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A New ERA and other products to empty your wallet


Image by James Choe

Image by James Choe / Shades Of Vengeance / Era: The Consortium Core Rulebook

Today I have two Kickstarters and some related and unrelated products to tell readers about, all well worth your hard-won cash.

ERA: The Consortium

The first of the products I’m featuring is “The Secret War”, which is part of The Consortium setting for the RPG engine, ERA. Shades of Vengeance were kind enough to send me a whole heap of review materials, and I have to say they were impressive.

The Core Book

The place to start is with a quick overview of the Core Setting Book. This is 302 pages of material and available from the Shades of Vengeance website, but don’t rush off to buy it just yet! The paperback is US$45 (£30), the hardcover is US$60 (£40), and the PDF is a mere $20 (£13). Having looked through the PDF extensively, I have to say that I would definitely list the hardcover as my first preference and the paperback as my second, it would be well worth the extra expense for the absolutely gorgeous artwork and ability to hop quickly from one page to another. “Random Access, not Sequential Access,” as one of my programmer friends used to say!

So, what’s in it?

Pages from the Era: The Consortium Core Rulebook

Pages from the Era: The Consortium Core Rulebook

Background

Fully 1/3 of the book – and a bit more – relates the history of The Consortium. The size is necessary because the Consortium Setting covers 500 years of future history, and a game can be set at any point in that history.

As this is the heart of the setting, and central to the new product, I looked closely at it. Most of it is written from the perspective of one or more participants in events, and that is both its blessing and its curse:

Blessing because it gives the background an immediacy and flavor that is very useful for the GM planning to use the setting, and Curse in that you have to continuously get used to a new protagonist and new perspective. I was forever asking, “okay, who’s telling this part of the story?”

This wasn’t helped by the fact that the whole story is one continuous stream, delineated only by the timeline excerpts. I would have found it far more useful if it had been broken into period subsections with a general introduction to each era. Heck, even starting each entry with the name of the speaker in bold followed by a colon would have made it more accessible.

Once you knew it forwards and backwards, that might not have been necessary, but until you did, there are a lot of pages to flip through trying to find what you are looking for. This would be less burdensome in a physical copy, but it’s a pain in the Digital version.

The Content is excellent, and should appeal to anyone into Sci-Fi, Exploration, Politics, or Society. In particular, fans of Star Wars, Stargate SG-1, and Babylon-5 will find something of interest.

“Era: The Consortium is the story of a Colony Ship launched from Earth and the habitable world it discovers, Taranis. The game follows the inhabitants of Taranis as they create a society, encounter alien races and explore the space nearby.”

There are one or two gaps in the logic – only one of seven major corporations and an unknown number of smaller ones kept backups of their data? Not credible – but (perhaps because of the way my mind works) each of these immediately presented plotline opportunities to explain the seeming discrepancy in logic.

Image by Victor Adame Minguez

Image by Victor Adame Minguez / Era: The Consortium Core Rulebook / Shades Of Vengeance

Basic Rules

The setting also includes the basic rules for running a campaign. No purchase of an additional “core rulebook” required. As I looked through the other review materials provided, I found that this was a routine practice for Shades Of Vengeance, and one that gets a big tick in my book, as it means that the game system is simple enough to be just one section in a book, and yet sophisticated enough to be used in a great many different ways. But that’s getting a little ahead of myself.

The Campaigns

One of the features that I definitely liked was the list of campaigns suggested. There were six of these, but I found that this was understating the gaming opportunities massively.

Each campaign is divided into a number of “sessions” but in reality you could use each of these as a separate campaign, or as phases in a much larger campaign. For example, from the “Big Seven” campaign, Session 2: The piratical actions of the citizens of the outer colonies have become too extensive to be ignored – they are raiding many ships, from Hardcastle Haulage to private transport vessels. The pirates have to be tracked down and stopped. This is described as a single session; but I could easily get four or five adventures out that alone, each lasting three-to-five game sessions. Given that this is just one of six parts to this “campaign”, even assuming that the others are not as rich in potential plot, it’s easy to suggest that this “campaign” is not six sessions worth of material, it’s easy to call this 54 game sessions, or a full year of weekly play.

Even better, each of these cross-indexes back to the relevant parts of the history.

And that’s all without dropping in additional plotlines of the GM’s own devising. The history is rich and complex, and could be easily used to provide a whole heap more single-shot adventures and campaigns.

Other Content

The races and gadgets/equipment sections are both invaluable for anyone running a sci-fi or superhero campaign, even separating them out from the rest of the background. The alien races are very well realized and different from each other.

Image by Florencio Duyar

Image by Florencio Duyar / Era: The Consortium / Shades Of Vengeance

The Production Values

The production values are first-rate. Lately, there have been a succession of games raising the bar in this area – and I love to recommend them! – and this fits right into that category.

I did spot the occasional typo – mostly of the grammatical nature, where something has been rephrased – but I know from personal experience that in any work of this size, finding all of those is virtually impossible. Nothing caused more than a momentary confusion.

I also love the way the credits have been used to generate the flavor of the book from the outset. A minor touch, but it adds considerably to the immersion value.

The Index

I want to especially call out the index, which is amongst the best that I’ve ever seen in a commercial RPG product. These are notorious, as a general rule, for poor indexing (because it takes as long to do the index as it does to do the rest of the product, and that’s all time that can more profitably be spent working on another product). Kudos, kudos, kudos to the producers!

The Secret War

Which brings me to the latest offering in the product line, The Secret War. “…loads of new options for characters, implants, weapons & missions!”

“The known history of the Consortium takes a more sinister turn when you look back and realize that it has been manipulated for all of its existence by elite operatives, ‘Shades’,>/em> that work for [The] Hayden Bank. They have strengthened the grip of the most politically powerful and financially wealthy company in their society through murder, blackmail and theft. Supported by Hayden Bank’s huge infrastructure, they have had access to technology and weapons that are only dreamed of by other factions.”

The Resistance responds, creating a corps of ‘Phantoms’, specially trained to fight Shades. These operatives track and prevent Shades from completing their missions, providing new hope to the Resistance.

In other words, what we have here is James Bond / Mission Impossible / Super-spies in a futuristic Sci-Fi / Cyberpunk / Action-Adventure setting. Then throw in time travel and a race to prevent the End Of The World… That’s a recipe that is very hard to resist!

Pages from Era: The Consortium - The Secret War

Pages from Era: The Consortium – The Secret War

The Kickstarter

I’m not the only person to have found that to be the case. Shades of Vengeance are currently running a kickstarter (5 days to go) to earn funding for the printing of this new supplement, and so far they are about 200% funded with backing from 48 perspicacious fans.

There’s a lot to like about the way they have gone about this fundraising campaign. I like the planned spending breakdown, for example: 10% goes to the writers, 50% goes on printing copies of the new supplement, Kickstarter get their 5%, and the balance will be invested in producing the next Consortium expansion.

This is significant because it means that development of this product is mostly complete already, and the team at Shades of Vengeance are busy planning for the future.

Here’s another lovely little touch: Each of reward comes with/on a Shades Of Vengeance -branded 4Gb flash drive that is going to be filled with little extras – art, notes, etc – and the author of the supplement is trying to ensure that the content mix of each is unique. Succeed or fail, that’s awesome!

The best news yet: The Core Book (reviewed above) come with the game supplement. With corrections and errata that may well have fixed some or all of those little glitches that I mentioned earlier! But, if you already have it, you can opt for a cheaper commitment and just get the expansion.

Now, every time I’ve seen something similar, it’s been the digital version that’s usually offered. Not this time – we’re talking about the physical Core Book, either Paperback or Hardcover. Drool, drool, drool. In fact, there are no less than 26 different backer levels, and a clear and easy-to-use chart to help you decide which one is right for you.

As I’ve said before, I love Kickstarters that have already met their funding goals and are reaching for the stars, because you have a much better chance of getting what you’re investing in. But time is short – so reach for those credit cards or paypal accounts and check out “The Secret War” kickstarter page Right Now! (Link opens in a new window – don’t worry, I’ll wait here for you!)

Other ERA products

Still not convinced? or interested in why this can be even better value for money than you already thought it was?

There are a whole bunch of other game products in different genres from Shades of Vengeance that all use the same core mechanics. Not similar mechanics, as was the case with the d20 line, and not evolutions of a core mechanic, as is the case with the Hero System and it’s variants like Pulp Hero, Fantasy Hero, and Star Hero. Exactly the same core mechanics, plus a modular plug-in.

Those modular plug-ins (they aren’t described as such, but that’s what they are) provide cross-compatibility across the entire product line. So let’s take a quick look at what’s available:

ERA Lyres

Lyres is a fantasy RPG. Sort of. You play “Lyres” (read “Liars”) who tell tall tales (that you actually roleplay), telling “stories of adventures you never had” for the entertainment (and coins) of tavern patrons – but boasting of the wrong thing can have “real world” consequences for you, should the wrong person overhear. So there are multiple levels of game participation occurring simultaneously, producing a richer “tapestry” than many RPGs can achieve.

But there are creatures in the bestiary that would need little conversion/adjustment to find a place on the alien worlds of The Consortium, just as the aliens would need only a little tweaking (to appropriate technological standards) to find a place in your Lyres game setting.

Heck, there’s absolutely nothing to stop you adapting Lyres to function as a “campfire chat” game or equivalent social practice within your Consortium game, just as a routine change-of-pace and campaign-within-a-campaign.

The product I was offered for review is the Deluxe Digital Version [US$15 (£10)], but it also comes in deluxe paperback [US$28 (£18)] or Hardcover [US$37 (£25)] from the Shades Of Vengeance online store [NB: scroll up to get to the Consortium section or vice-versa if you already have the page opened]. Some of the art is more primitive in style than the glossy fantastic-realism of the Consortium setting, but that’s not inappropriate given that these are supposed to be imaginary creatures!

But that’s not the only Fantasy-oriented offering coming from Shades of Vengeance.

Era: Silence (in development)

Era: Silence is a game in development, described as “A Fantasy RPG about earning your name as a warrior by completing the challenges on the Isle of Silence!” Why do I have the impression that many prospective challengers will stop off at the Taverns and joust wits with the Lyers en route? or that creatures from one might represent the “reality” of the Lyers? There are so many ways these two could synergise! Bookmark the page to keep abreast of developments on this game.

ERA: Survival (in development)

Era: Survival is all about “The last of Humanity struggle for survival in a dangerous world” – in fact, a post-apocalyptic world, from the look of it. Again, Bookmark the page I’ve linked to if you want to keep track of this product.

The Consortium setting makes a big deal about the fact that all records of the past were lost when the generation ship crash-landed at the beginning of their history, leaving Earth as a half-mythical unknown. They don’t know why the ship left Earth, or if they are the only one. It wouldn’t take too much effort to unite the two settings – perhaps the effort of constructing the ships bankrupted society, leading to the ultimate breakdown in law and order? Or maybe there was a cataclysm but some were spared? Or perhaps it was not so easy, and the last of humanity aren’t just struggling to survive, but to launch a golden hope for a new home for humanity on another world?

The possibilities are endless.

ERA: The Empowered (in development)

Era: The Empowered is a superheroic offering. ERA supplied me with a copy of the rulebook primer as it currently stands – I think it’s in its final form, but I’m not sure*. This is essentially the “core rules” for the superheroic variation. But with the science of the Consortium, I’m quite certain that paranormal abilities are within their capabilities, and, of course, Shades and Phantoms (not to mention the aliens) could fit very easily into an Empowered game setting. Once more, I have provided a link to bookmark for news.

* I hope not, as some of the character generation explanations are not as clear as they are in the other supplements, and there’s no real example of the “power trees”. But “Final Rev2” appears in the internal title of the PDF, so I suspect those, like the technologies of the Consortium, will have to wait for a full Core Rulebook.

Synergies and Common Patterns

These products (at least, all the ones I saw) all share a unified core system, as explained earlier, and a fundamentally similar layout and set of production values, each enhanced or tweaked stylistically to fit the target genre, and yet clearly part of the same product “family”.

Each can synergize and supplement the others in various ways, and the more of them that you invest in, the more bang you get for each buck (or pound). And that makes each of them an even more attractive proposition.

Super-spies and Super-heroics are a natural match, provided that power levels are not too discontinuous – and the commonality of the game system means that “The Secret War” and “The Empowered”, in particular, are a natural match.

The Final Analysis

“Era: Consortium – The Secret War” ultimately can’t rely on synergies to be value for money. Fortunately, as the success of the Kickstarter shows, it is more than capable of standing on its own merits.

With backer levels that actually yield product starting as low as $6, can you not afford to take a look? Here, once again is the link to the kickstarter page.

Tavern Tales

cropped excerpt from an image by Chantal DeAngelo

A cropped excerpt from an image by Chantal DeAngelo / Tavern Tales

The second product that I have for your consideration is “Tavern Tales” by Dabney Bailey. This is a very interesting product for many reasons, not least of which is the flexibility of character creation. A talking dog is no stretch at all, as the comments from playtesters show, so there really are no constraints on your imagination.

Tavern Tales was released into an open beta about two years ago. Since then, Dabney has been working closely with the community to polish, improve, and expand the game.

One of the playtesters, Wesley, says “…I can say with absolute certainty that this game is unlike any other; it offers you unrivaled creative license to play what you have always wanted to play. It strips away the unnecessary mechanics that muck up systems while emphasizing cinematics and creativity at the same time, allowing you to really get into your character, sit back, and play the game.”

image by Chantal DeAngelo

One of the images by Chantal DeAngelo / Tavern Tales

Gameplay promise

From the Tavern Tales website: The core mechanic in Tavern Tales is called a “Tale,” which highlights the game’s emphasis on storytelling. Outside of the dice rolling mechanic, Tavern Tales uses virtually no numbers whatsoever. The game focuses on cinematic, exciting effects. Your power comes from your ability to affect the story, rather than from numeric bonuses like “+1 damage.”

Image by Chantal DeAngelo

Image by Chantal DeAngelo for Tavern Tales

The Kickstarter further describes the game system: “Rather than using the classic ‘race+class’ combo of other RPGs, Tavern Tales give you access to a huge list of themes like Undeath, Dragon, and Thievery. Each theme has traits, which you can purchase for your character. For example, Undeath traits let you do things like come back to life after you die, or drain a creature’s soul. This no-limits freedom gives you the power to build the character you’ve always wanted to play. Here’s a very small sampling of characters you can build at character creation:

  • Any classical archetype like mages, rogues, barbarians, paladins, etc.
  • A flying, fire-breathing dragon.
  • A druidic pirate who sails a living treant-ship.
  • A blacksmith who wears steam-powered golem armor.
  • An intelligent psionic dog who communicates telepathically.
  • An undead lich who can’t be killed unless your phylactery is destroyed.

Which all sounds very promising, doesn’t it?

The Core Mechanic

So let’s take a look at that Core Mechanic. When you want to do something, you roll 3d20. In most cases, you take the middle result, ignoring the highest and lowest; some circumstances mandate using one of the highest or lowest result.

That’s a very interesting concept, mathematically. The lower your lowest roll, the more scope there is for your highest roll to be close to the mathematical average result; as a result, the middle roll is almost certain to be somewhere in the middle, average range. It’s as though there were a pressure from both sides pushing toward a moderate result, neither spectacularly high nor low; but without ever quite being able to completely eliminate the possibility of an extreme result.

A full analysis is way beyond the scope of what time will permit. I did a few sample rolls and got middle results of 6, 8, 4, 12, 4, 17, 14, 17, 14, 9, 11, 17, and 9 – which averages out to 15.2, but is hardly a big enough sample to give really valid results. What is does show is that extreme results become less likely, while average results remain virtually unchanged in absolute terms – which, in effect, makes them more likely, in relative terms.

image by Chantal DeAngelo

A cropped excerpt from one of the images by Chantal DeAngelo for Tavern Tales

In ten rolls, there should have been at least one result higher than 17 or lower than 4 – but these were “censored out” by the die roll mechanism, because in order for a ‘3’ to be the middle result, for example, it requires another of the d20s to have rolled a three or lower – and that only happens 15% of the time. The combination will only happen three four-hundredths of a time – and that’s ignoring the need for the third die to be four or more (which will almost always happen).

Free Playtest PDF

Both the website and the Kickstarter page are unique in offering as a download a free rough draft of the rules. You may then ask, why back the Kickstarter? The page itself answers the question: “The final product will be substantially more polished, and will include much more content.”

I’ve checked and both sources link to the same file. This is the closest thing to a “test drive” that I’ve ever seen offered by a fundraising campaign.

The Forum

A quick skim through the kickstarter makes it clear that there is an active and enthusiastic gaming community behind this project. There is a forum on Reddit which is clearly busy. Threads include “Questions regarding Barrier”, “Questions about minions 1.01”, and other rules clarifications that will undoubtedly feed into the final product. The game’s creator is, as you would expect, one of the most active users of the Forum, and the fundraising campaign clearly invites participation by both backers and tentative backers.

Image by Marcel Goriel

A cropped excerpt from one of the images by Marcel Goriel for Tavern Tales

Interestingly, the only link to the forum on the website is an unassuming reddit icon alongside the other social media buttons – tweet, like on facebook, etc. So this is close to being a “hidden extra” (whether it was meant that way or not).

Production Values

With nothing more than the plain-text “rough draft” of the rules to go on, it’s hard to assess the production values.

There are two indicators, though, and those are pretty conclusive in my book.

The first is the website itself, which is straightforward but very slick in appearance. The links at the top of the page simply take you to different anchor points on the main page.

The second is something shared by both the website and the kickstarter page: what art has been produced so far is absolutely gorgeous, as you can see from the limited selection reproduced.

Cropped excerpt of an image by Chantal DeAngelo

A cropped excerpt from one of the images by Chantal DeAngelo for Tavern Tales

In fact, don’t rely on the limited-resolution shrunken-in-size renditions to make up your mind: go take a look at the site and the kickstarter page!

The Kickstarter

To do that, of course, you will need a link, so here it is.

In terms of value for money, I have to say that the price per page is higher than that being charged by Shades Of Vengeance, and that might mislead some readers into making an unfair comparison. This is the first Kickstarter for this product, whereas the Era: Consortium supplement is an established and growing line. In effect, backers of “The Secret War” are the beneficiaries of past investment by previous backers of the game system. As a result, volume discounts on the production costs would be far easier to negotiate for Shades Of Vengeance.

So far, the fundraising effort has raised promises of over $8000 – which may be only half of the funding target, but is roughly eight times the commitment so far to “The Secret War”. That tells me two things: comparing these two campaigns is like comparing grapes with grapefruit: they may both be fruits, but that’s where the comparisons end!

You do have a little more time to make up your mind about Tavern Tales – as of this writing, 16 days, 11 hours, 40 minutes, and 26 seconds – so go check it out.

A further bonus

In their own ways, both Tavern Tales and Shades Of Vengeance reinvest in the gaming community. Tavern Tales, as the much smaller startup, does so on a smaller scale, through the forum and the commitment that it carries to improving, and expanding on, their product. This gives you direct access to experts in the game and the game author on an ongoing basis. Think about that for a moment (and if anyone spams them because of it, I’ll be really ticked off).

Shades Of Vengeance, on the other hand, help others realize their own creative endeavors, employing their experience and obvious success at fundraising to produce things like comics and independent games.

When I first started outlining this article, I was struggling to find a unifying thread that would tie it all together. In retrospect, that connection seems obvious:

Both are products by gamers for gamers.

And that brings me neatly to product #3…

Pathfinder Tales: Bloodbound by F. Wesley Schneider

Pathfinder Bloodbound cover

Pathfinder: Bloodbound
by F.Wesley Schneider

I mentioned this product the last time I did one of these fundraiser roundups, last November. At that point in time, it was not yet published, and simply sounded promising.

This is the first novel by one of the co-creators of Pathfinder. Paizo are another of those game companies that “give back” to the game community, and this is a definite product by one gamer for others!

Well, my review copy arrived late last week…

Preliminary Impressions

The book is physically larger than I was expecting, and the gloss on the cover gave the whole thing a very comfortable solidity. The font is also slightly larger than is common on many modern books, which made it very comfortable to read.

The first page is a frontispiece excerpt from within the book and it’s an excellent launchpad, imparting flavor and contextual space before you even read the first word of the ‘real’ novel. This might be a design consideration from the Publishers, Tor Books, and it’s a technique that I have seen misused horribly in the past – usually by a poor choice of excerpt (I have even seen a publisher give away the plot twist!) – but in this case, it works very well.

So far, I haven’t had time to do more than skim-read the first chapter, so my first impressions are about all I have to go on. What I can say is that the style is very vivid and easy to read, conveying the essentials of a situation with a minimum of dressing, which keeps the pace moving along. Schneider’s style is very easy to read, and he has a knack for both setting and characterization that is fairly uncommon, and that all works very well with the design and layout choices of the publisher.

So much so that my skim kept bouncing through paragraphs only to find that I had missed something important and had to back-track.

I’ve read other novels where you could scan every second paragraph and still get the gist of what was going on; this isn’t like them. The editing has been done to a very taut standard, and there is very little wasted text as a result. This is a book that demands to be read, not skimmed.

Analyzing The Amazon Reviews

One of the defining characteristics of this novel is a shared-first-person perspective. Some people love this, some people hate it. It’s a very gamist technique, demonstrating that the author has gotten deep under the skin of his protagonists, and inviting the reader to share in that experience.

There has been one negative review which was based entirely upon an extreme dislike for this technique. Aside from that, the book has received entirely 4 and 5 star reviews – at least one of the latter being, in part, because of the use of this technique.

For me, the lesson is clear – if you don’t mind the technique, you can enjoy this book, but if you dislike it, you won’t.

Further Reflection

Which raises a very interesting question: to what extent are concept and delivery entwined in an RPG, generally?

I think that exactly the same principle holds: a given technique won’t make you enjoy content any more than it merits, but may impair the capacity to engage with that content. You can have the greatest plotline or characters or setting in the world, but none of that matters if the content is drowned out by the shape of the message.

There are no universal rules about delivery style, though tradition creates some expectations. A James Bond film wouldn’t be the same without the pre-title action sequence, for example, which may or may not have any relevance to the main plot (depending on which film you are watching.

However, genre creates a preference for some styles over others, and individual plots may also do so. A political thriller almost-universally needs a slow-buildup in which the players and their respective personalities and circumstances are made clear before the point of conflict arises. Crime stories can have either low-octane or high-octane beginnings.

This is all about the emotional pacing of the story, making sure that fatigue doesn’t set in, and that things nevertheless build to a satisfactory climax. (For more information on Emotional Pacing in RPGs, I refer the reader to my two-part article on the subject – Part One, Part Two).

There are a number of techniques that you – or a novelist – can use to set the emotional starting level of their plot to whatever the combination of genre and plot demand:

  • the excerpt, which most RPGs don’t have available because players change the story as it is played;
  • omniscient narration, in which a narrative “framework” is provided by a cosmic voice-over man, much as Rod Serling used to do every week on the Twilight Zone;
  • omniscient perspective, in which players/readers are told of an event that their characters/the protagonist cannot possibly witness, but which they will come to know about;
  • an ordinary day, in which a slice of life is used to contrast normality with abnormality, and peace with danger;
  • the mid-action parachute, in which the adventure begins half-way through an action sequence (usually but not always irrelevant to the main plot) that is designed to kick-start the adrenalin;
  • the voice of doom, in which another cosmic narrator tells of a prophecy of some sort or of a threat that is going to materialize, or of the effects that the day will have on the protagonists.

That’s just a small sampling, there are many more. Sometimes, the context of the introduction doesn’t become clear until the denouement!

This isn’t the primary subject of this article, so I’m going to leave the discussion at this point, save to admonish GMs to think about the opening sequences of their adventures a lot more than most do.

Getting back to the point, then, the style of this book may put you off; but if it doesn’t (and I expect fewer gamers to have problems with it than the general public, simply because they are used to the shift from in-game perspective to player / game mechanics perspective), it’s definitely worth thinking about if you like a bit of Gothic fantasy adventure. Available now from Amazon Books for Kindle and paperback.

So There We Have It

Between that diverse collection, there should be something for just about everyone. So I’d like to end with a roundup of the relevant links from this article:

Comments (8)

Bidding For Characters (and related metagame alternatives)


gavel-2

photo credit freeimages.com / Jason Morrison

Inspiration can strike anytime, anywhere, sparked by some completely unexpected collision of thought and random sensory experience. There have been several articles here at campaign mastery with such origins; this is another, sparked by a random comment made during the pre-game conversation and socializing that normally takes place before a session of my Zenith-3 campaign. The comment itself is completely irrelevant; it was simply a springboard into a new metagame-based approach to character generation that I thought worth sharing.

When I first started gaming, there were two metagame approaches used for character generation.

Old Method 1: At-Home Generation

Everyone gets told what the game system is, and generates a character at home. The first time they find out what anyone else has is when they get together to play for the first time.

Variations

The GM may have (as I recommend in many other articles) given the players a brief description (or even a substantial briefing document) of the campaign that he intends to run, providing at least a modicum of direction to the players as to what characters will fit in.

A second variation has the players failing to generate anything more than mechanics – stats etc – and leaving the character’s personality to emerge during the course of play.

The problem:

This approach accurately simulates a group of strangers thrown together by happenstance. In terms of breadth of adventuring potential, though, it can be a nightmare; the campaign may demand at least one wizard, or an elf, or whatever – and there isn’t one. Everyone might turn up with Rangers (hey, I was once part of a rock band in which all 13 members wanted to be the drummer – and none of us had ever played any instrument! I ended up on Bass Guitar…)

The GM has no idea what he’s going to get. His campaign needs to engage the characters anyway, as though it had been written for these characters and no-one else. It’s an impossible burden.

That’s why most GMs quickly come up with Old Method 2, if they weren’t taught to use it from the start:

Old Method 2: At-The-Table Generation

Everyone gathers around the game table and generates their characters on the spot, usually after a short briefing on the campaign from the GM, who is there to answer questions as character generation proceeds. There is interaction between the players as they create their characters, and they all have an idea of what each other is creating and can deliberately seek out diversity between themselves. At the same time, the GM can hear those discussions, and can begin refining the campaign accordingly.

The problem:

It sounds wonderfully Utopian, doesn’t it? It often falls apart in practice, though the cause may vary with game system.

In D&D, Pathfinder, and other such systems, not all classes are created alike, and some require a lot more time to generate a member. That leaves the other players – and the GM – twiddling their thumbs. In a points-buy system like GURPS or the Hero system, many players agonize over where to spend those last two points, taking forever to dot the i’s and cross the T’s of their character design.

It’s enough to drive a GM back to method #1…

Newer Method 3: Phased Introduction

When I ran my TORG campaign, I deliberately sought a third path to character creation, based around the deliberate restriction of options.

To understand it, you need to at least understand the fundamental background of TORG, so I’ll diverge from discussing what I did long enough to fill you in: This bad dude known as the Gaunt Man created a conspiracy amongst a handful of extra-dimensional realities to invade the Earth because it was abundant in something called Possibility Energy, which could be used by those invaders to reshape reality to their own benefit. England was transformed by the invasion by the Fantasy realm of Aysle; The east coast of North America was unrecognizable after being transformed by the Lost-World-styled Living Land; France was dominated by a Cybertech-oriented interpretation of a medieval theocracy, the Cyberpapacy; Japan was dominated by Nippon Tech, a hyper-capitalist society full of Manga-style high tech, ninjas, betrayal, the Yakuza, and small groups of insurgents fighting for their lives and independence; Indonesia/the Pacific became the stronghold of the Horror-based realm of Orrorsh, ruled by the Gaunt Man himself; and Egypt was reshaped into the Pulp/Superhero “New Nile Empire”, a blend of ancient Egyptian motifs and theology, weird science, and four-color action. The alliance, quite naturally, didn’t last, and the “High Lords” of each of these realms began to conspire against each other, and (in some cases) with internal rebellions.

There’s a lot more, but that’s all you need to know to understand the campaign.

I started the campaign before the invasion of Earth, and set the initial campaign within the Fantasy Realm of Aysle. The PCs were initially charged with hunting down a rampaging dragon of unprecedented size and power. This was a quest that took a year of fortnightly adventuring, and as they pursued it (and saw the power of Corruption – think “the dark side of the Force” – spread over the land), they discovered that it’s power was a contrivance by one of the factions of the court, allied to a stranger (The Gaunt Man, which the players knew but the characters didn’t) as a means of undermining and ultimately overthrowing the ruler of the Realm, enabling the Realm to join the invasion of Earth. Ultimately, they defeated the Dragon, but were too late in doing so to prevent the coup.

That brought the campaign into Phase II, in which the players were the linchpins of a conspiracy/rebellion aimed at ousting the usurpers and restoring Pella Ardinay to the throne. Of course, the usurpers were well aware of the danger of a counter-coup, and had arranged an assassination in such a way that they had plausible deniability; the PCs were able to prevent the assassination but were caught in a trap set by the Gaunt Man (who didn’t fully trust the competence of his allies) and frozen in time.

When they were released by the trap, five years had passed; the invasion of Earth had now taken place, but the dethroned Ayslish ruler had regained her throne with the aid of the rebellion established by the PCs and had reached terms with the “Core Earth” Monarchy/Government of England.

That brought the campaign into Phase III, in which the PCs began to travel the Earth and the other realms trying to understand the invasions and how it could be won, once and for all. The whole campaign was laid out as a “Grand Tour” of the invading Realms, each of which had it’s own set of natural laws and internal logic.

Okay, so that’s the campaign in a nutshell. Now consider the implications for character generation.

In Phase I, the characters had to be Fantasy Staple characters. Fighters, a Mage, and so on. I also specified that they had to be Human, since that was the dominant species in Aysle.

In Phase II, a character could retire and be replaced any time the player wanted, and a more diverse selection of Fantasy races were available after the PCs had made contact with the race in question. He could also transfer up to half his earned experience (Possibility Points, used to alter reality) to the new character – but there was a catch: if the new character died, he would be replaced with the earlier character, but any transferred points, AND any earned subsequently, would be lost. In the meantime, the old character would become an NPC to be put “on ice” within the campaign. If the player elected to continue with their original PC, and died, they would have to generate a new character and would lose ALL the Possibility Points accrued by the old character. This encouraged a trade-in without forcing it on anyone; staying with their original character would give them a more effective PC, but it was betting the whole wad on each hand. Oh yes, and only one character could “upgrade” per adventure.

In Phase III, a character could retire and be replaced, but would have to be a native to wherever the PCs were at the time, using the same transfer rules; or could be killed out and a new “local character” generated. That’s how the PCs, bit by bit, came to consist of a Dwarven Mage, a Masked Hero, a cloned Ninja Assassin, and a walking plant-priest with Cybernetic Implants.

There’s one common principle embedded in this technique, and that is for the players to become at least somewhat familiar with the environment through their old characters before they got to generate a character deriving from that Reality. This was my way of educating the players about the game world, and it worked very well. Sadly, the campaign folded – well, technically was suspended, but it has never resumed – just as the PCs were on the verge of getting the information and tools they needed to really start changing the Status Quo in a major way, playing three of the High Lords off against each other (Nile Empire, Cyberpapacy, and Nippon Tech), defeating the High Lord of the Living Land, and developing a weapon that combined all five of those realities’ technology – which was when it was going to be discovered that the Gaunt Man had escaped from the prison in which he had been placed during the 5-year interim, leading to a final showdown for the whole box and dice.

So that’s option three: phasing characters in based on what is available, and controlling that availability through Plot. “Join the campaign! See the world! Go to interesting places, meet interesting people, and decide whether or not you want to be one of them!”

I took a different approach again when setting up the original Zenith-3 campaign…

Newer Option Four: The Structured Team

Because I wanted to be sure that each character was different, and wouldn’t tread on each other’s toes too much, I listed the essential character archetypes and specified that once a slot was taken, no other character could use that archetype until every archetype had at least one representative – and it was first-come, first-served, in order of asking to join the campaign. As it happened, there was no conflict, and everyone got the archetype that they wanted: a brick, an energy projector, a martial artist, a psionic, a gadgeteer, and a detective.

Variations

I employed the same approach to setting up the first Fumanor campaign, with elements of the Phased concept from the TORG campaign. Classes were restricted in choice (but always more than there were PCs) and non-human races were only permitted after milestone events that added them to the choices available. The initial adventure was two humans from the country on their way to the big city to join the Adventurer’s Guild, their respective townships’ mandated contributions to the common good; they were subsequently joined by an Elf and a… I don’t remember now, to be honest. Another human, I think. Later, a human was transformed into a Halfling.

Once again, the plot dictated what choices were available, but which of those options a player chose to explore and exploit was up to them. The biggest difference was that there was no trade-in; if a player seriously wanted to change race or class, it was a Big Deal (but there were ways of doing so).

Each campaign enlarged the pool of options available – most of the core classes were soon on offer, and races now available are Human (Three very different cultures), Elf (four varieties), Dwarf, Minotaur, Drow, Halfling, Orc, Ogre, Verdonne (a more agile Treant), and Dwarfling. On top of that, they also had a Mummy for a while, but that didn’t really work out for them.

The technique, on the other hand, worked very well.

Which brings me to my new idea…

New Option Five: Bidding For Characters

There are eight simple steps to this process.

  1. Once again, the GM lists the archetypes or classes that he considers essential. These can be grouped – “Sorcerer/Wizard”, “Barbarian/Fighter/Ranger/Paladin”, or whatever; and also notes any that do not fit the game world that he or she has in mind.
  2. He/She may also specify available races, and may set a maximum or minimum number of each – “At least one Elf and one Dwarf, no more than two of either” is as valid as “all humans” or “all Trolls,” for that matter.
  3. He provides this as a list to the players, who go away and design a character concept for each of the archetypes/classes, an idea of what that character will be like – personality, motivation, personal history, future development, plotlines desired, and so on. Each player then submits his proposals to the GM. These are the player’s “bids” for that role within the adventuring party.
  4. If there are any mandated races, the GM starts by ranking each of the proposals for that race, from most interesting or campaign-appropriate to least interesting or campaign-appropriate. Whatever archetype/class was specified by the bid is thus allocated to the player, and none of his other proposals are required. Repeat this step until the minimum number of representatives required of each race is complete.
  5. Excluding any bids whose players already have an archetype allocated, the GM then ranks the remaining ideas for the first empty archetype. The best idea gets the winning bid, and is excluded from further consideration. Repeat this step until every archetype slot has at least one representative, or you run out of players. Maximum racial representation limits may rule some proposals out of consideration.
  6. If there are any players without positions allocated, simply pick the most interesting proposal from that player.
  7. Review the assemblage. Will they work well together? Will they compliment each other? Will their plotlines give different characters the opportunity to participate? Are there interesting potential connections? Does the character give the GM ideas (write these down)? If not, review your choices – it might be that the second most-interesting/appropriate option somewhere down the line will produce a better character group. Work backwards to do this until you reach the step where the character that fits least-well was allocated, change that allocation, and proceed from there. Some of your choices may remain the same, but you have a bunch of new suggestions to consider, so it’s also possible that none of them will end up matching. Continue juggling the roster until you have the most interesting campaign foundation possible.
  8. Notify the players of which of their submissions has been accepted.
Benefits

If the players have done their part correctly, they will only have made any effort on the class/archetypes that they are most interested in playing. Ideally, they will list a character for every role that will appeal to them, but realistically, I know better. The result is that the player is guaranteed to receive a choice that he will enjoy playing, and since this choice has been made to better integrate with both the PC group and the campaign world, it will automatically be a better choice than any that could be made “blind”, and even more fun to play.

It might seem like the GM has a lot of work to do, but realistically, the process is designed so that he doesn’t have to read most of the proposals. The benefit for him is that the character choices will suit the adventures and campaign that he wants to run, something that might happen by blind chance – just as someone will eventually win the lottery. The odds might be about the same, too.

An example (following the same steps)

There are four players for a new D&D/Pathfinder campaign.

  1. The GM specifies the archetypes that he needs as “archer”, “muscle”, and “spellcaster”, and that he wants three character proposals from each player, one for each of these roles. What else the character can do is up to the player and the standard character generation procedure.
  2. The GM decrees that he needs at least one Dwarf and one Elf among the PCs, but no more than that. No more than two submissions by any given player should be the same PC race, either.
  3. The players take these requirements and any campaign briefing and create their character “bids:
    • Player one proposes a Human Fighter, a Dwarven Fighter, and an Elven Druid.
    • Player two proposes an Elven Ranger, a Human Barbarian, and a Dwarven Cleric.
    • Player three proposes a Human Rogue, an Elven Fighter, and a Human Mage.
    • Player four proposes an Elven Paladin, a Half-Orcish Fighter, and a Human Cleric.
  1. The GM starts by looking at the Dwarven proposals. He has two: a Fighter in the “Muscle” archetype and a Cleric in the “Spellcaster” archetype. The latter offers some interesting ideas about the relationship between their habitats and lifestyle and their theology, the former is fairly routine. Player two wins the bidding for a spellcaster.
  1. The GM then looks at the Elven proposals. He sets aside those of player two, leaving him with three: a Druid in the “Spellcaster” archetype, which can be ignored for the moment because the campaign already has a spellcaster; a Fighter in the “Muscle” category which has interesting background and plot suggestions; and a Paladin in the “Archer” archetype, which is an interesting and unusual combination, but which would not fit into the campaign as well. Player three wins the bidding for Muscle.
  2. So the bidding for the Archer comes down to players one and four. Player one’s Human Fighter proposal has a dark secret and feels a serious need to atone for his past, a fairly strong characterization; Player four is proposing an Elven Paladin, which would provide an interesting contrast to the Dwarven Cleric. Both are strong proposals, and the choice would come down to which would better fit the campaign (if the plan is to focus on theology, player four would get the nod, if not, it would be player one, as this would enable the campaign to cover a greater range of adventures) – were it not for the “no more” maximum limit on Elves. So player one has won the bid.
  3. That leaves only the decision of what Player 4 will be allocated. The Elvish Paladin has already been rejected, leaving only a Half-Orcish Fighter and a Human Cleric. The latter is fairly humdrum and would cover much of the same territory as the Dwarven Cleric; the former is intriguing, especially with the cultural proposals that have been offered with it. So player four is allocated the Half-Orcish Fighter.
  4. The GM reviews the party: A Dwarven Cleric (spellcaster), an Elven Fighter (muscle), a Human Fighter (archer), and a Half-Orcish Fighter (muscle). Two fighters up front, one at the back (who can move forward in a pinch), and one who can be either in front or in the back depending on the need. The GM decides that it’s an interesting party and will bring out interesting perspectives on the game world; and also notes that the Elf is the closest thing they have to a rogue, thanks to his innate senses – but that he would be compromised in that role by his focus on Strength over Agility. Since he didn’t list that as one of the archetypes explicitly, that doesn’t matter – in this campaign.
  5. With the decisions made, the GM informs the players of which characters they should generate. Of the twelve proposals, he’s had to look at nine. He also indicates to players two and three that they should generate the Barbarian and the Mage as backup characters, respectively. He tells players one and two that neither of their other proposals will work, and they should come up with something else as a backup choice, should anything ever happen to his primary character.
One Final Step:

Lastly, while it might seem to the GM that yielding the best possible combination of interesting characters and a better fit between PCs and Campaign are their own reward, nevertheless he should provide some sort of concession or reward to the players to assist them in actually rendering these designs rather than leaving them completely at the mercy of die rolls.

If I were doing it, I would permit the players to use the “roll 4 dice and choose the best three results” character generation technique, but furthermore, would allow that “extra dice” to be moved (before rolling) to another stat up to three times in the process for stats that the character really does need to be high if the character is to be effective within their selected niche. So a character could end up with one stat being “roll 7 dice and pick the best 3 results” while the others are all “roll 3d6”, or there could be one stat at “roll 6 dice and pick the best 3 results” and another that retains its initial “roll 4 and pick the best 3”, leaving 4 stats at “roll 3d6” – IF one of their character proposals is accepted.

It’s that simple – and should yield better campaigns, more interesting PCs, and more interested players, every time.

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Basics For Beginners (and the over-experienced) Part 4: About Players


Part-4

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

I’ve been asked a number of times what advice I have for a beginning GM. This 15-part series is an attempt to answer that question – while throwing in some tips and reminders of the basics for more experienced GMs. I plan to complete the series in blocks of three articles, with fortnightly spacing.

I’ve read a lot of nonsense and enlightened theory over the years when it comes to players. It all seems to posses a grain of truth and yet to somehow miss the mark. Here’s the real truth: a lot of the activities involved in an RPG can be entertaining and viscerally satisfying, with each individual enjoying some parts of the process more than others. The single most enjoyable part of the process will vary, from week to week, from character to character, from campaign to campaign, from GM to GM, and from player to player, and articles that attempt to define, analyze, or otherwise codify a “type” of player are always equally misleading and valuable as a result. And that makes them dangerous to use as a guide to what your adventures should contain.

I put most of the problems down to oversimplification and attempting to pigeonhole complex personal characteristics. And yet, there remains that nagging sense that such classification systems seem to make sense, at least partially.

Another problem is that most of these classification systems fail to distinguish causes from effects. If my character is primarily designed for combat, my day won’t be complete unless there is some combat – anything else generally means that I’m not getting my share of the spotlight. Players can and will tolerate a limited amount of that, especially if they are engaged in other ways, but it’s a little unfair to characterize someone as a “power gamer” if their focus is on their character’s combat effectiveness if that is defined as the central thrust of the character archetype that they are playing. Some of the characterization of the players that such classification systems provide is self-fulfilling prophecy, in other words.

The most enjoyable part – factors

Before I go too far, let’s look at those different factors (and one or two additions) that I have mentioned in a little more detail.

Day-to-day variations

Sometimes, a person will feel like blowing off steam; sometimes, they will enjoy putting on someone else’s persona; sometimes, the intricacies of a plot will fascinate. People change with their moods, and those are affected by their state of mind and the experiences they have had in their last week.

These also have a fundamental impact of the characters that they create – if they felt like just letting rip with something destructive in the week when character creation takes place, they will build a combat monster. Thereafter, they are typecast in that role – which is fine if this mood is a regularly-recurring theme within their personality, but not so useful if that particular week was an aberration.

Campaign Variations

Some campaigns will lend themselves to different types of engagement. Others are more universal. If you’re running a zombie apocalypse. there won’t be much room for being a generous, giving person, or for deep politics. Shooting things, hacking at things with an axe or chainsaw, and blowing stuff up – that’s going to be far more prevalent. Nor will there be a lot of scientific insight. On a sci-fi campaign, science, logic, and deduction are pretty much going to be expected week-in and week-out. Fantasy needs to feel fantastic, a sense that anything can happen within the constraints of the campaign concept parameters. Superhero campaigns require the PCs to be the good guys on a regular basis. Pulp campaigns need to have a strong action-adventure element, and Pirates campaigns have an even stronger need to swagger and swashbuckle. Each of these campaign types (and more besides) may appeal to an individual for different reasons at different times, and be totally off-putting at other times.

Character Variations

I’ve already touched on this. Some characters have a natural function within the group setting, and what the player will enjoy more than anything else is fulfilling that natural function in a way that speaks to their personal predilections. If the roleplayer in the group has the ‘combat monster’ of the party, he will want to bring that roleplaying element into the combats (whether he realizes it or not).

When the character’s role within the group aligns with the players personal predilections and the character is regularly given the opportunity to perform that group function, the player will generally enjoy playing that character more than if there is a misalignment in one of these ingredients.

GM Variations

Every GM is an individual person with their own strengths, weaknesses, tastes, and style. Once the players recognize those attributes within the GM, they will find that certain types of game activity play to those strengths and produce a more enjoyable game, while others will simply frustrate. Players who sign up for one of my campaigns, for example, know that there will be great depth within the campaign, and it will never be simply a combat slugfest; that plot and story will be the fundamental drivers of everything that happens; and that characters will be rich and complex in characterization (often more-so than my ability to express those personalities in-game). That means that combat monsters tend to find little challenge in my games, because the combats are often easier to win than they technically should be. Those strengths and predilections inform the choice of genre that I make, and the capacity for enjoyment that is available within the game for any particular type of character. The more that the player’s choices play to my strengths as a GM, the more engagement there is between us in-game, and hence the greater the potential enjoyment that results.

Adventure Variations

Some adventures make the players want to do certain things more than others – a particular villain might get under their skin, so that all they want to do is flatten him, for example. Or the GM may bring a character to life so vividly that interacting with that character becomes a primary reward.

Player Variations

Players do tend to have particular preferences for all sorts of things, from different adventure types to different group roles to different character archetypes. Some players enjoy making sure that each of their characters is radically and fundamentally different to each of the others; some like to stand out from the majority of the group, seeking spotlight time through distinctiveness; some have a marked predilection for playing endless variations on the same basic theme or themes.

Existing Classification Systems

Before I go any further, I should provide a slew of links to the different player analyses that I found in researching the subject. I’ve already voiced my criticism, but they all contain an element of truth that makes it difficult to dismiss them out-of-hand. Any GM who wants to satisfy his players should at least look them over before proceeding, so that we are all proceeding from a common foundation. All links will open in a new tab/window.

Glen Blacow in an article in Different Worlds #10 (Steve Jackson Games, 2001), formulated a list of 4 types of player. Robin D. Laws, in Robin’s Laws Of Good Game-mastering, expanded this to six, and subsequent contributors and discussion have added a seventh. A number of variations have been proposed in different articles and publications through the years. You can read the list of seven, and their defining characteristics, at Darkshire.net.

EnWorld has a thread which extends and modifies these definitions into ten types.

Darkshire.net have attempted to codify player types according to three more fundamental properties: Dramatist, Gamist, and Simulationist, combinations of which yield multiple player types, which is sometimes referred to as the Threefold Model. This took place within a newsgroup discussion of player types on rec.games.frp.advocacy. You can read about the three player types on Darkshire’s website, and it’s well worth reading; in many ways, it represents the state of the art of understanding players.

Ron Edwards has devised an alternative formulation in a 6-chapter treatise, called the GNS Theory, and it is equally a contender for “state of the art” honors. You can read it (each of the chapters, plus the introduction, have a separate web page) at “The Forge“. It’s longer and a bit more technical than the Threefold Model.

Wizards Of The Coast developed a 2-axis analysis of player types based on customer surveys to help better target their products. It’s appealing in that any individual can occupy any given point along each of the axes. You can read about it and view the graph on Sean K. Reynold’s website. The graph is fairly self-explanatory, and yields a five-fold classification system for player types. I definitely think this is on the right track in contemplating player types as being on a continuum between polar extremes, and recommend readers take a look.

Amagi Games list no less than 16 types of pleasure that players may receive from their gaming experience on this web-page. I’m not sure about the names for the different types of pleasure and where they have originated, and at times the writeup can feel like it’s talking about computer games more than RPGs, but there’s a lot to commend this list. If your campaign can provide all these different kinds of pleasure, it’s probably a winner – but I suspect that this is an extreme that’s only achievable in theory. Nevertheless, being aware of these is definitely a step in the right direction.

A richer classification system

I don’t think it’s fair to be so critical without having something better to offer as an alternative. I have devised a classification system that I consider the most definitive on offer.

It’s based on three premises:

  1. That different things can appeal to the same person when placed in a different context;
  2. That game properties can be defined only in terms relative to either an extreme or its extreme opposite that are based on the types of game activities that yield a particular type of pleasure, and in which any given value between and including those extremes is equally valid in terms of providing enjoyment for some potential player;
  3. That any given individual doesn’t occupy a point on any given axis, but instead occupies a region; if you were to rate each axis on a 0-10 scale (with 0 and 10 being the two extremes, and 5 being the exact midpoint), a given individual might enjoy that aspect of gaming from 3 to 6, say, or 2 to 5, or 8 to 9, or even 2 to 8. Boundaries can be strict, but they are more likely to be fuzzy – which means, taking a 3-6 range for example, that the ideal is actually 4-5, if a game, an adventure or a day’s play rates as a 3 or a 6 in that respect they can still enjoy the game if they are in the right mood, but that aspect of the game is beginning to intrude on that pleasure, so they won’t enjoy it quite as much; outside that range 1 step again – a 2 or a 7 – they can still have fun, but that is despite the relevant aspect of the game, and potentially even diminished by it; and one step further than that is definitely a step too far for their tastes. See the diagram below if that’s not clear.

range on axis

Based on those premises, I have identified 9 axes of game content. Some exist in isolation, others can only be understood in the context of one or more of the others, but they all fit the criteria established. They are:

  1. Immersion in Character: from Persona to Tactician
  2. Immersion in World: from Participant to Observer
  3. Immersion in Concept: from Thinker to Action Man / Actor
  4. Immersion in Drama: From Actor to Action
  5. Immersion in Conflict: From Gritty to Clean
  6. Immersion in Plot: From Novelist to Jock
  7. Immersion in Interaction: From Second Skin to Omniscient
  8. Immersion in Amazement: From Fantasy to Simulationist
  9. Immersion in Heroism: From Altruist to Self-indulgence
Players Are Complex Creatures

Before examining these in detail (or at least, defining them), I wanted to point out that players are people, and people can be very complicated. It’s entirely possible for someone to like one particular activity in one particular context and dislike it intensely in another. For example, getting deep into one particular character’s psychology and thought patterns might be a lot of fun because of the personality or originality of that character, while the same player finds the exercise dull with characters that are more “stock”.

Or, the player might normally be a roleplayer of the “Actor” variety, enjoying interaction with NPCs, but in one particular Genre, they enjoy the role of being more of an Action Character who does things because the subjects of discussion don’t interest the player and are therefore tedious.

You can have players who enjoy the sense of wonder in Fantasy but find the science in science fiction to be overly technical and uninteresting – and so prefer a character who doesn’t have to deal with those technicalities and can just get on with creating mayhem on the battlefield.

In technical terms, if you map the axes in 9-dimensional space (something that’s only possible in a computer or in theory), such players would have multiple “locii” or bubbles of preference – and some would require additional labels, because there’s nothing explicitly labeled “genre” in the 9 parameters.

Don’t fall into the trap of pigeonholing people too explicitly!

One word of warning before we begin – a caveat, if you will: I’ve tried not to let my personal style and tastes interfere with an objective position in discussing these player/game traits, but may not completely succeed. Assess them with that in mind, and don’t let your own preferences and capabilities color your judgment as to the validity of any of these approaches. I may not be able to decorate a cake but can still recognize and appreciate the artistry of those who can!

1. Immersion in Character: from Persona to Tactician

The Character Axis runs from deep immersion in Persona to virtually zero immersion in Persona, in which the world is viewed more as a tactical playing field held at arm’s length. If it makes no difference what sort of character you are playing, and everything is viewed as a game or a tactical exercise, then you have a very low Immersion in Character.

Game system choice can be critical to this axis; some game systems mandate more intensive mechanics and those naturally drag campaigns toward the Tactician extreme. Other games explicitly reward actions taken in-character, so that no tactical decision should ever be made without consideration of the personality of the character, and they pull campaigns in the other direction.

Genre is less significant on this axis, but GMing style and strengths are a definite factor. The more focus the GM places on detailed settings, the more a campaign will tend to favor a Tactician over a Persona. The more the focus is on plot or personalities, the more a campaign will favor a tendency to Persona, i.e. exhibit a strong demand for Immersion in Character.

2. Immersion in World: from Participant to Observer

There is a lot of overlap between this axis and the last one. A Participant interacts with the game environment, engages with it, manipulates it, and directs his involvement with it, seeing it as a constantly-evolving place; an Observer sees the world as a static diorama, where nothing changes very much, and where most details that are not immediately relevant to the situation at hand can be ignored completely.

Genre is completely irrelevant to this axis, except insofar as a particular combination of world immersion may be favored by an individual within specific genres and not others; this is more about how adept the GM is at bringing the game world to life around the players and making it responsive to their interaction with it.

A lot of advice makes the erroneous leap of assuming that strong immersion in world is better than weak; this is only true if your goal as a GM is strong immersion in character, because the world provides the context for character. It is much harder to achieve strong immersion in character if you can’t achieve strong immersion in World, and the combination appeals to more players than the opposite combination. A lot of gaming advice focuses on achieving a stronger combination as a way of improving a campaign as a result, but there are more varieties of campaign (and of player) than that, and they are all equally valid to those who enjoy them.

3. Immersion in Concept: from Thinker to Action Man / Actor

Some players enjoy expanding their understanding of a universe and its’ intricacies; others don’t like deeply conceptual or philosophic engagement and want to be doing something. Note that the “something” may be either roleplayed interaction or simulated physical activity, ie Acting or Action; either is equally valid.

4. Immersion in Drama: From Actor to Action

The distinction between the two exists in the next criterion, Immersion in Drama. A strong immersion in drama is more about the players being akin to improvisational actors in a radio play; a weak immersion in Drama is about more visceral modes of enjoyment, whether that be rolling a lot dice, or beating the odds, or getting a high total, or simply thumping something until it says “ouch” – repeatedly and very loudly.

This is one area where player engagement tends to be all over the “map”; they may have a relatively weak preference one way or the other, most of the time, but in the case of any given individual there will be exceptions everywhere along the axis. As a result, the most successful adventures and campaigns tend to be those that demand a blend of the two approaches – a time for talking (in character) and a time for playing the action hero or doing something.

Nevertheless, GMs, campaigns, and even genres have trends one way or the other along this axis. Most Fantasy and Western trends toward the Action; Most Sci-Fi averages around the middle but only by swapping from one extreme to the other; Most Pulp also favors the extremes, though the action elements either occur with greater frequency, greater intensity, or both, and the actor elements tend to be about getting to the next action sequence. Super-spies follow much the same pattern. And so on.

GMing style also introduces a trend; I enjoy, and am good at, GMing Drama, and enjoy less, and am less skilled at, Action. My campaigns naturally play to my strengths.

Here’s a really good test: If you can successfully GM a game in which you are given stats for the NPCs but no personalities, you are strong at Action; If you can successfully GM a game in which you are given personalities but no stats, you are strong in Actor. As you can tell from the recent examples that I have posted, I sometimes have minimal stats or none at all for the featured villains in my Superhero campaign, so I fall naturally into the latter group, as I said earlier. I can only roleplay a stat block by translating it into character terms, and will frequently ignore a stat block if it is contradicted by my visualization of an NPC’s personality.

I have seen other GMs who were/are the complete opposite, utterly incapable of running a combat sequence without first defining the numbers, but excellent at GMing once they have done so.

5. Immersion in Conflict: From Gritty to Clean

Once again, there is a level of synchronicity between this axis and the last, so much so that a lot of people treat it as being a further extension of the Immersion in Drama characteristic. Under that model, the definitive points on the Drama axis run “Actor – Abstract Action – Realistic Action” or even “Actor – Cinematic Combat – Simulationism”. I think these are entirely separate qualities, and that Cinematic Combat and Simulationist Combat are equally valid traits or trends for a campaign; the preceding axis (Immersion in Drama) relates to the relative importance of combat to the game session, regardless of the mode of representation within the game of that combat.

To emphasize this, I have deliberately “reversed the polarity” of the extremes so that the extreme that most people think of last is the one listed first.

Gritty combat is combat where you can smell the cordite and hear the wheet of the bullets as they fly past your ear, and every detail has to be delineated carefully and precisely; “clean”, “abstract”, or “cinematic” combat doesn’t worry about the sand between your toes or the specifics of caliber and muzzle velocity, it focuses on “look and feel and SPEED” instead. As I wrote last year, in my 3-part series on Cinematic Combat, they both have their place, times when one will serve better than the other.

So this is about trends. If 99% of the combats you run are detailed and precise, you tend toward the gritty end of the spectrum; if 50-50, you’re in the middle; and if, most of the time, you incline towards drama and the cinematic style of combat, you’re at the “clean” end of the spectrum. Similarly, player preferences can trend this way or that.

Genre can be surprisingly important to this preference. The more trouble a player or GM has getting his head around the defining characteristics of a genre – the science in Sci-Fi, the fantastic in Fantasy, the supernatural in Call Of Cthulhu – the more they will want the numbers and impacts to be nailed down so that they have a greater measure of control over them, and that pushes the preference toward the gritty end. The more readily they can absorb those things, the more satisfied they will be with a “cleaner” approach, permitting the advantages of the cinematic style an opportunity to make themselves felt.

An example from real life: A former player of my acquaintance, Dennis Ashelford, once came to me with a character concept for one of the spin-offs derived from my main Superhero campaign: a character who can alter the Permeability and Permittivity Constants of the Universe. He had mentioned the concept to others and drawn only blank looks (which I imagine a number of my readers are also sporting right now); I was the only GM he knew who “got” the implications instantly. “That would let you change the speed of light in a vacuum in a controlled manner, which would alter relativistic effects and also – assuming that the energy total in a beam of photons remained constant – would change the amount of that energy that would be expressed in either shorter or longer wavelengths. Ordinary Light could be used to trigger remote controls, you could alter the electrical potentials between two materials so that even turned off at the switch they were activated…” and went on to list another half-dozen applications of this power, Dennis growing more excited with every word. No-one else “got” it; they would have needed to have those applications spelt out in black and white on the character sheet in order to run a game with that character. I got it, but had him do that black and white spelling out for three reasons: one, I assumed that he would have different levels of control over the different applications; two, I assumed that some would take more out of him than others; and three, it simplified the “interpretation of circumstances” part of the process of administering combat, freeing that part of my mind up to process other equally-worthy matters.

6. Immersion in Plot: From Novelist to Jock

I have to admit that I struggled to find an appropriate term for the extreme that is the opposite of “Novelist”. “Jock” isn’t quite right, so don’t read too much into it. (I almost named it “Audience” but that’s not quite right, either).

When the storyline matters, that’s immersion in plot, and it requires that the players be participants in the shaping of that plot before the storyline can matter; if they are mere observers, following the linear plots of the GM, then it doesn’t matter how interesting and compelling the narrative is, players can’t immerse themselves in it. But that’s not to say that campaigns with low levels of Immersion in plot are bad or inferior; that’s only true in the case of this one specific cause of the low level of Immersion. If the plot is nothing more than a dialogue- or combat-delivery mechanism, is simply a navigational route into whatever trouble the PCs have to battle this week, that’s a low immersion in plot, because you can ignore the plot and not miss anything important.

I sometimes think that this axis can also be equated to the inherent degree of situational evolution within a campaign. The more things change, the more plot-driven everything is, and hence the greater the demand for immersion in plot if the campaign is to be successful. If the campaign is more “monster of the week” in nature, and the rest of the game doesn’t evolve very much if at all, then the plot doesn’t matter and there is consequently a low immersion. This equates “high continuity” with “Novelist” and “serialized” with “Jock”. But I have come to the opinion that the relationship is more complex than that, mostly as a result of my recent article, “The Rolling Retcon: how much campaign history is fixed?,” which took a good hard look at the concepts of continuity and serialization.

7. Immersion in Interaction: From Second Skin to Omniscient

There is a very strong resemblance between this trait and the second one listed, “Immersion in World”. When there is a high immersion in Interaction, you wear your character like a second skin, and everything is treated as though it were happening to you personally. When there is a low immersion in Interaction, it’s as though you were watching the game unfold from on high, with virtually no involvement at a personal level.

The resemblance between these extremes and those of “Immersion in World” (Participant and Observer, respectively) almost led me to remove this from the list, but before I did so, I had to ask two specific questions: Could you have a player who enjoyed roleplaying his character in a game in which the world was not well-delineated? and, Could you adopt an omniscient overview perspective on a world that was well-delineated, that engaged you? The answers were yes, and ‘not sure’, respectively – and that to me shows that there is a difference in the two types of Immersion even if one extreme of one (Observer) was virtually indistinguishable from one extreme of the other (Omniscient). More, it occurred to me that truly strong engagement with the game world would distract to some extent from complete immersion in character (and vice-versa); and that was confirmation of the decision.

The two can be rendered synonymous by defining strong immersion in World as “strong immersion in world as the character perceives it”; so the difference between the two is the difference between first- and third-person engagement in the world. That, in turn, defined for me the combination of strong engagement with the World and an Omniscient degree of engagement in Interaction – changing that “not sure” to a “yes”.

Immersion in Interaction is very important to me; this was the aspect of gaming that initially appealed to me as a player. The notion of becoming someone else, who didn’t have the same problems and baggage that I had in my personal life at the time, not only gave me relief from those problems, it was an irresistibly compelling source of pleasure, and one that no other activity available to me had to offer. If I’d been taught to play a musical instrument, I might have become a professional musician; if I had been given an opportunity to write something for publication, I might have become a professional novelist; if I had been presented with an opportunity to join a theatrical association, I might have become an actor; all three of those would offer the same appeal. Instead, I found gaming, and here I am.

Which is a way of saying that this axis tends to be very one-sided-or-the-other, very polarizing – there are those who can’t enjoy playing without a “Second Skin” focus, and those who can, with very little overlap between them. More than any other single factor, the games I have played in and not enjoyed had a low threshold for Immersion In Interaction.

When your character is ‘having a moment’ that you want to roleplay and the GM shifts the focus to someone else, the degree of frustration that is felt corresponds to the strength of your desire for Immersion in Interaction. It could be slight (low need) or intolerable (very high need) – and that makes this one of the most critical traits in terms of matching content to player desires, and hence the success of a game. For some players, in fact, virtually everything else can be on ‘the wrong side of the spectrum’ and the game will be acceptable, even enjoyable, provided they get their immersion-in-interaction fix. For others, it’s less important.

8. Immersion in Amazement: From Fantasy to Simulationist

‘Wait-a-minute,’ I can hear someone say. Didn’t you use the term “Simulationist” when describing the extreme of high immersion within Combat?

Yes, I did, but only in the context of a term that other people might apply. From my perspective, Simulationism embraces both gritty, detailed combat AND a low immersion in Amazement.

‘Fantasy’ is also a slight misnomer, just to compound the situation.

Immersion in Amazement is about the pleasure that is to be derived from appreciating ‘Cool-without-explanation-being-necessary’ to ‘I need to understand it before I can treat it as anything more than colored lights’. A high fantasy content might be “Engage the warp drive, Mr Sulu” or “I cast a spell on him” or “the bridge gives way” – it’s look-and-feel over content. A low fantasy content might be “Engage the matter-antimatter space-warp drive” or “I target my spell using the law of similarity and the clay effigy I made earlier” or “the load over the south-eastern pillar is too great for that rotted structure to sustain; with a tearing, ripping sound, it gives way, collapsing the span of the bridge from that end like a ribbon falling into the river below, and scattering those crossing it into the water like nine-pins.” Mandatory specificity of detail, no matter what the genre, is simulationist; the greater the trend toward Fantasy, the more of those details that can be, should be, and will be, glossed over.

9. Immersion in Heroism: From Altruist to Self-indulgence

The final factor is the one most closely allied to the mechanics of some game systems, and taken for granted in others. It’s also potentially the easiest to understand.

I thought about calling this “Immersion in Morality” which – in some respects – is closer to the an accurate description. Some players can only enjoy playing characters with a certain minimum level of darkness, while others are fine with very black-hearted characters. Some are only comfortable in a world in which morality is very black-and-white, while others enjoy the nuancing of shades of gray.

I also considered the possibility of a tenth axis, but decided it was unnecessary; self-indulgence was inherently amoral. I can’t think of any games in which you have both a strong moral code and PCs who routinely break that code; only when there was an absence of investment in being the hero were players free to walk the darker side, either as outright villains or as the morally ambiguous. Nor could I think of any way of structuring a campaign in which moral issues were central that did not posses a strong immersion in Heroism, because they all focus on questions that don’t matter to the morally ambiguous; it is only the strength of the moral code that gives such questions their force.

A strong immersion in Heroism produces the pleasure of doing good deeds, being heroic, and receiving the acclamation that is accorded to heroes. A weak immersion in Heroism produces the pleasures of self-indulgence, of not needing to try to do the right thing all the time. They can co-exist within the same game continuum because even in a campaign that gives license to self-indulgence, the characters can be compelled by the needs of personal survival to act in the common interest – but the characters are only interested in acclaim to the point where they can ‘spend’ it for their personal advantage.

The Practical Application: Classification Of Game / Adventure

Readers might be tempted to think that they should decide each of these characteristics for their campaigns so that potential players can judge their level of interest. Not so. That would mean that every adventure was a slight variation on a theme, and would become dull rather quickly. In fact, I would contend that no more than six of these should be predetermined characteristics of a campaign, and possibly as few as four, leaving the remainder to combine in various ways as different adventures.

Ah, but which four, five, or six? That’s a more complex question.

If there is any point of unanimity amongst your prospective players about what sort of game activities they enjoy, that should be a predetermined characteristic, and should be supported by the game system where that makes a difference. But that will probably only account for one or two of the axes, maybe three.

Next, we have the GM’s own preferences and skills to consider. If you aren’t good at certain types of game, your campaign design will reflect that and de-emphasize those aspects of your skillset that less developed. If your plots tend to be relatively simplistic, you would not expect strong immersion in plot. As a general rule of thumb, any characteristic in which you are reasonably comfortable with both extreme options should be fixed, if it isn’t already. Normally, that would account for three or four of the axes, but there will almost certainly be some overlap with the first criterion of judgment, the players. So it could be as few as one, and is unlikely to be more than three additional fixed determinants.

Finally, its back to the players; if there is no unanimity, but a strong preference toward one extreme or the other, make up the difference up to those six predetermined factors. The rest are where you will derive the variety within your adventures.

The Practical Application: Recruiting Players based on preferences

The alternative approach, when you have a large pool of players from which to recruit, is to specify only the items decided by GM preference, and by campaign concept, and leave it to those players to decide whether or not the idea holds sufficient appeal.

There is always a strong temptation, if someone has left an existing campaign, to recruit someone to replace them who enjoys the opposite of the departed player in terms of whatever their reason for leaving might have been. That means that if someone left because Investment in Heroism was not high enough for them (and they didn’t like not being able to trust the other players implicitly), seeking a player who enjoys the morally gray or the dark side might be a priority. If a character left because they walked the morally ambiguous line and the other players demanded a high Investment in Heroism, the desire might well be to recruit someone of like mind, even if they didn’t fit other areas of the campaign.

The Practical Application: Designing Campaigns / Adventures based on preferences

I love Immersion in Concept, and a lot of my campaigns focus heavily on it. My Co-GM of the Adventurer’s Club campaign, Blair, has a deep dislike of what he calls “Cosmic” adventures, ie adventures which explore the Concepts in which the campaign is immersed; he would far prefer combat or character interaction. He tolerates a limited amount of Immersion in Concept because he enjoys the character interaction that is always an equally-strong force within my games (and likes playing his character). Which means that I need to focus on character interaction in any adventure that is primarily about Immersion in Concept so that he has something to enjoy. My other players enjoy Immersion In Concept, either in moderation, or in two cases, quite strongly, so Blair is the one that has to compromise a little. It’s just another aspect of sharing the spotlight on an adventure-wide scale.

This is an example of using these axes to determine the requirements of an adventure or campaign around the desires of your players. By leaving the Axis of Immersion In Concept free-floating, or even only trending to one extreme, I am determining that some of the adventures will demand a high Immersion in Concept, while others will demand almost zero. Some adventures will be “cosmic”; others will be down-to-earth.

My campaigns tend to have a strong Immersion in Plot; players who are less interested in that type of Immersion will either need something else that strongly appeals to them about the campaign, or they will leave – if they even join the campaign in the first place.

It’s also worth stating that absolutely none of these decisions are final and set in stone. You can have one adventure in a blue moon that invests heavily in a look-and-feel element that contradicts a more routinely-simulationist approach, for example; but, using these axes, you will know that the adventure will need to be especially in accordance with player preferences in several other areas to compensate.

That’s how to use these for adventure plotting: Decide on the basic premise and outline of the adventure, and then look at what additional requirements are imposed by the need to satisfy everyone else at your table.

Player Surveys

At their heart, what most player surveys is trying to get at are answers to the questions “I do/don’t like a strong Immersion in ____”. The problem is that most of them require interpretation, and possibly discussion; and not all players will take them seriously. They are very hard to make useful, and even harder to make interesting, and even harder to actually use.

What’s more, it’s not enough to make changes based on survey results, you have to be seen to make changes. Speed of response is critical; if you aren’t going to change things as radically as necessary immediately, you may well cause more trouble than you solve.

So, if I were to design a player survey these days, I wouldn’t ask a lot of questions the way some of them do. I would specify the campaign genre, and possibly the premise, and then simply draw ten bars across the page, with the extremes labeled 0 and 10. The first question asks how much the genre and premise appeal to the respondent (0 to 10); the rest simply list the types of immersion and ask how much the player enjoys games that emphasize that immersion. You could also label the extremes, if you wanted to. The final question is which of the above ten items is most important to you?, or perhaps, “which two”.

That takes most of the interpretational problem away, and permits an immediate response. It gets right to the heart of the matter.

Zones Of Intersection

If you were to plot the average responses from such a survey against the ratings fixed by the GM, you would find that there would be some areas of overlap, and some that don’t. Doing such a comparison on an individual basis might well be labeled “what [player] will probably enjoy most about the proposed campaign”.

Those areas of overlap are what I mean by the term “Zones of intersection”, and they form a reliable guide to how healthy that combination of players and campaign will be.

Zero Zones Of Intersection

No-one will be all that interested in that campaign, or anything resembling it. Something fundamental needs to be different, probably several somethings.

One Zone Of Intersection

This campaign will start and sputter to an extremely rapid halt. Some players may be so turned off by it that they might leave the hobby; they will certainly find other things that interest them more.

Two-to-Three Zones Of Intersection

This is a mediocre campaign. It might not thrive, but it can be habit-forming – if you emphasize the things people like over the things they don’t. Sooner or later, though, there will be an adventure that doesn’t hit the mark for anyone. If it happens sooner, the campaign will probably die; if it happens later, momentum may enable you to coast through, learning from the experience.

Four-to-Five Zones Of Intersection

This is a typical of a good campaign. Four-to-five common areas in which the campaign appeals, and making sure that each player has something in each adventure that they like, and you have a good chance of success in the long-term.

Six Zones Of Intersection

This is just about the perfect campaign. There’s enough that people like that you can explore just about any adventure, even contradict one or two of the zones of preference from time to time, and still present an enjoyable adventure. At the same time, you aren’t so constrained that there is no variety in the adventures you can tell, stylistically or in tone. It’s also rarely achieved.

Seven-to-Eight Zones Of Intersection

While it might seem like this is even more perfect than six, in reality this number of Zones Of Intersection indicates problems that will prevent longevity. If longevity of campaign is not a goal, then go for it! The problem is that there is not a lot of variety of adventure possible within the one or two areas of flexibility. That means that you will regularly be violating one or more player’s preferences with your adventure designs, effectively reducing the number of actual zones of intersection to “any four or five at a time” of the promised “seven to eight” – and, after a while, it begins to feel like the campaign is forever “just missing the mark” and is just B+ in grade. Good, but the promise was greatness, and this will only deliver a fraction of the time.

Nine Zones Of Intersection

If unfulfilled promises are a problem for those promising greatness, what of those who are promising gaming Nirvana? For a single-shot campaign module, this might be the gold standard to aim for; the rest of the time, the campaign won’t last – but will be epic while it does. Ultimately, though, it will be remembered not only for that greatness, but for how it all fell apart.

Why? Maintaining each of these standards is an effort for a GM. The more they enjoy an approach, the more of that effort they can tolerate, but it still takes its toll; and having nine zones of intersection sets too high a standard to be maintained.

The Prep-time relationship

Here’s another way to look at it: You can maintain three zones of intersection without a lot of effort – a single night to plan the next week’s adventure and you’re golden. But you will have to improv a lot.

Each additional zone adds a week to the basic prep time (assuming that you can only spend one night a week on prep), and every multiple of three doubles the existing prep time burden before that addition.

  • Four zones: an extra day for a total of 2. Some weekly games can manage this, most fortnightly games can manage it.
  • Five zones: three days. A few weekly games can manage, some fortnightly games. If the GM wants a social life beyond gaming, this campaign can only happen monthly.
  • Six zones: seven days. A weekly game requires the full-time attention of the GM; a few fortnightly games might manage, but realistically, you’re only going to be ready to run once a month. And your social life will suffer.
  • Seven zones: eight days. That social life has just been obliterated. Game prep is what you do on the weekends, every weekend. Not even doing game prep full-time is enough to sustain a weekly campaign any more.
  • Eight zones: nine days. That’s as good as saying ‘running the campaign fortnightly is a full-time job’ – because days spent playing don’t count for game prep.
  • Nine zones: 19 days. That’s as good as saying ‘running the campaign once a month is a full-time job.’

The reality is that whatever target level you set, shortcuts will be needed, whether you want to take them or not. So aim for one level less than your available prep time, and that’s the quality of game you can reasonably hope to provide.

Will there be exceptions? Inevitably. Both this and the Zones Of Interaction analysis in the preceding sections are nothing more than rules of thumb.

Here’s the bottom line:

To some extent, it’s true (and always has been) that the best way to prepare for being a GM is to learn how to be a player first – then analyze what you liked about how the GM did their job and why they have made the choices they have made. What needed greater emphasis? What was over-done?

But even if you’ve never played an RPG in your life, you can still succeed as a GM if you learn one basic lesson about players and made it central to everything that you do when behind the screen (physical or metaphoric):

Give every player a focus on something they enjoy in each and every game session, and your game will be a success. Predefining some aspects of the game to achieve that in the majority of cases frees your attention up to the task of being creative in all the other areas. The rest takes care of itself.

And that’s why the nine-axis theory is a better tool for understanding players: because it’s all about what those players want, and what you are going to be comfortable delivering as a GM, day-by-day, campaign-to-campaign, adventure after adventure, one day’s play after another.

The next part of this series will focus on Characters (I hope I can think of something to say!) and will appear in a Fortnight’s time – I intend to alternate this series with standalone articles.

On a completely unrelated note

Dirk of Shades Of Vengeance has been kind enough to send me review copies of several of the company’s products, including one that they are currently seeking funding to publish through Kickstarter. I haven’t had time to do more than skim the Kickstarter page but what I’ve seen is intriguing. The art looks amazing, if the game is at the same standards (and it looks to be) then this is definitely worth attention, and the premise is interesting. If you are interested in Sci-Fi based gaming (whether it be political games, action-adventure, or even something verging on the superheroic) make sure you check it out. They have already reached 200% of their funding target and there are still 13 days remaining in the campaign – so you are as guaranteed a product as you can be, it’s only a question of how many stretch goals will be unlocked!

I’m not sure when I’ll get the chance to do a more substantial review, but I’ll try to sneak one in over the next week or two. In the meantime, go take a look, and back them if you like what you see as much as I do – and tell them that Mike at Campaign Mastery sent you!

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Pieces of Creation: Mictlan-tecuhtli


Mictlantecuhtli by Anagoria Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Image “2013-12-24 Mictlantecuhtli anagoria” by Anagoria – Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. Click on image to view license.

The last installment of The Great Character Giveaway features another villain from my Zenith-3 campaign, who could easily be adapted for Science Fiction or Cyberpunk use. It would take a bit more work to convert to a D&D/Pathfinder application, but the results – a living flesh Golem held together with healing potions – would be so interesting that it might be worthwhile.

The primary use to which this character was put in my campaign was as the villain in a locked room mystery. I’m going to avoid going into that too much – it’s too campaign-centric to be of much value to anyone else – but some description of it will be necessary.

I want to start by acknowledging my sources. Mictlan-tecuhtli is heavily derivative of the antagonists of the first two Novellas in Larry Niven’s “The Long Arm Of Gil Hamilton”, “Death By Ecstasy” and “The Defenseless Dead” which was later expanded into a larger collection of Gil Hamilton stories, Flatlander. Mictlan-tecuhtli combines the illness and need of a Loren with the rejection factor of an Anubis.

Okay, to the locked room mystery…
Pieces Of Creation Logo version 2

The Mystery (in brief)

The earth in this campaign world keeps its convicted criminals in a teleport beam, perpetually bouncing them between The Moon and Alpha Centauri. While in this state, if there is an energy shortage, an individual can be randomly tapped for energy, aging them – so the longer you stay in the beam, the more you age, and the greater the chance that you won’t survive the experience. For these reasons, sentences tend to be about 1/5th the duration we expect in our culture. Instead of 20 years, you would get 5 years in the beam – and would emerge 20 years older. There is no biological decay while in an energy state, and the energy state doesn’t experience perceptible duration, so for the criminal, no time seems to have passed – he’s just instantly older. The world won’t have changed very much, which is believed to help the ex-convict reassimilate into society, and he certainly doesn’t get to interact with harder criminals or become ‘big man’ within his cell block. There’s absolutely no romance in a conviction, it’s all been squeezed out.

Bureaucracies are the same everywhere: no matter how much you protect against it, mistakes still happen. One such mistake led the Lunar Authorities to release the wrong prisoner – instead of a British Shoplifter who had completed her sentence, they instead retrieved Julian Greco, an Italian art forger, who wasn’t scheduled for release for another 7 years, real time. However, the body that came out was not that of Greco, but was rather that of Enrico Garcia-Finch, a Mexican engineer from the equivalent of NASA who had disappeared 7 months earlier. What’s more, Enrico’s body had quite clearly been deceased, with most of his organs removed, prior to his being inserted into the beam. Earth now had minimal holding capacity for prisoners, barely enough to hold those coming and going; they didn’t have the capacity to house even the convicted murderers in the beam, never mind the thousands held for lesser offenses. So they needed answers, fast, before public confidence in the criminal process was completely undermined, forcing the release of tens of thousands of convicted criminals back onto the streets.

The mystery was how someone had breached the most secure facility in the solar system to implant the body without it being noticed – and how many more were there?

To cut a long story short, the criminals used a very clever dodge. There were always ways to insert someone into the transport beam, if you were clever enough, but not without leaving a telltale energy trace. The only way to prevent the total energy being held by the system from increasing by 2 million Gigawatt-hours – the equivalent in energy of a 180-lb man – was to firstly remove the person who was supposed to be there (Greco) and replace him, then doctor the records of the incarceration. In fact, the criminals were even cleverer than that, building a fake set of the materialization room and putting their victim into the beam instead of the criminal who was supposed to be incarcerated in the first place, using the stationery supplier’s website to replace the official footage with their fakes.

For a while, the PCs thought that whoever was behind it had discovered a novel way to hide the remains of their organlegging operation, selling get-out-of-jail-free cards to anyone wealthy enough to afford one as a side-benefit – and well-connected enough to know of the opportunity. The criminal never advertised the service. In fact, the ‘rescued’ criminals also went into the Organ Banks – ensuring their silence forever; there was sufficient money in Organlegging that there was no need to take the risk. Similarly, it was cheaper and safer to bribe a corrupt judge than pull off any technical jiggery-pokery with the teleport beam.

And that is the defining trademark of our villain – maximum return and security for minimum exposure through finding and exploiting the gaps and seams in the system.

Mictlan-tecuhtli (Pavel Dimitri Chirkhov)

Pavel is a Russian man, exposed to contamination from the Chernobyl meltdown while in the womb [the Campaign is set in 2055], causing multiple organ failures over time, saved by transplants in the early 21st century. Became a doctor/bionanotech programmer through his fascination with what was happening to him. Developed pioneering new techniques as his replacement organs began to fail, contaminated by the radiation still within his system, especially the cesium and iodine absorbed into his bones. which enabled his life to be saved once again, but had to borrow money from the Russian Mafia to pay for the surgery.

Became addicted to painkillers, which cost him his job and medical license in 2035. With no other way to repay his debt, he went to work for the Russian Mafia in 2036, but the income he received was a pittance compared to his debts, which compounded monthly. Debts – and threats – began to pile up.

In 2045, his organs again began to fail, and as he was now a wanted criminal, he could no longer seek legal transplantation, and couldn’t afford it anyway. Resorting to Organlegging, he hacked the Civil Service database and identified a number of potential donors. He then discovered that his pre-natal radiation accident had given him abilities which could be used to subdue potential victims, enabling him to test their rejection profile for positive organ matches. When he found a suitable donor, he removed their organs, finding innovative ways to dispose of the bodies such that it would be years before they were discovered, but was never completely satisfied on that front. Because these activities were not authorized by his Russian employers, he adopted the nom-de-guerre Mictlan-tecuhtli, after the Aztec god of death. He also had his skin tattooed to hide his identity and his surgical scars.

Over time, he developed an elaborate costume to further confuse his identity, based around a skull-and-headdress mask and body armor, which helpfully concealed various external assistants for his still-failing organs. From the Russian Mafia, he gradually recruited a gang of thugs who he enhanced with transfusions of his own blood and with surgical implants. These fanatics half-believe that he is the real Aztec deity because of Mictlan-tecuhtli’s powers. They wear elaborate death-paint when operating in the field and have Aztec-style tattoos somewhere on their bodies. In particular, he recruited those who were suffering from organ failure and whose life he could save with illegal transplants – because he controls the supply of the transplanted organs, they need to remain loyal or die. This also confuses the trail because it means that there are multiple rejection profiles in operation, protecting his identity at the expense of making his operation more prominent.

With the proceeds from the organlegging, over the last 5 years he has been able to pay off his original debt to the Russian Mafia. They don’t know where the money is coming from and don’t especially care.

Powers:

Mictlan-tecuhtli has learned to grow brain cells from stem cells which he creates by inserting extracted DNA from other individuals into empty cells. By injecting these into his cortex, he now has approx 1,000 “shadows” of minds within his own brain, managed and kept in line by nanotechnology. He can use these as subsidiary brains like a second processor in a computer, handing them a task and doing something else while he waits for an answer. Because these shadows are in total sensory deprivation, they never get distracted and focus exclusively on the task in hand. This also means that any psychic phenomena that are applied to him have to affect all 1,000 minds. He can even use this to put his body on “autopilot” if his main cortex is KOd somehow, essentially operating on instinct even when unconscious. This gives him the reputation and nickname of the man who never sleeps, “el hombre que nunca duerme”.

On addition, he has the following abilities:

  • Low level martial arts, Gets 3 actions / rnd instead of the usual 2
  • Spiderman-like Agility 75
  • Strength 75, usable at range, inanimate objects only
  • Superleap x3
  • “Death Burst”, turns 50 mana into 5d6 NND Explosive
  • “Soul Drain”, reduces active Chi of the target by 10d6 and redirects it to (a) END 1:2 (b) STUN 1:6 (c) HP 1:10 or (d) Chi 1:1
  • “Tijera”, divides a being into two halves which fight each other
  • “Electrical Touch”, 3d6 RKA + 5d6 EB linked, continuous for 3 rounds
  • “Muerte eye”, 10d6 Mental Attack forces target to witness death of loved ones and friends, 1 round, diminishing 1d6/round
  • “Anicos Fantasma” 1d6RKA + 5d6 Transform, shatters forcefields turning half the active points into Zero-Range EB, usable at Range
  • “Imbue”, grants 6 followers 25 STR 25 AGIL 2d6 HKA +50HP STUN
  • “Steal Life”, Drains followers HP by 5d6 and redirects it to (a) END 1:5 (b) STUN 2:1 (c) HP 1:1 or (d) Chi 10:1

Conversion

Most of those powers are unnecessary. In fact, the only reason I gave him powers at all was to justify his followers fanaticism and make sure that the Psi on the team didn’t solve the mystery too easily; beyond that, he needs only some means of stunning his victims. The central premise of the character is someone who needs to perpetually steal body parts in order to keep himself alive, and who is incredibly clever at discovering the weak points in systems and exploiting them. It follows that conversion is not so much about his powers and abilities as finding some analogue for the skill at, and use of, transplant surgery.

For that reason, I don’t think it necessary to explain too much about the Game Mechanics involved; you can get the gist of what they do, and that’s all you really need.

Appearance

I used an edit of this image by Alvarez Tequihua to illustrate Mictlan-tecuhtli to my players – essentially removing the parts that showed a human body. I used this image from tattooshunt to illustrate the gang tattoos. And I represented Mictlan-tecuhtli under the mask with a photograph of Jason Walter Barnum which I think I found by searching for “tattooed face“.

About The Name

I inserted a hyphen into the name to make it easier for me to pronounce. The actual Aztec Death God’s name is the same but without the hyphenation.

I hope my readers have enjoyed the Great Character Giveaway, which is largely an excuse to share the best creations from the last year within my games. As content from a working game, with real, practical limits on the GMs prep time, it also gives me a chance to demonstrate some of the advice and techniques that I have offered here. Starting next week – if all goes according to plan – this Thursday will revert to standalone RPG articles, vacating Mondays to make room for the continuation (on a fortnightly basis) of the Basics For Beginners series.

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Ask The GMs: Building on opportunity


One of my New Year’s Resolutions was to get more of the ATGMs backlog dealt with – which has been the case for a few years now. Each year, I’ve done better at satisfying it, but not well enough. Things improved when I started asking the other GMs that I play with, but that also became a problem at times when I couldn’t get an opportunity to pose the question. To do still better at answering this requirement, I’ve decided that if I have a clear answer to offer, from time to time I will go ahead without waiting to consult others. After all, if they have anything to add, there is always the comments space.

Today’s question is all about resource management in RPGs, at least in the opinion of the person asking the question – and that’s where his problems really start…

Ask the gamemasters

This question comes from Tchaico, who wrote:

“Hello, GM’s of the world. The game world I DM is heavily militarized. One of the players managed to became the commander of a small base, and is working to expand it. I wanted to know how can I handle this situation, since the core rulebook doesn’t have any guidance on finances, recruitment and overall base management.”

It’s said that every problem is an opportunity in disguise, and certainly that’s the case this time around. This is a classic case of not needing to be an expert in everything, just being an expert in faking it!

What Do You Need?

Okay, so your base commander wants to expand his base. What does he need? In order, from the top of my head:

  • Justification
  • Authorization
  • Accommodation
  • Supplies
  • Support Infrastructure
  • Budget
  • Administration
  • People

Let’s talk for a minute about each of these, because they each present an opportunity for roleplay, even for entire plotlines. And that’s the key; you don’t want the game to bog down into resource management, you want to use the player goal as a vehicle for plot. Doing that doesn’t require you to be an expert in finances, recruitment, or base management.

Justification

The first thing that he has to do is get authorization for expansion, and that means making his case to one or more superiors in the chain of command. These people will be aware of a much bigger picture than the PC will, and decisions will have been made on the basis of administration priorities within the context of that bigger picture. Whatever the size the base currently is, both physically and in terms of manpower, that’s considered to be as much as can be provided in terms of accomplishing whatever the bases’ mission is.

Every facility has a purpose, and that purpose defines how many people are required, what resources are provided, and so on. There are only so many to go around, and command will want to know why the manpower he already has is not enough.

This puts the onus on the player to be the expert, not the GM. He needs a convincing reason to expand the base (beyond his own ambitions).

So, if he makes a good case, the dominoes start falling to deliver him what he wants, right? Oh, if only the real world worked that way. I suggest you start by trying to track down a copy of the Season 5 West Wing episode, “Full Disclosure” and pay special attention to the plotline regarding the Base Closure Commission.

What that story illustrates is that politics plays at least as important a role in military decisions like base expansions as strictly military considerations. It has probably done so since the time of the Romans, if not longer. So let’s say the Base Commander comes up with a reasonably convincing military justification for the expansion of his command (and submits all the proper forms, filled out correctly, to his military superiors). The Base Commander has just volunteered himself to become a political pawn in Government Politics.

Rather than stick their own necks out, especially if such military expansion is going to be politically sensitive (and there’s no fun if it’s not), they will instead simply make an appointment for him to try to convince someone outside of the military. Even if they are not convinced, his command might send him to make such an attempt anyway, because the attempt serves their own political purposes, even if it’s just a distraction or a bargaining chip – something that they are willing to trade away in return for something they want even more.

And so, one plotline naturally evolves into another, as the PCs have to get involved in the murky world of politics. Even though the world is described as being more militarized, that does nothing to mitigate the politics; it simply means that there is likely to be another service branch or two for the actual military forces to compete with for funding and dominance, because there is never enough for everyone to get everything they want.

Bearing in mind that you never want to say “no” outright to the player, this is the story of how they come to get an in-game “yes” (I would make it clear out-of-game much sooner that they will get a “yes” if they don’t absolutely stuff things up). That’s when the fun really starts.

Authorization

Once a “yes” comes through, it’s almost certainly not going to have an immediate effect. It will be a matter of an increase in appropriations in the next annual budget. Military commands, on the other hand, don’t work like that; it’s almost certain that an increase in base size will also mean an increase in responsibility. Perhaps so much so that the PC will be replaced by a more senior Commander. It wouldn’t be the first time that it has happened.

From a plot point of view, this is a great way to fill in the time before the next appropriation – with the increased funding for the Base – comes through.

Of course, “more senior” doesn’t necessarily mean “more competent” – or “honest”, for that matter. You want to make it completely clear to the players that this is a political appointment, and that accepting the new Commander is not a valid option.

There are three ways to get rid of an unwanted commanding officer: Force them to retire, force the military command to retire them, or arrange a “health problem”. Investigation, conspiracy, politics, intrigue, and even subterfuge are all tools that the PCs may need to employ.

Accommodation

Once the PC is back in command, and the appropriations have come through, he has a delicate tightrope to walk – there will almost certainly be an increase in operational demands, effective immediately, even though the expansion in capability required to meet those demands has not yet occurred. But that’s not considered to be an acceptable excuse for failure to complete the mission for which you were placed in command. So if the demands are impossible, the PCs only escape is to convince his CO’s superiors that it’s the CO’s fault.

But it’s easy to complicate this situation. That immediate CO might well be the biggest supporter of the decision to expand the base – lose him, and what one budget giveth, the next can take away.

The best answer is to achieve the impossible, or so it might seem. These are PCs, after all. Well, if they do, that’s a persuasive argument that the expansion isn’t necessary, after all. No, the PCs have to deliberately fail but do so in a manner that protects their political support within the command structure – and that’s not all that easy to achieve.

In the meantime, before any new troops can be sent, they will need somewhere to sleep, and that means that new barracks and officer accommodations will need to be built, and that means that land may have to be appropriated from outside the existing base. That makes the expansion plan, and the base CO, new enemies.

And, of course, the construction of new buildings will have to be completed, but that’s a relatively dull activity, so keep it in the background.

Supplies

Before new people can be sent, the base will need to receive the necessary supplies to keep them equipped and ready. At first, it might seem as though there are no plot opportunities here, but there are – hijacked shipments, for example, or smuggling contraband into the base. Also, this will be the first brush with the military bureaucracy within this grand plotline; and they a mythically incapable of delivering what you order. Ask for field manuals and you get toilet paper; ask for mosquito repellent and you get arctic-weather gear. That might not be the stuff of a major plotline, but it would make a reasonable subplot.

Or you could have something really suspicious delivered by error as the hook into a more substantial plotline…

Support Infrastructure

Four tons of potatoes have just shown up at your front door. The problem is that you don’t have enough room to store them. Or cook them. Or serve them to the men if you have the increased manpower that you’ve requested. Heck, you probably don’t even have enough garbage disposal services to deal with the aftermath.

Every element of infrastructure from parking to portaloos will need to be increased. And there needs to be room for that. It’s also not good enough to simply add space somewhere else; the facilities have to be positioned where they are going to be needed. You might need to move the rec halls to make room for a larger mess hall, and move the parking lot to make room for a bigger sick bay.

A military base is essentially a small, self-contained town, one in which nothing is produced and everything has to be trucked in. So take your typical small town and imagine the strain if the population were to increase 30, 50, 100% – overnight. Everything from the brig to the barber shops will have been constructed with a specific base population in mind, and you now have to keep everything functioning while expanding that infrastructure to cope with the anticipated influx. The bank may need a bigger vault, and more security, simply because there are more paychecks that have to be cashed.

On top of all that, there can be knock-on effects. Power usage and water needs can increase more than a simple numeric increase. Officers often bring families with them, for example. That may require anything from preschools to swimming pools. Some of these facilities may be located outside the base and made available for the general public, easing any lingering tensions that resulted from displacing people from their homes to acquire the needed space for expanding the base.

The problem is that not a lot of this makes for an interesting adventure. Achieving that requires you to view these changes as a trigger, or as an opportunity for someone. For example, security is necessarily compromised when you have outsiders coming into your secure facility. I’m sure the military organization / government has enemies; why not have one of them exploit the opportunity? Or maybe it’s simply some criminals who see the bank as a softer target as a result of the continuing development of the facilities?

Such ideas are a great way of “name-checking” this phase of the expansion.

Budget

How many businesses fail because they don’t get their budgets right? Or expect their costs in Month 12 to have any relationship to their costs in Months 1, 2, or 3?

A lot of them, is the answer. Possibly too many. 70% of new businesses fail within their first 12 months of operation, here in Australia. While there might be some variations in that number from one nation to another, I doubt that those will amount to more than ±5 or 10%, barring extraordinary circumstances like being in a war zone. While there are a number of reasons for this, including being insufficiently distinguishable from the competition, or expecting things to always stay the same, one of the big 5 is the inability to lock down a profitable business model.

Well, a military base isn’t expected to turn a profit, but it’s also not supposed to make a bigger loss than has been budgeted for, and it absolutely cannot be permitted to fail. But budgets are frequently drawn up on the assumption of efficient usage; not many bake in any margin for getting systems up to speed. That means that any mistakes made early on have to be balanced out by savings somewhere else in the operational budget – and that means taking shortcuts to get back on budget.

Quite often, these decisions are taken at a departmental level, well below the actual commander, who has no idea that one (or more) of his administrations has flubbed their budgets and are cutting corners – not until that corner-cutting has an adverse consequence, anyway. All he knows is that they have reported that they are within budget.

Note that it’s almost as big a sin to come in under-budget as it is to exceed your budget – do that, and your appropriations might be reduced next time around. So there is a limit to how conservative someone can be.

It’s a recipe rife for a train-wreck to come out of nowhere and land on the Commander’s desk for solution. And remember, it’s not good enough for him to claim ignorance; it’s his responsibility to know, and he is deemed to know under military law; unless he can pin a deliberate deception on someone, he is likely to be held responsible for anything and everything a subordinate does.

That gives you two avenues for a plotline: the first is paranoia on the part of the Base Commander, with or without good reason; the second is for just such a budgetary land-mine to fall into his metaphoric lap. You don’t have to be an expert in administration or management; simply finding out what corners the Commander is going to cut, and judging by feel whether or not that’s enough, is all you have to do. The idea is not to focus on the problem, but to focus on the consequences of the response. Don’t get caught up in bookwork and accountancy!

People

Finally, everything is set up and ready, and people start to arrive. You aren’t an expert at recruitment? Who cares? The PC isn’t doing the recruiting, these are generic military people who have been recruited and trained elsewhere, and will number all possible personalities who are drawn to this occupation. Most of them are just going to be faceless and generic NPCs; but there will be a few who are more interesting, and who you create in greater detail.

The important point here is to make them interesting characters first, anything else second. Give them lives, give them personalities, and let those personalities emerge in the course of interacting with the PCs.

There might be someone who was given a choice – the military or jail. There might be an enthusiastic jar-head. There might be someone with strong Republican views and someone who is just as passionately liberal. There will be someone who’s geeky, and someone who doesn’t want to be there, and someone who sees the military as their only escape from a bad situation of some sort. There will be someone with serious personal problems and someone who is unfit to be there as a result – alcoholism used to be the go-to for that sort of thing but these days it could be anything from domestic abuse to being addicted to porn to gambling debts. Someone will probably be a mole for one of the superiors or political figures involved earlier – because the new Commander is either an up-and-comer and threat to his job, a possible protégé to be used as an asset to further one’s own career, or in over their heads and a potential liability through the connection to that authority figure.

Create mini-stories built around these individuals that can spill over into actual game-play. It might be nothing more than a bit of filler (two of them coming to blows over something trivial) or it can be something altogether more serious (a General’s son being caught DUI after a hit-and-run – did he do it? The PCs want to exonerate him if they can, or find absolutely iron-clad proof of guilt. Anything less places the career of the CO at risk).

Administration

Remember that every subordinate’s problem is also his boss’s problem if it starts to affect his work. And that mistakes and problems when there are lots of weapons around can be fatal to someone. That’s how NCIS, and JAG before it, keep replenishing their stocks of stories. Every NPC that gets brought into the base as a result of the expansion is potentially the hook for a new adventure. Like any other small town, there will be crimes, and accidents; there will be cases of murder, and corruption, and arson, and fraud. You don’t need to know anything about Command; the Commander is essentially the Mayor and the Judge in a small town full of armed people.

Going Forward: Expectations

So that’s how to handle the request to expand the Command. The real fun can start once that request has been approved and implemented. Aside from all the personal stories that will intersect with the Commander’s Desk simply because he is the Commander, there are four specific areas that will be fertile adventuring ground in years to come.

The first of these is expectations. The command who approved the enlargement of the base will expect the base to be able to carry out a specific ongoing mission as a result – and that can be the foundation of adventures because expectations are not always realistic.

So far as his superiors are concerned, that mission gives the Command capacity to do certain things, and that makes them a resource – one that can be borrowed or usurped for their own needs.

Going Forward: Internal Reactions

Every ally you make tends to earn you at least two enemies, at least when politics is involved. Some of those enemies will be nominal allies – for example, if the base expansion has come at the expense of some other base’s needs, there may well be resentment or outright hostility. If the base commander convinced a political figure to champion the cause of expanding the facility, the enemies of that political figure become your enemies – and you will be tested to determine whether or not the association can be rendered a mistake.

Your allies will seek to take advantage of you. They may seek to test you. With friends like that, who needs enemies? But enemies you will have, anyway.

Going Forward: External Reactions

No militaristic government can stay in power without an enemy. Enemies pay attention to what their enemies do, and are prone to assume the worst. They will have noted the expansion of the base and will want to know why – and will have very dark suspicions about it all. They will want to do something about all that…

Going Forward: The Peter Principle

It was in 1981, I think, that I first encountered The Peter Principle, and was immediately captivated by the elegance of the concept. In a nutshell, if you are good at your job, you get promoted out of it into a new job. When you are no longer competent enough, those promotions stop; and, provided that you aren’t absolutely hopeless, you will get stuck in that position.

Now think of the Peter Principle as applying to the subordinates within your command. If they are any good at their job, they will get promoted and taken away from you, to be replaced – by definition – with someone not as competent. If they are being promoted into the job from elsewhere, they aren’t going to be as competent or experienced as you would like (though they may improve once they find their feet – in which case, they, too, will be taken away from you. The personnel bureau – or its military equivalent – will keep trying until they do find someone incompetent.)

Of course, you are still expected to complete any missions assigned to you successfully and in an expeditious manner. Having newly-promoted people is not an excuse.

There must be a constant temptation to undersell the value of your good people in their fitness reports so that you get to hold onto them. But that’s a serious offense under military law – if any of your subordinates complain about their fitness reports you will be investigated, and if there’s any merit to the complaint, you can and will be court-martialled. “Conduct Unbecoming An Officer,” or its’ equivalent, is the most likely charge, and that’s a command-ender if proven. Even the accusation can be enough to stifle a career. Most officers quite rightly recognize that the risk is not worth it.

The Bigger Picture (for the rest of us)

As you can see, opportunities abound in the situation described by Tchaico. So why couldn’t he see them, and what are the real challenges that he faces?

I think the clue is in his final sentence, when he states, “…the core rulebook doesn’t have any guidance on finances, recruitment and overall base management.” I think the perceived need to know what he was talking about without any guidance from the rulebook intimidated him into thinking that this was a serious problem, when it really isn’t.

No rulebook will ever have all the answers. GMs need to be able to fake expertise when they don’t have it – see ““The expert in everything“. If your rulebook doesn’t cover a situation and you aren’t confident enough to improvise a solution, look for some other sourcebook or adventure that you can use as a resource. Do a Google search for RPG “In command” and see what you find. A similar search for “RPG Military Base” might also find useful reference sources. And check out my advice in A potpourri of quick solutions: Eight Lifeboats for GM Emergencies – some of it is directly relevant to what I think the real problem here is (or was).

The real challenge, in my book, is making sure that the other PCs have something relevant to do, making sure that it’s not “The Base Commander and supporting cast show”. There are two real solutions to this problem, which is far more difficult, and which can afflict any campaign in which one PC decides to construct a stronghold. The first is to make sure that each of the other PCs get caught up in the major plotline – there are some plotline suggestions above in which the Base Commander will need to employ every resource he can trust. The second is to make sure that each of the PCs have their own plotlines that run concurrently with those of the Base Commander. I suggest you look at my article Ensemble or Star Vehicle – Which is Your RPG Campaign? for further guidance.

GMs should NEVER permit themselves to feel intimidated by any plot situation engineered by either themselves or the players. It’s better to do your best, and fail – and learn something – than not to try at all. If there’s a situation you aren’t sure how to handle, look for the opportunities inherent in it and focus on them, ignoring the situation itself as much as possible; then it doesn’t matter how little you know about that situation.

Next in this series: Iceberg plotlines – can they work in an RPG?

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Pieces Of Creation: Maxima and Minima


Pieces Of Creation Logo version 2

This is the second-last article in the great character giveaway of 2016. Today I present a pair of more traditional supervillains whose main interest lies in the way the character’s abilities are structured to make them exceptionally effective. These won’t translate as well as some of the past offerings into other genres, I’m afraid, but the general principles definitely will.

As a standard of comparison, this pair were more effective as a partnership than a villain with a straight 25 dice in an attack power. That’s a force multiplication through clever design of at least four-to-one.

Preliminary Sidebar: Force Multiplication

Not familiar with the notion of force multiplication? It’s a measure of the effectiveness in combat when deployed with support from another unit of some weapon or force of men relative to the sum total of the weapons or force in a pure and isolated setting. The military use it when discussing the effectiveness of air and artillery support, tactics, and so on. For example, adopting a defensive position within a castle, in the Middle Ages had a force multiplication effect on the defenders of anywhere from 2-4, depending on who’s performing the analysis. That means that for an attack against the defenders to be just as likely to succeed as if they were simply standing out in the middle of a field (with weapons at the ready, of course), you need to attack with from 2-4 times as many. Personally, because they were such a game-changer, I think the 4 comes from a pre-gunpowder era and the 2 is a post-gunpowder era when both sides have cannons – but that’s only an opinion; it makes sense to me that way, but others might disagree.

It’s often helpful to think of tactical situations in this way. For example, surprise generally has a force multiplication factor of x1.5-2. That’s the same, in D&D terms, of a CR one-to-two less. So if the intent is a surprise encounter while the PCs are sleeping, and you would normally use CR12 to give them a fair fight, use CR10 or CR11. On the other hand, using CR12 keeps the encounter (just) within the usual bounds of permissible threat – the PCs will probably win, but it will be a much harder fight.

The math of Force Multiplication is complicated and largely devised after-the-fact to reflect real-world military experience. Two factors, each of which double the effectiveness of a force don’t multiply – they combine to something closer to x3. Some factors can interact to increase one or both, and other factors can mitigate an advantage even while providing it’s own force multiplier. Some of the relevant factors can be what would normally be considered intangibles, like esprit de corps. I haven’t studied the subject, and don’t think it’s particularly relevant; what I know about it comes from General Knowledge, some boardgames, and mentions in books like Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising. What’s important is the concept, and adapting it for RPG use.

I have adapted the concept for use in designing and constructing superpowers & weapons AND the adventuring context in which they are used. The encounter with Maxima and Minima took place in a crowded stadium, and the effects of their powers on the crowd definitely handicapped the PCs while increasing the pressure on them to perform quickly, and not to make mistakes.

Minima & Maxima character illustrations

Click on the thumbnail for a full-screen image (2Mb). Created using the online Hero Machine and some digital editing.

The Set-up: Matthew Müller

It’s important to the origins, motivations, etc of these characters that you have a little bit of background. In recent times, the team has come under fire from the religious right in the USA, and in particular from the most popular televangelist in the world, Matthew Müller.

“Last week”, the subject was the relationship between Zenith-3 and Exodus 22:18, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”. Runeweaver is a “self-confessed” practitioner of black magic, and, according to the Televangelists, you only have to look at Blackwing to know he is a demon given flesh, and that’s all proof that Vala is an agent of Satan and Z-3 are in league with the devil. Leading the charge was televangelist Matthew Müller, the single most prominent fundamentalist Christian on the planet. But there were opinion columns in several fundamentalist newspapers by several different authors, letters to the editor in mainstream media, and a number of callers to talk-back radio, and it quickly becomes a trending story on social media which was then picked up by the 24-hour news services. There was an immediate public reaction: Hostile telephone calls to the team, none threatening directly, nothing that was actionable, but all predicting doom and gloom for the team, eg variations on “The lord will punish you” or “The fires of heaven will smite you”.

As a result, the team were glued to the transmission as they wait to find out what the “operating environment” will be for whatever confronts them this week.

The sermon was more indirect than they expected, but even more worrying. “Salvation” is the core subject, and the primary message is, “What good does it do to save your life if it imperils your soul?” Although it is never said outright, the implication is clear – Matthew Müller is telling his followers to refuse Zenith-3’s aid, even if it puts their lives at risk. Flipping through the other channels, it’s once again clear that this is a concerted effort by the Televangelists and their Roman Catholic Master in the Vatican, Pope Gregorivich the second.
crown

Things went from bad to worse as the government went to bat in support of the team (who enjoy an official relationship with them), done in a way that helped further the government’s agenda at the expense of making matters worse for the team, as the team’s AI informs them:

“Prince Richard”, the heir to the Imperial Throne, has just issued a press statement from his Cambridge home, deploring the interference in civil matters by quote “certain self-appointed evangelists” and incitement to civil disobedience. However the language of the statement overall has inflammatory overtones.

He goes on to state that ‘I have communicated this opinion to the Champions [which is what the team are known as, locally] on behalf of the Crown, and that St Barbara is of like mind on the matter. We feel that while the souls of their congregations are a matter of legitimate concern to such zealots, the *LIVES* of those congregations are the jurisdiction of the civil authorities entrusted to protect them such as the military services, diplomatic corps, police services, fire brigades, ambulance-men and doctors, IMAGE – and the Champions. I have directed Lawyers within the relevant public prosecutor’s offices to determine whether or not inciting refusal to be rescued from a dangerous situation constitutes being an accessory to any criminal act that injures a citizen through the refusal of timely assistance.’

(While it was true that he discussed the subject with St Barbara, the leader of Zenith-3, she did not authorize any public statement, and the Prince specifically requested that *she* not make one. It follows that she cannot now make a statement in contradiction to this without accusing the Prince of deliberately lying to the public. Moreover, the statement implies that Champions policies are determined in consultation with the Palace, and that the team is implicitly an arm of the Crown, rather than an independent body, and that the two consult frequently).

Meanwhile…

One of the team’s members, Blackwing, was preparing to “kick out the ball” at a Soccer Game (in this reality, “Football” (Soccer) is the number one game in the world, including the US, but it has acquired some strange traditions from Baseball (this is the equivalent of “throwing out the ball”), some strange terminology for the positions and plays from “Football” (Grid Iron), and permits full-body tackles of the player with the ball as an incentive to keep the game moving).

At the same time as Blackwing makes his way out to the center with the ball, to kick it to the defending goalkeeper in an appropriately show-business way, the team’s headquarters are monitoring a conversation on talk-back radio that has just taken place:
Radio Microphone old style

Announcer: “…and good morning, you’re on the air on WBAP Texas talking to Alan Salcedo, What’s your name, listener?”

Feminine Voice: “My name doesn’t matter, I’m calling to give you a tip on a breaking news story, Alan.”

Alan: “Okay, what’s this hot tip?”

Female: “I just heard two people talking about an attack on the Demon Blackwing at the Mercedes Superdome in New Orleans this afternoon. I don’t know any details, but I thought someone should know about it.”

Alan: “And where did–” There is a click as whoever the caller was, hangs up. “Hello, Caller? Caller? Can you hear me?”

Third Voice, heard in the distance: “She’s off the line, Alan. I’m calling the Police.”

Alan: “The voice you just heard, listeners, was that of Patrick Franks, my producer. So, to recap, we have an unconfirmed report that there will be a religious-extremist attack launched against a member of the Champions who we already know is making a public appearance in just a few minutes. And remember that this afternoon you can hear the Dallas Cowboys take on the Indianapolis Colts, live on your Sports Central Radio, WBAP! And now, let’s take another call. Good Morning, you’re on the air…”

“That conversation was broadcast one minute ago”, reported the AI. “According to my data-banks, WBAP operates on a two-minute delay, so the threat was actually received approximately three minutes ago. I have accessed the live coverage of the game at the Mercedes Superdome, and Blackwing made his public appearance a few seconds ago, right on schedule. There appears to be some sort of public reaction…”
Minima

Minima and Maxima

Profession:
  • Minima: Farmer, Eastern Texas
  • Maxima: Assistant D.A, San Antonio
Personality:
  • Minima: Submissive to Maxima, Generous, Honest, Religious
  • Maxima: Dominant, Determined, Ruthless, Religious
Family/Relationships:
  • Minima: 5th generation USK* farmer, European origins (German/English/Norwegian)
  • Maxima: Spanish/Mexican, Daughter of a former USK Ambassador to Spain
    * USK = Kingdom Of The United States Of America
Faith:
  • Minima: Roman Catholic, Devotee of Matthew Müller
  • Maxima: Roman Catholic, Devotee of Matthew Müller
Abilities:
  • Minima:
    Passive:

    • Reduce Dice of Effect per Active Pt to 20% normal, round up, affects all unprotected characters.
    • Reduces PD & ED to 10% normal, round up, affects all unprotected characters.

    Active:

    • Reduce air resistance to electrical potential over a progressively larger volume – first attack 1d6 electrical, second 2d6, third 4d6, and so on. Maximum is 12d6 electrical.

    Gadgets:

    • One on each wrist: Left: Minima is protected from the effects of Maxima’s Powers.
    • Right: Maxima is protected from the effects of Minima’s Powers.
      NB: Gadgets supplied by Matthew Müller’s “Christian Science Institute”.
  • Maxima:
    Passive:

    • Multiply END cost x6, affects all unprotected characters. Excess END cost is paid by all conscious allies of the affected character within Line of sight and by the affected character equally. (Effectively 5x Normal END cost, divide by # PCs conscious to get extra END cost each).

    Active:

    • Super-STR (STR 60)= 3d6 Kill + Concussive Force Release (3d6 Kill), Reroll 1’s, 2’s, 3’s, Stun Multiplier d8+4, all Vs PD.
    • Flight (Platform), Usable with others, 30”.

Maxima

Ambitions:
  • Minima: To destroy the Witches and Demons and their allies in “The Champions” (Zenith-3) more because he wants Maxima’s approval than out of personal conviction.
  • Maxima: To destroy the Witches and Demons & their allies in “The Champions” (Zenith-3) because she believes the teachings of Matthew Müller & the RC church.
Desire:
  • Minima: Minima is totally besotted with Maxima, and will do anything to protect her.
  • Maxima: Maxima has a crush on Matthew Müller, and will do anything that she thinks he wants. She is intelligent enough to realize that this affection will never be consummated and has accepted Minima as the substitute choice ordained by God.
Weaknesses/Flaws:
  • Minima: Psychologically vulnerable through his relationship with Maxima. His physical stats are above human norms but he relies heavily on Maxima’s passive protection in combat and staying back from the front lines.
  • Maxima: Maxima is psychologically vulnerable and can be manipulated by her “relationship” with Muller. While her physical stats are above human norms, she relies very heavily on Minima’s protection in combat, despite being the front-line attacking force of the duo.
  • They both lose their abilities if too far removed from each other’s vicinity, but don’t really know what the maximum separation that can exist between them is.
History:

They say that opposites attract, but this is an extreme case. Minima and Maxima met via an online dating site for Catholics and discovered a mutual respect for the teachings of Matthew Muller. They began dating and attended church services together. At a virtual service which Muller conducted by televised link – something he does regularly, enabling him to “be” in 50 places of worship at once – they experienced what they describe as “an ecstasy,” a vision of heaven, standing side-by-side before “God”, who told them that a painful time was coming for the world and that he was going to grant them powers to represent him on earth in the battle to come. When the vision faded, their powers had awoken. After the service, they reported to the local priest and representative of Muller, who arranged for them to be tested at Muller’s “Christian Science Institute”. While they never got to full grips with the powers the two now posses, they consider this a bona-fide miracle and developed – by trial and error – mechanisms that grant the duo immunity to each other’s powers, based on designs shown to them but not understood by the pair whilst “in Heaven”.

What’s Missing

Can you spot the elephant in the room?

I didn’t – not until we were actually in play.

Aside from their nom-de-plumes, what are their names? I had to come up with the answer on the spot so that they could use appropriate levels of intimacy and emotion in their dialogues with each other. Rather than foist my choices – which weren’t created with my usual forethought and rigor – upon anyone else right away, I’ve decided to come clean here – and to preserve the write-ups just as I used them in play – just to show that no matter how much experience you have behind the table, you can still fail your “spot the blindingly obvious” check.

Ready for this? He’s a hick farmer, and the subservient partner (though he does most of the pre-scripted talking for the pair), so I named him Larry Hicks, Jr – Larry for the flavor of the US South, Hicks for the background, and Junior for the implied subordinate personality it carries.

She was Americanized Latino, a self-made professional, educated, independent, and the fiery dominant member of the relationship – so “Maria Conchita Gomez,” pronounced Marr-iah at her insistence. Three Latino names, presented in a stylized and individualistic way, and she always spoke in a very firm, very calm, tone of voice.

Discussion

Minima’s powers are the critical ones to the effectiveness of the pair – you don’t have to know a lot of the game mechanics to see that.

His first power reduces the effectiveness of every power or weapon that could be used against the pair. This is a passive ability, meaning that it just happens around him.

His second power increases the PCs’ vulnerability to attacks ten-fold. It’s also a passive ability.

His third power starts off being equivalent to an electric fence and rapidly increases to the output of a small electrical plant – which is nowhere near the power levels of real lightning. But the side effect on ordinary people is lethal from about 3d6 on – which is roughly equivalent to a bullet.

Her first ability means that anyone who attacks, or tries to run away, will become exhausted far more quickly. It also means that the first attacks of the PCs – which, given a threatening buildup and the crowd, should be near the top end of what they normally use – will have virtually no effect, being reduced first by her ability and then by his.

The result is that her 3d6+3d6 strike definitely ‘rang the bell’ on the group’s toughest single member, the guy they stick in the front lines to soak up damage, and a character who has shrugged off 40d6 (rolled a little poorly) in the past. That’s an attention-getter.

So it’s a pair of 1-2 punches: one ability makes the characters vulnerable and the second exploits that vulnerability; another pair of abilities makes the PC counteroffensive far less effective, and sticks the more vulnerable member of the partnership behind the protection of the other member, to boot.

Judo Construction

This is an example of what I think of as “Judo construction” – taking a character’s strengths and using it against them. How would you apply this principle to D&D?

Consider the impact of heat-based attacks on characters in frigid conditions who are dressed appropriately to those conditions. Or heat-based attacks on characters in very hot conditions that they are already struggling to cope with, if it comes to that. Or a situation that makes characters in frigid conditions think that it is suddenly very hot.

A character who relies on Elven equipment might come up against a character whose equipment is invulnerable to the effects of Elvish Weapons (the Dwarves would make those, if they could, given the usual relationship between the races). This is Magic, the “rules” can be anything you want them to be.

Of course, familiarity breeds contempt; so you don’t give such equipment to every Tom, Dick, and Troll that stumbles through the door, you save it for an encounter where it is both logical and it matters. You need, for the sake of plausibility, to give the hostile character an in-game reason for having this as his preferred equipment, and you need a suitable backstory for how this equipment came to exist in the first place, because it is uncommon.

The effect is akin to a dwarfed Goblin wearing a Belt Of Giant Strength – it’s the last thing anyone expects, unless you drop hints that give the game away.

Similarly, I won’t be using characters with the type of abilities displayed by Maxima and Minima in every battle. This was a one-off (and there’s more to the story to come, of course – the writeup is very vague about how they came to posses these powers, while explicitly implying that Matthew Müller’s “Christian Science Institute” is actively researching ways to oppose the PCs. That is what makes their use in this (otherwise meaningless) encounter significant.

The only other reason for this encounter is as a trigger for the further development of the PCs ‘relationships’ with the Crown Prince and Roman Catholic Church under “Pope Gregorivich II”. In other words, I had a plot development that as a byproduct led inevitably to an encounter of some sort, and this fitted the bill.

As with several other characters that I have presented recently, I could have made this duo weaker but I wanted them to be able to go toe-to-toe with the whole team of PCs, and gaged their combat capabilities accordingly.

He sounds nasty. He looks nastier (I don’t think I can show you the images, but if I can find them again I can link to them!) His name is almost unpronounceable. And he is the last in this line of Character Giveaways. He is Mictlan-tecuhtli, and he is the subject of the intended final part in this character giveaway – next week!

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The Rolling Retcon: how much campaign history is fixed?


Photograph provided by freeimages.com / Marek Bernat

Photograph by freeimages.com / Marek Bernat

When people talk about campaign continuity, they usually adopt one of two positions.

There’s the strict continuity model, in which everything that has ever happened is fixed – but not as permanently as most people think – or there is the loose, episodic continuity in which there is a static condition defined as ‘normal’ to which everything sets, or reset, at the end of each adventure – which is not as segregated as most people think.

In fact, both ‘extremes’ are compromised in terms of the key defining characteristic of each, as I will demonstrate in the course of this article. There is also the third alternative that I personally advocate, plot arcs.

And there is also a fourth, somewhat fuzzier option that may fit your particular campaign needs even better than any of these approaches, and` while I personally am not a huge fan of it, I wouldn’t hesitate to pull it out of the cellar in which I keep it chained – if I thought it the best solution for a particular campaign.

The subject, then, is campaign continuity. Buckle in – it promises to be a bumpy ride.

“Strict” Continuity

It’s remarkably difficult to find a definition of what “strict continuity” actually means anywhere on the internet, at least in RPG terms. I found definitions in other areas: the psychology of dreams, consciousness, television, computer games set in the same universe, and many more besides – but everyone more or less seems to take it for granted when discussing RPGs that people will know what is meant.

So here’s a working definition: “Strict continuity is the trait of inertia of situation.” That means that if you leave a book on the table in an RPG, it will still be there when you come back unless an identifiable someone has moved it in the meantime, an event that can be assumed to have taken place because of the absence of the book. It means that characters don’t change conceptually from one encounter to the next – if Longforlorn walks with a limp due to an old axe wound this week, he will still walk with a limp due to an old axe wound six years from now, and the scar will even be in the same place on his body. It means that time keeps moving even if a PC isn’t there to see events evolve, and that PCs can leave a situation and know that it will have evolved when next they check on the current state of events. It means that any consequences or repercussions of choices will continue to play out, even those made in ignorance or error. It means that whenever the PCs encounter something or someone new, that person must be assumed to have always been there, and if it was logical for the PCs to have learned of their existence at a prior time, some reasonable explanation must be offered for their failure to have done so. And it means that events, once they have taken place, are fixed and immutable (with exceptions); only interpretations, perceptions, contexts, and understanding of those events can change, not the events themselves.

There’s a discussion thread archived at indie-RPGs dot com in which “Valamir” offers:

quote start 45
“If winning a conflict is to have meaning, it must create, at least in the moment, a truth…[which] MUST extend forward [in time/into the future].”

Sydney Freeburg replies, in the same discussion,

quote start 45
Traditional RPGs place a great deal of discretionary power in the hands of the GM. Most importantly, this power operates without resource constraints, in that the GM does not have to “spend” anything to make his (more rarely her) judgments stick: Therefore imposing a GM judgment has zero cost (in game-mechanical terms; quite possibly not in social terms) that impedes the GM’s ability to impose additional judgments in future. Further, this power operates without a resource economy, so that the GM’s use of power in one instance does not transfer power to other people to use in other instances, so the (im)balance of power remains static.

quote start 45

Less obviously, both traditional strong-single-GM RPGs and freeform “commie” roleplaying without a GM rely fairly heavily on the participants’ judgment of “what should happen” according to some standard of realism, logic, fidelity to the source material, proper story arc, [or] whatever.

Both these quotes seem to reflect an understanding of strict continuity as “continuity in which events, once they occur or are established as having occurred, are immutable.”

Adding this statement to the definition seems to produce a fairly robust statement of definition:

“Strict Continuity is a metagame trait of an RPG campaign in which the campaign exhibits inertia of situation, i.e. a causative and logical connection between in-game experiences in which events, once they occur or are established as having occurred, are immutable.”

The Retcon Necessity

The quoted discussion comes from a discussion thread entitled “Retcon: Threat or Menace?”. The central theme of the discussion is that a retcon, or change to something that has been established in the past, is a bad thing.

I can’t help but agree that they can be, when the reason is GM laziness or carelessness. The “truth of events” that “Valamir” mentions is imperiled by revisions to in-game events; by altering these events, you are cheating the players of the meaning, significance, and achievement of their hard-won past victories, or of the logical basis upon which their decisions and actions were based, without giving them the opportunity to change those decisions and actions to something that they consider in hindsight to be more correct under the changed circumstances.

Gregory’s point is that because there is no inherent cost or restriction within the game mechanics for the GM doing so, the capacity to retcon is inherently poisonous to the trust between players and GM, and contains an inherent potential for unchecked abuse, either at the hands of the GM directly, or indirectly if he gives in to pressure from some other strong personality at the game table.

All of which is true. Nevertheless, I would contend that Retcons are sometimes necessary, and can be performed fairly if approached in the right way.

Successful Retcons

A successful retcon, in my book, is one in which the players are not cheated of their victory. Said victory may be rendered less complete and total than they thought it was at the time, but they still achieved a victory and enjoyed the rewards that came from it.

That means that there are very limited circumstances in which a retcon is permissible, for example a Retcon to plug holes in logic and explain or justify choices that, in hindsight, make no sense either in external reality or the internal thought processes of a character – fine. I discuss other justifications for retcons in subsequent sections of this article; but I wanted to include one here to establish that they can be justified.

Having established that a retcon is required (for whatever reason), the next step is to determine what needs to be changed. Often, this can be simple, even trivial; the interval of game-time in between the event being amended and the current game-time give plenty of room for dominoes to fall and butterfly wings to have flapped, all you need do is secure the survival of that butterfly. But you must never change anything that a PC did, without the permission of the player, and must never interfere with any situational element upon which they might have based a decision. Whatever changes you make have to be invisible or irrelevant to the PCs that were involved at the time.

That eliminates probably 90-plus % of the possible changes – but it also eliminates 99% of the causes for complaint.

Maintenance of strict continuity requires that the ramifications of the amendment – which are the reason for the amendment in the first place – must be such that they can have had zero perceptible impact on any subsequent in-game event, and would not have been discovered by the PCs prior to this point in time.

This additional requirement is much trickier to achieve, and probably eliminates 99% of the remaining possible changes. It might be that it eliminates all of them – in which case a second retcon might be needed to bring about the net effect that you want to achieve. For example, if the change were to have one of the villain’s henchmen survive a seemingly-fatal (at-the-time) attack by the PCs, and make his escape, it might be necessary to have some third party intervene to rescue and heal the henchmen in some manner not noticeable by the party at the time (who were distracted by taking down the henchman’s boss, after all), and who left a corpse dressed in what appeared to be the henchman’s clothing at the scene in order to fool the PCs. Such a double-retcon – the rescue and the deception – makes the henchman’s survival not only logical, but operates to convince the PCs of the opposite, and in no way robs the event of its truth, or the PCs of their victory.

Of course it would have been better for the GM to have decided that these events were occurring at the time, permitting the characters to act upon the true reality if they had detected it; but, as a retcon to cover for the GM forgetting that the henchman had been killed, or not realizing the necessity to the broader plotline for him to have survived, I would consider this entirely acceptable. It doesn’t disrupt the past events, it simply adds to them.

Finally, in his post-game remarks to the players – and every GM performs social niceties at the end of a game session, it’s human and polite – the GM should come clean and admit to the retcon (if he didn’t do so in-game). The social cost to his air of infallibility provides the “cost” that is required to prevent this being an “easy out” for the GM. We work hard to appear infallible, even when we aren’t, and when we claim otherwise; but all demigods should be willing to accept having feet of clay occasionally. It reduces the divide between players and GM, making it easier for them to bond as people. RPGs are, above all else, a social activity performed for fun – and that’s easier when you are a group of friends sharing a common pastime.

Use these guidelines and procedures to retcon only when you have to and you will have few complaints, save from the most ardent purists. And they are likely to be complaining about something, anyway. These practices make the retcon the servant of continuity, and not its abuser.

‘Mistooks’ Happen

And so to the question of justifications for Retcons. The first is fairly obvious: everybody makes mistakes, it’s the price of being human. These mistakes have to be fixed when noticed – which is usually whenever they become important, and not at the time.

The purpose of this type of retcon is to ensure the “Truth” of the event by correcting circumstances in such a way that they validate the in-game outcome, and hence do not rob the players of the significance of their choices.

History is only as good as the reporter

It’s not always necessary to retcon the event; historical events can only be as accurately reported as the reporter can perceive events. There are all sorts of distorting factors. First, there’s the question of spin by whoever is creating the story that gets reported to the public, and that ultimately forms the foundation of our understanding of an event. Second, there’s the question of bias on the part of the reporter, and editorial bias/manipulation. Third, there’s the willingness by the public to accept the account of events described to them, and how the story plays into or flies in the face of public bias. Fourth, there is the perceived trustworthiness of both source and channel; there are some people who would not believe the sky was blue if the government announced it, simply because of who they perceive the government to be. And fifth, the possibility of outright deception must also be considered. Any interpretation of events is inevitably colored by bias; the best that you can hope is that these biases cancel out to present something close to the true picture.

I came across this story while researching this article. It’s now almost a year old, but still just as relevant. Fake news stories are still being believed and promoted as genuine, and too many people wouldn’t know satire if it walked up and shook hands with them. The situation is not helped by the belief many hold that the mainstream media are themselves distorting the news on behalf of their owners. Even the mainstream media sometimes get taken in by these fake news sites, and they are supposed to be the experts!

Under these conditions, especially when it comes to pivotal world events like wars, its hard to accept any version of history as gospel. Even when you know what happened from a certain point forward, understanding why things turned out that way is often just as important; and changing that doesn’t require any changes to past events.

Ultimately, the accuracy of historical events is inherently limited by the capacities of those documenting the event. Historians aren’t usually present at the event they are documenting, and if they are, it us usually under circumstances which leave the source open to accusations of bias; they are forced to rely on documentary ‘evidence’, and thereby place their trust in the honesty and perceptiveness of the source.

History assumes that the historian is unbiased and omniscient. What a pack of nonsense! Even in strict continuity, the past can need to be reinterpreted as new information comes to light. In the last few years, almost every history of World War II has been rendered out of date, for example, first by the release of documents from the former Soviet Union, and secondly by an economic analysis of the Nazi state.

Example: Stalin, Germany, and Japan

Hitler always had his eye on Russia and was profoundly opposed to communism, as stated in Mein Kampf and illustrated by many of the policies implemented when the Nazi Party came to power. Stalin knew this as well as anybody, and was completely sure that Germany would eventually turn against Russia. Why, then, did the pair become unlikely allies with the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact?

First, it gave both sides what they wanted most at the time – it freed Germany to focus its aggression elsewhere, and it gave Stalin time to militarize and prepare for an anticipated attack by Japan, who had made multiple attempts to obtain the Siberian mineral reserves by force in the past. When Stalin’s intelligence finally established that Japan did not intend to invade the USSR, relations between the two became progressively weaker as Stalin became more assertive. Ultimately, Hitler broke the agreement and invaded; Stalin deployed his forces in such a way as to trade space for time, not in the expectation of winter, but to redeploy the reserves he had built up in the East to the West.

Had Germany faced only the forces that they knew about on the Western Front, the possibility of another sweeping success of the sort achieved elsewhere was very much more certain, and this is one of the primary reasons for the confidence of victory before cold-weather preparations would be necessary. It was those additional forces that delayed victory long enough for Winter to take hold, sealing the failure of the invasion.

Ironically, it was the USSR who Japan looked toward to act as a third party to organize a negotiated settlement of hostilities with the US when their defeat became inevitable, but Stalin opted instead to declare war almost at the last minute, entitling the USSR to a share of the spoils without actually having to do much to earn them, and permitting the US to pursue its doctrine of demanding unconditional surrender.

It’s only when you understand Stalin’s concerns, his intelligence operations to answer those concerns, and what he knew when, that the USSR’s role in the Second World War can be understood, and hence the defeat of Germany. Everything in the history books prior to those intelligence revelations being assimilated was educated guesswork. Those revelations revised the events by revising the context within which the events took place, explaining things that were otherwise fairly inexplicable.

Example: The Nazi Economy

I wrote about this about 9 months ago (has it really been that long already!?) in Shadows In The Darkness – The nature of True Evil.

To quote from that article,

quote start 45
Blair started by raising Nazi behavior during World War II – the concentration camps, the systematic abuse and slaughter of groups that the Nazis disapproved of. Nazis are favorite villains in the Pulp Genre because the things they did were so vile by any reasonable moral code. There is no question that the Nazis were absolutely ruthless in pursuing their agenda, and that the agenda in question was villainous, but was this an example of True Evil?

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

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

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

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

While they were in power, the Nazis never released economic data to the public. In fact, the national ledgers were top secret, and reports deliberately destroyed by the regime. This perpetuated the myth of the efficiency of the Third Reich, winning them support and approval in the US and elsewhere. It was only when some of the supposedly destroyed records were uncovered in recent years and studied by economists who were able to model the financial state of Germany in the years preceding and during the war that the truth began to emerge.

This in no way justifies or excuses Nazi atrocities; but it does explain where Hitler got the money for his military buildup and continued investment in cutting-edge military projects, something that had always puzzled me, given how bad things became when the Wiemar Republic became one of the first modern state to experience Hyperinflation.

NB: It might seem that the figures quoted in the relevant section of the Wikipedia article are contradictory – the text talks about inflation hitting 3.25 x 10^6 %, with prices doubling every 2 days, while the bullet point summary beneath quotes a peak rate of 29,525% in November, 1923. They aren’t actually contradictory; the 10^6 number refers to an annual inflation rate, while the 29,525% rate is a monthly rate of inflation. If hyperinflation continued at that rate, compounding, for an entire year, the annual inflation rate that results would be 4.388 x10^31 % – so 3.25 x 10^6 % shows how “good” the other months were in comparison to how bad things (mathematically) might have been.

Don’t understand scientific notation, or just find those numbers hard to grasp? Try them the long way:

  • 29,525% increase in prices per month
  • 3,250,000% increase in prices per year
  • 43,880,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000% increase in prices per year

Personally, I don’t think that last number is any easier to understand. So try this, also from the Wikipedia article: A 5 million Mark coin would have been worth US$714.29 in January 1923 and about 1 one-thousandth of a cent by October of that year.

(The scary thing is that this is not the record for hyperinflation. There have been worse economic collapses. And what has happened once can happen again…)

Bottom-line relevance to the retcon

The bottom line is this: bias, incompetence, assumption, incompleteness of facts, and romanticization of a situation by a reporter or historian can contaminate understanding of an event even by those who experienced it so completely that the truth, when eventually revealed or discovered, is tantamount to completely revising the history of the event.

There is a popular aphorism by George Santayana, a Spanish philosopher: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I prefer my own variation: “Those who do not understand the past are incompetent to shape the future.”

But an RPG is an imperfect simulation of a world, one that is manipulated for entertainment purposes by the GM. If the GM was omniscient and perfectly prescient, he would know exactly what was needful for future plots at the time of an in-game event, and could pull strings appropriately. Since he is not, the best he can do is create dangling plot threads that he can pull on when he needs them; and, when that fails him, his only recourse is to reinvent the past a little. And that’s retconning.

The Erroneous Assumer

The other source of misinterpretation is the incorrect assumption. Assumptions always frame and color the understanding of any event, and you can only properly interpret the reports and analysis of such an event if you know, and can allow for, the assumptions that have been made. This is often difficult, firstly because they usually aren’t put in writing, and secondly, the distant observer can only guess at the level to which these assumptions have influenced the reports of events, and so do not know how much correction is required.

For a start, observers generally assume that what they are seeing is real, and not some calculated deception. That’s what lies at the heart of the Potemkin Village deception – and at the heart of most magic acts!

Another frequent assumption is that if someone has a reason to lie, they probably are lying. Still another is that people are consistent – a habitual liar never tells the truth, and a truthful person never tells a lie. There are assumptions about what is physically possible which often mislead. Wishful thinking is often a factor, and so is the other side of the coin, prejudice of any sort. These days, racial profiling applies assumptions about real or fictitious characteristics to individuals deemed to be of a particular racial profile. Oh, and most people will assume that an expert knows what they are doing!

Some people assume that there were no moon landings simply because it was such a difficult undertaking – while relying on NASA information as the basis of their assessment of the difficulties. And some people assume they understand something when they don’t.

The power – and danger – of assumption is most clearly demonstrated to me by the Monty Hall Problem, which always comes to mind when I think of this subject. In essence: There are three boxes or doors, one of which leads to a prize. After a choice is made between them, one of the other doors is opened to show that it did not contain the prize. If they are then offered the chance to change their mind, most people won’t take it; they will assume that the presenter knows they have chosen correctly and is trying to lead them away from the prize, and they will also assume`that there is no advantage to changing their minds as to which door leads to the prize. For these reasons, few (if any) will switch.

In the newspaper column which made the problem famous, even after the correct solution was revealed, many readers refused to believe switching is beneficial. Approximately 10,000 readers, including nearly 1,000 with PhDs, wrote to the magazine, most of them claiming the answer was wrong. Even when given explanations, simulations, and formal mathematical proofs, many people still do not accept that switching is the best strategy.

It’s easily shown that it is – You originally had a 1 in 3 chance of making the right choice, which means that there is a 2/3 chance that you chose incorrectly. One of those other choices was then eliminated, meaning that all of that 2/3 chance of winning is behind the door that wasn’t originally chosen – so you double your chances of winning by altering your choice. But this is so counter-intuitive that many find it hard to accept. Paul Erd?s, one of the most prolific mathematicians in history, remained unconvinced until he was shown a computer simulation confirming the predicted result.

I first encountered the problem as part of the TV show Numb3rs, and it is the explanation given there that I have described above. Shortly thereafter, I saw episode 177 of Mythbusters, entitled “Pick A Door”, in which the problem – and the prediction that most people would not change their choices – were put to the test and the result confirmed. But I found their explanation harder to follow than the simplicity of the one from Numb3rs, so that’s the one that I remember.

Getting back to the point, then, assumptions can be determined to be incorrect months or years after the event, and doing so completely transforms the context of the event and hence its outcome. Particularly suspect is any statement which can be framed as “the only possible explanation”, or “the simplest explanation” because Occam’s Razor is misinterpreted or misapplied all the time. It’s usually misquoted as “The simplest possible explanation is usually the truth”, and that right away is where people go wrong; it should be, in the modern vernacular, “The simplest possible explanation that accounts for all the known facts is usually the truth – if you know enough of the facts.”

To completely transform a past event, you simply have to replace an assumption with a fact that contradicts it – and (to keep this retcon fair) make sure that the fact could not have become known to the players any sooner.

Strict Continuity is a nonsense

The only possible conclusion from all this is that “strict continuity”, as most people think of it, is nonsense. Strict Continuity is not fixed; it heaves and rolls and comes unglued at the seams, only to be stitched back together again. Nor is the retcon inherently contradictory to strict continuity; used properly, it can be the structural adhesive that holds a strict continuity together.

Where does that leave our definition? Surprisingly healthy. Let’s look at it again: “Strict Continuity is a metagame trait of an RPG campaign in which the campaign exhibits inertia of situation, i.e. a causative and logical connection between in-game experiences in which events, once they occur or are established as having occurred, are immutable.”

None of the retcon methods discussed alter events once they have occurred or are established as having occurred. They transform the understanding of events, they can radically alter the interpretation of events, they can even make the event more complete by providing facts that weren’t known at the time – but the event itself remains unchanged.

“Episodic” Continuity

The other end of the continuity extreme is “episodic”, also known as “simple” or “loose” continuity. Believe it or not, it’s just as hard to find a good definition of this type of continuity, yet – once again – everyone seems to know what is meant by it. TV Tropes divides it into two phenomena – the Reset Button and Status Quo Is God – and points to the flawed assumption of “No Ontological Inertia” that is exhibited by many TV shows that employ this type of continuity. This is the assumption that cause and consequence are somehow connected, and if you undo the cause even after the fact, the effects will vanish. Defeat the villain and whatever damage he has done will be somehow undone.

These are all pieces of the puzzle, but by focusing on them exclusively, one can’t help but form the impression that they are dancing around the definition, or its absence. If you try understanding the root concept of episodic continuity using these as references, you end up not being able to see the forest for the trees – even though you know that it’s there somewhere!

So let’s start with a basic definition as would apply to a TV series, and then modify it for the unique application that is an RPG campaign (TV didn’t invent the concept any more than it invented the serial continuity now referred to as “strict” continuity, but its a format that everyone recognizes): “Episodic Continuity” is a property of any television series in which the status quo is reset at the end of each episode (from time to time, the status quo itself may be redefined without violating such continuity; these redefinitions may or may not take place on-screen as part of a specific episode).” That’s a definition that covers every example that I can think of, from CSI and other police procedurals to M.A.S.H. to The Simpsons. It clearly delineates the differences between such programs and shows like “Lost”, “Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.”, and “24”. This even covers some reality TV series, like “Pawn Stars”!

Adapting this definition to an RPG campaign, we get, as a proposed definition:

“Episodic Continuity” is a metagame property of any RPG Campaign in which the status quo is reset at the end of each adventure to a defined benchmark which is subject to periodic redefinition, which may or may not be reflected in specific in-game events.”

That means that aside from the content of that benchmark, nothing can be taken for granted; if a book is placed on a table in the course of an adventure, that book is assumed to have been put back on the shelf (or wherever) by the start of the next adventure. It means that characters don’t change conceptually from one encounter to the next – if Longforlorn walks with a limp due to an old axe wound this week, he will still walk with a limp due to an old axe wound six years from now, and the scar will even be in the same place on his body. It means that time can be assumed to be suspended if a PC isn’t there to see events evolve, and that anything he does witness may or may not become a permanent change in the status quo. PCs can leave a situation – a tavern, say – and know that it will be exactly the same if they go back to it at some future time, unless it has been altered by a “benchmark update” in the meantime. It means that consequences and repercussions of choices will generally not persist beyond the end of an adventure, even if made in ignorance or error. Characters and situations can be invented and inserted as part of any given plotline and removed when the plotline is complete. And it means that events of the past can be completely reinvented (with exceptions) provided that the benchmark is not violated.

Continuity Of Characters

Right away, it can be seen that this model requires PCs to occupy a privileged position within the context of reality. PCs do not reset at the end of an adventure; they continue to exhibit strong continuity insofar as they retain experience points earned, continue to suffer from injuries received, retain any possessions obtained, and so on.

Continuity Of Setting

But the flaws in the strictly episodic approach don’t end there. The game setting continues from episode to episode. PC continuity rubs off on NPCs to some extent; any evolution in an NPCs relationship to a PC tends to ‘stick’ unless this would interfere with the “benchmark status quo”. So an NPC can have an argument with a PC in this adventure and then buy them a drink in the next, provided those actions are consistent with both the benchmark relationship and the in-adventure developments. Any changes that do take place tend to be evolutionary in nature, not revolutionary.

Episodic continuity in a television show is useful because it means shows can be aired in any sequence. Audiences can tune in and know what to expect without valuable screen time consumed with a “previously on” voiceover. Surprisingly, it can be bad for an RPG in it’s most theoretically-pure form for the exact opposite reason: because anything not canon within the series can be altered on a whim, players don’t know what to expect. They have no foundations beneath their characters that they can rely on. (It follows that retcons are far worse in Episodic continuity RPGs than they are in strong-continuity campaigns even though one of the primary justifications given for the episodic approach is to enable changes to take place as necessary to create an entertaining adventure).

Sequels Will Happen

Under strictly episodic continuity, once a villain escapes or is captured, they vanish into the haze and are never heard from again. No adventure can ever reference a past adventure. There is no such thing as a sequel. Which is absolute nonsense.

Reboots are a Big Deal

The only way to achieve true perfect episodicity is to completely reboot the game after every episode, with whatever changes are necessary to accommodate the next adventure’s story. Any contradiction is automatically redacted in favor of the latest form of history. But such reboots are a lot of work, more than most GMs would contemplate.

Why are they so much work? Because the GM can’t take anything for granted, either. Any element of the background can be changed to better accommodate the new adventure; the only thing that’s established is the immediate world around the PCs. Cities can grow – or lose – entire suburbs, if necessary. The only mandate beyond protecting the “benchmark”, and being fair to the players with these retcons, is that the players need to be told everything that they need to know in order to make decisions before any decisions have to be made.

If you change the nature of Dwarves, you need to decide whether or not you also need to change the nature of Elves, and even if not, you may have to reinvent Dwarven society from the ground up. Or, in a more realistic scenario, if the party are to encounter a segment of Dwarven society totally different to any they have met before as part of the adventure, that society needs to be fully rendered by the GM for the adventure and then gets thrown away because it isn’t part of the game “benchmark”.

Episodic Continuity is a nonsense

The only possible conclusion is that Episodic Continuity does not isolate adventures half as much as the definition implies. Every character and most parts of the game setting continue, unchanged, and the very fact that characters can earn experience or improve skills, gains that are not thrown away at the end of the adventure, signifies that “perfect” episodic continuity is totally out of the question. We can’t even come close, really – unlike a television show like the Simpsons.

If truth be told, even in the world of television, there’s no such thing (outside of shows like The Simpsons) in which there is not some element of continuity. True episodic continuity, as a rule of thumb, is like Absolute Zero: a theoretical ideal that can never be reached. Even in the Simpsons there are continuity elements – Sideshow Bob’s stories, for example, show a clear continuity from one to the next. Episodes will sometimes reference past episodes – so the “reset” is not always perfect.

Loose Continuity

What most GMs refer to as “episodic continuity” is nothing of the sort. It is instead a “loose” continuity in which the primary objective is to keep adventures as self-contained as possible. Relationships with a consistent “supporting cast” continue to evolve while remaining essentially unchanged. How does this fit our definition of “episodic” continuity? What are the major differences?

It’s clear that the primary difference is in the “reset” to a “defined benchmark”. We could amend this definition very easy to define “loose continuity”:

“Loose Continuity” is a metagame property of any RPG Campaign in which the status quo is reset at the end of each adventure to an evolving benchmark.”

And, to be honest, that definition fits a number of the TV shows previously classified as “Episodic” – the NCIS franchise comes to mind, for example. The biggest difference is that the benchmark evolves more than is revised – though such revision is possible.

This also opens the door to retcons within the continuity when necessary. Anything that is not directly or indirectly defined or dependent upon that evolving benchmark can be retconned if necessary, again provided that the retcon itself is done in the ‘ethical manner’ described earlier.

Campaign Plot Arcs

There are a couple of benchmark positions midway between the “loose” and “strong” continuity models, and the one that I tend to use most frequently of all of them is the campaign plot arc. There are other names for this – Johnn Four refers to them as “loops” and talks about “Loopy continuity”.

Campaign Plot arcs come in two varieties, depending on how the arcs are linked. The simpler model is to have each group of plot arcs be “episodic” in nature, ie internally self-contained; within that plot arc, strong continuity is observed, but each group of adventures exhibits loose continuity. It’s as though each adventure was comprised of related smaller adventures, with the larger adventures having loose continuity overall, but experiencing “bursts” or “bundles” or “temporary periods” of internal strong continuity.

The diagram below will hopefully make this more clear.

plot arcs with loose continuity

One campaign, made up of three Bundles of adventures or “plot arcs”, of 4, 3, and 4 adventures (of varying size) respectively. Subplots extend from one adventure to another but at the end of each plot arc, all the subplots are resolved. Note that it’s possible for one plot arc to be a single adventure.

For example, the Adventurer’s Club campaign follows this sort of continuity. We started with the “establish the PCs” plot arc, which segued into the “The FBI Takes Over” plot arc, which has segued into the “Too Old In The Tooth” plot arc, which will leave the PCs as the acknowledged leading troubleshooters in the world. The rest of the campaign then deals with them in that position of prominence, and all the problems that it brings.

The other sort of Plot Arcs are joined in a more “strict continuity” fashion, with subplots crossing from one plot arc to another. This essentially means that the principle that defines the plot arc is something other than plot – it might be one particular problem hanging over the heads of the PCs or one particular theme or tone, or some sort of common element.

The diagrams below will hopefully make that clearer. The first shows the same campaign illustrated with added subplots spanning plot arcs, and the second takes away the internal subplots within each plot arc to just show the inter-arc connections.

plot arcs with strong continuity

inter-arc subplots with strong continuity

More complex continuity structures

Of course, there is no need to actually have each plot arc occur in sequential order. You can have the first adventure of plot arc #2 follow the first adventure of plot arc #1, then go back to plot arc #1, then start plot arc #3… The arcs thus become simply a way of “threading” connected adventures together.

For example, In the Zenith-3 campaign,

  • the first phase existed to establish the basics of the game world and some of the relationships that would matter later in the campaign;
  • the second phase, which it entered in the past year has made the party aware of a major crisis that is looming, in which allies will become enemies and enemies will become allies.
  • In Phase Three they will gain more information about what is coming and why.
  • In Phase 4, they will begin encountering fallout from those who hope to take advantage of the situation, and learn still more;
  • …and in Phase 5 they will begin to deal directly with some of these wannabe cosmic powers.
  • In Phase 6 they will learn the full story of what is to come, and in Phase 7 they can use that information to actively pick sides, recruit allies, and make plans.
  • Phase Eight is about preparations for the event, and Phase Nine is the event itself.
  • There are then a handful of epilogue phases which bring out the consequences of the event both personal and professional and how it has transformed the campaign universe.

These phases are divided by landmark events that change the relationship the PCs have with the event, gradually shifting them from a position of “there’s nothing we can do, if it happens it happens” to “it is our destiny to be central to this event and it’s up to us what we do with that authority.” The lines between phases are realistically blurred, and not every adventure (especially in the first five or six phases) will be about the event, but slowly it will become the dominant focus of the campaign, which is currently on the personal problems and lives of the PCs.

The phases also contain very different numbers of adventures, becoming shorter each time. Of course, there are also a number of plot twists and turns along the way (at the beginning of the campaign, a status quo was outlined as the starting position for everything to follow; by the end of it, not a single thing should be exactly the way it was except the PCs – and they will have been changed by the experience of being at the heart of these changes. Or it could take a left turn somewhere that I didn’t see coming!)

A fourth solution: the Rolling Retcon

But, now we come to the whole point of this article: A fourth solution that also lies somewhere in between strict and loose continuity.

This idea was inspired by Marvel Comics editorial policy in the 1970s and 80s, which held that “everything has happened in the last 7 years unless specifically dated”. So all the early events, like the Captain America stories from World War II, were fixed by virtue of the connection to a specific historic event, but everything else evolved in date over time. In 1972, Peter Parker was bitten by that notorious spider in 1965; in 1975, the date of the bite had progressed to 1968, and by 1980, the bite took place in 1973. That was how marvel explained that Peter Parker took so many years to complete high school, and was still a university freshman, and other such continuity problems. Of course, if you simply counted the number of times the seasons became wintery, or the number of Christmas references, this theory was quickly shattered, and over time there was a problem with trying to compress more and more into a single period of time.

Having read what I’ve written so far, it can be immediately recognized that this is an attempt to resolve the conflict between strong and episodic continuity. In essence, it is the principle that The strength of continuity is inversely proportional to the interval since the event.

Applying this to an RPG simply means that there is a fixed period of “recent past” which should be altered only with great care, but that things get hazy when looking further back in time. I would suggest that this effect commences one adventure ago.

Fixed Signposts

Of course, not all events are created equal. Some are more pivotal than others, and need to be treated with greater respect. The major events should remain constant within the campaign. But really, how many players whose characters have reached seventh level really care about the details of what happened in the encounter that gave them their third payout of experience?

Meandering Byways

Everything in between these fixed signposts CAN change if necessary. That still doesn’t mean making capricious changes; it does mean that minor corrections, especially when supported by plausible mechanisms, are entirely acceptable.

The Flaws: A house on shifting sand

The rolling redact undermines certainty on the part of the players. In essence, it robs the campaign of a strong foundation and hopes that the structure itself is strong enough to hold together. Every time the GM retcons something, he pulls another nail out of that structure; at some point, the strength will be sufficiently undermined that it will all fall apart. Which is also what will happen with this metaphor if I carry it any further!

The GM can protect his campaign from this problem to some extent by applying the common-sense restrictions already recommended for retconning – don’t do it unless you absolutely have to, don’t mess with the fixed milestones, and employ the “best practice” technique for retconning already provided.

But even with every safeguard in place, this campaign option remains more vulnerable to retconning than either of the extremes because it relies more heavily on the cohesiveness of recent events to hold it together, conceptually.

The Flaws: The Tangled Skien

Most campaigns can be deconstructed in terms of falling dominoes – a does b, which leads c to do d, which leads e to do f, while a is doing g. Think of a flowchart: take away a major domino, and even if you replace it with something that makes sense in the context of the current adventure, it can make a nonsense of something else.

That is the major danger posed by retconning, regardless of continuity model chosen; you change something, and that logically changes a whole string of things that eventually produce the current situation that you want – but, like the infamous butterfly crushed by a time-traveler, there will be all sorts of side-consequences unless the change is carefully contained, and that in turn can affect something that is supposed to remain fixed.

Campaigns Suited To the Rolling Retcon

There’s one particular type of campaign genre that seems especially well-suited to this type of continuity model, and that is a Time Travel campaign. The rolling retcon is a great way to simulate the minor consequences of changing the past.

No Easy Answers

What’s clear is that every campaign continuity structure is an imperfect compromise. Practicality states that most campaigns tend to be closer to having “strict” continuity than theory would necessary admit, but they all require a certain level of flexibility. The more historical content that is fixed, the more pressure there is on the GM to get everything right the first time, something that is impossible to an imperfect human. The only solution is to choose the alternative that best describes the sort of campaign you want to run – and make certain that the players know what to expect.

This was supposed to be a nice, quick article. I wondered why it was taking so long to write, and thought perhaps that the heat of the Australian summer was affecting my ability to write more than I thought. Uploading it revealed the truth – this is an 8000+ word monster, and I didn’t even notice. Oh, well.

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Pieces of Creation: Énorme Force


Pieces Of Creation Logo version 2

Oh boy, does this character have a conceptual history. It started with needing another villain for the Paranormal War (which I told readers about in the last installment of Pieces Of Creation) and being short of time. So I took a villain from one of the many supplements I had for the Hero System who was just a fairly generic brick (and whose name I now forget) and melded the character concept with a homage to one of the mainstays of the X-men comics of the 80s, Colossus, again looking to add an unexpected twist while playing on player expectations based on the visual of that hero. But the character lacked sparkle, he was too generic, and barely able to hold the attention of one PC, never mind a whole team of them, for an entire encounter. There simply wasn’t enough substance or depth.

So the character needed some serious cosmetic surgery for his next appearance in the campaign, when he was to function solo against the group. So I began seasoning with other ideas. I threw in elements of Earthmover, a villain from Villains Unlimited, the Heroes Unlimited sourcebook by Kevins Long & Siembieda, and mixed with elements from another Marvel Comics character, Thunderball, all of which were filtered through elements of the origin story of one of the PCs in the campaign, Blackwing.

Blackwing was an L.A. Cop from the East Coast who migrated in search of his sister, who had fallen into the clutches of a weird cult somewhere in California. In a fortuitous incident, he uncovered a Demon Base (a variant on the Organization from the Champions RPG) base and led a successful raid on it. In the course of that raid, he came into possession of a suit of magical armor that the Sorcerers were doing something to – whether creation, perversion, or attempted destruction was never clear – and for some reason, he instead of logging it into evidence, he chose to put it on, transforming him into the Novice hero, Knight.

What the character didn’t realize was that he was admitted to the team as much so they could keep an eye on him as anything else, because his story simply didn’t make sense, and yet he believed every word. Strange abilities began cropping up almost immediately, like the time the armor absorbed a blaster shot instead of simply deflecting it, or the time it swallowed a bad guy whole.

In an effort to help the team understand how their powers worked, another character named Warcry (who went on to be the focal point of his own campaign) began to analyze their powers. The results were strange almost from the beginning, and what became clear was that Knight didn’t want anyone else to wear the Armor – and was reluctant to even take it off. An attempt to measure the thickness of the armor was the straw that broke the camel’s back as Knight transformed into Blackwing, a Stony superheroic Gargoyle – with no observable Armor at all.

Over the years since, bit by bit, things have become clearer. The armor exhibits a sort of Siren Call that seduces compatible individuals until someone puts it on. Doing so imprisons the wearer in a pocket dimension, whose boundaries appear to be the individual wearing the armor and which embed subconscious instructions to protect against discovery of these facts. So Knight became the shape-changer known as Blackwing.

There’s obviously a LOT more to the story than this capsule review can contain (and more that even the player doesn’t know yet!) – but this gives the basics and the conceptual elements that were incorporated into the character being presented here as “Énorme Force”.

On top of all that, I threw in some original ideas of my own! But all that additional content went into the character concept and background; superficially, at least from a distance, the character still looked like ‘Colossus’. Up close, there are pronounced differences.

I spent quite a lot of time working on an illustration for the character. I took an existing illustration in high resolution and “embedded” screaming faces throughout the “shine” – so subtly that you at first hardly notice that they are there at first – and then can’t stop seeing them. Once again, I wish I could show the full image to you, but I can’t for copyright reasons. You’ll have to settle for a series of small extracts from the original.

Like Mortus, the encounter with Énorme Force started off following the script I had outlined but then went off on a wild tangent, as the PCs managed to release ‘Énorme Force’ from the curse, reforming him – or at least, so it seemed. Yes, the character was sincere – but that’s not the end of the story. The character is – now – too good to let vanish back into obscurity within the campaign!

Rendered Colossus image by JaspervD showing "ghost" effects

great results like these are only possible with a great foundation. The Original image by JaspervD can be found at this URL. No claim of Copyright is exerted by me over either the image or the character’s appearance. Hopefully, they agree that this display constitutes fair use! All told, some 65 images of people screaming/in pain were integrated using the ghost effect.

Énorme Force: What the PCs Knew or Could Learn from team files

Énorme Force is an unconventional blend of brick/martial artist/psi/mage. His true identity has never been discovered.

His body is composed of, or wrapped in, bands of an organic metallic compound which contains “cells” or small pockets, each of which confines one of the different fundamental energies and bridges the gap between these usually incompatible forces by permitting the effects of manipulating one to act on the intervening metallic biostructure, transmitting effects from one cell to its neighbors by resonating with the initial effect. Fortunately, most of the potential benefit is tied up in simply holding the unstable conglomeration together. Nevertheless, he manages to pull off a few tricks.

Although from a distance the armor appears smoothly polished metal, when you get closer, it can be seen that the armor actually has a very finely detailed embossing of people’s faces – and the these faces are alive and moving. The armor is literally the bodies of innocent bystanders that have been twisted, deformed, and transformed, and who exist in total agony. These ordinary people function as involuntary ablative armor for the villain. Anyone attempting to reach Énorme Force’ mind psionically connects instead with these tortured souls, whose agonies form a psionic defense with what is effectively a psionic damage shield as well as causing most people to refrain from attacking to cause physical harm. In terms of his actual physical strength and defense, Énorme Force is actually a somewhat second-rate brick.

Énorme Force is believed to have no real understanding of how his powers work, and has never revealed how he came to possess them.

Powers

NB: The following analysis is strictly theoretical, but is the only explanation found to explain the diversity of capabilities that Énorme Force has demonstrated.

Énorme Force manipulates space. He manipulates souls. He manipulates bodies. He manipulates energy blasts. And he takes control of the powers of others he encounters, though he can only control one power belonging to each person at one time. The subject is free to use any other power he may possess so long as it is not in the same multipower being controlled by Énorme Force. It is also believed but not confirmed that a power must be used against him or possibly in his presence before he can control it.

One fundamental energy becomes active, causing resonances in the metallic cell walls, which pass those resonations on to the other two energy forms, where the effect can be further manipulated.

A quick nibble at the campaign physics: In addition to the physical forces and the energies they produce (which includes the atomic and chemical), there are four known additional types of Force, each of which can also manifest in various forms of Energy.

Temporal Force is the Energy Of Time, and has a number of sub-varieties (refer to this article on Time Travel, the second part in a three-part series that I wrote back in 2010 for more information if interested), but it isn’t relevant to this character’s abilities.

Arcane Force is an energy field created by all living things, and exhausting it brings that life to an end, so it is also known as the Force Of Life. It is the most easily manipulated of the fundamental forces (also known as the universal forces, because they are not confined to a single space-time). It can be stored in objects and otherwise manipulated in various ways, and is the most flexible of the forces. Living things radiate it, but for reasons still not clearly understood, there is an energy flow that connects those living things with the world around them in a non-uniform way.

Chi Force is energy of the soul, and is the most mysterious. Martial Arts can manipulate Chi in one of three ways: altering the martial artist, altering the way the martial artist interacts with the environment around him, or altering that environment directly. These are progressively harder to achieve, and so Chi Force is also known as the Energy Of Self.

Psi Force is energy of the mind, and is the product of sentience, capable of the transfer and discovery of information. Because everything reported by the senses must be interpreted by the mind, Psi Force is sometimes referred to the Energy Of Perception.

While these forces can manifest in various energy forms, manipulated by various tools, and converted from one to another in specific ways, they are normally completely incompatible, and any given being can only be a Mage, a Psi, or a Martial Artist, never more than one. Énorme Force hints that this prohibition may be less universal within the campaign than first thought.

Applications against Zenith-3:

(Think of these as examples):

  • Stretch Blackwing like taffy, make Blackwing attack another PC
  • Make St Barbara’s Energy Blasts fire at random in random directions (toward bystanders) or trigger her flight – or shut it down
  • Turn Vala’s Psi attacks on Defender
  • Turn Defender’s Chi Strikes on Vala
  • Re-target Runeweaver’s spells

Defeating Énorme Force:

The key to defeating him will be to trick him into controlling the wrong power so that an effective power can be brought to bear on him. Indirect attacks work well. Moral issues mandate a preference for carefully-metered nonlethal attacks.

The Secret Origin Of Énorme Force (that isn’t a secret any more):

Énorme Force was born Adoghe Lionel Ngouabi in the French (Middle) Congo (western central Africa) in the late 1960s. As happens from time to time, tribal violence erupted in the region and Adoghe was captured and sold on the black market as a slave to another tribal warlord after seeing his son killed by the raiders. Security was lax, and he escaped, returning to the village of his birth to find the township empty and in ruins, his wife and daughter missing. Knowing that this was a normal response to raids – the populace fled into the jungle in all directions and returned only slowly and when they had no other option, hoping that their attackers had moved on in the meantime – Adoghe settled down to await the return of his neighbors.

The next memory that he possesses is fighting as a mercenary somewhere else in Africa, he’s not sure where. His relationship with and the behavior of those around him suggest that he had been doing so for some time. He knows it was sometime after 1974 as he heard someone singing a popular song by the Fania All Stars, amongst the most popular musical performers in Africa at the time.

Some time later – with no memory of the intervening years – he recalls stealing a suit of armor from a European castle (Germanic accents) but he doesn’t know who they were or where things took place. Cornered by his pursuers, he was left with no choice but to put on the armor and hope that it protected him from their weapons. He braved the waiting force when cornered, and witnessed the armor absorb the bodies and souls of one of his would-be attackers to form a shield against another, who was also then absorbed. His life since that time has been miserable. He never slept soundly again; the cries of the imprisoned echo through his mind incessantly, disrupting his sleep and bringing him close to madness; he suspects that his lost memories are of such times of insanity from which his subconscious shields him for his own defense. In those periods he can recall, most of the time he finds himself in situations with no comprehension of how they developed; he also believes that it is not entirely clear who controls whom, himself or the armor.

More years are then blank, filled only with broken and scattered fragments of memory, until he found himself in the USA in his armored form, a hunted man, offered refuge by Crimson Claw, organizer of the Paranormal War. Crashing out of that contest early, he was free to wander and made his way aimlessly to Bosnia, which is where Ragnerok found him. Over the last five or six years (it’s now May 1987 in the game continuity) he has tried to make his way in the world, seizing opportunities as they present themselves and making desperate choices when he had to.

More than anything else, he just wants his nightmare to end, to get out of this suit of ‘damned armor’ and go home to Africa so that he can locate his wife and child and leave all the bloodshed and victims behind. But the suit won’t let him, driving him relentlessly on to another conflict, another battlefield, and more victims. Nor will it let him end his own life – he’s tried, he’s sure of it, even though he can’t recall doing so. He sees himself as an antihero and victim more than a villain; though he may have done some villainous things, it’s far from clear how much self-control he has.

A behind-the-scenes note:

The periods of blackout are essential to the character. Over time, you can get used to almost anything, even the tortured souls of those you have ‘imprisoned’ – but because of the blackouts, these are experienced afresh each time.

What became of Énorme Force:

Zenith-3 were able to break the curse, releasing Adoghe from his living hell. He appeared not to have aged a day since putting on the armor, even though that was getting on for 20 years ago. The armor itself now consisted of nothing more than the transformed souls and flesh of his victims, who were freed as a result, causing the ‘organic metal’ to sublimate into nothingness. Adoghe was left to find a ship going to Africa who was willing to let him work for his passage.

What will become of Énorme Force:

Who knows (well, I do, but the players don’t). But there’s clearly a lot more to his story, and so far, the similarities between his story and those of Knight/Blackwing have yet to hit home for the PCs.

Interpretations

Altering the idea for use in other genres should not be too difficult. People wear armor in all sorts of campaigns and (depending on the transormative mechanism) this rather nasty idea could be found in anything from D&D to Cyberpunk by way of Horror. There are a few obvious unanswered questions, but that would just make it easier to adapt Énorme Force to suit your campaign. Have fun and make your players squirm…

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Creating A Building: A Metaphor and Illustration


Castle Peles in Romania photo by FreeImages.com / Ivana S

Castle Peles in Romania photo by FreeImages.com / Ivana S
Built as a summer palace during the years 1873-1914.

This article started as an example and additional content for last week’s discussion of Visualization, but that article evolved in a different direction, and this material no longer seemed to fit. So I pulled it to give both the room they needed.

Six Questions To Create A Building

Everything happens somewhere.

In order for any event to occur in an RPG, we need to specify somewhere for it to happen. That means that we have to create a LOT of locations in the course of a campaign, or even a moderately-large adventure.

Most of those locations will be buildings of some sort, simply because that’s where you find people, and that’s where you find objects of interest, and therefore, that’s where things happen. I have a set checklist that I mentally follow whenever creating a building, and that’s – at least nominally – the subject of today’s article.

  • What’s it for?
  • How big is it?
  • Who built it?
  • Where is it?
  • What’s it made of? And lastly,
  • What does it look like?

Seems fairly straightforward, doesn’t it? And notice that the last step is to visualize it – so that I’m ready to describe what I’m seeing, mentally, using the techniques described in the Visualization article and the series on Stylish Narrative.

But this series of questions is even more useful than meets the eye…

What’s It For?

Everything has a purpose.

But that’s a very loaded proposition – the creator may have had a quite different purpose in mind to the current inhabitants, who may have a very different purpose to that of the DM.

Each of these purposes will shape, or reshape, the structure of the building in question. The purpose of the creator will dictate the fundamental “bones” of the architecture. The purpose of the current owners/occupants will change the way that the spaces in between those fundamental bones will be filled, and the fascia that is applied. And guiding the decisions of both, from behind the curtain, will be the plot needs of the GM pulling the strings.

My personal experiences include working in an office space designed early in the 1970s which had been adapted to house clusters of cubicles – from almost everywhere inside the building there was no direction in which you could see an unbroken view of the outside, and when you were working in one of those cubicles, you were cocooned like a monk in his cell. And I saw what happened when they redesigned the space to take down the barriers between the workstations that comprised each cluster, orienting them so that everyone could see the outside in some direction – it felt like the building had grown 50% larger, there was suddenly so much space around each person.

I’ve also worked in a 19th-century wool-store that had been refitted as a data processing center – desks side by side and facing each other, each with a computer screen and a book-stand – and noticed how the original purpose of the building defined where the supporting columns were located, and how large they were, and how these became the hubs around which modern utilities like phones and power supplies could be run, and so dictated the way that the building functioned in its new role.

I’m not a big watcher of renovation/home decoration programs or magazines, but it only takes a passing acquaintance with such sources to recognize how large a transformation can be achieved with relatively minor changes – and yet, if you look closely at most such transformations, you can still perceive the lingering echoes of what was there before, even if they now have to be assessed in a new context that obscures that original design.

Purpose is one of the most important defining characteristics. At the same time, it’s often the easiest to put your mental finger on; it’s then “simply” a matter of interpreting those purposes into design, layout, and decorative elements. It’s hard to get that right – but it’s fairly easy to spot when it isn’t done correctly, because the space will make no sense once you look at it with a little perspective. The biggest mistake that most people make is waiting until they are about to use the space in a game before doing so.

How Big Is It?

Size matters (just ask any Dr Who fan about the TARDIS).

Size has two major effects, plus a third superficial one, that need to be noted and accommodated.

The first effect is that size dictates what can happen conveniently and efficiently in a given space. If the space is too large, then people will either be overwhelmed by it, or so separated that communication becomes a problem. Either way, efficiency and convenience suffer.

The second effect is a corollary to the first. If an operation is in a space of any particular size, it’s because they think or thought that they would need that space. If an insurance company occupies a 16-story skyscraper, they will need every single one of those floors for something. If a Hardware store occupies one-and-a-half acres (and at least one in Sydney does – I know because I helped set up the shelves and stock for it at one point) its because they have that much hardware that the space will be full. If they didn’t need as much space, they would relocate to cheaper premises, or never have moved into this location in the first place. If there wasn’t enough space, again it’s unlikely that this location would have been acceptable.

Let’s go back to that Insurance Company for a minute, which I know about because I worked for them for a number of years. The ground floor is all about customer service. There’s a floor for each branch of insurance, and a floor for senior management, and a floor for IT, and one for the computers themselves, and a floor for computer security, and a floor for the staff cafeteria, and a floor for training, and a floor for the printers that produce the renewal notices, and a floor for building maintenance, and a floor for the air-conditioning plant and elevator power. I count that as being 10 floors, so there have to be four major branches to the insurance operation (in fact, there were more until some were moved into a neighboring building). And one of those remaining floors is shared with the call center and switchboard, and another is shared with an internal library. And that’s with a number of key functions outsourced, like graphic design. Each floor has meeting rooms, and secretarial stations, and middle-management, and bathrooms for staff use, and security stations. At 14 floors, it was bulging at the seams. All that exists to service one floor of customer service, and a number of branches.

I see this go wrong all the time in home-brewed locations because in any operation, 9/10ths of it don’t show to the outside world (well, maybe it’s more like 1/2, but you get the point). People place something in an immense castle, with no thought of what will fill it. It happened with Assassin’s Amulet, too – the original map, though beautiful, gave few suggestions as to the purposes of the individual rooms. It was more-or-less assumed that the GM would fill things in himself – back before Johnn and I became involved. It took a lot of creative effort to allocate functions to all the internal spaces.

Gothic Ceiling by FreeImages.com / Andrew Smith

Gothic Ceiling by FreeImages.com / Andrew Smith

The final aspect of size is that it is equated to grandeur – but only if you can successfully convey a sense of immensity, and that’s more easily said than done. Even photographs often fail to capture it – as someone who has both seen the real thing and gone looking for photographs that adequately express the incredible size of the California Redwoods, I can assure you of that! Either the immense height is not adequately captured, or the physical size of these trees is shrunken; it takes a camera with the ability to pan up to begin to put scales into perspective.

To some extent, the same thing takes place with buildings; rows of windows can provide a useful tool for estimating height, but they come in so many shapes and horizontal sizes that they are an unreliable guide in that dimension. And even then, ceiling heights can throw you curve balls by increasing the size of windows/glass panels more than you realize.

Visually, the easiest way to convey immensity is with richness of detail. That simply doesn’t work in a communications mode that is serial in nature – the spoken/written word, for example. And yet, anyone who knows anything about Hollywood trickery knows that this, too, can be deceptive; it works because the mind makes certain assumptions about the size of small details, and so enlarges its comprehension of the space containing those objects.

And, in fact, it’s those relative sizes being incorrect that tends to give the game away when we look at miniatures; there is a mental discontinuity between the scales that makes the image an obvious miniature (the other photographic flaw is the rate of blur with distance, which our minds interpret into how far away the camera was). Still more cues include the detail of rocks and the sharpness of shadows.

Size is one of those tricky things to get right, and getting it wrong can totally blow the credibility of what you are describing. So I place thinking about it early in the creative process.

Who Built It?

You can’t really think about an original purpose without thinking about the original creator – the designer/architect/builder/decorator combination that caused the building to exist the way it is. Each will leave his own distinctive stamp on the structure in many ways.

That’s a level of detail that most GMs don’t go into – myself included, under normal circumstances. But even beyond that, there are different periods and styles in architecture, and those are also quite distinctive – and those I definitely pay attention to, because they tell me what a lot of the details will look like.

One page that I have bookmarked and refer to often is Wikipedia’s Graphic Timeline Of Architectural Styles. Each of the architectural styles is linked to the appropriate Wikipedia page, making it a great way of quickly connecting to an appropriate style – and if you use “open in new tab” or its equivalent in other browsers, you can skim and go back immediately if the results aren’t what you want.

Of course, there is absolutely no rule that says that architectural styles in a Fantasy world should look like those with which we are familiar, and defining a common architectural style can be a great way of unifying players’ perceptions of a culture in a fantasy game. Maybe the major buildings all have minaret-style domes made of glass, while the smaller ones reflect that design element in the shape of their doors (very Arabian) with stained glass inset above the lintel and rectangular stained glass panels along the sides of the main entrance of the building. This may be part of their religious iconography, a representation of the halo around their deity (or one of their deities). Throw in outer walls with sides canted inwards at a 10-degree angle or so, and you get a formalized representation of a tent, which starts to hint at the history of the culture.

In other words, if our cultural history doesn’t apply, I strongly recommend that you invent one for your campaign – even if you crib from real sources and apply a blender.

This, of course, is even more important and essential (and even harder) when you’re dealing with a future-based setting. The best futuristic sci-fi movies have a consistent architectural theme or two that makes it possible to identify a set photograph of even a movie that you haven’t seen before as belonging to the show/movie. Star Wars certainly has it. Tron had it. The City Of the Daleks in the 70s Dr Who serial had it. Blade Runner has it. Star Trek started to get it in The Next Generation and certainly had it by the time Deep Space Nine and Voyager rolled around.

One of the keys to future architectural style is not changing things too much. The doors on the original starship Enterprise were immediately recognizable as doors; that was necessary because it was a 1960s audience who was viewing it. Compare the cutting edge architecture of today with what people of 100 years ago thought the future would look like and, while there are some similarities, there are also a great many differences; the forecasts are less bound by function and far more simplistic in style, far more compromised to be recognizable by their audience.

Making sure that the building that I am mentally creating either fits the architectural style of the period in which it was created or one of the older ones, or is famous for not observing the fashion (notorious might be a better term) is an important step in creating the building because it connects the building with the culture and history of those that created it.

Where Is It?

Every somewhere sits in an environment (I was going to write, ‘every somewhere is somewhere’ but that’s starting to get too Baroque!)

The location can be either more important than “who made it” or less, or sometimes both at the same time. Which is to say that function will almost always trump form, and function in this case means adapting the style to suit the environment. What happens is that in the essentials, the purity of a style is compromised where necessary; but if it is not essential, the style will dominate the design.

Major impacts that may need to be accommodated include rainfall intensity, flooding, snow, high temperatures, earthquakes, wildfires (also known as bushfires), surface erosion, and strong winds. The more frequently these occur, the more strongly they will influence or even dominate other considerations when designing/constructing structures.

Which brings me to a side-issue that needs to be made at this point. I won’t go into it too deeply – I’ll do another article at some point digging into things more substantially – but this will serve as a primer for that article.

The impact of severe climate is the product of two different facts: the severity and the frequency with which that severity (not more nor less) can be expected to occur. Multiply these together, and add up all the results, and the total is the risk of complete failure that the building faces. If any of those risks exceeds a threshold level based on the expected lifetime of the structure, the design will need to mitigate or otherwise allow for it.

For example, let’s look at flooding. We’ll take 100 years as a typical expected lifetime. Once every ten years, low levels of flooding can be expected, so the likelihood is that it will need to withstand that flooding ten times in its lifetime – this obviously has to be taken into account in the design of the structure. Once every 25 years, moderate flooding will be experienced – so that’s 4 times in the expected lifetime. The major structure would probably take this into account, but that’s about the threshold. Once every 50 years, the building may experience severe flooding, but you probably wouldn’t factor that into your design.

Why? Because one-in-fifty-years events don’t come along like clockwork. What this really means is that the risk is greater than 50-50 that such an event will occur within 50 years of the last such event. Each subsequent half-way step toward 100% risk also multiplies the timescale by the number of steps, so the likelihood is 50% at 50 years, 75% at 100 years, 87.5% at 150 years, 93.75% at 200 years, and so on. There is a reasonably high chance that the building will never experience this problem within its 100-year projected lifespan, so unless there is some reason to expect the risk to go up, you wouldn’t expect to allow for it.

Standards have greatly changed in this respect over the years. These days, the risk to the building is secondary to the risk that the building may pose to others should catastrophe strike. Liability rules over Existence, in other words, and liability risks tend to be much higher with larger modern structures because it’s risk-per-person. The risk to an individual might be low, but multiply it by thousands and it quickly overtakes the risk to the structure as a design consideration.

The other change that has occurred is that absolutism has been replaced with an estimated repair value, and that is compared with a more flexible threshold, the estimated total value of the building. Putting everything in terms of dollars has only happened in the latter half of the 20th century, though it existed as an emerging trend for a century or so prior, but it has the virtue of being a more black-and-white real-world outcome. But we’re wandering off the point of relevance to this article.

If only it was as simple as adding structural or design elements to meet environmental survivability requirements. Quite often, solving one problem compromises capacity to deal with another. You don’t need to be a professional architect, but you do need to be aware of these potential compromises when imagining your structures – and, once again, the risk of the building becoming unusable dictates relative impact on design.

What’s It Made Of?

A secondary impact of location is in availability of construction materials.

Some constructions deliberately utilize non-local material simply because they are hard to obtain and hence evidence of commitment and importance, so what is not available is just as important as what is common.

Furthermore, different construction materials have different requirements in actual usage. Certain types of roofing materials require different levels of support from the structure because of their weight, for example; and in some places, snow loading can potentially exceed the weight of the roof if the design doesn’t take into account the need to shift that weight. (That’s why roofs are pitched at steeper angles in snow country. But these are bad for cooling – so flat roofs are preferred in higher temperature environments. Neither of these are the horizontally strongest designs, those tend to be at about 45 degrees of pitch – so those are what prevail in areas of strong wind. Flat roofs, on the other hand, have much greater potential vertical strength – so these are more prevalent in tornado-prone areas).

Whoops, I seem to have wandered back into the previous point – but that’s okay, because they are very strongly associated. Getting back on point, then, the stronger a frame has to be, the heavier it is, and the more strongly it needs to be held up/held together by the vertical parts of the frame. That’s a truism that becomes less relevant with advances in steel in the early 20th century, so this is a stronger factor in older buildings.

The local church in the town where I grew up that I attended as a child doesn’t need columns to support the roof – but it does have tremendous wooden beams spanning the entire structure, about a foot square in cross-section. They must weigh close to a ton for every 2-3 feet of length – and they are quite long, at least 60′, so each beam must weigh 20-30 tons, maybe more. There are at least 12 of those beams – so the foundations have to support more than 400 tons even without figuring the foot-thick stone walls into account. For comparison, there are complete multistory Japanese castles that are estimated to weigh that much. That’s about the weight of a fully-loaded 747 Jumbo, and the weight of the largest industrial excavator ever built in Germany, and the weight of the Locomotive that powers the Orient Express. The walls need to be made of such heavy stone in order to support both themselves and that load.

What’s It Look Like?

Once all the practicalities and historical contexts have been taken into account, all that’s left are the surface superficialities.

Yet, these are often the most visible elements of the design. Designers and decorators never seem to like being forced into anything by practical realities and go out of their way to hide the compromises that they are forced to make, simply because they are compromises with reality. In another structure where they are not necessary, the same decorator would quite happily incorporate the look of the very design features that they have just hidden, simply because they aren’t necessary.

How do you hide necessary design features? You make columns look like statues, you sheath walls in some entirely different construction material, and sculpt nooks and crannies and shapes into the walls. In short, you turn them into decorative features and build the rest of the appearance around them.

A number of structures are also over-engineered to provide scope for design features. For example, castle walls are designed to withstand siege equipment and cannon-fire; that necessitates walls of a certain thickness, but would you ever be comfortable in a structure designed to be only just strong enough to protect you? There’s always the chance that someone would get in a lucky shot, or build a better siege weapon – so you would engineer your outer walls to be at least three times as strong as they needed to be, if you could; four or five times would be better. And then it occurs to you that if the walls are going to be that thick and strong, you could build a secret escape passage into them and they would still be more than three times as strong as they need to be…

The Derivation Of Answers

The mental design process runs a lot faster than this article may have conveyed. Ultimately, it comes down to making six decisions – so somewhere between 3 and 12 seconds is enough time for me to envisage a structure, even without allowing for “typical” structures short-circuiting the process. With such shortcuts – and they only come with experience – I can imagine and describe a tavern, or a cottage, or a skyscraper, about as quickly as I can bring the word to mind.

What’s more, because they occur more frequently, the more common a structure in a game, the more readily such shortcuts come to mind – with experience.

What I have learned over the years is that spending those few seconds – or even, for a less experienced GM, maybe ten or twenty seconds each – thinking about each of the six questions gives me a strong foundation for making snap decisions about anything else that may come up.

You can improv only as fast as you can think, and this process lets me improv about as fast as the words can come out of my mouth. On a more complicated structure, I might need to spend a little more time thinking about it to achieve this – but a pause of 5 or 6 seconds is barely noticeable, and is easily covered by rolling a few dice and pretending to count them up. And if you can make the results of that dice roll relevant in some way to your subsequent description/narrative, so much the better, and you will never be caught out by your players!

A Building Without Walls

What may surprise people who haven’t thought about it enough is that the same process can be applied to other sorts of locations. A clearing in the forest or jungle, for example. A swampy hollow. The entrance to a giant anthill. Any location can be treated as “a building without walls” and the same process applied – though some of the questions might need tweaking, or a more metaphoric interpretation.

For example, let’s think about a forest clearing. What’s it for? A potential danger or trap, a passage for forest animals. How big is it? About 3 meters (10′) across, surrounded by brush and heavy trees. Who built it? There are three possible reasons for a clearing: first, there used to be a tree there, but it was destroyed by lightning/fire; second, there may be particularly dense stands of trees to east and west, reducing the light reaching this spot, and inhibiting growth there; or third, the soil may be especially poor there by chance. Deliberate construction doesn’t appear on the list, but might be a fourth – trappers did do that, I believe, to make their traps more accessible. Where is it? A thick forest in a cooler climate. What’s it made of? The brush to either side includes nettles and thorn-bushes, so the clearing is relatively confined. What does it look like? A span of mossy earth and plants a few inches tall surrounded by thicker undergrowth and dense stands of tall trees that keep the area in shade. Clearing done!

If you eliminate the need for walls, anywhere becomes a building, and the same tools, the same six questions, can make answers flow as needed.

The Building Of A Metaphor

The utility of those six basic questions doesn’t stop there. A more liberally-metaphoric interpretation of those questions enables the same technique to be used for just about anything you can think of.

For example, let’s build an off-the-cuff encounter for our clearing, in a D&D/Pathfinder setting.

What’s it for? A local noble feels threatened by recent events and has placed a guard here to try and drive the adventurers off. How big is it? Enough to trouble the party, but not realistically to defeat them. Who built it? Baron Mars Aeppin, who was forewarned by a seer of the party’s coming. Where is it? A clearing in the forests to the southwest of the Baron’s castle. What’s it made of? One knight and his two harpy allies who are perched in the trees that overgrow the clearing. And finally, What does it look like? A knight in polished ring-mail stands ready in the center of the clearing, a shield on one arm and his sword drawn and pointed at his feet, signifying his readiness for battle but an initially non-belligerent stance; the heraldic device on the shield is an inverted red “V” against a yellow background and a black eagle in flight above it (note that I am deliberately using a visual description and not technical heraldic language). The knight is Sir Reginald, the Baron’s brother, a nobleman himself who hopes to inherit the childless Baron’s estates one day. The encounter clearly invites a parley with the party, but one that could turn hostile immediately if the party do not accede to the Baron’s demands that they withdraw from his lands.

From this beginning, an entire plotline could easily be improvised – all the ingredients are there. The seer’s prophecy is self-fulfilling; by acting to bar the party, the Baron invites their attention (they would probably have ignored him otherwise). The seer therefore has an agenda of his or her own – she has Sir Reginald enthralled and if she can engineer the Baron’s downfall, she can claim the estates through him, using them as a stepping stone. The only question is where the Harpies fit in – they are unlikely allies, there is a story there.

A basic and simple plot, but one fully capable of diverting a party for a day’s play – and one that took about as long as typing “from this beginning, an entire plotline could easily be improvised”. A couple of seconds more thought might enable the seer to be linked into existing plot threads within the campaign, and the characters to become a bit more rounded than their current one-dimensional state – but you’ve got lots of time to do those things as play progresses.

So learn the six questions, understand why they get asked in the order they occur, and the apply general principle of practicalities to superficialities/personalities to your GMing day-in and day-out, and, and not only will your repertoire expand enormously, but you’ll have more time to create those memorable oddballs that don’t fit the usual patterns and focus on running a good game in which everyone has fun. That’s a lot of reward for a small effort!

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Pieces of Creation: Mortus


Sydney NYE 2007 image by FreeImages.com / Jenny Rollo, Text effects by CoolText.com

It’s that time of year again! Sydney will usher in 2016 at the same time as this is being published – but this image is of 9 years ago, when the show was a lot smaller than it is now!
Image by FreeImages.com / Jenny Rollo
Text effects by CoolText.com Logo and Graphics Generator.


Pieces Of Creation Logo version 2

Continuing the great character giveaway, here is an interesting (and nasty) villain from the Zenith-3 campaign, which can be easily adapted for use in a wide range of genres. He may not have quite the same impact in any world in which the PCs do not seek to avoid the death and suffering of others, however.

Introducing ‘Mortus’

‘Mortus’ is an homage to a great character from Marvel Comics, ‘Thanos,’ who (as just about everyone should know) figures to loom large in the Marvel Movie universe Real Soon Now. While, in my campaign, he goes by the same name as in that source material, I’ve changed it here for publication purposes.

Mortus behind the curtain

He first appeared in my campaign as a generic Brick in the Paranormal War plot arc (which was my ramped-up version of The Great Supervillain Contest (the Champions module by Dennis Mallonee, available in original printed form from Amazon for close to the original price, or as a PDF from DriveThruRPG) in which the name was used purely for shock value – the players hear the name and have their characters show up for the fight loaded for bear and packing death – only to find that he’s a (relative) pushover. They kept waiting “for the other shoe to drop”.

When they defeated him, he was rescued by the villain behind the Paranormal War, and quietly dropped out of sight immediately thereafter. At the time, he couldn’t even tell the PCs why he had happened to choose that particular name – “it just sounded impressive” – which is just a fancy way of saying to the players that I had spent my creative efforts elsewhere at that point.

When the time came for him to reappear in the 2015 adventure, “Mixed Emotions”, leaving that as empty ‘negative space‘ paid off, big-time. This was a different group of PCs, and a different campaign (sequel to a sequel to a sequel to a sequel to a sequel to the original campaign which was conducted simultaneous with it’s historical prequel, both of which were sequels to the campaign I used to playtest the game system – are you all keeping up, in the back of the room?) Because of these differences in campaign, and the fact that ‘Mortus’ was expected to carry the attention of the whole team (instead of having one-on-one parity with a single member), I needed to ramp him up considerably.

So, once again I trod the familiar philosophic ground of Death (from the original name of the character), and Life, and interesting ways of entwining them. Anyone who has read Assassin’s Amulet will know that this is familiar territory to me, creatively. Fortunately, it’s a creative space with a lot of elbow room, and I was able to find a new idea. What’s presented here is the result.

Doing the artwork (which I can’t show here for copyright reasons) was fairly simple – I only had to take everything that was blue on his existing costume and render it green, then everything gold and render it blue – and Matt instead of high-gloss. I also worked hard at making his face more gray and less purple. Two images were done, based on the work of other creators, so I can’t show them here. One emphasized a more skeletal and ‘deathlike’ face, the other was introspective, almost tender, and rather more sympathetic in tone.

The encounter started off the way I expected it to run and then went wildly off-script, as the PCs decided that ‘Mortus’ was too big a threat for them to simply chase off. This resulted in them undertaking something breathtakingly cosmic – but I’ll get to that in a future installment – that was built into my campaign plan but wasn’t intended to happen until the last third or so of the campaign. Fortunately, I had my rough notes ready – and the outcome’s effect on the character was so extreme that I was able to shuffle the resulting potential ally off into the sunset to reassess his life and come to terms with the new reality of his existence. He was so radically transformed that it’s fair to suggest that this will be the only appearance of the character as described in the campaign.

Mortus: Official (i.e. What the PCs knew, even if the players didn’t):

Mortus emerged during the Paranormal Wars, seemingly just another brick out to make a name for himself. He emerged as something of a conundrum. He is urbane, cultured, civilized, self-effacing, almost humble, sociable, friendly – and profoundly psychotic – in a rather friendly way.

He has no memory of his origins, and seemed to have little purpose beyond examining all the ways life could be lost in meticulous, ruthless, obsessive detail. His heart didn’t seem to be in the contest, but nevertheless he made it a considerable distance into the conflict with sheer physical force and brutality. At some point he appears to have decided that further participation was not of interest to him, and abandoned the contest before it was revealed as a trap; it is not known whether this is a sign of greater intellect, better instincts, or a reflection of his personal obsessions.

Mortus’ Costume:

(Refer description given previously). The colors of Mortus’ costume are the “Blue of Purity” and “The Green Of Life” – his own descriptions.

Mortus: The True Story:

Mid-way through the Paranormal Wars, Mortus discovered an obsessive fascination with life and and how death could be delayed or turned aside. Losing interest in a contest in which he felt he stood little or no chance, he absented himself without notice from the competition and began studies which would make a Nazi “doctor” squeamish.

Mortus doesn’t want personal power. He never uses flunkies or assistants, preferring to do everything himself to ensure that it is done correctly, and he will take as long in his preparations as he feels necessary. His plans are all small and relatively petty, at least on a cosmic scale; easily satisfied by individual deaths and mutilations. This makes it easy to underestimate him. He is far more than a Mere Brick.

Until recently, he thought he was an experimental clone of Behemoth*. His vision is noble: “If we can conquer death, and master the forces of life, all those we have lost can be returned to us. There will be no more suffering the agonies of isolation and grief. How many people were killed in the First World War? How much more difficult would the powers at large have found it to justify such slaughter if the Archduke Ferdinand had been restored to life? It is too late for that conflict, and yet the question lingers: how many more may be saved in the future from a reduction in causus belli? And even if the price proves to be the life of another, how many volunteers would there be for such an operation? It has always been said that the death penalty would not bring back the victim of a murder; what if that were no longer the case? There are those who contribute more than their share to society; how many of those can be maintained by donations of life from those who waste their lives, when the final moment came? How much good might they do?”

Mortus is a villain not because he is a bad guy, but because he is an utterly ruthless and psychopathic good guy – on his own terms.

Mortus: The Truth Within The Truth:

Slowly the truth has been eating at his ignorance like a cancer:

There was once a cosmic entity who decided for reasons of its own to bond with a mortal. In the process, the entity came to love the mortal’s mate as much as the mortal did. In time, the mate was poisoned by the radiations emitted from the cosmic experiments and studies of the duality, and eventually died. Both part of the entity became consumed by insanity of different kinds, growing out of their grief; they decided that they needed to know all about life and death in order to conquer the latter for all time.

For eons he worked, yet still the ultimate secrets eluded him. There was never enough time for a completely comprehensive analysis of the subject, never enough time for the research required. He had long ago run out of willing subjects, but that triviality would never stop him. Now he faced the death of his universe, his work still incomplete, and he decided that this was unacceptable. If only he could be trusted, then what he needed was more of himself. Many more. And so he divided himself, and scattered his facsimiles throughout the spacetimes, where they would linger and grow. Beginning as mere bullies, they would mature in power and knowledge as the inherent obsession manifested, until they had learned all they could – at which time they would be re-merged into the collective consciousness of the original. An infinite number of cosmic entities, all working to their utmost, throughout space and time – surely one of them would discover the secrets of Life?

Even the name “Mortus” is not of the villain’s own choosing, he has come to realize. It was bestowed in another space, another time, for one who committed genocide on an unfathomable scale, and resonated throughout the multiverse, subconsciously infiltrating the psyche of every other “Mortus” analogue.

All of this makes a lot more sense to those familiar with the comics appearances of Thanos if you substitute the original name back into the above and then read between the lines…

* Behemoth was one of the founding PCs in the campaign. A “smart brick” who was a genius at building things and less so about understanding how they worked, the theory behind them, or what the limitations would be that resulted, he ended for several years of the campaign being replaced by an evil clone of himself that he had created in his own efforts to prepare for the accidental death of a member of the team – including himself. After virtually destroying the life and reputation of the original through increasing irrationality and petulance, the clone was killed in a dramatic act of defiance, triggering the automated systems that were supposed to release the clone from its stasis – where the clone had incarcerated the original. Hey folks, guess who’s back from the dead? There’s a lot of irony in ‘Mortus’ thinking that he was another Behemoth Clone, under the circumstances…

Introducing Mortus In-game:

Before Mortus himself makes an appearance, his handiwork should become known. Find a war zone (i.e. where people won’t be missed). Locate a village within that war zone. Depopulate it by abducting the entire population in their sleep – those who are awake are left behind to raise the alert. Over the next 24 hours, have the missing who were in good health reappear – with slices extracted from them, or horrible disfigurements, or missing vital organs, or whatever else you can come up with. Examination will show the time of death to be the exact moment that they reappeared – so everything they experienced took place ante-mortum. At the same time, several of those who were suffering from serious infirmities or incurable diseases/conditions when they were abducted will also be returned – alive and completely cured.

Hypnosis permits a character to posses the brainwaves of sleep (and hence be amongst those abducted) at some future point, while ensuring that the ‘sleeping’ character can awaken instantly to meet the mad surgeon/scientist, Mortus.

I found some of the descriptions of Delgonian “torture” in various Lensman novels to be useful reference in describing the ‘treatments’ inflicted by Mortus.

Mortus: Powers & Abilities:

Again, note the lack of stats. These were whatever I needed them to be for the adventure, depending on what the PCs tried to do – and whether or not I thought it would/should work.

  • Immense STR
  • Immense Stamina
  • Incredible Durability
  • Naturally accomplished HTH combatant
  • * Genius in all known fields of science and engineering
  • * Can absorb & release vast amounts of cosmic energy, enough to destroy most mortals
  • * TK
  • * Telepathy
  • * Matter Manipulation
  • * Master Strategist

Mortus also possesses a teleport chair of his own design, named “Sanctuary” which is capable of:

  • Space Flight / FTL
  • Teleport
  • Force Field Projection
  • Weapons creation and automated firing
  • Artificial Intelligence
  • Telepathic Link to ‘Mortus’
  • * Time Travel
  • * Extra-Dimensional Movement (EDM)

* Denotes a power that Mortus is only slowly becoming aware that he has, and which he has limited control over.

GM’s Notes: Defeating Mortus:

To drive Mortus off, all that needs to be done is to disrupt whatever experiment he is currently running. He will then go elsewhere and start over. Defeating Mortus is another question – it’s almost impossible. At best he can be captured and temporarily detained.

But, as I mentioned earlier, the PCs found a way to go beyond that “at best”. Full marks to them.

The Philosophy Behind Mortus:

Mortus exemplifies a couple of simple philosophies taken to the ultimate extreme: “The End Justifies The Means”, and “Being Cruel To Be Kind”. In order to perform any sort of experimental surgery or practice any sort of experimental or risky medical procedure, you have to be able to justify it in terms of the lives that will be saved from what you will learn, regardless of the outcome of this one attempt. By definition, that means that procedures more likely not to be harmful will almost certainly not be successful.

Science tends to be very sure of itself, very affirmative in its predictions. Medicine is often thought of as a science, but the reality – as exemplified over many seasons by the TV series “House” (now available in a single box set containing all 8 seasons) – is that it remains as much of an art as a diagnostic science. Individuals are just too different, one to another, and the biology and chemistry and psychology of the individual is too complicated for simple analysis.

Mortus, as a concept, pushes those facts to the extreme. Any pain or loss he causes can be justified if it advances his cause, the elimination of sickness, pain, and death. The key to his self-justification is to learn as much as he possible can from his experiments. Intervention by others merely changes the scope of what he can possibly learn. One of the stratagems proposed by the PCs (and quickly rejected, I might add) was to threaten his database of collected results; I was prepared for this option, with a canned response from Mortus: “Then you will be the ones who will rob their sacrifice of any meaning, not I; I will simply have to start again. Who will be the true villains if you do this? On whose head will fall the suffering of those who might otherwise have been saved?”

By deliberately making Mortus an urbane, calm, and even warm individual, it only highlights the barbarity of most choices of possible response. This villain’s very existence makes the PCs – and the players – feel like philistines, out of their moral depth, children throwing stones at the glasshouse. Finding a response that the players can live with requires them to get to the nitty-gritty of what both they, and their characters, really believe – if there is any doubt whatsoever, Mortus will (metaphorically) crawl through it and get under their skin. His demeanor and philosophy accomplishes that, while ensuring that they have enough time to fully explore that territory.

Comparing Mortus and Lon Than:

Lon Than was presented in the previous episode of Pieces Of Creation. He explores the moral ambiguity if “War for the prevention of War”, in the context of the imminent Second World War, and the fears that many felt heading into that conflict. This ambiguity is at the heart of the Pulp genre; violence to prevent violence is justifiable and even heroic, when done in the name of a worthwhile cause, and by those standards, Lon Than is a hero.

And yet, the character and the debate that his existence creates never feels as deep or as personal as the debate that Mortus inspires, even though there are many thematic similarities between the two. They both explore the concept of villainy being a line that cannot be crossed, no matter how morally justifiable such a crossing appear, and in the process, investigate the question of “what is a hero and what is a villain?”. I once suggested that the scariest villain was the twisted might-have-been, because they “play with the primal forces of why the character is who they are.” Lon Than and Mortus are the sort of characters I had in mind when I was writing it…

I was originally going to present another character as well, a not-especially civil gentleman now going by the name Énorme Force. At the last minute, I decided that either his presence (especially last on the bill) would either overshadow that of Mortus, or Mortus would overshadow his – and so pulled his appearance for a subsequent article, when the Great Character Giveaway continues. Until then, I wish everyone a safe, happy, and prosperous New Year.

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I see with my little mind’s eye: The power of Visualization


Illustration based on Mountain 4 by FreeImages.com / Diana Evans

Illustration based on ‘Mountain 4’
by FreeImages.com / Diana Evans
Starting with a vague outline, and quickly sketching in the details, visualizing step-by-step conveys something close to the original (shown at the bottom for comparison).

The Impossible Mission

It doesn’t matter how skilled you are in your use of descriptive language and extraordinary narrative if you don’t know what it is that you are supposed to be describing. It follows that GMs need to construct and maintain a mental image of their world as it exists at any given moment in order to be able to describe it when necessary.

But that’s only half the story. Depending on your approach, you may need to maintain two or even three separate and yet interrelated perspectives on this world, or more.

There’s the view of the world from the point of view of the PCs. There’s the same scene as viewed by the NPCs. In both cases, there may be – perhaps even should be – individual variations. And then there’s an omniscient overview that describes what is really happening, which doesn’t get described to anyone, but which is used by the GM for decision-making and rules interpretation. Before you know it – four PCs, four NPCs, and an omniscient perspective – you can be up to nine or more simultaneous views.

Let’s think for a moment about each of these world-views as a streaming video that is being produced “live”. Have you ever tried opening eight or nine web pages each of which has a different video streaming to it at the same time? Neither have I, but I’ve had enough of them open to be able to describe the results: Stutter. Freeze. Jumps. Babble. Confusion. Unresponsive computer systems, too caught up in the momentary demands to be able to acknowledge even the movement of the mouse, let alone a click to pause one of the videos or close one of the web pages.

We can’t even devote 100% of our capacities to the purpose: we have to not only translate it all into narrative; we have to anticipate what may be coming next; we have to keep an overall storyline above, and beyond the immediate, progressing, and coherent; we have to deal with rules questions and mechanics questions; we have to make decisions on behalf of the NPCs, and those decisions have to be rational from their perspective and based on what they know or don’t know. We’re lucky if even half of our attention can be focused on maintaining this narrative view.

GMs aren’t superhuman

All of which makes GMing sound like a completely impossible task for any mere mortal to perform. Yet hundreds of people manage it every day; how is that possible?

The reality is that we function like a television director, switching from one “camera” to another, and ignoring the rest. What’s happening in our heads is exactly what happens when you have too many streaming video pages open at the same time, but they start paused and we adjust the timing slider before we unpause them – automatically pausing all the others each time we switch focus. And we’re so busy with all of that and everything else that we have to do that we don’t even notice the mental stutters, and brain-freezes, and jumps, and babble in our heads.

Well, at least, that’s the way we do it when we start out, when we’re beginners. There are better techniques that permit retention of a more comprehensive worldview with smaller overhead that we each naturally develop over time. So subtly does the change take place that often we don’t even realize that our methodology has evolved.

And that means that we don’t know how best to use what we have, or its limitations and how to work around them, or even if our personal technique is as good as that of the next GM – a question that is inherently blurred by the fact that we’re all different individuals with different strengths and weaknesses.

It’s only when you stop and think about what it is that you do, and make notes – mental or otherwise – that you even begin to appreciate the complexity of the problem, never mind the solutions and workarounds that you have in place. You have to be conscious of your subconscious techniques before you can improve them – or even simply take command of them.

I’m very process-driven and a particular strength is analyzing those processes – so it’s fair to expect that I’ve put more thought into identifying and understanding the processes that I use to do nine (or more) impossible things before breakfast – well, before lunch, anyway (you shouldn’t try and GM on an empty stomach, it only adds another layer of distraction to an already over-burdened cerebral cortex).

In particular, there are six primary techniques that I employ, and the purpose of this article is to describe each of those five. In combination, they enable me to perform what would otherwise require superhuman levels of concentration – and to leave enough mental capacity in reserve to deal with everything else that being a GM requires of me. These are:

  1. Abstraction/Simplification
  2. Selective Detail Focus
  3. Omniscience and Error
  4. Perspective & Purpose Reload
  5. Reaction Flags
  6. Visualize, then Describe

Abstraction/Simplification

I always start with an overall impression of the situation. Chaos, confusion, happy crowds, a pastoral scene, a country lane toward low hills and distant mountains, a peasant village built in a quagmire, gleaming perfection, towering skyscrapers crowding in on the streets no matter how wide the sidewalks may be, whatever. A crowd of any sort tends to feature prominently if present – in fact, I will usually construct a mental “Generic villager couple” briefly and then forget it except as associated with a particular descriptive label which I can use to recall that image, at will – for the next few hours, anyway.

I’ll use the same technique for each of the major features that I might be called upon to describe – I’ll visualize each, then set that visualization aside in favor of a vague placeholder in my general mental overview. Unless there is something distinctive or unusual about the object being simplified, and that something is likely to be of interest/relevance to the PCs, it will only take 1-3 seconds to visualize each element of the overall landscape or setting.

Another element that I will focus on during this process is the tone or mood of the scene. Wherever possible, I like to have this either reflect or contrast with the detailed elements of the overall scene. That means that for each element, I need only to recall whether it contrasted or complimented the tone to have a clue as to the visual particulars of the element, and can choose my narrative language accordingly.

With that mental image constructed, I can describe the general scene, with special focus on establishing the tone. As a general rule, I will describe overall images in one of three sequences, or a combination thereof: top-to-bottom as though it were a painting, projected image, or stock movie scene (ie distant to near); left-to-right [those who read right-to-left should use that sequence], ending at the most important object in the scene or skipping over it entirely if it is not “hard right” in the image; or (in dramatic situations only) weak contrast to strong contrast, which usually equates very roughly with either increasing importance or increasing closeness. On occasions, where the most important take-away is to be a sense of travel from one place to another, I will employ a front-to-back/near-to-far approach.

There’s always more to say about these techniques than there’s room, or time, to convey. One point that I was unable to squeeze in that was too important to disregard is this: no matter what the internal logic is that you employ for determining the narrative sequence, the most memorable and important object is the last one that you mention – whether that’s what you intended or not.

This technique is very film noir in many ways, painting a broad overview in almost poetic language as succinctly as possible. “Waves of purple bracken and grass rise and fall with the warm summer breeze, and for a moment it seems the entire plain, as far as the rocky foothills, is paying repeated homage to the mountains, bowing and scraping before the lord of nature.”

Gaps and Discontinuities

Now read that example again, paying attention to how few particulars were actually provided: “bracken, grass, warm summer breeze, plains to rocky foothills, mountains”. More important is the tone of majesty and dynamism conjured. Yet, the image that was conjured up was far more detailed, because the listener’s mind “fills in the gaps”.

If those imputed details are replaced with a more-specific version in the next few seconds that conforms with what has already been presented, the overall impression in the listener’s mind is updated accordingly; if not, there will be a discontinuity, with the specific version existing in mental isolation from the overall scene. The exact time-frame will vary from one individual to another, and that clock keeps ticking regardless of any interruptions experienced. Practice, experience, and knowledge of the players combine to permit a vague judgment about how much detail I can provide in any given description before that occurs.

Whatever the deadline is, I have that long and no more to squeeze in additional background detail before I have to turn my attention to the foreground. Never try to continue with background beyond the limit; not only will half your “audience” fail to integrate the additional background details in their own mental image of the scene, half of them will try anyway, and lose track of other important details, no matter how important they may prove to be. In particular, the carefully-established tone will tend to wash out and become generic.

As a broad rule of thumb, no more than three additional sentences or conjoined statements, each no more than a line-and-a-half long (typed) or 2-3 lines long (handwritten). I can invest all of that in one specific object, whose importance within the scene grows accordingly, or can spread the love.

Note that it is far too late to illustrate the process here – the internally-conjured picture has had time to become fixed in the minds of most of you. There had better not be any significance to any of those background elements because your image won’t be the same as that of the next GM over. The same thing happens with players.

And so, the narrative moves on from the background to the foreground – and that’s the province of the next technique that I employ.

Selective Detail Focus

You don’t have time to describe everything that can be seen except in the most generic overtones. You have to be selective in what you choose to highlight, as already stated.

But there’s a complicating wrinkle: you don’t have time to fully describe anything in complete detail, either. A detailed description always has to consist of suggestive shorthand, an extract from the melange of verbiage that you could use to describe the object. At best, you can allocate a specific into a general class of like objects, imbue it with one or two specific qualities that sub-categorize it, and provide one or two specific details that identify and distinguish this specific example.

And a further complication: unless you somehow manage to perpetuate the tone and dynamics of your general scenery, those are the first things that get drowned out by an excessive of detail, unless your audience make a special effort not to lose them. Any request to do so tends to break the mood all on it’s own, just to further complicate matters.

Fortunately, the poetic use of vocabulary can effect a partial rescue of this difficult situation. And that’s a strength that only tends to grow with time and expertise.

For example, let’s insert a lone, isolated, tree into that previous image, in the middle of the field. Describing the bends of the limbs and the shape of the leaves and the color and texture of the bark and the dynamics of the situation on the specifics of the tree could easily require a thousand words or more – but you don’t have a thousand words, you have six lines at most, and that has to cover every object to be detailed.

Borrowed terminology

Every object that we describe has a specific vocabulary assigned to it to describe the object. The language used to describe a tree’s particulars, for example. Sometimes we can get more mileage from using the specific vocabulary associated with some general element or elements already specified as present in the scene, creating an association between the object and the scene in which it is to be located, making it feel a natural part of the overall scene.

For example, we could describe the tree as “majestically tall” and the leaves as “silver-topped by the sunlight” – both imagery associated with mountains. We could describe the bark as rough and broken, or we could use the terminology associated with rocky outcrops and hills: “craggy”. This language has to come naturally; there is an inherent discontinuity between the subject and chosen terminology. Where this discontinuity is small, the language adds to the description; when it grows too great, the description becomes disruptive to the growing mental image.

This fact demonstrates that there is constant feedback between a visualization and the language that we choose in order to express that visualization, something that even many writers don’t seem to realize.

There is one sure test that I know of for detecting this sort of over-reaching, and it only works with the written word, which has the quality of permitting the re-establishing of mood by re-reading what comes before the disruptive description: insert a deliberate mental discontinuity with an inappropriate action being performed by, on, or to the object and note how strongly the mood is disrupted. If the break is strong, then the language works; if it is weak, then the effect of the disruption is also weak.

Describe the tree and then have someone cut it down with an axe. If the mood is shattered, your language works; if there is no sense of that shattering, then the mood was already broken, and your language has gone too far.

“In the center of the field stands a majestic elm of the sort that immediately begs the inner child to look for hand-holds. Craggy bark is hidden by a surcoat of green and white, the leaves brightly silver-topped in reflected sunlight on their upper surfaces.”

Two sentences, but they bring the tree to life. Adding anything more – a scorch-mark where the tree was once struck by lightning, or marks carved into the bark – begins to run the risk of breaking the mood, even though it further defines and distinguishes the tree.

Describe the three most important things, at most, using a total of six sentences, at most. Those are the limits that we usually have to work with before moving on to the interaction between characters and environment. That mandates squeezing every last skerrick of value from those words.

The flow of attention

Another element that requires attention is the flow of narrative. You can’t usually skip around; there needs to be a continuity of flow from one thing to the next as the mental “eye” travels across the landscape we’re visualizing.

That’s why the most important element is the last thing that gets described, or rather why the last element described looms in the mental landscape of the listener as the most important element – it’s the most “attention-arresting” element, by definition.

To demonstrate this, let’s now turn attention to a couple of other elements in our example, starting with the mountains. If we were to describe these before the tree, there is a natural continuity closer to the PCs, and the tree becomes most important; if we describe the mountains after the tree, the distance, and hence the sense of traveling over that distance, becomes the most important.

There is a complicating wrinkle in that some of the most obvious visual language has already been usurped for use in describing the tree – that puts that narrative content off-limits, in effect stating by implication that the tree is more important than the mountain, because the tree has usurped the narrative content of the mountain.

“Jagged peaks jut into the sky in shades of soft purple, framed by wind-swept clouds poignant with impending rain. One in particular looms like a broken shark’s-tooth, and somehow you know that to be your destination.”

Let’s dissect that example for a moment. There’s a reinforcement of “craggy” elements – from hills to tree-bark to mountains, helping cement the whole as being a single scene. There’s a color that we hadn’t mentioned before, but that is implied by “bracken” at least in my mind – though maybe I was thinking of heather, come to think of it. Not being a native of England – and this is clearly a pseudo-English scene, in my mind – I’m a little fuzzy on some of the specifics. The advantage of preparing narrative in advance is that we can pause and research these details, but let’s assume this is being done on the fly at the game-table, and that we can’t afford such a luxury – so there may or may not be a reinforcement of purple coloration in the mind of the reader. The framing provided by the clouds is very important, adding contrast to the scene – anything even slightly dark in front of something light looks even darker and more significant. There’s a reinforcement of weather – summer breezes in the general description, and wind-swept clouds in the mountain description – and we’ve added a slightly ominous note in impending rain, which also implies dominance by the mountain. And I end with a specific shape and a reinforcement of the sense of distance and travel. This uses none of the terminology stolen for use in the tree and that further unifies the location as a single scene.

If this visualization and description comes before that of the tree, it emphasizes the tree as a pause in the journey; if it precedes that of the tree, it emphasizes the journey and turns the tree into punctuation along the journey.

Flow with a third Element

Now, let’s add an Orc under the tree. Again, we only have two sentences to capture his presence. (Actually, because he’s the only thing with volition in the scene so far, we can probably squeeze in a third – let’s see how we go).

“Shading himself beneath the tree from the heat is an Orc, reclining against the trunk, dressed in dark-leather jerkin and wine-toned leggings. From a set of hand-carved pan-pipes, he blows an evocative tune of the majesty and purity of nature and the wonder of life.”

“I waste him with my crossbow!!”

There’s that discontinuity test, deliberately inserted because I had this Orc doing some decidedly non-traditionally-Orcish things. I don’t know about you, but the test showed me that the Orc and his activity fits the scene, however discontinuous the activity might be with respect to tradition and expectation. And yet, there is the sense that something is wrong with the description of the scene.

The problem is that we have gone from tree to mountain to Orc, and that doesn’t make sense in terms of visual flow. Because he has volition, and is normally hostile, and is close at hand, the Orc is clearly the most important element in the scene; he has to come last, but that doesn’t fit the flow that had previously been defined.

Below, I’ve recast the sequence in the more logical sequence of “General – mountain – tree – Orc – disruption test” – observe how much more strongly the disruption is felt:

“Waves of purple bracken and grass rise and fall with the warm summer breeze, and for a moment it seems the entire plain, as far as the rocky foothills, is paying repeated homage to the mountains, bowing and scraping before the lord of nature. Jagged peaks jut into the sky in shades of soft purple, framed by wind-swept clouds poignant with impending rain. One in particular looms like a broken shark’s-tooth, and somehow you know that to be your destination.”

“In the center of the field stands a majestic elm of the sort that immediately begs the inner child to look for hand-holds. Craggy bark is hidden by a surcoat of green and white, the leaves brightly silver-topped in reflected sunlight on their upper surfaces. Shading himself beneath the tree from the heat is an Orc, reclining against the trunk, dressed in dark-leather jerkin and wine-toned leggings. From a set of hand-carved pan-pipes, he blows an evocative tune of the majesty and purity of nature and the wonder of life.”

“The tree tears him limb-from-limb!”

It’s like a splash of cold water, or a slap to the face, isn’t it? We have this steady accumulation of tranquility, in which a distant hint of rain is the greatest threat, so powerful that even the Orcish nature has yielded to it – and then there’s that sudden disruption, experienced with so much more force, because when the flow is incorrect, the tone stops accumulating. Putting the mountain description in the wrong place saps the power from the tree and the Orc’s description can only recover that lost ground at best.

“General, Mountain, Tree” works, and so does “General, Tree, Mountain”. “General, Mountain, Tree, Orc” works – but “General, Tree, Mountain, Orc” doesn’t flow and doesn’t work anywhere near as effectively as a result.

The absence of detail

It’s also worth noting that there is nothing particularly distinguishing about the Orc other than his behavior. That’s because any such description would undermine the significance of the behavior by making the Orc seem more typical of his kind, or by adding to the discontinuity between expectation and presented reality beyond the point of sustainability.

I was originally going to add a third sentence mentioning a yellowish scar over one eye and a notch missing from one ear, providing that specificity, but when I got to “wonder of life” I knew instinctively and through that I could go no further without undermining the effect that I had achieved. You can try it for yourself, if you want. Instead, I decided that it would be better to hold off on that description until after the initial interaction between PCs and Orc – an interaction that I would expect to be a parley, not an act of violence.

As a general rule of thumb

As soon as I have the general description, like a rough sketch, I will visualize it and select the visual flow that best suits what I want to present to the players as a scene – then visualize each element in sequence along that narrative flow. That means reserving any terms that I might want to usurp for a later descriptive element, as was the case with the tree borrowing from Mountain “descriptive language”.

If I’m preparing my narrative in advance, it is often easier to visualize things in out-of-continuity order and then re-sequence them, exactly as this example has demonstrated. I find it easier to focus on the scenic elements that I want to convey when I do so. Your mileage may vary.

Omniscience and Error

Does anyone here know how a GIF animates with such a relatively small file size – compared to an uncompressed video file? MPEG-II, III, and IV changed the balance of such things, but comparing a GIF with an MPG-I of the same animation is startling. 10K of GIF file can become 1M of video or more, especially if against a plain background.

The secret is that the MPG encodes every point of light or color in each and every frame, while the gif only records the differences from the last frame. Complicated backgrounds with light and shadow and movement fight against this means of file compression, while a solid background emphasizes it.

I handle all those different visualizations of a scene that may be required using exactly the same principle. I don’t try to envisage the complete environment from each character’s point of view – I focus on maintaining awareness of the omniscient perspective and the differences between that and how each character perceives what is happening. Since, by definition, the omniscient perspective is “what is really happening in the scene”, every such difference becomes a point of erroneous perception by the character.

Take our Orc sitting in the shade. If the PC’s advance, making parley gestures, the Orc would assume that because his actions were not hostile, he is being granted safe passage if he leaves, NOW. Fearful, he would leap to his feet, bow, and start to retreat, still facing the PCs, with an expression of fear on his face. If I were a paranoid PC or NPC, or one with military or hunting expertise, I would assume that it is a trap and that he has a companion hidden up the tree, and is attempting to “lure us into range” with his trickery, and would keep arrows notched and at the ready, pointed up into the hidden recesses of the tree – the GM’s off-hand mention of “a tree begging to be climbed” occupying the forefront of my mind.

Since no NPC knows exactly what is in the player’s minds, and the NPC perspective might or might not be correct in assuming the possibility of a trap, but our omniscient perspective knows better, both the Orc’s behavior and that of the paranoid PC/NPC are framed around erroneous interpretations of the situation.

Further simplifying the impossible problem posed earlier is the fact that many of these erroneous perspectives will be common to several different characters, with (perhaps) minor variations – it thus becomes possible to have one set of differences for multiple characters.

Perspective & Purpose Reload

Key to the ‘Omniscience and Error’ technique is maintaining awareness of each character’s Perspective and Purpose, i.e. what they want to achieve in any situation with which they are presented. I regularly refresh and reload this information into my conscious mind, in particular at the start of play and before any important scene in which they appear. I always want to be able to answer the mental question of “why does this matter to the character?”

Doing so not only assists in roleplay, it helps me determine what a character will pay attention to in a visualization and how they will interpret it and react to the circumstances presented to them – and that, in turn, helps me to sharpen the visualization in the ways that matter to the character.

Reaction Flags

The other characterization aspect that holds particular relevance to my internal visualization of a scene are ‘reaction flags’. A Reaction flag is anything that is likely to trigger a particular response on the part of a PC. This is a lot easier with the Hero System, where these are explicitly defined for each character, but even in D&D I’ve found the concept useful; it just requires a greater exercising of analysis and judgment.

By way of example, let me point readers at three specific parts of the Orcs and Elves series.

  • Part 5 contains a specific section of relevance, “The Personal Quests” of the members of the PCs party. It’s about 4/5ths of the way down the page; look for the second map, which is labeled “The Golden Empire”.

To put those personal quests into perspective,

  • Part 2 discussing Elves, Drow, Ogres, Dwarves, and Halflings in Fumanor and specifically introduces three of the members of the PC party: Eubani, Ziorbe, and Arron.
  • Part 3 does the same for Orcs, Dwarvlings, The Verdonne, and Humans, and specifically introduces Tajik, Leif, Verde, and Julia Sureblade.

Those personal quests and character backgrounds define what matters to each of the characters, and that in turn dictates their relationships. They also define how each character will perceive events around them, rather vaguely in the case of the PCs, and rather more precisely in the case of the NPCs. They are a focal point for each character – because this was/is a campaign about quests and their fulfillment.

Visualization 101

It doesn’t matter what it is that you’re trying to describe, it is far easier to do so if you can see it in your head before you decide on word one, however vaguely. The more complex the situation, the more difficult such a visualization becomes, but the benefits of doing so are also proportionate to the complexity.

That was supposed to be the last word in this article. But, along the way, I remembered an exercise in creative writing that I was once introduced to, and that may be of benefit to readers. It isn’t a solitary activity; it requires the assistance of someone who can do some sort of rough sketch at the very least, and the more artistic capability that person has, the better. This person should not be one of your players.

A Handy Exercise

Read the general description to the artist. Have them very quickly and lightly sketch whatever they think the scene looks like. Read, in turn, the descriptions of each element, and have him sketch them in more detail and more affirmatively. This may require some erasure. When you’ve finished, look at the sketch – is that what you intended to convey? Is there anything missing? Is there anything wrong?

The theory is that the more skilled the artist, the better they are at illustrating whatever they can see in their mind’s eye; and therefore, they provide a direct test of the effectiveness of your descriptions at conjuring images within that mind’s eye. You can only get better with practice.

And that is the last word!

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Pieces Of Creation: Lon Than, Kalika, and the Prison Of Jade


Christmas Tree byFreeImages.com / Danka K.

Christmas Tree by
FreeImages.com / Danka K.

Season’s Greetings!

Welcome to Campaign Mastery’s Great Character Giveaway, and Merry Christmas! This article is (hopefully) going to be posted a few seconds into Christmas Day (my time) so it seemed only appropriate that it contain a Christmas Gift.

In fact, it’s the first of such gifts that are going to be coming your way over the next month or so. Mondays, in the meanwhile, will continue with the usual articles. It’s also worth noting that this month’s Blog Carnival, now almost concluded, is on the subject of giving home-brewed holiday gifts in the form of gaming-ready creations to blogdom at large…

The characters that I am giving away are actual characters from the different campaigns that I’ve run over the last year or so. But more than simply being interesting characters who pose deep and meaningful questions for the PCs to ponder, they are also examples of how to integrate plotlines and research and NPCs, and how to think on your feet. In most cases, I won’t be including stats, because they aren’t really necessary – and so were never developed.

The first one that I have to share is a trio: the featured villain from the last Adventurer’s Club pulp adventure (“Prison Of Jade”). his Divine Mistress, and her Sister….
rpg blog carnival logo

The First Hint

While on a completely unrelated adventure in Copenhagen, the PCs had a chance encounter with another guest who was staying at their Hotel and his flunkies. They did not get a good look at his face, or payed little attention, but because all four were Asian in a distinctly non-Asian country, in an era before tourism was really affordable, they suspected that the group may have been rivals after the same MacGuffin than they sought, so they investigated briefly and quietly. They learned that the leader was registered under the name Dr Than, and that his party were from many different nations who simply walked out of their previous lives without explanation. There was a police officer from Hong Kong, a fisherman from Australia, and a middle-aged businessman from California.

One of the PCs recognized the name “Lon Than” as belonging to a Chinese scientist/occultist/philosopher of dark reputation.

Notes from behind the curtain:

While (at the time) we weren’t completely sure of the detailed plotline in which Dr Than would feature, and had even less idea of who he was, this was simply a tease that we knew we would pay off down the track.

After establishing that Dr Than had nothing to do with their mission, the players promptly mentally filed him under “red herring” (as intended) and went about their business.

The Buildup

From that point on, we made sure to drop recurring mentions of Asian people disappearing, walking out of their lives, leaving behind family and friends without a word, and at the same time started dropping hints about well-to-do Asians who were acting strangely, “not themselves”. These were never even as central to any given plotline as Dr Than’s first appearance had been; it was simply a familiar piece of the plot “furniture”. A pattern slowly built up over the course of a number of years, a common element: many, if not all, of the people affected had just received a piece of Jade, whether that be a ceremonial bowl, a piece of jewelery, a statue, or even – in one case that the PCs didn’t notice – a jade camera lens-cap.

Notes from behind the curtain:

The PCs didn’t take the time to investigate any of these; if they had done so, they would have learned that those acting strangely but still going about their lives as usual were also withdrawing regular sums of money from their bank accounts (or stealing them from employers or businesses), and that the money was then simply vanishing. This would have been suggesting of Blackmail, another red herring.

Other plot developments also took place aimed at integrating this plot thread, which was slowly taking shape, with the campaign. Since any use you make of this plot will occur in a different setting, those aren’t particularly relevant here – so I won’t go into details.

Encounter with Kali

In the course of another completely unrelated adventure, the PCs received some unrequested assistance from Kali, inhabiting a statue of herself. During that roleplayed encounter, she told the PC having the encounter, “I am not your enemy unless you make me so.”

Notes from behind the curtain:

There was absolutely no hint that this was in any way related to the Jade plotline. It was simply something that happened, and was surrounded by other, unrelated encounters of a Divine nature, so nothing more was thought of it – exactly as intended.

Precipitous Beginning

The encounter that actually pushed all this to the forefront of the player’s attention was a raid on a suspected smuggling ring operating out of a warehouse in New York City’s docks region. Before the raid could actually begin, it was interrupted with a dramatic (and unrelated) action sequence that was the direct lead-in to another adventure about a Nazi Lunar Weapons Platform established using Amazon Technology. This tipped off the smuggler that something was going on; he began burning records and through himself out a 5th-floor window rather than face questioning. Faced with more immediate concerns, the players let the matter drop, sure that the decision was both right, and would come back to bite them before long.

Despite the lack of a living criminal to interrogate, not everything was destroyed before the PCs intervened. They recovered a newspaper article listing the 100 most influential Asians in America, 2/3rds of which had been ticked off; a bunch of mailing tubes, about 20 of which were addressed to the last 20 names ticked on the list; 20 pieces of jade jewelery, some generic and some custom in nature; and the fact that the criminal was a printer of no known criminal record who had sold the family home out from under his wife and children in order to buy the warehouse without comment or explanation to them.

Notes from behind the curtain:

That was as much opportunity as the PCs got to determine what was going on; they regarded it simply as an escalation of the previous pattern, and went about the adventure that we had planned for them at this time, which had far greater urgency in their minds.

The Campaign Backstory

Okay, I was trying to avoid cluttering up this account with a lot of irrelevancies, but have realized that a brief snapshot of the campaign is the shortest distance between two points: where this narrative is at, and where it needs to go. So, in a nutshell:

  • The PCs are members of a private organization, “The Adventurer’s Club”.
  • One of the founding members is ‘Doc’ Storm, an inventor and adventurer – my co-GM’s Homage to Doc Savage.
  • The Club library contains many rare (and often dangerous) manuscripts as well as blueprints for many inventions of Doc’s.
  • A corrupt literary agent working for the library in Europe was skimming from the funds under his authority to buy rare books for himself. To replace and supplement those funds, when they weren’t enough, he started stealing books from the library which he considered over-valued and selling them on the black market. In time, this still wasn’t enough, so he stole some of Doc’s blueprints and filed documents, and placed them on the black market.
  • The Copenhagen mission mentioned earlier was an attempt to retrieve one of the stolen blueprints which had been sold to the Nazis, and which detailed how to construct (following a 2-3 year program) a nuclear weapon, compiled by Heisenberg.
  • The national-security implications of this and the other thefts (which included a heat ray that started a firestorm in Singapore) led the FBI to perform a “hostile takeover” of the club. Doc Storm left immediately for Washington and began to work to undo this development.
  • The PCs went about other adventures, and slowly learned that the FBI agent placed in charge was a fan of the club and an OK guy. They then encountered details of a planned coup against the US government supposedly being led by General Smedley Butler, in the course of which, that ‘OK guy’ was blown up by the revolutionaries because he was getting too close to the truth. The wash-up left the club back under Doc’s control, but also left him badly rusty after 6 months of political games in Washington and no adventuring.

All caught up? Good!

The Confrontation Begins

While the PCs were off dealing with the Amazon problem, Doc decided to investigate the biggest problem that he could find that no-one was working on, made overconfident by his success and so eager to get back into the field that he refused to acknowledge how out-of-practice he was. He traced the shipment of jade jewelery etc that had been found in the warehouse to a freight agent in Chittagong, then part of India (these days, it’s part of Bangladesh, but in the 1930s there was no such country).

When the PCs returned, they were whisked away to a private meeting with his wife, Trish Storm, who told them that she was afraid Doc was going to get in over his head. She charged the PCs with helping him – without damaging his reputation or pride, which meant doing it without him even knowing they were around.

What’s more, because Doc would eventually (or very quickly) find out, the usual club resources would not be available to the PCs on this adventure – they would be on their own. So began “Prison of Jade.”

Before they left New York, they identified an unscrupulous Chinese Mystic – not someone on whom they would usually rely – and received a briefing on the mystic properties of Jade.

Red Jade Lion Image by FreeImages.com / Tom Low

Yes, this really is Jade – just to demonstrate the wide range of colors it can come in!
Image by FreeImages.com / Tom Low

The Mystic Properties Of Jade

Jade is an ornamental mineral that comes in two primary varieties and many exotic variations. The two varieties are officially known as Nephrite and jadeite. Nephrite can be found in a creamy white form (known in China as “mutton fat” jade) as well as in a variety of green colors, whereas jadeite shows more color variations, including blue, lavender-mauve, black, pink, and emerald-green. Of the two, jadeite is rarer, documented in fewer than 12 places worldwide. Translucent emerald-green jadeite is the most prized variety, both historically and today. As “quetzal” jade, bright green jadeite from Guatemala was treasured by Mesoamerican cultures, and as “kingfisher” jade, vivid green rocks from Burma became the preferred stone of post-1800 Chinese imperial scholars and rulers.

The Jain temple of Kolanpak in the Nalgonda district, Andhra Pradesh, India is home to a 5-foot (1.5 m) high sculpture of Mahavira that is carved entirely out of jade. It is the largest sculpture made from a single jade rock in the world. India is also noted for its craftsman tradition of using large amounts of green serpentine or false jade obtained primarily from Afghanistan in order to fashion jewelery and ornamental items such as sword hilts and dagger handles. However, true jade can be found in various parts of India, of varying quality. In Chinese and Buddhist faiths, the opaque stones (including most varieties of Jade) are symbolic of the body and mind, the translucent stones are symbolic of the soul and spirit.

Jade is attributed with many mystic properties.

It is sometimes known as the “Stone Of Heaven”, a name that derives from China and Burma, and as the Elixir Of Life. It blesses whatever it touches, and is valued in China for its beauty and powers of healing and protection. An endless variety of gems, vessels, incense burners, beads, burial items and statues have been wondrously carved from Jade, as well as musical instruments and pendants inscribed with poetry.

Jade is the ultimate “Dream Stone,” revered as the spiritual gateway through which to access the spiritual world, gain insight into ritualistic knowledge, encourage creativity, and the ability to dream-solve problems. It is cherished as a protective talisman, assuring long life and a peaceful death, and is considered a powerful healing stone. An amulet of good luck and friendship, Jade signifies wisdom gathered in tranquility, dispelling the negative and encouraging one to see oneself as they really are.

Jade is also the stone of calm in the midst of storm. Its action balances nerves and soothes cardiac rhythm. A piece of Jade kept in a pocket or on a pendant to stroke from time to time recharges energy, and traditionally guards against illness. Jade may also be used to temper the shock or fear of the very young or very old being cared for in the hospital or away from home and family.

Jade is also known to be excellent for healing feelings of guilt, and for extreme cases of defeatism. As a travel stone, Green Jade prevents illness while on holiday, is beneficial for those traveling alone, and protects children and pets from straying or being hurt while on a journey. Green Jade also fosters chi, or Life Force energies, and is excellent for hiking, gardening or relaxing out of doors.

In addition to those qualities:

  • Green Jade is a crystal of love. It is supportive of new love, and increases trustworthiness and fidelity. It also inspires love later in life.
  • Black Jade emanates strong, protective energies to ward off negative assault, physical or psychological, including self limitation.
  • Blue Jade calms the mind, encouraging peace and reflection, and is valuable in promoting visions and dreams.
  • Brown Jade is grounding. It connects to the earth and provides comfort and reliability.
  • Lavender Jade alleviates emotional hurt and provides spiritual nourishment. Its energy is of the highest etherized spectrum.
  • Orange Jade brings joy and teaches the interconnectedness of all beings. It is energetic and quietly stimulating.
  • Purple Jade encourages mirth and happiness, and purifies one’s aura. It dispels the negative and increases one’s level of discernment.
  • Red Jade is a stone of life-force energy, dispelling fear that holds one back, and urges one to action.
  • White Jade filters distractions, pulls in relevant, constructive information and aids in decision making.
  • Yellow Jade is cheerful and energetic, a stone of assimilation and discrimination.

Jade has been associated with many deities in many cultures:

  • Bona Dea, the Roman Earth Goddess of Fertility and the Greek Goddess of Women. She protects women through all of their changes, and is a skilled healer, particularly with herbs.
  • Chalchiuhtlicue, the Aztec Water Goddess and Protector of Children. Her name means “Jade Skirt” or “Lady of Precious Green.” She is the mother of lakes, streams, and rivers.
  • Kuan-Yin, the Chinese Goddess of Mercy, Compassion, and Unconditional Love. She is the most beloved of the Chinese goddesses and is regarded by many as the protector of women and children, and champion of the unfortunate.
  • Maat, the Egyptian Goddess of Justice. She represents the underlying holiness and unity of the Universe.
  • The Moirae, the Three Goddesses of Fate in Ancient Greece. They appear three nights after a child’s birth to determine the course of the child’s life, each having a different part to play in divining his fate.
  • Brigit, the Irish Goddess of Fertility.
  • Coatlicue, the Aztec Goddess of Life, Death, and Rebirth.
  • Dione, the Phoenician Earth Goddess.
  • Hine-Nui-Te-Po, the Polynesian Goddess of the Night.
  • Tara, the Buddhist “Savioress” Goddess.
  • In some obscure Hindi legends, Jade is described as the doorway to Kali.
Notes from behind the curtain:

Ninety-nine percent of this information is absolutely genuine, compiled from three or four websites including Wikipedia. However, it also contains a few items carefully “salted” into the text for adventure purposes – specifically, the last item on the list of Deific associations, and a slight amendment to the “Stone Of Heaven” and “Dream Stone” paragraphs: “It blesses whatever it touches” has a double-meaning in the context of this villain, and acting as a “spiritual gateway” through which the wearer can “access the spiritual world” implies that the spiritual world can also access the wearer through that “gateway”.

In Chittagong

The PCs had various encounters, most aimed at Doc (and which clearly demonstrated both his years of experience, his innate expertise, and how badly unfit for field work he was). Several times they had to act to save his bacon, while walking the tightrope of discovery. Doc traced the shipment through various hands and discovered that the Jade was coming from far upriver, the tiny village of Dambuk in the most north-eastern state in India.

Their contact in New York had also warned that most documented versions of the Hindu faith available to Westerners and those influenced by them had been assembled piecemeal from corrupted forms of the true doctrines, and were not to be relied on. Interpretations and content often varied from village to village and region to region, and no-one knew anymore what was truth, what was half-truth, and what was fiction.

Going Upriver

More encounters followed as Doc made his way upriver, with the PCs in another vessel not far behind. Along the way, they had another encounter with Kali, who invited them to Afternoon Tea through a Herald. When they accepted the invitation, sure that Kali could have forced the issue if she really wanted to, they were escorted into the palace, where they found Kali standing before a golden throne of skulls, bathed in night on one side and bright sunlight on the other. “We meet again, Captain,” she began, addressing Captain Ferguson (one of the PCs). [Pause for reaction]

“Past assistance notwithstanding, you have no reason to entrust yourselves to my goodwill or honesty. Therefore I tell you nothing and give you no instruction, make no demand, but simply suggest that you may be enlightened on your quest if you seek out Mahatma Sharma in the village of Chapar. Have no doubt that if required by Karma to do so, I will act to destroy you and the world that surrounds you, but I should regret the necessity. I am not, by choice, your enemy.”

Social niceties such as refreshments and small talk followed, but Kali refused to speak further regarding these statements. She hinted that events were even more serious than the PCs realized, and got the sense that the need to “act to destroy you and the world that surrounds you” was not some remote event but immediately at hand if the PCs were not successful.

The adventure

Suffice it to say that the PCs succeeded on all counts and the game world didn’t end, thanks (in part) to the instruction they received from Mahatma Sharma. Doc attempted to disguise himself using a piece of Jade and fell under the power of Lon Than, but the PCs realized that this had taken place and were able to free both him and the others under the villain’s control (either through blackmail, coercion, or mystic power), and he took care of the rest. At the end of the Adventure, the villain was seemingly killed, but the body was carried away down a waterfall and never recovered – so Lon Than may be back if we come up with another suitable plot.

Behind The Scenes

Creating the adventure was a slightly complicated in that the simplest way to proceed was as follows:

  • Work out what the Villain had done in order to get the Jade to New York;
  • Work out how Doc would trace the above from the other end;
  • Work out what the Villain and his henchmen would do when they discovered Doc’s efforts;
  • Work out what the PCs could do about these actions;
  • Work out what the Villain and his henchmen would do about the PCs;
  • Insert encounters for the PCs designed to establish plot points, eg Doc being rusty, Doc being taken over;
  • Work out what information the PCs would need to find a solution to the problems posed;
  • Insert encounters for the PCs to put that information into their hands – not necessarily all that obviously.
  • Populate the adventure with interesting, colorful, and believable NPCs and miscellaneous encounters.
  • Check the continuity of events from the Villain’s point of view; check the continuity of events from Doc’s point of view; check the continuity of events from the PCs’ point of view. Make sure that what everyone is doing (or are expected to be doing, in the case of the PCs) at any given point in time makes rational sense in light of what they know, how they are interpreting that information, and their personalities.

Ultimately, this was an adventure about the interplay of those three layers – the villain, the hero past his use-by date, and the PCs trying to keep him just barely safe without revealing their presence. In general, while we had lots of encounters seeded, and certain products of such encounters that we wanted to eventuate, the course of the adventure was chosen by the players in response to the events taking place around them, and the need to maintain secrecy help keep them from departing too far from what we had planned.

And so, with the background and preamble established, to the main points of interest to others: the characters. This information will be conveyed in the sequence that is clearest to the reader, and not in the sequence that things were learned by the PCs.

Dr Lon Than

Dr Lon Than is an expert in Hindu theology and holds several doctorates in Philosophy. Like many others, he foresees the coming Global Conflict and – based on the events of World War I – is utterly horrified by the prospect and willing to do almost anything to stop it. Dr. Than believes that World War One proved that mankind cannot be trusted to guide itself.

His initial attempts were founded on the notion of world domination in order to steer it on a new course either directly or indirectly. In the course of these failures, he acquired a reputation for “Plots and Plans that seem to come out of left-field and be almost trivial until they snowball into something world-shaking.” His failures left him desperate, sensing that he was running out of time.

Through his professional association with the University Of Beijing, he came into possession of a statue of Kalika carved from a piece of Jade and recognized its significance. Kalika, sensing a spirit sympathetic to her role in existence, began to instruct him in what needed to be done to release and unleash her from the fetters that constrain her from acting. As his tutelage progressed, she was able to grant him the powers he needed.

In particular, he acquired knowledge of how to prepare Jade to make the possessor an active convert to Kalika’s cause.

A mystic ceremony is followed by a bath in two different metallic salt solutions. The jade is then subjected to an electrical arc, and finally the mystic ceremony is completed by binding the jade to his will by means of a drop of his blood. The process combines alchemy, sorcery, and science and is effectively unduplicable by anyone else.

Once a prepared piece of jade is worn, even in a brooch or other setting, they are subject to The Prison Of Jade. Lon Than can take control of the person at will, see through their eyes, etc, provided they are wearing the jade. The person being controlled believes that what they are being told to do is entirely their own idea or is that of the God(s) that they worship, and will bring their full faculties to whatever task they are instructed to perform – even at the cost of their own lives. They will continue to work wholeheartedly and with all their faculties even if Lon Than ceases direct supervision of the prisoner’s mind for a time, and will simply go about their normal lives once any instructions have been carried out.

This is not the traditional mind control; those affected devote their full abilities, resources, and faculties, and even their lives, to achieving the goal of “awakening” Kalika in the belief that a period of violence in which 95% of mankind are wiped out is preferable to the threat of mankind wiping itself out completely.

Because of their “special affinity” with Jade, the process is most effective against those of Asian descent, less effective against those of Western Descent, and controlling individuals of exceptional ability takes his full capacities, leaving almost all his network of servants and assistants on “autopilot”, i.e. no longer under his direct and conscious control and supervision.

With his knowledge, he traveled to Dambuk and began to create a network of willing servants to further his cause.

Lon Than’s Network

Dr. Than is now controlling the richest Asian peoples in the world, as well as various well-connected and useful individuals, because these are the people who can most plausibly distribute small gifts of his “special” jade. When he reaches a critical mass of people, he will have effective control over all Asians, at which point he will direct his followers to worship Kalika, initiating an orgy of mass destruction.

He has subjects in New York, London, San Francisco, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Singapore, Peking, Stockholm, Sydney, Melbourne, East Indies, Delhi, Batavia, and many other locations: 3-400 important people and 50 minions scattered around the world. Dr Lon Than has control over some of the men and women of the village of Dambuk, who have kidnapped the children of the village to force the rest of the village to work as slaves on his behalf. Only the elderly and infirm are left to survive as best they can. The story of how Lon Than created his network of servants was told to the PCs by one of those elderly residents, from the standpoint of the theology of the village:

“We have always been gifted with treasure from the mountain. We have traded it when we found it for many things. Food, Iron, Tools. Many have come here in the past in search of the mountain’s gift, but none found it. We became accustomed to a new stranger arriving, all excited and eager, every year or two; all left disappointed. Late the summer before last, another came, and this one was different. His eyes carried the darkness of a very deep cave within, and he spoke with a voice that enthralled those who heard it for as long as he deigned to speak. He hired two of our young men with gifts of the heavenly stone, the first who had brought a gift of the mountain back to its home rather than seeking to plunder, and the three set out to explore the region.

“A week later, they returned, and he announced that his gifts had found favor with the spirits of the mountain, who had seen fit to offer bounty to reward him. He bestowed some of these gifts and when next he set out, it was with the company of a dozen, each of whom now proudly wore a piece of heaven made stone as badge of his service to the mountain spirits.

“Two weeks more, and they returned again, carrying a small basket each of the precious mountain heart. And the man said that the mountain spirit required more men to carry for him, as the dozen had not been enough to gather all the gifts offered, and he feared that the spirits would take offense if their bounty were rejected a second time. And so all the village’s men and some of the younger women went with him the third time.

“Three days later, and those who had left with him returned, and by stealth they crept from house to house gathering all the children in silence, binding and gagging them, and taking them up into the mountain. And then the man returned with his escorts and told us that the children were hostages to the will of the Mountain Spirit and the entire village save those who were too old and weak to work must labor in service to its bidding. There was much weeping but we had been left without choice, and so we accepted.

“As the weeks passed, we noticed that those upon whom he had bestowed the gift of the mountain had a strange look in their eyes, a green glow like that of the mountain heart, that they were as strangers to those who had known them, and obeyed his every command in word, thought, and deed. They were not controlled, they were convinced without and beyond the power of words alone.

“As the winter approached, and the mountain became more difficult to climb, he told us that he was to leave to do the mountain’s bidding, but that we were to provide food for those who labored in the heart of the mountain, and that he would return with the thawing of the snow. He took with him many of the gifts bestowed by the mountain.

“He returned with the change of the seasons in a boat with much food and many strangers, all taken into the mountain’s service while he was away. They came from many distant lands. There was one who was not what he appeared to be, and somehow The Mountain’s Servant saw through his pretense. In the middle of the village, even as the boat was being unloaded, the Servant denounced the impostor, who swore that his secrets would never leave his lips. We expected the servant to force the truth with pain and suffering, but instead he simply bestowed the gift of the mountain in the form of a small pendant, and the impostor told all without pause, the latest recruit to the Mountain’s service. When the boat left, the new recruit went with it, bearing many small packages of mountain’s gift to be sent to the powerful and deserving throughout the world.

“Since his return, the mountains’ servants have grown in number by ones and twos and threes, a few more every week, until now they number in the dozens. Last night, the most recent recruit to the mountains service came to the village, a tall man of power, who have his name only as Fenbao, Storm in the western tongue*. From his appearance, we thought he might have been another seeking to learn the secrets of the Mountain’s Servant under false pretense, but his face and mind were as stone and he would not answer the simplest question, even when no others were in earshot. We could only tell that he was alive and not a statue of cast metal by the occasional twitch in his hand**.

“When the dawn came, he went with the others up to perform the Mountain’s bidding.”

* Doc Storm
** Doc is a world-class surgeon, his hands never twitch, and the PCs knew it. From this information, they deduced that he was still fighting for control.

The Immediate Future

At the time of the PCs reaching Dambuk, Lon Than is about 25 days away from a massive shipment of mind-controlling Jade. This shipment will take something like three months to distribute. At the same time that the shipment is dispatched, his servants in various theological centers in India and elsewhere in Asia will begin a ‘reformation’ movement aimed at converting 75% of Indian Hindus to a pro-Kalika doctrine within a year, using predictions about the future that his existing servants will ensure are accurate, in a vast global conspiracy. The delivery of that final mass-shipment of Jade is aimed at controlling individuals who have been carefully put in place in various countries who will almost simultaneously manufacture provocations throughout the world, instigating global war. The necessary instructions for achieving this are being embedded in the Jade; touching it will be sufficient to achieve the goal with no further intervention from Lon Than.

Notes from behind the curtain:

Lon Than is an interesting character. Clearly very intelligent and capable of subtle and sophisticated planning, he is a scientist driven by a variant theology that is ‘primitive’ in the sense of 20th century society. His overall objective is one that the PCs support and have worked to achieve in the past, by doing what they can to oppose the forces leading to war; there is a sense that it would have taken only a gentle nudge for the PCs to have ended in his shoes (except that none of them are Asian). The major difference between Lon Than and the PCs is that he has given up trying to forestall war and ’embraced the madness’.

The PCs never broached the mailing center, though they deduced its location, and so never learned just how narrowly Total Global War was avoided.

Kali and Kalika

The following is a deliberate distortion of abridged elements of Hindu belief for story/game purposes. No offense is intended to any who follow that, or any other, faith. We have made it deliberately difficult to find where doctrine ends and our ‘reinventions’ begin in order to ensure plausibility of narrative, but assert that everything below is either fiction or severely compromised, and should not be the foundations of anyone’s understanding of Hinduism.

I wish you could see the illustration that I did of Kalika. It’s gorgeous, probably the best digital painting that I’ve ever done – turning the skin of a portrait of Kali green and adding “Jade effects”. But because it was derived directly from another artist’s work, I can’t display it publicly or make it publicly available.

Kali, also known as Kalika, is the Hindu goddess associated with empowerment, or shakti. She is the fierce aspect of the goddess Durga. The name Kali comes from Kala, which means black, time, death, lord of death: Shiva. Since Shiva is called Kala — the eternal time — the name of Kali, his consort, also means “Time” or “Death” (as in “time has come”). Hence, Kali is the Goddess of Time, Change, Power and Destruction.

Although sometimes presented as dark and violent, her earliest incarnation as a figure of annihilation of evil forces still has some influence. Various Shakta Hindu cosmologies, as well as Sh?kta Tantric beliefs, worship her as the ultimate reality or Brahman. Comparatively recent devotional movements largely conceive Kali as a benevolent mother goddess. She is often portrayed standing or dancing on her husband, the god Shiva, who lies prostrate beneath her. Worshiped throughout India but particularly in Kashmir, South India, Maharashtra, Bengal, and Assam.

The figure of Kali conveys death, destruction, and the consuming aspects of reality. As such, she is also a “forbidden thing”, or even death itself. The Karpuradi-stotra clearly indicates that Kali is more than a terrible, vicious, slayer of demons who serves Durga or Shiva. Here, she is identified as the supreme mistress of the universe, associated with the five elements. In union with Lord Shiva, she creates and destroys worlds. Her appearance also takes a different turn, befitting her role as ruler of the world and object of meditation. In contrast to her terrible aspects, she takes on hints of a more benign dimension. She is described as young and beautiful, has a gentle smile, and makes gestures with her two right hands to dispel any fear and offer boons. The more positive features exposed offer the distillation of divine wrath into a goddess of salvation, who rids the sadhaka of fear. Here, Kali appears as a symbol of triumph over death.

In Kali’s most famous legend, Devi Durga and her assistants, the Matrikas, wound the demon Raktabija in various ways and with a variety of weapons in an attempt to destroy him. They soon find that they have worsened the situation for with every drop of blood that is dripped from Raktabija he creates a duplicate of himself. The battlefield becomes increasingly filled with these simalcra. Durga, in need of help, summons Kali to combat the demons; in some versions, Durga actually assumes the form of Goddess Kali. Kali destroys Raktabija by sucking the blood from his body and putting the many Raktabija duplicates in her gaping mouth. Pleased with her victory, Kali then dances on the field of battle, stepping on the corpses of the slain, releasing them to the judgment of heaven.

Some accounts note the similarity between Kali and Raktabija, asserting that Kali is herself a demon who has been seduced to higher cause by her love of Shiva. There are several suggestions that theirs is a forbidden love, but that Durga granted the pair an exception to the Divine Law. However, the forbidden nature of their love persists, her every touch poisoning Shiva and threatening his life; a burden that they bear in the name of Love. Kali is therefore symbolic of all love that is difficult or denied by fate, and is frequently invoked when choosing to defy that fate regardless of the potential cost, ie total destruction.

Kali is also viewed as a protector of humanity from enemies both within and without. Some accounts describe her as without mercy, others contradict this characterization or confine it in some manner. Kali is an ender of suffering, and bringer of mercy, in many accounts, including some in which she can never experience this quality herself. At least one version of Kali’s story states that she could choose to be merciful and hence perfect, but that she continually bestows this mercy on the suffering of others, sacrificing her own progress through existence for their benefit.

Some accounts suggest that Kali is also the bearer of souls to judgment, and of souls who have been judged to their next stage of life. She is thus destruction and creation in one.

Another popular legend states that after her victory over Raktabija, Kali became drunk on the blood, and lost all self-control, dancing on the battlefield in a destructive frenzy that laid waste to the very populace that she had rescued from the Demon. She was about to destroy the universe when, urged by all the gods, Shiva lay down in her way to stop her. In her fury and exultation, she failed to see the body of Shiva lying amongst the corpses on the battlefield and stepped upon his chest. Realizing only then Shiva lies apparently dead beneath her feet, her anger is pacified and she calms her fury, becoming suffused with remorse. Shamed at the prospect of keeping her husband beneath her feet, she stuck her tongue out in shame and submission, releasing her consort, who stood up and took his place beside her. Realizing that his ‘death” was a symbolic depiction of what she was about to do, she ended her dance – until the next time she is overwhelmed with bloodlust and victory on the battlefield, even if that bloodlust and victory is not hers, but only viscerally experienced through the acts of man. This Buddhist belief contends that any form of battle or violence risks awakening the destructive side of Kali’s nature, a fate that can only be avoided by a gesture of peace and surrender to fate.

Kali is usually depicted as having blue skin, as are all the gods, symbolic of the purity of the sky, but a few rare depictions show her with Green Skin, the color of demons.

Kali’s role is not one of destruction per se, but of the destruction of evil. She is the spiritual vessel into which all man’s violent impulses are delivered and is only able to maintain purity of purpose through the self-sacrifice of her twin sister Kalika, who siphons off all the malevolent intents and embodies them on behalf of the pair. This difference in their natures causes the two siblings to be eternally at odds, with Kali usually holding the dominant position. From time to time, however, man’s lust for destruction rises above his better instincts and Kalika becomes dominant.

Kalika’s philosophy is best summed up in two western phrases: “Giving them enough rope” and “He who lives by the sword”. She encourages an orgy of violence from the shadows, and in the name of her sister, which ultimately burns itself out and restores the karmic balance of mankind – and gives her sister a bad reputation at the same time. Kali knows full well that her good works as a protector of mankind from the Demons and Devils that seek to overpower it are only possible because of the role her sibling plays, giving the two a complex relationship. Kali seeks to permit mankind to evolve and progress spiritually at its own pace and in its own direction; Kalika functions as a fail-safe for when mankind chooses the wrong direction.

Kalika is not an evil force per se, though she performs acts that others might declare evil; her philosophy is more about “clearing the path” for new growth and “cleansing the earth”. She embodies the western phrase, “It’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it.”

Notes from behind the curtain:

In roleplaying the pair – we prepared to roleplay Kalika though that prep was never called upon – I found that keeping the different attitudes toward the PCs firmly in mind helped frame modes of expression and tone of voice. For Kali, that was calmness, placidity, and friendship tinged with either regret or hope, depending on what she was saying. In fact, think Tweety without the speech impediment.

For Kalika, it was angry schoolteacher – “You’ll be sorry if you make me do this,” – tinged with Bugs Bunny, and a touch of Daffy Duck’s somewhat excitable nature – “…I’m quite looking forward to it!”

Wrap-up

So, there you have it: Dr Lon Than and supporting infrastructure. Did he survive? It’s arguable that the PCs, acting as Agents Of Kali against her sister’s machinations, have proved that hope is not yet dead – from an obsessed Hindu fatalist’s point of view. But that was then, and if Lon Than survived, this will be ‘now’, and many things may have changed…

It would be easy to adapt Lon Than to derive from a Fantasy genre, deriving from any death/vengeance deity. The scope might change – destroying the Kingdom before it destroys all its neighbors or something like that. The main elements are to preserve the ambivalent nature of the characters, who are both villains from one point of view, but with a nobility of purpose. And that’s the real danger of obsession: it doesn’t matter what your ends are, the mechanisms that you are willing to use taint everything that you do. Who needs an anti-paladin when there are Paladins around willing to do the job?

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