets you make them individuals rather than cardboard cut-outs based on plot function; not all your advisors or mentors to the PCs should be wise and generally helpful! Some should be reluctant, or scheming, or…

Important Opinions

An related question that should be asked – what are the opinions that the character holds – especially any that are relevant to their plot purpose, general occupation, or are controversial either in real-world terms or in game-world terms. Again, just because an NPC is there to help the PCs doesn’t mean they have to be an altar boy!

NPC Tales 4: Agenda

What agenda, if any, are they pursuing? Everyone should have an agenda, though you might need to stretch the definition a little bit. Ideally, this will be a motivation that can cut both ways relative to the PCs. For example, a character’s agenda might be to live up to an idealized vision of the political state that he serves; that would make him reluctant to compromise his principles in the slightest, and hostile to those who try to point out flaws in his world-view. It might make him tend to react harshly to those who don’t share and support his idealized vision. While this character would probably be a useful ally and asset to the PCs, he could become an enemy and outspoken critic very easily – because he is pursuing his own agenda and isn’t merely a tool to facilitate what the PCs want to do.

NPC Tales 5: Introduction

What, if anything, should the PCs know about the character before they first meet him? What could they find out, if they bothered to do so? Does the character have a public reputation that they don’t deserve – or one that they do deserve? And is that reputation good or bad from the PCs point of view?

NPC Tales 6: The First Meeting

When and where will the PCs first meet the NPC? Is it more useful to have a separate encounter just to introduce the two to each other? Note that this doesn’t have to be a face-to-face encounter – the PCs could simply see the character doing his job, while the public reacts. This, and similar ideas, are great ways to get the “Introduction” material into the player’s hands before the NPC becomes plot-significant; but it always risks the players jumping the gun, which is why it’s important to have everything you need to run the character in place before such an in-game appearance.

NPC Tales 7: Reasons to care

A lesson from television production, this: the protagonists, and the audience, need a reason to care about what happens to the NPC. This doesn’t apply to every character, but it certainly applies to the important ones! The RPG analogues are the PCs, who need an in-game reason to care, and the players who need a metagame reason.

Note that caring doesn’t mean that the relationships have to be positive – villains that are hated satisfy the criterion just as handily! But you need some sort of emotional reaction, even if you have to entice it or induce it.

It can be something simple – I once used an unsavory NPC who kept a live feed of baby birds in their nest playing on his TV every time he was in his office, giving him the opportunity to take glee in “all the wrong things” – the way the worms wriggled as the birds were fed them, still living; the way the mothers pushed them out of the nest when the time was right; the way they constantly fought with each other for food and attention, which reminded him of his childhood… He had something to mention every time he appeared in-game, and the longer it persisted, the creepier it got, especially the way his eyes would light up when speaking of them. He was also an officious oaf who was there to help the PCs when they really needed it – but who made them jump through hoops before considering one of their requests. There were times when he was their greatest ally, a hidden ace-in-the-hole, and times when he was the biggest road-block they had to overcome, because he had leverage over just about everyone in the form of favors owed to him. But they definitely cared about him – the players and their characters hated having to go to him, because he made them uncomfortable, but both knew they needed him. There were definitely times when the PCs wanted to throttle him, and times when he was their closest ally! In his final scene, he revealed an absolute loyalty to the political administration who employed him, and that he sublimated and transferred his darker instincts into the birds’ nest images – and getting himself killed for his loyalty, putting the PCs into the awkward position of hunting down his killer while not being sure they weren’t glad he was dead! If they were uncaring, the adventure would have fallen flat, and been mechanical follow-the-numbers; instead, there was the sort of passionate ambivalence that only “real people” – or “realistic people” can engender.

Remember: not all allies need to be on the PCs side, not all friends are allies, and not all enemies have to be hated; but there needs to be a reason to care about them, or they won’t be valued.

NPC Tales 8: Intended Evolution

Over the course of his appearances within the game, how is the character intended to change? People don’t stay static, they evolve over time. A character can be viewed as having a central personality core, a layer of substance around it, and a layer of superficiality and circumstances around that; each of these changes at different rates. The outer layer is most quickly transformed, the layer of substance evolves only slowly, and generally in response to dramatic life events, and the innermost layer is most consistent – but it can be eroded and transformed by the accumulation of lesser changes, or altered dramatically by the most extreme of situations.

One of the key NPCs in the Zenith-3 campaign is a Kzin, one of their first superheros. The PCs saved his race from a civil war that would have ruined them for someone else’s benefit, and he feels a debt of honor that needs to be repaid; at the same time, he was raised to despise Humans for the humiliations that the race has inflicted on his people in the past. Over time, the debt will slowly be repaid; at the same time, he is getting to know the PCs “from the inside”, resolving the internal conflict into which his circumstances have placed him. Will he become an enemy? Will he overcome the childhood conditioning that drives him? Will he become his own worst enemy – as often happens when people are placed in such personal conflicts over a long period of time? The players – and the PCs – don’t know. Right now, he is a reluctant but absolutely loyal and reliable ally, and all they know for certain is that something in that statement will change eventually – and probably without notice!

NPC Tales 9: Deserved Destiny

When you add up the totality of who the NPC is, and what role he is intended to play within the campaign, what fate does the character deserve – and is there a way that you can see that he gets it by the end of the campaign?

Take the bird-lover described earlier: what be deserved was to have his virtues extolled and to become remembered as a loyal servant of the state. Before that could happen, the players had to work through their own ambivalence in order to avenge him; once they had done so, they were able to reform his public image in a fitting tribute and public memorial. “He gave his life in the service of the State, the State needs to repay that with appropriate commemoration at a State Funeral.”

A Tale for each key Location

Locations seem to get short shrift in many RPGs. They are viewed as nothing more than a disposable backdrop to the tactical problem of the hour, the NPC of the minute, the drama of the day. This neglects a useful source of color and vitality.

Of course, not every location deserves anything more. An inn can exist purely as a place for the players to sleep; a village purely as a place for such an inn to be located. Sometimes, a mountain is just an obstacle that needs to be crossed.

But there are some locations which serve as settings for considerable play or significant confrontations that will shape the campaign, and these key locations need greater substance and importance. If the players are likely to be in a position to explore, or to interact at length with the locals, or if an adventure is intended to take place there, the location needs to be brought to life.

There are 15 facts that should be noted about each such location. Most of them require nothing more than single-line answers, though a few may be a little more substantial. The order is important, to some extent, as you will see as we proceed:

Location Tales 1: History

We start with the History of the place – in one sentence if possible, one brief paragraph at most. This is not intended to be a complete record, instead it should be the sort of thumbnail history that you might read in a guidebook or travel brochure, or that someone might offer in passing in a hotel or inn.

Note that it’s impossible to generate these location histories without at least some notion of the broader history of the game world, which is why this has had to wait until now.

Four examples:

  • “Built twenty-five years ago to study deep space, when the economy crashed in 2025 the space station was bought by Richard Branson and now serves as an exotic resort for his Virgin Galactic tours.”
  • “Was once a thriving, growing metropolis, but never really recovered after being razed during the Goblin invasion 40 years ago.”
  • “Began as a customs and immigration office to prevent the destitute survivors of the Civil War in nearby Unredonia from streaming across the border. Unable to go back and not allowed to go forward, they stayed at the border crossing and slowly a shanty town built up. As Unredonia recovered and trade resumed, it became the important and cosmopolitan trading center that it is today.”
  • “Decrying the decay in morality of modern society during the reign of Black Elfzer, the population instituted a puritanical regime of local laws that forcibly returned to the morality and social customs of 100 years earlier. By repressing every modern convenience, service, and utility, they have remained a frozen snapshot of village life from a past age, now 250 years out of time; a “purity” maintained by virtue of the most draconian laws in the Nation. For 150 years, they have had no tolerance for outsiders and permitted strangers no ‘liberties’.”
Location Tales 2: Geography

What’s the dominant geographic feature of the location? List no more than three, with minimal description (one line each).

Location Tales 3: Language

What’s the dominant language of the location, and what are the odds that anyone speaks any other language?

Location Tales 4: Society

In a line or two, if you haven’t incorporated it into the history, describe the society.

Location Tales 5: Most Noteworthy Features

Every location is distinctive in some fashion. These are often part History or part Geography. In my home town, it was the place where the highway crossed the railroad tracks by making a pair of 90-degree turns that led onto the main shopping street; in my Mother’s adopted home, many of the streets are paved all the way to the curb (instead of having dirt-and-gravel shoulders to the curb); in another town I know, the streets are phenomenally wide because they park in the middle of the road at 90 degrees to the flow of traffic in each direction, with shade provided by large trees along that median area. Sydney has its Opera House, Harbor, and Harbor Bridge. There’s no need to be any more substantial than these examples.

In particular, are there any Wonders (natural or artificial) nearby?

Location Tales 6: Other Claims To Fame

Every location also has a claim to fame of some sort. These can be festivals or street fairs or annual shows or parades or some commonality that many of the local areas share – “the town of apples”, “home of the world’s biggest pumpkin”, and so on. My hometown has just become the home of the largest solar panel farm in all of Australia – 102 Megawatts from 1.3 million solar panels.

Few embrace these claims as thoroughly as Salem, Massachusetts, scene of the infamous Witch Trials; there is a museum; street signs have a witch motif, and so do many of the local businesses. For a gamer, this is an incredibly useful model to emulate, because the thematic connection reinforces the uniqueness of the location every time it gets mentioned – and this approach lets it be mentioned a lot.

Location Tales 7: Strangers

How do the locals treat Strangers? Although this subject can usually do with some amplification, because it’s directly relevant to how the PCs will be received, it’s often difficult to state more than a line or two while being meaningful.

Location Tales 8: Folklore

There’s sure to be some local folklore or superstition. Sometimes this has a sound basis in fact, at other times, not. In my home town, it was that the worst flooding would always occur during drought years, and that the petrol prices were inflated to subsidize cheaper prices in the city.

Location Tales 9: Getting There

How do you get to the location – and what are the most significant obstacles along the way?

Location Tales 10: Staying There

When you get there, where can you stay? There seems to be a default assumption in D&D games that every town has an inn – but it isn’t necessarily so. Maybe you have to negotiate with a local for barn space, and the bar is just for drinking – with insufficient demand for the maintenance of accommodation services.

Location Tales 11: Shopping There

What’s the shopping like? Are there any surprises? In Nyngan, for example, fruit and vegetables cost rather more than most would expect; it’s a farming district that is mostly wheat and sheep and some cattle. Just about everything else has to be trucked in, and as a result, costs a great deal more than would normally be expected. There is a greater reliance on frozen and canned foods and less on fresh, for the same reason, or at least that was the case when I lived there!

Location Tales 12: Visuals

You’ve got three choices within this category: one is to decide that there is no value in searching for a visual to display; another is to actually perform an image search and to list the chosen images (which should be downloaded and saved, because they might not be there when you need them!); and the third is simply to list the keywords that you think will lead you to an image when the time is right, because the image you want might not be on the net yet!

My preference is to list the keywords and do a fast image search – but not to spend a lot of effort at this point in time.

I think it’s worth a quick search, because an image can inspire descriptions and ideas when the time comes to expand on this bare-bones outline; but don’t panic if I don’t find a good one.

Location Tales 13: Uniqueness

In a nutshell, what is it that is going to make this location unique in terms of the plot? This isn’t “why the location is in the plot”, it’s how the various aspects of uniqueness are going to be expressed to make the location distinctive within the plot. This is how you ensure that the location doesn’t feel tacked on – by integrating the location with the plot.

Location Tales 14: An opportunity for exploration?

Is it worth scheduling a prior visit to the location for the PCs – one with the leisure for exploring the region? In some cases, the answer will be yes, in others the answer may be no. But now is the time to insert a minor adventure with no metagame purpose but to take the PCs somewhere that will become more important later, if you decide that’s warranted.

I especially like to do so if the location is going to be radically changed when the PCs arrive there for the “real” adventure, because it gives you the opportunity to have them invest, emotionally, in the place and the people. Make it matter before they get there “for real”, and they will care when the time comes.

Location Tales 15: Name

Finally, the name. This is left to last because you may want the name to reflect one of the uniquenesses that you’ve assigned; you certainly don’t want it to conflict with the tone that you have established through the history and the claims to fame. If the place is to be rustic, it needs a rustic name.

So important is the right name that I’ve done a whole series on the subject. I particularly want to draw the reader’s attention to Grokking The Message: Naming Places & Campaigns, for reasons of obvious relevance.

Connect Ideas to empty content boxes

At this point, you’re done adding adventures to the plotline – but in almost every case, there will be details that have been left blank in those adventures. The preceding content generation exercises in this article will have filled some of these details in, but not all. So the next step is to open up your ideas file and fill in all the blanks. You want to know the basic structure of each adventure, where it is to happen, what is to happen, who is to be involved, and how it all connects to the big picture before the time comes to actually construct any of the adventures.

This is a road map of where you expect the campaign to go; it isn’t intended to bind anyone to anything. That’s why the substantial elements are to be delivered on a just-in-time basis, and why part of each adventure is what you have to start developing, when, in order for it to be ready when its’ going to be needed.

Final Decisions

But there are still some empty boxes, deferred until this moment that need to be filled first.

What to Keep/Dump Revisit

Back in the information dump phase, there were a number of 50/50 decisions that were put off. It’s time to revisit all of those undecided questions and make a decision, one way or another, on what legacy carry-forwards you are going to include in the campaign. All the choices that these were waiting on have now been made – the last ones in the course of this article.

Many of these questions, which were filed in the “too hard” basket at the time, should now have self-evident solutions. I usually discover that the more of them that I can now answer, the easier the others are – so I start with a very quick run-through making those self-evident choices and then returning for the final, more difficult issues.

For example, let’s say that you have a decision deferred regarding an interpretation of the Elvish relationship with nature. In the past, you had given Elves an ability to communicate with trees as though they had a sort of gestalt intelligence, once “awakened” by the Elves. Because of this environment, the animal inhabitants of an Elvish Forest also became somewhat more aware and sentient than their external counterparts, leading to a template that was applied to “Elf-touched Creatures”. The combination, and the willingness of the trees to shape themselves in ways that accommodated Elvish desires, produced a unique look-and-feel to the Elvish homeland. All these subsequent decisions should have been held in abeyance, pending the decision mentioned at the start of the Paragraph. At this point in time, you know a lot more about Elves and how they will interact with the proposed campaign, so you should be able to decide whether or not they are already distinctive without the need for this interpretation, or whether the ideas that you’ve already integrated into the campaign would be enhanced by this collection of Elven “facts” – so the decisions will flow like dominoes from that initial starting point.

Or perhaps it was a decision about whether or not to retain the Hit Location house rule that you had used quite satisfactorily in the previous campaign. By now, you have a much clearer idea of whether or not this level of specificity enhances or detracts from the overall look-and-feel of the proposed new campaign, of what other house rules are going to be required, and of whether or not that leaves enough capacity for detail for this to be retained – it might be that the decision has been made that a more abstract handling of game mechanics will better suit the new campaign, or there might be a different interpretation of Hit Points that is incompatible with a hit location mechanic. The decisions that have been made leave it far easier to complete the decisions that are still outstanding.

These decisions, will, of course, further expand on the various notes files you have.

Anything I’ve overlooked!

Compliments from others notwithstanding, I can’t think of everything! For example, if I have decided as part of the preceding revisit that some locations are blessed while others are cursed, with corresponding modifiers to various activities, you should go through all the key locations and decide the blessed/cursed status of each; you should go through the various key NPCs and antagonists and determine whether they derive from a blessed or cursed location, and what impact that’s had on them; and whether they currently live in a blessed/cursed region, and what effect that has.

Dot the I’s and cross the T’s. The goal is to make every campaign different, and that means that general advice can only go so far.

The Initial Sandbox

The final step within this phase of campaign creation is to assess the initial “sandbox” – do you have everything you need to develop it properly? Is there anything that you’ve overlooked? How are you actually going to begin the campaign? And Where?

And so, at last, you are ready to actually create the campaign. What you have so far is like a child’s coloring book, in which you have chosen what colors are to go into each space – but which you haven’t yet filled in. The hard work is over, now it’s time for the hard work to begin… and that statement will make a lot more sense, and be a lot more fun, than it seems at the moment after you’ve read the next part in this series. The end is beginning to show up on the horizon…

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Pacing and the value of the Pause


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

Discovering The Principles

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

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

Breaks In All The Wrong Places

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

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

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

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

The Absence Of A Break

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

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

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

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

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

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

Break Incognito

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

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

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

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

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

Episodic Breaks: Good & Bad

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

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

The Cliffhanger

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

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

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

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

The Paradigm Shift

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


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

The Utility Of The Pause

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

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

Complicating The Ballistics

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

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

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

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

The Gaming Break

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

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

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

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

Pause as Punctuation

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

The Break as a Full Stop

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

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

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

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

The Break as an Exclamation Point

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Break as an Ellipsis

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

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

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

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

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

Pause as Expectation

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

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

Contrast the following examples of break placement:

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

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

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

Pause as Linkage

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

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

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

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

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

Pause as Thinking Time

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

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

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

Pause nature

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

Deliberate Pauses

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

Natural Pauses

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

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

Forced Pauses

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

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

Flawed Pauses

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

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

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

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

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

Unnatural Pauses

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

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

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

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

Longer Pauses

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

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

Ending On A High: The ultimate Pause

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

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

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Fogs, Clouds and Confusion: A Battlemap technique


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

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

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

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

Step One: Select your tiles

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

Step Two: Organize by size

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

Step Three: Wrap tiles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Step Six: lay out your battlemap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Step Seven: Define Fringe

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

Step Eight: Define Heart

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

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

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

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

Step Ten: Draw & Place “Thick” counters

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

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

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

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

Step Eleven: Draw & Place “Thin” counters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In-play interpretation

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Thick Fog/Heavy Snow/Dense Smoke

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

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

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

Combat Modifier

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

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

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

Random changes

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

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


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


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

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

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

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Taking advantage of the sensory heirarchy

forgemaster coins sample

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

The Associated Senses

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

The Flavor Senses

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

large dwarven platinum bar

Vocal Communications

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

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

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

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

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

scifi coin set

Audio Tapestries

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

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

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

Background Music

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

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

steampunk coin sample


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

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

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

Using sight to stimulate the sense of motion

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

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

Environmental Immersion

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

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

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

earth coins set sample

Tactile Sense

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

Tactile Props

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

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

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

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

Hit Point Counters

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

XP counters

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

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

kingdom coin sample


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

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

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

fantasy coins LLC

Fantasy Coins

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

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

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

cthulhu coin sample

Plot Value

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

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

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

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

One thing to watch out for

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

A multi-sensory approach

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

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Disease and Despair – the healing-resistant nightmare


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

Disease In Battle: A Historical Review

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

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

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

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

In RPGs, however…

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

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

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

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

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

The Black Death Shows The Way

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

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

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

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

Putting The Fear Back Into Disease

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

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

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

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

The Healing-Resistant Disease

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Local to Regional

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Campaign Integration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A brief word on Heal

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

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

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

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