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Things That Are Easy, Things That Are Hard

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Part of the map of the village of Etrien. Cartography by Stephen Garrett Rusk.

There are lots of things that are hard to do, or at least to do well. This article is about two of them, and a Kickstarter project that looks like a serious attempt to do both to a very high standard.

Challenge The First

The first is low-level adventures.

Many GMs find these difficult to create because the number of options available to characters are restricted, constrained to something closer to what is possible for a realistic individual to achieve.

This restriction makes such adventures very sensitive to the difficulty levels of tasks and opposition, a further constraint on the options available to the GM.

Beginners frequently exceed these limits, especially in cases where some theoretical means of balancing encounters is employed that may be relatively insensitive. In D&D terms, increasing the number of HD of a species by one can have a substantial effect on low-level encounters.

For this reason, many game systems are optimized around relatively low power levels and may break down at higher character levels; an increasing trend in this direction has been evident in all recent versions of D&D.

While the reasons for the phenomenon may not be obvious to GMs, it does manifest in a perception of how much ‘fun’ certain levels of character power are to game or to GM; higher level campaigns can offer too much variety of character response to events, increasing the workload of the GM. Individual perceptions vary, with some GMs suggesting that D&D stops being fun when the characters hit 14th level, others saying 12, and some suggesting 10 or even 8. I have even met one GM who never permits characters to rise above 5th level.

These constraints often result in smaller campaign scope that is more localized in geographic terms, which further eases game prep requirements, but once again exposes GMs to the problem of a campaign with insufficient scope to contain the full scope of their creativity. Some ideas simply will not fit within the constraints very effectively.

Finally, this situation leaves a campaign vulnerable should characters progress in power level at a greater rate than that anticipated by the GM.

Many thousands of words – some of them here at Campaign Mastery – have been directed toward solving or easing these specific difficulties. Few actually consider why the problem arises in the first place.

The Converse Is Also True

Equally, some GMs and campaigns have trouble fitting low-level adventures into their campaigns, because those visions are full of complex cosmological explorations, epic confrontations between cosmic powers, and the like. As I suggested above, low level campaigns can have trouble containing bigger ideas.

The search for simple solutions

In part, these problems arise because players look for simple solutions to large problems. They want to deal with issues directly and move on; single adventures that last a year or more can grow wearing. An effective resolution can be found by breaking larger problems down into more solvable small problems, but these can become tedious if there is insufficient variety in the smaller goals.

The PCs as levers

The most effective solution that I have found is to think of the PCs not as agents of direct change but as levers, capable of setting in motion larger forces. Archimedes reportedly wrote, “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.” This is great adventure and campaign-building advice when applied to low-level characters.

The worst possible solution is to enhance the PCs capacities until they can employ a direct solution to whatever challenge you have put before them. It is too easy to overstep the mark, doling out XP and magic like candy, and then discovering that to challenge the PCs ridiculously-difficult challenges need to be posed. This is the road to Monty Haulism.

The biggest hurdle to be overcome when employing the “lever” solution is to make the players aware of what specifically can be done about a situation and what impact it will have. What forces are available for them to harness, and how can they go about putting them in place. Quite often this takes so much education in the campaign world that by the time they are ready to implement it, they have achieved such growth in individual capabilities that the restrictions no longer apply.

Or the campaign folds through boredom before they get there.

Another effective perspective

Another way to think about low level campaigns is as acorns, small problems that will sprout and grow into huge oaks if not dealt with promptly, decisively, and correctly. “Plant” more of these in the campaign than the players can possibly deal with before such growth is achieved, then tend them lovingly; let unsolved problems influence other events, circumstances, and NPCs within the game as they grow, and be alert for the ramifications and consequences of the solutions employed creating a fertile environment for new acorns to be planted.

The PCs will deal with some of these problems while they are small, and commensurate with the PCs power levels; they can then turn their attention to some medium-level problems and stop them while they are manageable, leaving only one or two full-grown headaches to deal with when their capabilities grow sufficiently. The resolution of each small problem forms the background and climate in which the remaining problems will grow, and shapes the tools that the PCs can direct towards solving them.

And don’t neglect interactions between problems; some of these will help the PCs by slowing or strangling the growth of problems into something unmanageable, while others may accelerate growth, spinning off temporary new problems. An alliance between two enemies is a good example; the players might not be able to deal with both enemies, but they may be able to break up the alliance. Divide and conquer is a perfectly valid technique!

I never pose a problem for the game world without considering “how will this grow? How might it snowball?”

An alternative

The other technique I frequently employ is to have problems seem too small to be significant, then distract the players with larger and more immediate issues while that small problem becomes a much larger one lurking in the shadows.

Challenge The Second

The second difficult thing is providing multiple routes to – if not success for the players, then at least, to a satisfying conclusion to an adventure. Too many problems get posed in campaigns or adventures that only have a single solution. Ideally, you want a way in which conflict can solve the problem, and a way in which diplomacy can solve the problem, and a way in which stealth and subterfuge can solve the problem, and so on.

More often, though, there is nothing that the GM needs to specifically do to enable multiple solutions to a given problem. Instead, there are things that the GM should NOT do that stifle alternatives. The biggest of these is becoming so attached to the first solution that comes to mind, or that the GM has deliberately built into the adventure, that he actively blocks alternatives.

My technique is always to ensure that there is at least one solution to the problem, on the assumption that where there is one, there will be many alternatives and variations. I document that solution in case the PCs need a hint, but do not actively promote it unless they are completely baffled.

I then let the players find their own solutions. If there is a flaw in their logic, I make sure to bring that to their attention if they are reasonably able to spot it or if their solution locks them into their intended approach – not to rule their solution out, but to pose the flaw as a sub-problem that needs solution along the way. Sometimes, they will decide that this hurdle cannot be cleared, or (more often) that it can’t be done with sufficient certainty, in a short enough time, and will start looking for a different answer; that’s up to them. It’s absolutely critical to be encouraging and supportive, especially if they don’t see an immediate solution. Let the adventure proceed organically in response to PC choices, making darned sure that they know it if an action will rule out other possible solutions before they commit themselves.

There have been times when I have wanted to pose a seemingly-insoluble problem, and this is something that is much harder to do. The best approach is to prevent the PCs accessing a key piece of information until the GM wants them to have it. This is sometimes necessary to prevent problems being anticlimactic. But that alone doesn’t always work; players can always make educated or lucky guesses and assumptions, and sometimes we GMs are more transparent than we want to be. It is always preferable to have an NPC or circumstance actively feed the PCs misinformation that contradicts that key piece of information. It’s not enough not to tell the players something important; you need to find a way for them to get false information so that they don’t perceive the gap in their information and speculate about it. The revelation of the falsehood then becomes the critical first step along the path to resolution of the seemingly-impossible problem.

Without Cheating

But this is all a cheat, a way to permit multiple solutions to problems without actively constructing them with those solutions built-in. That last is much more difficult to achieve, and I salute anyone who successfully does so.

The Book of Terniel

The Book of Terniel, from The City Of Brass, aka Embers Design Studios, is an attempt to do all both of these things, and to do them well, and they might just pull it off – and on a shoestring budget.

This adventure for first-level Pathfinder characters was launched with an initial funding target of just US$500, a target that was achieved on just the third day of their campaign, As I write this, there are still 21 days to go, and they have just cleared the first of their stretch goals, while the adventure itself is close to, or has just, completed its second playtest.

This, to me, is a sure bet. The product exists, it’s just a question of what goodies come with it.

This project has three major sources of appeal to me, and I think it will hold the same appeal to a lot of my readers, too:

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A reduced-size image for The Book of Terniel. Art by Monica Marie Doss.

Appeal The First: Resources

You can never tell when a published resource will plug into some gap in your own adventures, and this is offering resources by the bucket-load. There’s the village of Etrien, a region map of Etrien, Old Abandoned Mines, a habitat for Giants called Morrow Home, the ruined city of Solastrace, a new sentient species, the Moguren (living, sentient mushrooms), and a race write up for the sahuagin which will hopefully add some much-needed color to a species that I’ve never really been able to get my head around. Throw in some lovely illustrations and you have something that is absolutely chock-a-block with goodies and inspiration for your game.

Look through the stretch goals, and guess what you’ll find: More and More resources!

Appeal The Second: Techniques

Not only is the adventure being written for low-level characters, it has been, or will have been, playtested at least twice. And the adventure promises to permit PCs to choose between stealth, diplomacy, or conflict, or some blend of these three choices, to bring the story to a conclusion. Since this is something that is very hard to do, let alone do well, potential observations of technique that can be applied to other adventures has a definite appeal level.

But, on top of that, you have the promise of a display of techniques of characterization that might alone be worth the price of purchase: “Effort has been made at every stage to bring the characters and locations to life – from the hobgoblin warlord that makes pottery, to the slug farms deep in the Fetid Bog, to the friendly druid who is almost never at home as she’s out blessing farm fields.” And, of course, these characters are all still more resources for you to use!

reduced-size image of the mines

A reduced-size image for The Book of Terniel. Art by Stephen Garrett Rusk.

Appeal The Third: Creative Commons Philosophy

Finally, as an ardent supporter of both the OGL and Creative Commons, there is a certain level of desire to support the philosophic principle of offering all this material in a way that makes the content accessible to the public.

Quite frankly, I would like to see this project succeed on a huge scale not only because the stretch goals are themselves appealing, but because I think this is the sort of thing we, as consumers of gaming product, should be encouraging. And, as the Australian saying goes, “Money talks, Bull**** walks”.

Bonus Appeal: Nice Guy!

Another point worth considering is that Lucas, one half of the driving force behind Embers and The City Of Brass, is a nice guy who thinks of his customers first, gaming itself a close second, and personal profits a distant third or fourth. I can’t speak to the other half of the equation, who Lucas describes on the Embers/City Of Brass website as having “something like a tinfoil hat that he wears”, but these are the sort of people we want to encourage to participate in the gaming industry for many years to come.

reduced-size image of the ruined city

A reduced-size image for The Book of Terniel. Art by Monica Marie Doss.

Some final pros and cons

There are a limited number of discounted packages for early supporters (9 left as I write this). There are opportunities for participation in the development of still more extras ($25 level), or of advertising your own business or product ($50 level). But the basic level that gets you the adventure and everything I’ve listed above is a mere US$10.

If there’s one thing that I’d like to see done differently, it would be for the $5000 stretch goal to be broken into two or three smaller stretch goals – there’s too big a jump from the $3000 stretch goal, which itself could be broken into a couple of smaller stretch goals. That’s the harshest criticism and “con” that I can find; once past the $1500 mark, which they are currently working towards, there’s a long stretch without a lot of short-term encouragement for supporters.

Of course, I’d really love to see the project hit the $10K stretch goal – two additional cities!! But kicktraq is forecasting an eventual funding level of about $3600 give or take about $1200 – so unless it gets a lot more support, at best, they will fall just short of getting half-way to a success story on that scale.

Let’s see what we can do about getting them over that $10K line! Back This Project for the goodies and the principles, if for nothing else!

To back the project or find out more, click on any of the images in this article!

And, speaking of things that are hard: I’ve recently enabled a plug-in option that promises to make Campaign Mastery more mobile-friendly – and had reports back that it does what’s promised, without having compromised any of the features and utility that I rely on!

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‘I Can Do That’ – Everyman Skills For Pulp


This is part 3 of a series presenting the various House Rules that have been introduced into the Pulp Campaign that I co-GM.

Today I’m presenting everyman skill rules that were developed for the campaign, and long overdue, too.

Although designed for a Pulp Campaign built with the Hero System, the principles apply to almost any RPG.


Credit where it’s due

As always, Blair Ramage deserves half the credit, and half the blame, for these rules. This article is partially based on discussions between us, but was written by Mike alone. The sections dealing with applying the principles to other RPGs was also Mike’s solo work.

What are everyman skills?

Everyman Skills are a very useful idea introduced a long time ago within the Hero System. These are skills that characters get for free because they are considered to be received simply by living in the society of the campaign setting. For reasons Blair and I don’t understand, and that are not explained in the sourcebook, Everyman Skills were dropped from the Pulp Hero rules. We decided to put them back.

By definition, these are skills that the character gets for free, and that means that for the most part, they should not confer the same level of ability as the character would receive if they had expended character creation points on the skill.

Hero System skills in a nutshell

One character point gets a character 8/- (eight or less) in a skill. That means that a character who rolls eight or less on 3d6 succeeds in a task.

A higher price (usually 3 points, sometimes 2 and sometimes 4) gets a character 9+(STAT/5) in a skill, where the stat is defined for each skill as part of that skill’s description. Fractions are rounded in the character’s favor. A character with a DEX of 14, for example, gets 11.8 or less, which is rounded to 12/-.

Where the skill costs 3 or more character points, and where the full skill level is higher than 11/-, characters can spend one point less than the full price to get an 11/- intermediate skill.

Characters can improve their skill rolls by +1 for additional skill point expenditure, usually 2 points, sometimes 1.

The Everyman Pulp Skills

Now that we’ve established some context, the following are the list of Skills that we have introduced into the Pulp Campaign:

  1. Area Knowledge: Home Country 14/-
  2. Area Knowledge: New York City 8/-
  3. Cultural Familiarity: Home Country 14/-
  4. Cultural Familiarity: Past Major Employers 11/-
  5. Cultural Familiarity: Adventurer’s Club 8/-
  6. Acting 6/-
  7. Climbing 6/-
  8. Concealment 6/-
  9. Conversation 6/-
  10. Deduction 6/-
  11. Persuasion 6/-
  12. Native Language
  13. English (if not native language)
  14. Professional Skill: Past Occupation 6/-

Definitions & Additional Rules

Some of these skills had additional rules attached, and I assume that anyone not familiar with the Hero System will need some explanation of what the skills do:

  1. Area Knowledge – Home Country: Answers questions such as, Where are the major cities? What’s the capital? What are the major geographic features? Which countries does your home country border?
  2. Area Knowledge: New York City: Requires 3 weeks or more non-continuous time spent in New York City, which is the location in which the Adventurer’s Club is based. Answers questions such as where the major landmarks are, where are the central railway stations, and so on.
  3. Cultural Familiarity: Home Country: What’s the lifestyle that you’re used to? What’s the national drink, the national cuisine, how much do things cost, what’s the currency, who’s in charge, what are the popular sports, who are the national heroes, etc.
  4. Cultural Familiarity: Past Major Employers: This covers what the employer does, and their normal procedures for doing it, where the major branches are, who your immediate superiors and subordinates were, and so on.
  5. Cultural Familiarity: Adventurer’s Club: Requires 3 weeks or more non-continuous time spent at the Adventurer’s Club at least part of the day. Who works there, what do they do, who’s in charge, what facilities does the club have, how do you arrange to use them, and so on.
  6. Acting: bare minimum ability to attempt to pretend to be someone else.
  7. Climbing: lets you climb a ladder under favorable conditions without a skill check. Gives you a chance to do something else. Don’t bother trying to climb cliffs or anything else even reasonably difficult.
  8. Concealment: bare minimum ability to hide something in the palm of your hand, crouch down behind a curtain or piece of furniture, or put an object somewhere that is not immediately obvious to a casual glance.
  9. Conversation: bare minimum ability to steer a conversation in the direction you want it to go, usually very clumsily and obviously.
  10. Deduction: bare minimum to put two and two together and get four, metaphorically speaking. Doesn’t extend so far as permitting the character to deduce anything strictly hypothetical or that starts, “just suppose” – you are too busy doing the supposing to figure out what it might mean.
  11. Persuasion: bare minimum to talk someone into doing something they are at least somewhat inclined to do anyway. Don’t try and sooth ruffled feathers or troubled waters, you aren’t persuasive enough for that.
  12. Native Language: You get to speak this “as a native”.
  13. English (if not native language): You get to speak this with a thick accent and without ideograms. For anything better, you’ll need to actually pay for the language.
  14. Professional Skill: Past Occupation: Gives you everything you needed to know in order to do that job – to a bare minimum standard of ineptness. Anything more and you should pay points for this.
Skills In General

Skills can generally be said to fall into one of two categories: Knowing things, or doing things. Knowing things usually implies any foundation knowledge to at least the same extent as the knowledge skill – i.e. engineering includes knowledge of maths and basic material properties.

Applying the concept to other systems

When I was creating the House Rules for my Shards Of Divinity campaign, I very deliberately wanted to incorporate the concept of Everyman Skills. The approach was a little different to that above in that what I was giving players was a subset of a skill that was relevant to their character’s personal experience. I’m not going to go into too much detail, I’ll save that for another article some other time (it’s way too big), but will offer an example.

A Dwarf might not have the slightest clue about the architecture of other races, or even the general principles of architecture, but he would still know the basics of Dwarfish construction. I’m not an architect and haven’t studied the subject, but I still know the basics of typical Australian construction: a load-bearing frame, usually of wood or steel, anchored by a foundation, usually of concrete, medium-angle roofs (say, 30° to 45°). Until the 70s, roofs were usually made of galvanized iron, these days terracotta tile roofs are more common. Windows tend to be large and plentiful to encourage air circulation because of the heat of the Australian Summer. Most are built about a foot off the ground to permit circulation beneath the home for additional cooling, more in the tropical regions. Walls used to be predominantly fibro or brick; sheds and outbuildings often had galvanized iron walls, but these can get very hot. These days, brick is the material of choice, but concrete is becoming more popular.

I didn’t need to be educated to know these things, I just had to grow up here. Simple observation did the rest. At first, I didn’t know the reasons for these building choices; slowly (by looking at the construction of homes elsewhere) I began to grasp the relationship between climatic conditions and practical design.

I doubt there are any U.S. Citizens who don’t know that Washington D.C. is their nation’s capital, even if some of them unfortunately have trouble finding it on a map. They are also likely to recognize the Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument, Mount Rushmore, Hollywood Sign, and Capital Building without drama. They know where to buy coffee, newspapers, fresh bread, etc, in their local regions, and will have some idea (for the most part) how much they cost. In fact, politicians not knowing the price of milk and eggs has become synonymous with being out-of-touch with the ordinary person – the implicit assumption being that everyone should know these things.

I know basic things about Australian Society and the Australian Economy and how to find a Doctor and so on, just from having lived here all my life. I might not know where every train station is on the suburban network, but I know where the major ones are and which rail lines they connect to. I know we drive on the left-hand side of the road, and that we have a dollar of 100 cents, and so on.

Quantifying is defining levels of ignorance

By specifying that characters have a certain level of skill in these sub-fields, even if they haven’t bought the full skill (and the understanding, experience, and expertise that comes with it), I not only defined what characters knew, I explicitly defined what they did not know without having studied the subject.

The Concordance Principle

All that is need to make this approach really useful is a concordance principle. How similar is Dwarven Architecture from that of Gnomes, or of Halflings, of Humans, of Elves? Defining the degree of difference between these in terms of a skill modifier and cross-listing against the basic DC of the task or question gives a modifier to the DC describing how relevant the character’s basic knowledge is to the question at hand. Some basic principles will remain essentially the same, so this modifier would be +0 DC for very simple questions, but the more advanced the question, the less relevant that basic expertise will be.

Being a dwarf won’t help very much when it comes to understanding Elven Lintels. Knowing what the most common Gnomish recipes are won’t help much when attempting to identify Elvish Honey-cakes, let alone whether or not the milk had turned before they were cooked, or Human Oxtail Soup. If you see “Bear Claws” on a menu, are they a pastry item or is the name meant literally? If you’ve never heard of “Meso” before, how do you know it’s even edible?

In this year’s Masterchef, one of the cooks made the mistake of using tomato flowers as a garnish on his dish because they looked pretty, not realizing that tomatoes are part of the Deadly Nightshade family and the flowers are quite poisonous. Plants don’t grow fruit for our benefit, they do so to distribute their seeds and make more of themselves. Using that fruit on a mass scale for our own nutritional and culinary benefit is down to our own ingenuity. (Actually, many cases involve the fruit being deliberately enticing for consumption, so that animals will eat the fruit (swallowing the seeds in the process and excreting them some distance from the original source). Other species use the edible component as a nutritional head-start for the developing young – the egg approach.

Everyman Wrap-up

Everyman skills give characters the game mechanics to describe and quantify the things that any reasonable GM would consider that a character already had. Some might stem from innate instinct or ability, some from divine gift, some from the culture, and some from practical experience. Defining everyman skills and determining why that skill is an everyman skill for the race, class, and society to which the character belongs defines and quantifies the building blocks of both the character and those world elements that have created them. Your campaign background and game world stop being just words on a page and start making a quantifiable difference to the characters, and hence to the players.

Everyman skills bring the game environment to life. Everybody wins from doing that successfully.

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Stormy Weather – making unpleasant conditions player-palatable

125 Village in blizzard_sm

Following the publication last week of the rules on Windchill and other weather-based environmental effects, I was asked a very profound question by Rob, one of several GMs that I associate with on Twitter:

Any tips on the drama side, Mike? My players have always felt a bit meh about weather – deadly but dull as they put it.

This question, and conversations on the subject with others such as John Kahane, give me the impression that a lot of GMs have similar problems. And I think they all stem from one primary mistake that many of them are making.

A supporting character

The mistake made is a natural one, in a lot of respects. People make bad weather the star of the show instead of a member of the supporting cast.

It might seem a trivial difference between having an encounter in which the weather is the dominant factor while the creature encountered is the icing on the encounter cake, and having one in which the creature is the point and the weather simply accentuates and enhances the danger posed by that creature, but – as I said at the start of the article – it is a profound difference.

“But weather can be dangerous enough on its own”

Yes, it can be. People die in winters, people lose fingers and toes to frostbite. You can be struck by lightning, struck by flying debris hurled by the wind, blinded by light reflecting on the snow, drowned by floodwaters, hurled into the sky by a tornado.

But its not something that the PCs can fight. Always, at the heart of any game, is the question of what the PCs are supposed to do about the situation that they currently face.

There are some climatological phenomena that characters can do something about, even if that something is simply enabling themselves or others to survive, and I’ve been working on an article dealing with those very phenomena. Things like floods and hurricanes. So let’s set those aside for the moment, beyond simply noting that what characters are dealing with are not the phenomena themselves, but with the effects and impacts that they present.

That leaves weather events like extreme cold and extreme heat; storms, heavy rain, snowfalls, and the like.

The first two are environmental conditions, and the others are events. There are obvious differences between them, so let’s consider them separately.

Weather Events

Storms, Heavy Rain, Snowfalls and the like are singular weather events. There’s not much that characters can do about them except take cover from their effects, and that’s not exactly the stuff of adventure. But what if we downplay their potential intensity just a bit, take these events off center stage and simply use them as a backdrop to some other event? What if we treat these weather events as though they were Weather Conditions?

Weather Conditions

Extreme heat and cold can be lethal. But there isn’t much that characters can do about them except hole up. Sounds familiar? It should.

But at times where the weather conditions are less extreme, the characters can be hindered by the conditions and yet still active. That’s what I mean when I say that weather conditions should form a background against which some other events occur, and that the weather conditions should be a supporting character in the story and not the star of the show,

Using Weather

By considering weather effects as environmental factors that hinder or help the characters, they assume an entirely different significance within adventures. The central focus is no longer something that the characters can do nothing about, but instead becomes a means by which GMs can raise or lower the difficulty levels of encounters and tasks. The closer these weather effects come to the spotlight, the more difficult it becomes for characters to deal with anything other than the weather effects themselves.

There are three broad categories of impact on characters by weather events: Perception, Manipulation, and, Damage Capacity.

Perception Effects

Perception effects are things like heat haze, fog, and so on. They alter a character’s ability to perceive the world around them. Rain and snow also have perception effects. These have minimal effect at close range, and grow in significance as range increases, so they isolate characters from awareness of the environment around them. Sandstorms are particularly dangerous because they can damage the eyes themselves, inflicting permanent harm on a character’s perceptual capacities.

In effect, perception effects mean that characters remain unaware of objects and creatures within their environment until they are closer to them than would be the case in less hostile conditions. Creatures which may be better adapted to the environmental effects will be less affected, and so may become aware of characters long before the characters are aware of the creatures.

Adding to this under most circumstances are the natural propensities for creatures to have camouflaging hides or fur. In a snow environment, survival favors white furs for the combination of warmth and camouflage, and so on.

Perception effects can also pose navigational difficulties, taking characters to places where they would not necessarily have chosen to go. This is especially true of heat haze, because it can lead characters away from life-saving water sources, but tropical monsoonal rains and winter snowstorms can also make navigation far more difficult.

Finally, perception problems can make fine manipulation more difficult. The next time you experienced some moderate to strong winds, take a single sheet of newspaper, go out into the wind, and try to read it! Earth and soil color differences become far less noticeable when the ground becomes wet. In particular, it becomes very hard to see the difference between disturbed soil and natural – a decided disadvantage when something may lurk beneath that soil awaiting prey. It’s entirely possible to mistranslate an inscription that can barely be perceived because driving rain or snow as “my hovercraft is full of eels” when it is in fact saying something along the lines of “abandon hope, all ye who enter here” or “beware the jabberwock”.

Manipulation Effects

Heat can make fingers slippery with sweat. Cold can make fingers numb and unresponsive. Wind can push walking characters off course, or simply make it almost impossible to go in the direction they want – search youTube for “morons walking in a hurricane” or “A Guy Walks Against Extremely Strong Winds” for visual proof (or just click on the links).

These same effects can make it harder to attack enemies, especially with ranged weapons. It follows that any enemy that PCs prefer to deal with at a distance is advantaged by climatic effects.

It is important to apply the same hindrances to the enemy, though they may not be affected to the same degree. It is even more important to be seen to do so by the players.

For any given weather condition(s) there will be some creatures who are advantaged relative to the PCs and some who are disadvantaged, in comparison to a moderate-conditions conflict between the two. This enables the GM to utilize a far broader spectrum of opposition whilst maintaining something close to parity with the capabilities of the PCs. He can take creatures who would normally pose little threat and make them dangerous; take moderately-dangerous creatures and make them deadly opponents; or take devastating opponents and make them only very dangerous.

But fine manipulation means so many more things – everything from taking armor or clothing off or putting it on, to disarming traps, to configuring controls, to simply picking something up (or dropping it in the first place). When we’re talking any campaign with magic in it (or some superpowers, come to think of it) the GM has to make a decision about whether or not manual spell components require finger-wiggling or is it enough to wave the arms? Or drawing a precise arcane symbol in the ground? Or measuring a specific number of drops of liquid? In extreme cold (and ignoring the possibility that the liquid has frozen!), all of these might be subject to manipulation problems. Have you ever tried undoing a frozen knot? While wearing thick or heavy gloves?

Damage Capacity Effects

Extreme weather effects can impact combat in a second way – inflicting direct damage and thereby effectively reducing a character’s capacity for absorbing damage. When coupled with the other effects described, the environment can be a pervasive factor in any encounter, critically impacting the PCs capabilities.

The goal is to never impact the characters so severely that they cannot function; it is to constrain and contain their abilities.

Secondary Encounters

Other encounters that would be trivial events in more clement weather might assume new significance under certain conditions. Instead of merely fording a stream, characters might need to construct a temporary bridge – with cold-numbed fingers. This effectively turns the stream into a secondary encounter; the characters can keep trying until they get it right, but that holds them in place long enough for enemy critters (or actual enemies) to catch up with them.

These encounters require some planning on the part of the GM; if a character is in danger of putting his foot into a frigid watercourse, the GM should have means at hand to prevent the character from losing his foot to frostbite. Survival advice should be delivered to the PCs by someone who knows the conditions long before it is actually needed.

Zip icon

Click to download a zip file (412Kb) containing the adventure documents in pdf format.

zip icon

Click to download a zip file (1.4Mb) containing the overall map and chart of blizzard durations described.

An example, in conclusion

I’m attaching a copy of “Worse Than The Disease”, the actual adventure from the Adventurer’s Club campaign for which last week’s climate effect rules were written.

I should probably state up-front that the native names, myths, ceremonies, rituals, and theology are completely fictitious and bear no intentional resemblance to anything or anyone in the real world. We felt it less disrespectful to invent something than to distort and manipulate real beliefs to suit our plot needs. No offence is intended toward anyone.

It won’t be completely satisfying to read, because it is completely unedited – exactly as we wrote it – and I can’t provide most of the 211 images used to illustrate the adventure for two reasons:

  • Most of them are copyrighted; and
  • They total 250.4 Mb! There are 211 of them, all high-resolution…

In fact, I have hand-picked just two: an overall map of the route (showing the with the alternatives), and a chart showing statistics on blizzard durations. In addition, I was able to use one that I had photoshopped the heck out of (adding blizzard weather effects) and shrinking it down to illustrate this article. (For the record, it’s Pic #125, “Village In Blizzard”.

The documents zip contains four PDFs: The adventure itself; the notes to be given to various players at the times indicated in the adventure; a possible family history for one of the characters that factors into an early phase of the adventure; and some medical reference for that character so that the player would know what the character knew about medical treatment and possible conditions that might arise in the course of the adventure. And, BTW, the player loved the proposed family background, and accepted it pretty much whole.

This adventure illustrates a number of principles. We make sure to tell the players and the characters the things they need to know, before they need to know it. We provided a couple of expert NPCs – and then had them disagreeing with each other at key points, leaving the PCs to make the key decisions. Both players and characters had the opportunity to try necessary skills out before things became critical. And, dangerous as the weather was, it was the creatures encountered that took center stage, especially the Tongark…

One final piece of advice

To conclude this article, I have some final advice. Avoid weather clichés like the plague – except when they are the last things the players are expecting, or when you can otherwise turn them to your advantage.

Unexpected Clichés

“It was a dark and stormy night…” Boooorrring! Don’t do it – except when a storm is completely unexpected. Out in the desert sometime, when the last thing the players are expecting is a storm – that’s the time to have one (a dry one, possibly) blow up, shifting tons of sand, half-buying tents, thunder and lightning, the whole nine yards. Maybe have one tent (unoccupied) uprooted by the wind and lost over the horizon, never to be seen again. And around mid-morning of the next day, the PCs discover that the storm has uncovered a long-lost temple, or monument, or something…

When It Works For You

The only other time I would employ such a cliché was when the mere fact that it is a cliché works in favor of the plot. Someone’s going to a great deal of trouble to make an old house seem haunted? As soon as the PCs show up, the night will be a dark and stormy one, and around midnight, the power will go out… the cliché helps support the “haunted house” effect simply because it is such a cliché and you have made it obvious that you aren’t going to use clichés without justification. The more strongly you have resisted temptation in the past, the more mileage you will get out of the cliché when the time comes.

Through The Looking Glass

All right, so there’s one more occasion when I might employ a cliché such as “dark and stormy night”, and that’s when it’s a metaphor for a completely different phenomenon. A passing temporal tornado momentarily fragments time so that past, present, and future are (temporarily) all jumbled up? At the end of such an adventure, I might use the phrase, as in, “It was a dark and stormy night, but all nights have to end eventually. By holding together, you have managed to weather the storm, and as the first light of dawn breaks over the bruised and battered skyline, you realize that today is a new day, full of promise, and hope, and opportunities. As you wearily stand down and head for your beds, you wonder what that new day will bring – and how long it will let you sleep before some new emergency comes knocking on your door.”

The Wrap-up

I’ve kept this article short because, with the PDFs, you’ll have quite a lot to read.

Weather is an environmental tool that the GM should use to provide variety and challenge. It should never be center stage, but when it is on-stage, it should be as fundamentally a part of events as the stage lighting. Use it that way and it becomes your friend and ally, and your players will never go “meh” about the weather again.

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A strong wind blows: Environmental effects for RPGs


This is part 2 of a series presenting the various House Rules that have been introduced into the Pulp Campaign that I co-GM. Today I’m presenting some cold, heat, wind-chill, and altitude tables that were developed for the campaign in preparation for a midwinter race against time in the Frozen Wilds of Western Canada.

Although designed for a Pulp Campaign built with the Hero System, the rules and tables are easily adaptable to any RPG.


Credit where credit’s due

As always, Blair Ramage deserves half the credit, and half the blame, for these rules. This article is largely based on discussions between us, but was written by Mike alone. Note that the rules writeup was also done by Mike alone, after the general principles, approach, and draft rules were approved (and revised) in collaboration with Blair.


Cold and wind-chill are some of the most dangerous conditions that characters can encounter, because they trigger automatic survival responses in human physiology that make every task undertaken – even those essential to continued survival – more difficult. Adding these effects to any encounter vastly increases the danger posed by that encounter. Added to that are the psychological effects of knowing that things are harder, which should create an air of desperation to every such encounter.

And yet, every version of this sort of thing that I have seen falls short of what is necessary to actually trigger the psychological effects involved, never mind accurately reflecting the dangers posed. Frostburn, the D&D 3.0 supplement, is one of the best, but it’s not the most user-friendly system to wrap your head around.

We wanted a system that was simpler to use, but that nevertheless created the atmosphere of acute danger desired, and was a little more robust in terms of the real world. So that’s what we created.


Frostburn was the initial template, but we actually started by researching wind-chill. The actual goal was to have a table that gave us the effective temperature loss due to wind of different speeds, but we quickly found that the real-world situation was more complicated than that.

The tables already present in Champions 6th Edition were intended to be our foundatio°ns, but didn’t go far enough for our needs. So these became our second template.

Researching the subject involved gathering information from multiple sources of impeccable credibility and then trying to resolve them after we discovered that there is no consensus on the subject. Australian meteorology uses a different formula to American meteorology, for example; the US version doesn’t take into account atmospheric humidity.

The more we dug into it, the broader the subject became. We decided early on to cover high temperatures as well as cold and to make the system more universal. We also decided to extend it to cover wind speeds and temperatures that were way in excess of those that might reasonably be encountered in real life – this was for use in Pulp campaigns, possibly in superhero campaigns, and even in Fantasy campaigns, and in all three cases, larger-than-life possibilities needed to be accounted for. It’s fair to say that none of the tables went far enough for game needs.

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The Rules

So what’s in the rules?

  • Wind-chill by Air Temperature and wind speed.
  • Altitude effects
  • Humidity effects
  • Perceived Temperature & danger level
  • Game Effects:
    • Low Pressure
    • Rain/Snow
    • Extreme Cold & Heat
    • Wind Velocity
  • The STR table (for easy reference)*

* yes, this is the same one that I presented in part one of this series.

The following is a snapshot and discussion of each of these rules sections.

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Wind-chill by Air Temperature and wind speed

This is what we were initially after. Presented in two forms (one in °F, and one in °C) showing quite different information, because we weren’t sure which one would end up being most useful. As it happened, we used the °C version, but kept the °F version because it gave the frostbite times; it has no other value within the rules.

What’s missing is a table converting from °C to °F and vice-versa. Darn it. So I went looking for one to link to, and guess what? None of them go far enough. So I made one, just for our readers. You can find it to the right. You might see holes and gaps in the entries – that’s because I only converted the specific values that show up on the tables in the rules.

Using this section is fairly straightforward: you decide what the air temperature is, decide what the wind speed is, and look up the values on the tables. An Air Temperature of 5°F (-15°C) and a wind speed of 25mph (40 km/h) gives an effective temperature of -17°F (-27°C) according to the top table, which shows that characters are just out of the temperature range for Frostbite.

Note that we aren’t talking about the sort of Frostbite that gives rosy cheeks and a little discomfort; we’re talking loss of fingers, toes, noses, ears, perhaps even more substantial portions of limbs. Dangerous levels of Frostbite.

According to the lower table, the effective temperature is -27°C, which tracks with the upper table – something that’s not always the case – and rates the wind-chill-adjusted temperature as “Cold” (Blue zone), ie in the -25° to -45°C range.

Altitude effects

Temperatures also drop with altitude. I have given these in meters, and have not provided conversions, because most maps give altitudes in metric these days if not both ways.

The values determined in the previous step are sea-level values; at the top of, say, Mount Jumbo in Missoula, Montana, an altitude of 1453m (4768′), effects would be rather more pronounced. That’s a further change in temperature of between -10.1 and -10.8°C – call it -10°C for convenience. Note that you can’t look up this number to get a conversion to °F right away – you have to look up the total. Ten degrees colder than -27°C is -37°C, which the conversions table gives as -35°F. With that added altitude, we have an effective temperature change of 40°F due to altitude and wind.

Going back to the first table, locating the wind speed line and tracking across finds no entry for -35°F; -31° is in the 30-minute Frostbite Zone and -37° is in the 10-minute Frostbite Zone. Going up the column from the -37°F entry shows a -35° entry in the 30-minute zone, so conditions are right on the cusp of the 10-minute zone but aren’t quite that severe yet.

The table on the right is provided for convenience – it shows the altitudes at which a specific temperature drop occurs. This is very useful when characters are climbing mountains, especially when combined with the boundaries (eg the Frostbite indicator) on the other tables.

Humidity effects

This section shows how to correct the wind-chill adjusted temperature for humidity. There’s no value stated for -37°C, but at -35, we’re talking -2°C for every 5% humidity, so that’s close enough. If the conditions that the PCs were experiencing were, say, 40% humidity, that’s another -8°C onto the effective temperature, so we find ourselves at -45°C (-43°F). This is quite enough to shift table one’s readings solidly into the ten-minute zone, and only 5°F removed from the 5-minute zone.

It would not take much additional humidity to bridge that 5° gap – 15%, for a total of 55%, would be enough.

Perceived Temperature & danger level

Comparing the resulting effective temperature of -45°C (starting with the original wind-chill adjustment (15°C and 40km/h) and moving across the table to the right) puts us right on the edge of going from Zone blue (-41°C) into zone Purple (-48°C). Going across to the next highest value and then up the column shows -45°C to be the very edge of the zone change. If anything at all worsens, conditions will enter the extreme danger zone.

Game Effects: Low Pressure

Mount Jumbo is just below the threshold (1453m vs a threshold of 1525m); that 72m (about 236 feet) are gold, so far as the PCs are concerned.

Flying over the mountain, with a clearance of 250 feet – the absolute minimum I would contemplate as a GM, 500 would be better – puts a character over the limit.

This section of rules is all about effort required, and recovery of damage, and has very limited utility with other game systems. GMs may want to calculate the Pressure number anyway, simply for the utility of rule 2, relating to the ease of starting fires and the effect of fire damage. D&D HP can be considered roughly equivalent to Hero-system Stun points, so the “-3 damage per pressure number” from fire would be appropriate.

The recovery rate can also be applied by a D&D GM for protracted stays at altitude, and the effect on regenerating creatures.

Game Effects: Rain/Snow

This is quite straightforward. The GM decides on a description for the conditions and reads off the appropriate modifiers.

3.x/Pathfinder use: The Perception modifier should be applied to Spot and Listen checks. The Range Multiplier should be used to determine the attack modifier for ranged attacks, and the OCV modifier applied on top of that to all attack rolls. The DEX-based skill penalty should be applied to all skills that are based on DEX.

Game Effects: Extreme Cold & Heat

Now we’re getting to the crux of the system. Indexing the difference between a range that the character finds comfortable, allowing for the clothing he is wearing, and any acclimatization that may have taken place, to determine game effects.

Let’s say we’re talking about a character who is used to cold temperatures; acclimatization gives them a comfort zone of 6°C to 23°C. Yes, I know these values aren’t on the temperature conversion table; if you are used to °F, use 35°F to 65°F as a rough guide.

There are two ways to handle the effect of appropriate clothing; the method described in these rules (adjusting the comfort zone) or the one we came up with in play, reducing the effective number of temperature levels, which is less accurate but much faster and easier.

In our example, we have an effective temperature of -45°C (-43°F).

Rules as written, °C:
Comfort Zone for an acclimated character in several layers of heavy clothing: perhaps -10°C to 7°C. The gap from -10°C to effective temperature (-45°C) is 35°. That gives a thermal level of between -11 (=35/3) and -7 (=35/5). A level of -9 is right in the middle, but the higher range value is more appropriate for a cold-acclimated character, so use a temperature level of -7.

Once you have this number, there are two tables in the rules – one is for hot temperatures, the other for cold. A temperature level of -7 indicates an effective loss of 7 Recovery, -6 to DEX checks, -5 to attack rolls, -6 to all DEX based skills (on top of any other penalties from snow or rain), and 2 END consumed every 5 minutes on top of any other expenditures, just from moving around, breathing, etc.

Rules as written, °F:
Comfort Zone for an acclimated character in several layers of heavy clothing: perhaps 15°F to 45°F. The gap from 15°F to effective temperature (-43°F) is 58°. That gives a thermal level of approximately -6 (58/10) to -3 (58/20). This is quite a bit lower than we got for the °C calculation because the size of the intervals (10-20°F) is wrong. It should be 9/5ths of the °C value (5.4 to 10.8) – call it 5 to 10°F – but… well, there’s no other way to put it: I made a mistake.

Using the CORRECT values gives a range of -11 (=58/5) to -6 (=58/10), almost exactly the same as the °C calculation. Again, an acclimated character should use the smaller of these numbers, the -6.

Quick and Dirty, °C:
Comfort Zone is defined as 10°C to 27°C. Acclimation lets the character reduce the temperature effect by 1 level, appropriate clothing lets the character reduce it by another 4. Difference from effective temperature (-45°C) is -55°. Temperature effects range from -11 (=55/5) to -18 (=-55/3), which is then reduced by acclimatization and clothing to -6 to -13. The -6 is more appropriate for an acclimated character.

This variant takes a vaguely-defined step out of the process, but gives a somewhat broader range of values and skews numbers toward the high end for those not in appropriate clothing. But it’s close enough.

If you want to compensate for the skew, use an interval range of 4-5 instead of 3-5°C to calculate the step size: 55/4=14, which reduces to 13 with acclimatization, and to 12 with light clothing, which is about right.

Quick and Dirty, °F:
Comfort Zone is defined as 50°F to 80°F. Acclimation lets the character reduce the temperature effect by 1 level, appropriate clothing lets the character reduce it by another 4, exactly the same as the °C version. The effective temperature is -43°F, a gap of 98°. Using the correct values gives a thermal effect of -20 (=98/5) to -10 (=98/10), but that becomes -15 to -5. Again, a broader range, and the numbers for those in inappropriate clothing are skewing higher than they should – but you can allow for that by changing the interval size to 7-10°F. But division by 7 is so messy that I would be tempted to double the range and use 15 (effectively a 7.5° value).

On reviewing the article, I realized that this might not be obvious to anyone not used to such arithmetic tricks.

Double 98 is 196. Divide that by three and you get 65 and one third, which can be ignored. One fifth of that is 13, which is exactly what you would have gotten by dividing the original 98 by 7.5.

You could make it even easier: double it twice, and divide by 30: 98->196->392; divide by 3 to get 130 and 2/3, which can be ignored because a second from now it will be 2/30ths, a trivial amount; divide by 10 to get 13.

Oh and for one final trick: it was a lot easier to double 100-2 twice to get 400-8 than it was to do the calculation the hard way.

Game Effects: Wind Velocity

The final section of the rules, it’s fairly self-explanatory – and for a change, I gave wind velocities in both km/h and mph, so that makes it fairly easy to use. And if anyone needs values for anything bigger than an F8, I don’t really want to be there when it happens!

The Impact of Genre

You can’t repeatably give the appearance of danger without posing an actual danger to the PCs. Pulp adventurers are supposed to overcome danger and death in the course of their exploits. These rules were designed to increase the danger level experienced by the PCs while providing sufficient latitude that smart play could minimize those risks.

While this is a focal point of the pulp genre, to a lesser extent it applies to almost all RPG genres. It follows that these rules are also relevant to almost every genre, at least in principle; only the degree of latitude shown in terms of the protection from the elements offered by clothing changes.

One concluding note

If I had access to the original document, I would have edited it before presenting it here, having discovered the conversion errors discussed above. Unfortunately, the editable version is still on my main computer, which I still haven’t had time to get running since it’s total failure last December. It’s only been, what, eight months now? (A Brief Heads-up: Why I may miss posting)

When opportunity permits, I’ll correct the original, upload a revised PDF, and redact this article accordingly. Until then, you’ll have to make manual corrections, I’m afraid. Or simply use the °C methods that were originally designed and tested.

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A tabula rasa – focusing the mind before writing

blank mind

I’ll take good ideas for an article from anywhere, even from a piece of spam. Below is an extracted quote from just such a spam comment:

I was interested to find out how you center yourself and clear your mind before writing. I have had a tough time clearing my mind in getting my ideas out. I truly do take pleasure in writing however it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes are generally wasted just trying to figure out how to begin. Any suggestions or tips?

I’ve already written an article here describing my normal process for writing an article (or a game supplement, or an adventure) – One word at a time: How I (usually) write a Blog Post – but this early phase of the process got a little skimmed over, from memory, so I thought it worth focusing in on how I get started.

Clearing your mind

I’ve heard the advice to clear your mind before you start writing any number of times from different sources over the years. I vehemently disagree with it – at least up to a point.

Emptying your mind of distractions and mundane concerns is fine. You can’t write effectively if you are thinking about next weekend’s barbecue or your bank balance or your shopping list or whatever.

But one of the most difficult problems to face is that of the empty page, pristine and waiting, or it’s modern analogue, the empty screen. That’s an open invitation to writer’s block, which is already more than pervasive enough. I spent quite a lot of time in the first part of the Breaking Through Writer’s Block series dealing with it. And a blank mind is essentially a blank page.

Replacing mundane thoughts with relevant content

I don’t try and clear my mind at all. Instead, I focus on replacing those mundane distractions with relevant thoughts, then structure those into an outline of the article.

What is the subject?

The first step is to identify the subject, something that I try to do in the (draft) title of the article. I stockpile article ideas against future need, I have multiple series on the go at any given time, and I’m always alert for new things to write about; between them, I have no problem coming up with something to write about.

More constraining is the idea selection process. I try not to have too many “active” series at the same time – not everyone will be interested in every article that you write, and it’s good policy to try and vary the subject matter so that you have reasonable hope that if one article doesn’t interest a reader, the next will. This also helps to keep you from getting stuck in a rut as a writer. So if I already have a multi-part article on the go, I’ll try to avoid starting a second one. It doesn’t always work that way, but most of the time it does.

The second criterion to be applied is available time. There are some articles that I have started and would love to write – heck, even series – that have simply had to be set aside because I physically don’t have the time. Things were much simpler back when I was healthy, and could work for 6, 8, 12, or even 16 hours at a stretch, day in, day out. It was not abnormal for me to spend 12 hours straight prepping for the weekend’s game session – from, say, 6PM Friday Night through to 6AM Saturday Morning. These days, I can work – with regular breaks – for somewhere between two and four hours a day. After an hour or so’s rest, I can sometimes do that a second time in the same day, especially if one of the two sessions is significantly shorter. On rare occasions, I might even be able to manage a third two-hour writing session. Subtracted from that available time is all the site admin that I have to do, and the game prep for my next session, and any shopping, cleaning, cooking and other chores, and any time spent reading other websites.

I have a reasonably well-established routine. Monday, I write for CM. Tuesday, I work with my co-GM on the Adventurer’s Club campaign. Wednesday I do chores that can be dealt with once a week or less. Thursday, I write for CM. Friday, I work on whatever game is coming up next – unless it’s pulp, in which case I can take Friday off and recuperate. Saturday I either game or write for CM or relax, in that order of priority. Sunday, I recuperate (if I’ve co-GM’d pulp the previous day) or write for CM. If I already have articles ready to go (sometimes I do, sometimes not), I can devote that time to writing something else or reading e-books, or to any chores I didn’t get finished. Monday starts the cycle over.

This is not all that different to someone working full time and writing in their spare time, when you add up the hours. Fortunately, I’m fairly prolific – I write an average of 1000 words an hour, and can hit 4000 wph when in full flight, thanks to the techniques described in the article I referred to earlier.

What is the message?

This is essentially a synopsis of what I want the article to say about the subject. It’s usually something I decide at the same time as I select the subject – I’m not as good at deciding “right, I want to write an article about X – what can I say about it?”.


What do I know about the subject, and what do I need to know in order to write the article? What have other people written? About half the time, I need to hit Google or Wikipedia for some reference material.

What have I already written on the subject? I usually have to search the blogdex or visit CM’s archives.

What does someone who knows nothing about the subject need to know before they can understand what I have to say? More Web pages.

I’ll keep all these pages open in my browser as I write, so that I can extract information or cross-link to other relevant articles on the subject.


I try to imagine the article as a discussion or dialogue with another GM – as a conversation. I want to get my point across, or explain my process for doing something. What are the key points that I have to make along the way? What are the individual steps that I have to perform? These form the skeletal outline of the article, the list of headings and subheadings and – sometimes – sub-subheadings, so I start by listing them. It’s really rare for me not put these in writing under the draft title.

I write in a text document and then copy and paste the text into CM’s CMS for final editing and publication. And I’ll normally use a separate document for each article or series. I find that to be a lot easier than writing directly to the built-in editor. When I list the headings and subheadings, I’ll indent them to start outline the article’s structure.

I note that I neglected to offer an example of doing so when I described this part of the process in that earlier article, I’m not sure why. So here’s the one for this article:

A tabula rasa – clearing the mind before writing [draft title]
Illustration [empty line at the moment]
Clearing Your Mind
Replacing mundane thoughts with relevant content
    What is the subject?
    What is the message?
    Logical Structure
    Introduction & Conclusion
A focused mind (article conclusion)

Logical Structure

Once I have the initial structure down “on paper”, I’ll think about the logic of the article. Conversations are all well and good, but sometimes they veer erratically, and sometimes you get ahead of yourself and have to backtrack. There are also often fringe issues to discuss, or alternatives. It’s useful to revise and tinker with the first draft of the planned structure that makes sure things are presented in reasonably logical sequence.

A side-benefit that helps me greatly is that such a logical breakdown of the article means that it is much easier to resume writing it after setting it aside for a couple of hours, a couple of days, or even a couple of weeks. Longer than that and you are asking for trouble interpreting your outline, though. Things that seemed obvious at the time may be completely mystifying if too much time has passed.

Introduction & Conclusion

The last things that I think about before I start writing are “How am I going to introduce the article? How am I going to end it?” These are draft ideas that don’t get written down, just kept in mind – though if I know there’s going to be a lengthy writing process, I may make notes on the conclusion. These never survive the writing process unchanged, so there isn’t a lot of point to extensive efforts.

A focused mind

Each of these items crowds out a mundane distraction. There is no mind-clearing involved. Instead, you start writing the article and gradually focus in on the writing process. By the time I’ve reached the last step listed above, my mind is fully engaged on the article, and I’m ready to write at maximum efficiency. And, since I’m then ready to write, it’s time to stop writing this article!

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House Rules – For Pulp (and other RPGs)


This is the first of a four-part* series outlining the house rules that Blair Ramage and I have adopted over the years for the Adventurer’s Club campaign, a Pulp-genre campaign run using Pulp Hero, which is a Pulp-genre variation on the Hero System. There are four major chunks of rules, that have developed at four different times in response to particular circumstances within individual adventures, but which had potential ramifications beyond that one adventure. (*I’ll add further parts if we add more House Rules).

(I should also point readers to another article here at Campaign Mastery with some added House Rules for this campaign, Bluffing in the Hero System).

Some of these rules will be adaptable to other game systems, or to other varieties of Hero System campaign. So even if you aren’t interested in the Pulp Genre per se, these articles should be given some attention. Furthermore, they are strongly illustrative at times of the priorities and thinking that Blair and I outlined in Reinventing Pulp for Role-playing, in particular the way that the rules should support, reinforce, and reflect the genre of the campaign, which is a lesson that applies to all RPGs.

Part One deals with general rules. Part Two handles some tables we developed for handling Wind Chill effects. Part Three will cover Everyman Skills for Pulp, and Part Four will wrap the series up – at least for now – with some House Rules for healing in-game injuries.

These won’t have the same level of depth of most of my articles; they will be relatively quick-and-dirty.

The story behind the story

This is not the article that was supposed to be published today, which is taking a lot longer to finish than expected, and could not be split. Fortunately, this draws heavily on work already done for the Adventurer’s Club campaign, and on discussions with my co-GM of that campaign and with the players who have participated in it over the years, so it won’t take very long to knock these out.

At the same time, it’s very appropriate: the first Saturday of August is the 10th Anniversary of the campaign – and yes, we do have something special planned:

There’s a Demon Prince, Balthazar, who’s cottoned on to the notion of making smaller promises and fulfilling them explicitly while serving both sides of a conflict, progressively increasing the dependence of both factions on his services, in return for souls being sacrificed to him. He started with a Tong War in China, becoming one of the leading figures in their underworld scene. He gained quite a reputation, which led to his Tong being contracted to assassinate M by the Chinese Government and make it look like it had been done by the Japanese to reinforce the alliance between China and their European allies. The Chinese were well aware of the growing pro-war faction in pre-WWII Japan and were concerned that their allies would give only token support when the time came. The demon and his tong took advantage of the opportunity to seize control of a couple of other Tongs that were based in London while carrying out the assignment personally, because it gave him an “in” with the Chinese Government which he could exploit during the war years, making the entire nation dependant upon him.

The PCs were then summoned to London to investigate, and eventually uncovered the plot, dealing along the way with Anglican-Catholic politics, a smuggling operation run by one of the PC’s arch enemies, and domestic British politics of the exotic variety, and receiving a helping hand from one of their enemies, along the way. Crucially, one of them witnessed the murder of the leader of the rival Tong, and heard that leader complain that he was promised protection by someone who’s name he did not recognize, but which was later revealed to be another guise of the Demon.

In a pitched confrontation at the London Air Terminal, they battled the Ninja-like Tong and the Demon, defFFeating the former and giving their enemy (and, more importantly, one of the Demon’s enemies) the opportunity to drive him off. With their unexpected ally holding open the portal, and Father O’malley knowing of a compact – a treaty, really – which Balthazar had violated, and which would require Lucifer to punish Balthazar – the PCs have made the decision to pursue the Demon into Hell itself…!


Credit where credit is due

While Blair and I collaborated on the House Rules and the principles on which they are based, these articles are being written by me alone. That said, the discussion will often mirror discussions that Blair and I have had on the subject over the years, so he should at least receive some credit as a collaborator on this article.

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“The Adventurer’s Club” Pulp Campaign House Rules

  1. PCs are now built on 175 pts + a maximum of 50 points from disadvantages.
  2. Primary Characteristics have a maximum of 25. All scores over 20 must be justified, but all characters can automatically justify having 1 stat over 20.
  3. All characters are required to have a combat technique which is justified by their backgrounds. All characters can automatically justify cinematic brawling or dirty infighting.
  4. “Package Deals” from the Pulp Handbook are now unrestricted – you can have 1, 2, 3, or even 4 if you can afford them and your background justifies them.
  5. A Pulp Character “Package” is merely an indication of what a character should buy, and the absence of any item from a given package must be justified. Any discount in price resulting from a Pulp Package should be explicitly shown on the character sheet either in the form of a footnote:

    1* AK: Borneo
    * discounted by 1 by explorer package

    Or as an additional disadvantage (which increases the 50-point limit):

    5 AK discounts from Explorer Package

    Most Package deals do not offer any discounts in price.

  6. Each character should have at least one “shtick” which is unique to them and may not be poached by others.
  7. Characters are required to purchase at least one weapon, which will normally be available to them.
  8. Paranormal abilities are to be extremely restricted by the referees on a case-by-case basis. No more than 1 per character is permitted and even then must be justified using the guidelines from the Pulp sourcebook.
  9. Characters are not required to purchase any vehicles using character points which are commercially available as of the current campaign date (late 1933). Instead, characters should purchase an appropriate amount of wealth and the vehicle should be purchased as property using that wealth. They should also purchase the crew as Contacts with loyalty to the PC. This means that should circumstances warrant, the vehicle in question can be lost in the course of a scenario but should this occur there will be a subsequent opportunity to replace the vehicle with wealth.

    Vehicles which fall outside this parameter must be built with, and purchased using, character points, and the character should be able to justify all aspects of the acquisition (contacts, etc). The acquisition of the vehicle will take place IN-GAME and cannot be backdated. Such vehicles may be modified in design by the referees and will NOT be as good as any subsequent commercially-available model; at best, they will excel beyond the commercially-available vehicles in 1 characteristic or attribute and will usually be deficient in one or more other characteristics as logic dictates.

    For example, an aircraft designed for transatlantic flight would be 2-man with limited passenger and cargo capacity and would be built by taking a freight aircraft and filling the freight compartments with additional fuel tanks, (or perhaps it’s an Airship, which takes 4-5 times as long as an aircraft to make the trip). It would have an average speed no greater than currently commercial vehicles of its type.

    More exotic vehicles may become available in the course of scenarios; the characters will not be permitted by the authorities to retain these unless the character purchases them with character points.

    Note that since these vehicles may not always be suited to the circumstances of the required travel, any such purchase will represent “dead points” much of the time.

  10. Characters can have no more than 2 overall combat levels and no more than 4 specific combat levels related to their “shtick”. Characters can have no more than 4 combat skill levels in total, regardless of type. OCVs are therefore established as a maximum of 8 (12 with combat levels).
  11. Luck should be rerolled at the start of every game session. It is up to the player with the luck to determine if and when one of his points of luck should be expended; no benefit is derived from unspent luck points. Characters who roll two points of luck may choose to use them in one two-point expenditure (see below) or divide them into two one-point expenditures. Characters who roll three points of luck may choose to use them in one three-point expenditure, divide them into one Two-point expenditure and one One-point expenditure, or may divide them into three one-point expenditure. With GM permission, and when such expenditure clearly benefits the character with the luck, the benefits of one application of luck may be felt by a character other than the character with the luck.
  • One point of luck:
    • Permits a character to make a 2d6+1 roll in an area outside of their shtick when a 3d6 roll is required once per adventure.
    • Permits a character to make a 1d6+2 roll within their shtick when a 3d6 roll is required once per adventure.
    • Permits a character to re-roll a single failed roll within their shtick per adventure.
    • Permits the referees to drop a single hint (possibly obscure) when the characters are puzzled, lost, or confused, within the character’s shtick.
  • Two points of luck:
    • Permits a character to make a 1d6+2 roll in an area outside their shtick when a 3d6 roll is required.
    • Permits a character to automatically roll a “4″ on a 3d6 roll within their shtick.
    • Permits a character to re-roll a single failed roll outside of their shtick.
    • Permits the referee to drop a single hint or clue (possibly obscure) when the characters are puzzled, lost, or confused, outside of the character’s shtick.
  • 3 points of luck:
    • Permits a character to automatically roll a “4″ on a 3d6 roll outside their shtick.
    • Permits a character to automatically achieve a critical hit on a single attack that otherwise succeeds unaided, doubling the resulting damage of that ONE attack.
    • Permits the referees to provide a deus-ex-machina to help the characters get out of trouble, though this may not show up immediately.
  1. All characters should have a 0-point perq, “membership of adventurer’s club”. The cost is 0 because the club membership will be used to get characters into scenarios (i.e. trouble) at least as often as the membership
    assists the party.
PDF Icon

Click the icon to download the Strength Table as a PDF

Bonus Content

Not strictly House Rules, I put this table together as a useful reference. What are House Rules are that, under certain circumstances (limited traction, pushing at an angle, whatever) we may rule that a character can’t employ his full STR. The table accommodates this by providing lift values for full strength as well as 3/4, 1/2, and 1/4 Lift. If you need to actually get the effective STR value of the character, select the appropriate lift value from the table for the character’s normal STR, then locate the first STR score that is equal to or higher than that value.

Example: A character with STR 18 can only use 3/4 of his usual STR for whatever reason. What is his effective STR?

  1. Locate STR 18 on the table (second column).
  2. Find the 3/4 Lift entry and read off 227.25kg.
  3. Find the first entry that has a main lift equal to or higher than 227.25kg.
  4. Read off the effective STR. The character has an effective STR of 16.

The table extends into the negative STR values because a lot of animals that might be encountered have sub-zero STR levels. A house-cat, for example, might have a STR of -40. I can imagine one picking a 100g packet of sweets up in its teeth, but I think it would struggle with the weight of a can of soft drink, even if it was in the form of a piece of meat. It might be able to drag it, though.

It extends well beyond what a PC can do because we wanted to be able to adjudge how much STR a car might have, or a piece of heavy machinery.

The other thing that the partial STR numbers have been used for from time to time, is “the weight in excess of the amount that a character can lift that he can drag along the ground.”

A brief discussion of selected House Rules entries

There are a few notes worth making about these House Rules.

Power Level: Rule 1

Typical adults are built on 100 character points plus up to 50 from disadvantages, so this establishes the PCs as better than normal human. They are Pulp Heroes.

The number started at 125, plus one package (refer rule 4 discussion below) plus a free weapon skill, plus a suitable weapon, plus a free combat technique (refer rule 3 discussion), and a maximum of 25 points from disadvantages. These values were changed a number of times to hone in on the desired character levels, but with caution – we wanted to rise up to the desired number, not overshoot it and have characters deciding what skills or stats to cut.

Since characters were adventuring and earning XP anyway, which (in the Hero System) get spent improving the character, these power-ups were easily absorbed without radical shifts in the continuity of the campaign.

Stat Maxima: Rule 2

Fairly strict rules that stop characters from having one ridiculous stat and little-to-nothing in the others.

Not stated is that our NPC villains are permitted to go as high as a score of 30 in one stat, and to have a second as high as 25, but otherwise have to follow these same rules. This is fair because it is intended for situations in which one villain is opposed by, and is a match for, several PCs.

In very rare circumstances, where we can justify it, we may permit a villain to exceed even these values – but we haven’t yet. We also have a number of NPCs allied to the PCs who are built to the higher scale, or who have been permitted multiple stats over 20, simply because they are supposed to be more effective than the PCs were/are through years of experience, and because these rarely show up to help the characters in battle. And, when they do, we boost the enemy in power or in numbers.

Combat Technique: Rule 3

There’s nothing worse than a PC who can’t participate in a fight, especially in a pulp campaign.

Package Deals: Rules 4 & 5

When I started co-GMing the campaign, I pointed out that since the packages on offer in the Pulp Hero rules were not all the same price, it was unfair and unbalancing to give characters a free one. Instead, we boosted the number of build points available for character generation and simply required characters to buy a pulp character “Package” – but they had to pay for it.

There was little or no change for most of the PCs. One or two got some more points to spend, and one or two had to spend some of their accumulated XP to cover the higher cost.

We’ve used the same principle more and more frequently – the only freebie we now give away is the weapon. Everything else has to be paid for – but some things are mandatory.

Over time, we found that to construct certain characters we needed to permit multiple packages to be bought, and also that we needed to add a little more flexibility to the package contents. We very deliberately made these opportunities available to the PCs as well.

Character Individuality: Rule 6

This is a rule that I introduced many years ago into my superhero campaign (of which Blair is a player), and which he wholeheartedly adopted for his campaign.

Paranormal Abilities: Rule 8

I started out as a player in the Adventurer’s Club campaign, joining after the first couple of adventures. My character was a hypnotist. Using the standard rules and restrictions, I was able to get truly ridiculous levels of hypnotic ability (30d6 Mind Control) at a ridiculously low price. As a player, I was careful not to abuse this – on no occasion did I ever use more than 12 dice of it in-play – but it made both Blair and Myself uncomfortable. As soon as I offered to retire the character and join Blair as co-GM, I proposed that this rule be put in place.

Vehicles: Rule 9

This is a combination of a couple of ideas from my Superhero campaign with the existing situation within the Adventurer’s Club when I started to co-GM. One of our players was a Merchant Captain who wanted to have his own ship, so Blair let him buy one. Another was a Pilot who wanted his own plane, ditto. Both these were purchased using character points.

When I joined as co-GM, I pointed out that this was both restrictive and against the rules of Pulp Hero, which stated that everything should be bought with money, something that Blair had decided could give an unfair advantage – characters got the advantages of wealth AND a vehicle AND a home and whatever else they could justify? For a measly couple of points? That might be fine in terms of an ordinary off-the-shelf vehicle and dwelling, but the rules were vague and unhelpful when it came to characters wanting to trick out their vehicles. You could get the Batmobile just as easily as a 1930s Ford.

The answer described was based on the solution that I had been employing in my superhero campaign since about 1983. It made perfect sense – if you wanted something off-the-shelf, and could afford it, you bought it with wealth – but we were free to blow it up, crash it, or whatever. If you paid for one with points, we could still do all those things if the plot and/or circumstances warranted, but we had to either give the points back or replace the item in question.

The last paragraph relates directly to an adventure that we were plotting at the time which involved a Zeppelin that could travel at Supersonic Speeds (but had a very deliberate tendency to explode – it was a different sort of “cruise missile”). We were anticipating the possibility that the PCs might capture it rather than destroying it.

Luck: Rule 11

Luck is a really hard paranormal ability in the Hero System for a GM because its capabilities and effects are only loosely defined. Ian Gray and I had spent quite a lot of effort on describing and defining this power in rewriting the rules used by my superhero campaigns without being completely satisfied by any of our proposals to that point in time.

One of those alternatives, which didn’t work with the option of buying unlimited levels of the power, but which worked perfectly in a more fiscally-restrained campaign, was modified by Blair and I to create rule 11, which specified exactly what it could – and more importantly, what it could not – do.

Membership: Rule 12

Blair and I had spent quite a lot of time fleshing out the Club for which the Campaign was named – its location, its history, its staff, its resources, and so on. We thought it only appropriate that this be reflected on the PCs character sheets.

The impact of Genre

Our guiding principle throughout the creation of these House Rules was “what did we want the PCs to be able to do?”

A necessary corollary to that question is, “Well, what is Genre-appropriate for the PCs to be able to do?”

Every house rule that has been listed above was formulated with those two questions – and their answers – in mind.

The truth of House Rules

House Rules should exist to facilitate the adventures that you want to run, and to impart to both those adventures and the game system that backs them, the style, flavor and implications of the genre to which the campaign is to belong. They can fix broken rules, remove undesirable choices, and open up new options and possibilities. If they do these things without slowing play, there are no excuses – the rest is up to you.

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The Best Of 2011

2011 was an absolutely huge year for Campaign Mastery. Not only were there some major article series, plus the publication of The Empty Chair by Johnn (with a few contributions from myself), plus the publication (at last!) of our Magnum Opus on Assassins (Assassin’s Amulet), but we had our 150,000th visitor in early February, and put up our 300th post in September – by which point we had topped the 200K mark in visitors, a landmark we didn’t expect to hit until 2012!

But you can’t enjoy the sunshine without a little rain falling now and then, and toward the end of the year, Johnn began to focus his energies in directions other than Campaign Mastery. While it took a while for him to finally withdraw completely, this was when the balance between our contributions began to shift.

This is also when the Ask-The-GMs series began to bog down, caused by the distractions of a number of lengthy series, Assassin’s Amulet, Johnn’s distraction, and a number of questions that were quite hard to answer. And with each addition to the “unanswered” pile, the scale of the problem grew from molehill to foothill to mountain to everest to Olympus Mons and beyond. Around the middle of the year, we started answering queries directly because of the growing backlog, and I still have those answers on file so eventually I know that the backlog will wilt if I keep trimming it down. But that’s why there are no ATGMs in “the best” this time around – an entire year rolled past without us realizing that we hadn’t posted any entries, we were so busy.

As you might expect, it was harder than ever to keep the list of Best Posts down to a manageable number. I was helped a bit by being able to point at series, but even so, this was a hard list to prune! Hardest of all was the decision to cut all the content excerpted from Assassin’s Amulet, but most if not all of that content is available through the free preview. And if you like what you find there, you can buy Assassin’s Amulet – and get all the bonus content that was produced for it at the same time – by clicking on the image to the right, or the link above, or the image below. That, and some ruthless pruning, and grouping series together, let me cut this down to a bare minimum 26 entries…

The Best Of 2011

AA front cover

Extra: The Assassin’s Amulet articles

Okay, I’ve had my arm twisted. Below is a list of the articles that would have been in the list of “The best of 2011″ if I hadn’t cut them for reasons other than their being good enough. Any entry in Italics is available in the free preview version; as you can see, that’s most of them.


Of course, rolling out “The Best of 2011″ means that “The Best of 2008-9″ needs to give way from the sidebar to make room. You can still find those “Best Of” entries by clicking on “The Best” Button at the top of the page, or by following this link.

In the next part, about three months away: The best of 2012! Why two months? This is mid-July. If I put “The best of 2012″ out in early-to-mid-October, I can do “The Best of 2013″ about four months after that, in February 2105, and “The best of 2014″ in mid-2015, after another 4 months. The plan – at least at the moment – is to always have the “Best of” from a year earlier and the year before that, on display, changing annually in mid-year.

I wish I knew of a widget that would let me randomly select from the different time periods and put two of them up with each different visit, or even just randomly select a dozen or so from the collective list each time. But so far as I know, there’s no such beast – probably because no-one saw a use for one!

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Who Are You? – An original character naming approach

You never know where your next idea will come from...

You never know where your next idea will come from…

I was half-listening to the commentary from the Tour De France a few moments ago (as I write the first draft of this opening paragraph), and I misheard something.

No great surprise there, that happens all the time when you’re only half-listening. But what I thought I heard gave me a great idea for a Character Naming System that I thought interesting enough to share.

It breaks a name into three components: A surname, a middle name, and a first name.

But that’s not the clever bit.

The Surname

The Surname consists of two hyphenated parts.

Before the hyphen

The first part is a traditional surname, i.e. a family name, and should be chosen by the player from a list of approved family names provided by the GM (who will be using the same list to generate NPC names, so creating it won’t be wasted effort).

After the hyphen

The second part, following the hyphen, names the township of the characters’ birth; if no township, then the locality; if the locality is not known, then the region; if the region is not known then the name of nearest geographic feature.

To choose a set of examples that most readers will be able to follow, Salem is a well-known small town in Massachusetts. Massachusetts is the locality, the political administrative entity that encompasses the town and more besides. New England is the recognized name for the region. And finally, there are numerous geographic features in and around Salem – everything from Palmer Cove to Walden Pond to Lynn Woods to Jeggle Island.

So a surname from the Farmer family might be Farmer-Salem, or (if the character wasn’t born in town), Farmer-Massachusetts, or if he wasn’t sure exactly where it took place within the area (people having more on their minds than borders in the early colonial days), Farmer-NewEngland, or – if the character can pin it down to a particular spot where there wasn’t any township, perhaps Farmer-LynnWoods.

But that’s not the clever bit, either.

The Middle name

This is also known as the common name, because it’s the name that the parents choose to identify the specific individual, and it’s the name by which the character is commonly known. The player should choose from a list of 366 names generated by the GM – a list that I’ll come back to in a moment – but is free to choose an alternative if the GM approves it.

That’s still not the clever bit.

The First Name

The Birthname is determined by the date of birth being cross-referanced with that same list of approved names mentioned a moment ago. In other words, if you are born on January 1, you are assigned the first name on the list; if January 2, the second; and so on. And if one particular family name hyphenated part is already in use with that first name, you move to the next.

What does that mean? Think about the need to distinguish between different members of a specific family for a moment. In insular times, the entire family is likely to be geographically very close to each other, but after a couple of hundred years, families will seperate into seperate strands in different localities. How many family members do you need before two of them have the same first name? The odds are fairly good that you will need 100 or more – and there aren’t many families in medieval times that are that large. Now throw in the geographic scattering factor, and you find that a family needs something closer to 500 or so members born in the same vicinity before you get any possible duplication. Just using the approved middle-names list, that means that a family needs AT LEAST 50,000 members in the same immediate geographic region before duplication occurs.

And the larger a family grows, the more likely it is to disperse, changing the surname, so this scales up with the population level.

Okay, so that’s a little clever. But until you think about the totality that results, you won’t get the clever bit.

The Clever Bit

Think about what this name encodes and encapsulates. Lineage. Birthplace. Day of Birth. Toss in a hyphenated name for the year as part of the first name, and you have an exact date of birth.

Every individual in a heavily populated country can be uniquely identified with just their name. And that’s before you throw in any social connotations that may attach to the family name and choice of middle name.

It doesn’t quite distill an entire character background into a single factoid on the character sheet. But it comes closer than anything else I’ve ever seen.

And that’s the clever bit. But I still haven’t shown the full range of reasons why it’s so clever.

Who Does This Suit?

This name technique is far too inconvenient and far too artificial to be universal anywhere that it was not strictly mandated by society or by law, with strict penalties applied.

But beyond this ruled-with-an-iron-fist requirement, it can work in just about any environment.

  • It might be a Theocracy ruled by Lawfully-aligned Priests in a D&D/Pathfinder setting.
  • It could be an ultrarationalist society in a near-future setting.
  • It could be a Parallel-world Nazi society.
  • Or a variant USSR.
  • It could be set in the far future, where naming conventions have evolved to facilitate computer records…
  • …or even a post-apocalyptic world in which survivors of whatever the Doomsday Scenario was have emulated the way they thought the old world used to name their people, based on some old computer printout!
  • Not to mention a possible alien society that thinks this is the logical way to name people.

That’s because while it’s quite different to established human naming conventions, it’s similar enough to many ancient practices to be completely plausible; you can imagine such a naming system evolving within a society, and reflecting something of the society that created/adopted/mandated it.

Even more depth of meaning can be layered in by assigning or utilizing name meanings that are unique to the campaign when discussing the first and middle names, or by associating certain sounds with certain seasons of the year.

You could even build in a key factoid from your Campaign History, if it suits, and spring it on your players as a revelation. To employ another D&D/Pathfinder example, consider the first encounter between say Dragons and Humans taking place in-game and learning that the human names used throughout the known world mean something completely different in Draconic!

Or you could pull the same trick when gray, short, big-headed bald Aliens land on the lawn of the White House in their flying saucer – implying that some of those stories about ancient astronauts were true (or, perhaps, that this is what the Grays want the world to think…)

Clever, don’t you think?

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Touchstones Of Unification Pt 3 – The Big Picture (Genre and Style)


So we’ve looked at Themes, and we’ve looked at Concepts, and even touched on the relationship between the two. But now it’s time to address the elephant in the room – twin elephants in fact – Genre and Style, and how these modify that relationship, how it all comes together to form a unique fingerprint that identifies each and every campaign, and finally, how an understanding of that fingerprint permits the GM to enhance the campaign to produce greater enjoyment for all concerned.

Past Reference

I should start by reminding readers that this isn’t the first time that I’ve talked about the relationship between style and genre for RPGs. Directly relevant is Theme vs Style vs Genre: Crafting Anniversary Special Adventures, but it was a subject touched on repeatedly in the Reinventing Pulp for Roleplaying series.

But there’s a lot more to be said…


Genre is surprisingly hard to define well. The dictionary meaning of the term seems hollow and bereft of significance. The Wikipedia article on the subject is excellent in comparison; if anything, it goes too far in the other direction, failing to capture the essence of the term for all its detailed examinations of the way the term is used. I’m more or less forced to roll my own, then live with it. So let’s have a go:

Genre reflects a set of stylistic and content-related conventions and principles that are considered uniquely descriptive of a specific category or group of related works, and hence identify those works as being members of, examples of, belonging to, or representative of, that genre.

These conventions and principles need not be uniformly relevant to every work classified as belonging to a specific genre; it can be sufficient to say that to belong to the genre, the work needs to exhibit “one or more” of a list of specific characteristics. Each of those characteristics is generally considered to define a sub-genre, but there are overlaps, and a single work may be considered representative of a number of sub-genres simultaneously.

Occasionally, a work may be presented that does not fit comfortably within any of the accepted subgenre ‘family’ types, or which deliberately violates one or more of the conventions or principles that is regarded as sacrosanct within the primary genre, but which is nevertheless considered to be inarguably part of the primary genre. When this occurs, the definitions of the genre must expand to encompass the work in question, usually through the incorporation of a new sub-genre.

Genres are non-exclusive. A specific work can be representative of several genres simultaneously. Quite often, a specific sub-genre within one specific genre is defined exclusively by the relevance of another genre. This occurs because genre labels are an artificial system of classification. However, some combinations combine in a more felicitous manner than others, typically determinable through contradictions in the defining conventions and principles.

That last point deserves some amplification. The following combinations are all reasonable and have been the basis of successful works in the past:

  • Romance, Comedy
  • Science Fiction, Comedy
  • Science Fiction, Horror
  • Science Fiction, Action-Adventure
  • Action-Adventure, Comedy

Romance and Action-Adventure struggle to coexist, but it can be done – “Romancing The Stone”, for example. The same is true of Romance and Science Fiction (I have to admit, no examples leap to mind). But despite the degree to which Science Fiction can partner any of the other genres named, I have trouble picturing a Science Fiction Horror-Comedy Action-Adventure. The “Men In Black” franchise tries, but the Horror elements keep getting lost in the shuffle. You could argue that “Aliens” also tries, but aside from a few moments here and there, the Comedic elements go out the airlock.

One of great successes in popular film over the last decade or so has been the Pirates Of The Caribbean franchise, which successfully united the Fantasy, Pirates, and Comedy Genres – with a bit of the Star-Crossed Romance subgenre for good measure. Before The Curse Of The Black Pearl came along, no-one would have expected these elements to even be on speaking terms in the one film. So Genre remains slippery as a guideline to what does and doesn’t belong.

Core and Fringe

The way I generally think about Genre is to divide it into an inner core that is a “pure” example of a specific genre and a “Fringe” that overlaps or incorporates elements from one or more other Genres. Rather like the Earth’s atmosphere, it doesn’t have a hard boundary, it just sort of fades out with distance from the core.

There are some genres that naturally connect. Horror comes in three basic flavors, for example – there’s one axis that strongly connects with Fantasy (Dracula etc); there’s another that connects to Science Fiction; and there’s a core that eschews both and is just extreme violence – slasher fiction. You can think of the first two as polar opposites connecting to the respective genre that matches the flavor.

So any genre has a core of high purity, and a fringe that can incorporate elements from other genres.

Those foreign elements can interact with the core of the designated genre in one of three ways:

  • They can work together to reinforce each other, resulting in a genre representative that is superior to what a pure interpretation in either genre would have been alone;
  • They can simply co-exist without neither reinforcement nor contradiction, resulting in something that is acceptable in terms of either genre, but which is not as great as it might have been;
  • Or they can conflict, resulting in something that fans of either genre would find disappointing. This is often exacerbated if the raw ingredients and concepts are present that could have made the work exceptional.
Genre and RPGs

When we’re talking about something that’s even partially episodic, like a TV show or an RPG, we gain some significant advantages. While the core of the body of work needs to be appropriate to the specific genre or subgenre or genre combination that we have chosen, each episode has the option of touching on or even plunging into a side-genre. While most of these will still reflect an appropriate subgenre under the umbrella of one or more of the primary genres, it’s even permissible to completely leave those genres for something else entirely; it’s just a little harder, that’s all.

Take a superhero campaign, which is something I know very well, having been running one since 1982. There has been disaster movies, alien invasions, action-adventures, Gothic noire, Lovecraftian horror, space opera, pure science fiction, high fantasy, low fantasy, time travel, soap opera, war movies, historical and period drama, post-apocalyptic dystopias, courtroom drama, romantic comedy, political thriller, corporate skulduggery, horror, spy thrillers, political satire, treasure maps, pirates, animated cartoons, police procedurals, teen movies, and even a little Bud Spencer/Terance Hill – plus lots of superheroics! Heck, I’ve even referenced a couple of sports movies for inspiration along the way!!

Some of these challenge accepted notions of what works in a superheroic setting. They succeeded (when they did) by leaving out conventions of the superheroic genre that were incompatible with the accenting genre, or vice-versa, and they failed (for the most part) when that wasn’t done properly.

Gothic Horror can work in a science fiction genre either by translating the Gothic horror elements into a science-fiction setting, or by focusing on the Gothic Horror elements and setting aside the purely sci-fi elements that clash. And if you have a purely sci-fi character who is in the middle of this plotline, you either make it work by embracing the sci-fi and sacrificing the horror, or by playing the metaphoric “fish out of water” card. So long as your answer is consistent within the internal workings of that adventure, it’s fine. Getting the combination wrong – the “fish out of water” while embracing the sci-fi and translating the Gothic Horror into science-fiction terms – is disastrous, because the genre components are at war with themselves, a war that neither can win to anyone’s satisfaction.

Genre and Theme

It would be easy to equate “stylistic and content-related conventions” with themes, but that’s the sort of mistake that directors of B-grade movies made all the time back in the 50s, 60s, and 70s (and perhaps after, but that’s when I stopped watching anything worse than B+ grade). The correct relationship is to state that for any given individual work or selected group of related works within a genre may exhibit one or more themes characteristic of that genre.

Or perhaps, even more simply, that some genres have specific recurring themes that work within the genre. Those themes may not work with some of the subthemes, but they do fit one or more that are generally considered to be strictly associated with that genre. None of which has any real bearing on the themes of any specific campaign, TV series, movie, or whatever. A genre is more than an approved collection of themes and memes.

What is important is that the themes that any such work or collection of works exhibits falls within the parameters of the established genre, or at the very least, does not clash with any of the central traits of the genre. Genre constrains the themes that can make up the core of the campaign, which must be compatible with the core of the genre.

Genre and Concept

So Genre restricts the themes that are acceptable within the genre, in general terms, and therefore also restricts the core concepts of the campaign. Once again, there is no exclusive list of concepts that are definitively and exclusively part of one genre or subgenre, though there are some combinations that are more natural than others.

Don’t believe me? Try this one: A man falls in love with the painted image of a woman from a different era, and so travels back in time to woo her. Clearly, this is a romance concept, and a science fiction concept, But romance is definitely not a core concept in the science fiction genre, and time travel definitely doesn’t fit the usual mould of the romantic genre. Nevertheless, there is nothing inherently wrong with this concept. It’s a little shallow – it needs to be allied with either a comedic theme (star-crossed lovers again), with a dramatic theme (the romance occurs at the height of a violent and bloody period in history, whose events will sweep up both protagonists, or perhaps there are obstacles to be overcome like an arranged marriage or an opposed family), or perhaps with a tragic theme (the woman is doomed to die young). Put any one of those added elements into the concept and you could quite happily turn it into a movie or novel. Or, you could focus on the science fiction genre and make the opposition some form of Temporal Police, or – as was done in the classic Star Trek episode “The City On The Edge Of Forever”, a tragic subtheme in which the woman has to die for history to be put right.

Concepts resonate with some or all of the themes of the campaign, and are therefore classifiable as part of the genre core, or are forced to exist on the fringes of the genre in connection with some other genre that is not central to the campaign. Doesn’t mean you can’t use a given concept – just that some concepts belong at the heart of the campaign and others belong on its fringe as occasion divergences from the central genre.

You could almost say that Theme is to Genre as Concept is to Theme. Genre restricts themes, and identifies some as central to the overall story of the campaign while not excluding the occasional foray into fringe territory; and both restrict Concept, identifying some ideas as relating to the central themes while others are fringe ideas that can be touched on once but should not be a recurring element within the campaign. In order for a fringe concept to work, some aspects of the central genre may have to be (temporarily) discarded and replaced with aspects of the connecting genres; and any themes that are directly connected to those elements of the central Genre that are being set aside need to either be re-imagined within the context of the connecting genre or also set aside for the duration of the adventure or story.


Every GM has his own style, though a lot of GMs – perhaps even most – would be very hard-put to actually describe and define exactly what their own style is.

You could give the same campaign concepts and themes, both occurring within the same genre structures, to two different GMs and they would produce radically different campaigns, no matter how similar both appeared at the start. Even if you had the one writer doing the plotlines for both, you would still end up with different interpretations and outcomes from individual stories.

In more practical terms, each GM’s style is defined – at least in part – by his strengths, his weaknesses, and his preferences, in all sorts of different areas. Everything from the way combat is handled, to the way NPCs are portrayed, to the way unscripted improvisation takes place within the campaign, to how strongly connected one adventure is to another (serial vs episodic campaigns), to the way morality (and alignment, in some systems) are portrayed and enforced. I haven’t done much (read: “any”) convention GMing, but I have playtested adventures for conventions a couple of times, and one of the things that always struck me was how differently two GMs could interpret the same adventure, and that is a manifestation of this principle.

A Side-note: That’s why the authors of Convention adventures should never be the only GM to playtest their work. There are too many assumptions that they make simply because it never occurs to them that anyone could interpret things differently. Sure, they could run a first-playtest – but at least one playtest should be run by someone who’s never seen the adventure before, while the author sits back and makes notes.

Heck, even if the GM was exactly the same and could reset his memories to exactly the way he was before first running the campaign, simply having different players would produce a somewhat different style because an RPG is so interactive between players and GM.

Style and Genre

Style functions as a filter, or it should do. It should exclude genres and genre elements that play to the GM’s weaknesses while enabling him to draw upon his strengths. Style is the traffic cop, directing game traffic into a subset of the totality that’s (theoretically) available.

Some genres will work better for a given GM’s style than others. Identifying which genres and genre elements will suit a given GM’s style is one of the hardest questions a GM can ask themselves. I’ve tried – hard – to think of some way to shortcut that process, and have to admit that I’ve failed utterly. In this, there is no substitute for inspiration and experience.

Every time I thought I had something, I was able to find an exception of sufficient magnitude to disprove it. For example, I thought at one point that it had to be a genre that the GM had read. But then I realized that I co-GM a Pulp campaign and have never read more than one or two era-correct pulp novels in my life. And even if I expand it to include things like the Dirk Pitt series, it’s still a number I can count on both hands. Yet, the campaign is very successful.

Perhaps its because I understand the pulp genre, as shown by the positive commentary the articles on the Genre here at Campaign Mastery have received. But I would question how much of that understanding I had when I started; my major contribution was not knowledge of the pulp genre but knowledge of the basics of good storytelling and campaign structure. Where I succeeded was in adapting the genre conventions to a modern era, drawing upon the Indiana Jones movies and such as the primary reference sources. You could say that I succeeded as a Pulp Co-GM by ignoring a number of the conventions of the pulp Genre.

And so it went for every criterion I could think of, save one: A GM’s style suits a particular genre if the GM is comfortable GMing that particular genre. And that’s not very helpful.

Style and Themes

There are also going to be some Themes that suit a GM’s style more than others. Here, at least, I had some greater success at finding some objective way of measuring suitability.

A Theme that works within a GM’s preferred style is one that the GM can think of many ways of expressing. The more different ideas that you have, the better-suited to running a campaign using that Theme.

And that’s such a simple measurement criterion that it’s possible to use Theme Suitability as a measurement by extension for judging Genre suitability:

“A GM is suited to a Genre if it contains Themes that the GM is suited to expressing in different ways within different adventures.”

Unfortunately, it’s not quite right. There are two aspects in which this measurement of suitability of Theme fails.

First, there is the question of quality vs quantity. You can have all the ideas in the world, but if they are all or even just mostly rubbish, do they really out-value one really good idea?

And then, there’s the question of originality. Does a middling-good but completely original idea count for more than a really good idea that is very similar to ideas that other people have had in the past?

And the problem is that both of these are very subjective measurements, which rather eviscerates our objective measurement criterion. However, it’s a reasonable supposition that the more ideas that you have, the more likely you are to have a Good one, and the more likely you are to have an original one. So while the original answer is less robust than it might be, it is still at least somewhat reasonable.

Genre and Concepts

Another way of phrasing that criterion, and one that gets to the heart of the relationship between all these elements, replaces the somewhat vague term “ways” with “Concepts”:

“A GM is suited to a Genre if it contains Themes that the GM is suited to expressing in different Concepts in different adventures.”

Ultimately, it all comes down to the number and quality of the ideas that you have for adventures within a campaign, and your ability to express those ideas successfully. Themes are recurring concepts within separate adventures, and Genre is an artificial classification system that can be used as a guide to the successful integration of Concepts and Themes into a coherent plot.

The Campaign Fingerprint

An infinite field of possible concepts from within allied genres, selected by suitability according to the GM’s individual style, shaped according to an infinite field of possible themes also selected by suitability according to the GM’s individual style, and all manifested through a collaboration with a unique group of players, means that every campaign is going to be different. Two campaigns can be from within the same genre, can have the same themes, and can even start with some of the same concepts, but they will still be completely different if they have different GMs or players. No matter how similar they might start out being, they will inevitably diverge.

The combination of GM & players, theme, and genre therefore uniquely identify a campaign in exactly the same way as a fingerprint identifies a unique individual. And, believe it or not, that’s actually something very useful to the GM.

Practical Application

Let’s say that you have an idea for a new adventure for your campaign. Having your list of themes (described in part one of this series) at hand, you can go through them looking for ways to express those themes within the adventure concept. Having a list of the core concepts (from part 2) permits you to look for conflicts with the new idea, and decide how to resolve the incompatibility. And finally, knowing the precise Genre(s) of the Campaign enables you to look for conflicts between the genre of the undeveloped idea AND offers guidance on how to resolve all these conflicts.

The fingerprint, in fact, is a checklist for the selection and integration of a plot idea into a specific campaign. It’s a technique for identifying the additional plot elements that you need to incorporate in order to mesh your idea with your campaign. There’s no longer a need to achieve this with intuition and abstract reasoning – because the Themes, Core Concepts, and Genre “Rules” provide a practical framework for doing so more rigorously, more easily, and more accurately than these stone-age plotting techniques.

And it works for other game elements as well. Locations. Gadgets & Devices. Enemies & Characterization. The nature of the setbacks within an adventure. The stylistic approach that a plot needs to adopt. Cosmology. Applied Theology (in a game where the Gods are real). Even House Rules can be assessed in terms of the genre that is being simulated.

Defining the Campaign Fingerprint defines the central spine of the Campaign, and that becomes a tool for the assessment of everything else that you consider implementing within that campaign. And if that’s not of practical value, I don’t know what is.

An example

Let’s say that I want to integrate that romantic time-travel idea into my superhero campaign. First, I can say that a romantic theme is not a great fit for a superhero plot, but time travel works in that context. Of the choices available, we need opposition appropriate to a superhero campaign, and the Time Patrol have already established themselves as hostile to the PCs organization, though the PCs have no direct first-hand knowledge of the Time Patrol. We need the temporal paradox / star-crossed lovers combination. At the same time, we have established in the campaign physics that destiny is not immutable, it can be changed if enough effort is put into that change. So the adventure, from the PCs point of view, has to be to choose between the lovers and the destiny that is under the protection of the Time Patrol – or to find some other solution to the problem. All that’s left is to find a way to introduce the PCs to the problem in the first place. A typical intro might be a high-speed chase in a commandeered vehicle down a packed roadway with Time Patrol officers riding anti-grav sleds and taking potshots at the vehicle. When the PCs show up, they are attacked from the vehicle because the occupants think they are more Time Patrol Officers. The team telepath can sort that out, leaving the capacity for the couple to play on the PCs sympathies. That puts them on a collision course with the Time Patrol – again – and the basic plotline more or less writes itself from there.

One of the key themes of the current campaign is that Victory has a price. Right now, as this plotline stands, the PCs have no personal involvement, and can be dispassionate. So, in terms of complicating factors, we need each of the possible “future history” outcomes to have a negative impact on one of the PCs, or someone that one of the PCs cares about. We then need a way for that information to get into the PCs hands. The Time Patrol can approach one of the PCs privately and enlist them, so that’s one information vector dealt with. One possible approach would be for the team telepath to extract the information from the time-traveling romantic, but she already has a key role in the plot. Perhaps the time traveler has an iPad or equivalent from which he has carefully wiped information about the future – some of which can still be retrieved by the team’s tech-head – except that they don’t really have one of those at the moment – or by a clever use of magic. The effect is that one way or another, one of the team members will pay the price, and that makes the dilemma personal.

All that’s left is to come up with a twist or two, add a super-villain or two trying to capture the time-travel technology, and make sure that the solutions are clearly mapped out, and the plot outline would be ready to go. Of course, some time looking to connect other campaign themes with the plot would not be wasted effort, but this example clearly shows how you can take a plotline that shouldn’t work in this campaign and makes it fit like a glove.

For those who are interested in keeping score of such things, this is the 600th post here at Campaign Mastery!! I’m incredibly grateful for the ongoing support of our fans and regular readers, and wish absolutely everyone who reads these words all the best :)

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Fighting The Spam War


This is an extra, out-of-normal-time blog post to explain the new anti-spam policies that I’ve been forced to implement here at Campaign Mastery.

The real price of Spam

Spam is an unfortunate reality. It will never go away.

Most of the time, Spam is like an itch that has to be scratched. But there are times when excessive spam floods in, and it becomes the equivalent of an attempted denial-of-service attack on a small one-man website, consuming hours of what would otherwise be productive time. And, even more rarely, its a direct attack aimed at bringing a website down, an attempt to discover and utilize a vulnerability of the website’s architecture.

To cope with these last two situations, a formal anti-spam response policy has had to be put in place, and will be subject to change without notice if it doesn’t work, or if something better comes along.

Spam Alert Level: Green

A reasonable level of Spam comments being submitted to any public website is both expected and will be tolerated. As a general rule, Spam comments will be deleted and will never be visible to the public. Given the number of hits CM receives, that number is somewhere in the vicinity of 20 every 6 hours or so, or 80 a day.

Spam Alert Level: Amber

From time to time, Spam levels – mostly driven by spambots – will get out of hand and the number of spam submissions will skyrocket. Again as a general rule of thumb, a day or two will be allotted for things to calm down of their own accord, which happens about half the time, in my experience. During this period, the only change from the normal state of affairs is that there will be too many spam comments for me to go through them all checking that none are ‘false positives’ from the spam test. The occasional genuine comment might get tagged as spam, and that’s unfortunate, but it’s the best compromise that I can make with the policy of keeping the site itself as open as possible.

If the problem is too major (more than 250-300 a day), or persists for too long, I’ll go to Spam Alert Level Red.

Spam Alert Level: Red

About half the time, the problem will not go away as a result of timely action on the part of the people responsible for the servers on which the spam originates. That’s when it’s time to get serious.

On the theory that the worst offenders will be more prevalent in any given “slice” of the spam being received, a number of originating IPs will be blocked. Typically, this will be 20-60. Every 6 hours or so, a new batch of 20 will be added to the blocked list, until the spam count reduces to the manageable level, triggering a shift to Spam Alert Level Blue.

These IP addresses are those which originated a spam comment.

Any server so blocked that has produced fewer than 2 hits in the preceding 48 hours will get immediately unblocked, because blocking so few is not worth the imposition on the public.

The remainder are assessed periodically. I have drawn up a table (later in this post) of allowable blocked hits in given time frame relative to the number of hits in the 48 hours prior to the commencement of blocking; if this number of attempted blocked hits or less is received, the site will be unblocked. If more than the tolerable level are received, the IP stays blocked.

Any blocked site that goes 24 hours without attempting to access the site will also be unblocked.

Spam Alert Level: Blue

This is exactly the same as Red except that I stop adding new IPs to the blocked list. It signifies that the response has achieved its goal of stopping the spam deluge, and that it’s time to start inching back from the draconian blocking of IPs. One by one, as the targeted VIPs stop delivering spam, the blocks get lifted. If a resurgence in spam levels follows, I’ll go back into Alert Level Red mode again.

Eventually, only the worst offenders will remain. If spam levels have remained at the tolerable level for 48 hours with everyone else unblocked, I’ll also unblock these – but be ready to reinstate the blocks if necessary and restart that clock.

Past experience has shown that Alert Level Red typically lasts for 24-48 hours, and Blue for another 2-3 days. I try to err on the side of keeping access open, and restore it s quickly as possible.

Spam Alert Levels: Violet and Black

I’ve never had to go this far, but if Red persists for a week, I’ll go to Alert Level Black. If Blue persists for a week with no prospect of an imminent reduction in Alert level, I’ll go to Violet.


Violet means that the worst offenders – those with more than say, 100 blocked hits in a 24 hour period for multiple days running – will be permanently blocked and – with the exception of that blocking – the rest of the site will go back to Green.


This indicates that this anti-spam policy has failed, and left me with only one recourse: closing posts older than a couple of weeks to comments. If this produces the immediate reduction in Spam expected, comments may be reopened in a week or two on a trial basis. If necessary, the prohibition will remain permanent.

Because this will change the level of opportunity for spambots to affect the site, while the prohibition remains in effect, a less-tolerant set of spam figures will be devised.

The nitty-gritty

What are the numbers that I’m using to assess unblocking?

  • <2 hits prior to blocking: immediate unblock.
  • 6-8 hours after blocking:
    • <4 hits prior to blocking and no blocked hits: unblock.
    • 4-8 hits prior to blocking and no blocked hits: check again at end of 8 hours. If still no blocked hits, unblock.
    • >9 hits prior to blocking: IP remains blocked.
  • 12-16 hours after blocking:
    • Any hits prior to blocking and no blocked hits: unblock.
    • <5 hits prior to blocking and 1 blocked hit total: unblock.
    • 5-10 hits prior to blocking and 1 blocked hit total more than 6 hours old: unblock.
    • 11-15 hits prior to blocking and 1 blocked hit total more than 10 hours old: unblock.
    • >16 hits prior to blocking: IP remains blocked.
  • 16-20 hours after blocking:
    • <11 hits prior to blocking and 1 blocked hit total more than 4 hours old: unblock.
    • <11 hits prior to blocking and 2 blocked hit total, last one more than 6 hours old: unblock
    • <11 hits prior to blocking and 3-4 blocked hits total, last one more than 10 hours old: unblock
    • <11 hits prior to blocking and >4 blocked hits total: IP remains blocked.
    • 11-15 hits prior to blocking and 1 blocked hit total more than 8 hours old: unblock.
    • 11-15 hits prior to blocking and 2-4 blocked hits total, last one more than 10 hours old: unblock.
    • 11-15 hits prior to blocking and >4 blocked hits total: IP remains blocked.
    • 16-25 hits prior to blocking and <3 blocked hits total, last one more than 8 hours old: unblock.
    • 16-25 hits prior to blocking and 3-5 blocked hits total, last one more than 10 hours old: unblock.
    • 16-25 hits prior to blocking and 6-10 blocked hits total, last one more than 12 hours old: unblock.
    • 16-25 hits prior to blocking and >10 blocked hits total: IP remains blocked.
    • >25 hits prior to blocking: IP remains blocked.
  • 20-24 hours after blocking:
    • <20 hits prior to blocking and 1 blocked hit total more than 4 hours old: unblock.
    • 20-30 hits prior to blocking and <6 blocked hits total, last one more than 6 hours old: unblock
    • 20-30 hits prior to blocking and 6-8 blocked hits total, last one more than 8 hours old: unblock
    • 20-30 hits prior to blocking and 9-12 blocked hits total, last one more than 12 hours old: unblock
    • 20-30 hits prior to blocking and >13 blocked hits total: IP remains blocked.
    • 30-50 hits prior to blocking and <6 blocked hit total more than 8 hours old: unblock.
    • 30-50 hits prior to blocking and 6-12 blocked hits total, last one more than 12 hours old: unblock.
    • 30-50 hits prior to blocking and >13 blocked hits total: IP remains blocked.
    • >50 hits prior to blocking and <6 blocked hits total, last one more than 12 hours old: unblock.
    • >50 hits prior to blocking and 6-10 blocked hits total, last one more than 16 hours old: unblock.
    • >50 hits prior to blocking and >11 blocked hits total, last one more than 20 hours old: unblock.
  • apr. 48 hours after blocking and every 12 hrs thereafter:
    • <30 hits prior to blocking and last blocked hit more than 8 hours old: unblock.
    • 30-50 hits prior to blocking and last blocked hit more than 12 hours old: unblock
    • >50 hits prior to blocking and last blocked hit more than 16 hours old: unblock

This policy focuses on weeding out the trivial contributions to the spam count early on, and thereafter matching a required “spam free” period with a scale of initial traffic.

What This Means For You:

Hopefully, nothing. The odds are pretty huge that any real-life user will notice any difference whatsoever. There is always an outside chance that the originating IP belongs to something critical to your ability to see the website, in which it may become inaccessible to you, temporarily. I would expect you to see a “403″ error message, “access refused”, if that happens. In which case you know that your ISP has been whacked on the head because I’ve detected spam coming from it. Complain to your technical department (politely, because they may already know about the problem and be in the process of pest control), point them at this article, and ask them to see if spam coming from their server is the cause of your problem. When the spam stops, normal service will be resumed.

I can’t police the entire internet, and shouldn’t have to. It’s up to each individual customer of each internet provider to police their own little corner of the Netiverse.

And remember that I’ll only block access as something close to a last resort.

Where are we now?

Last week, following an update to the latest version of all plugins and WordPress itself, Spam began to skyrocket. Within 24 hours, it was running at 15 times the usual rate, or about 20 an hour. I immediately went to Alert Level Amber, and things stabilized for a while. Gradually, though, the spam levels continued to climb, and over a six hour period on July 10, topped 300 for the first time during this Amber Level. Accordingly, I indicated in a footnote to Thursday’s post that I was instituting the blocking of servers identified as spamming the website.

Since I wanted to allow a little time for the word to get out, so that if the site went dark for someone there would be people out there who would know why, I delayed instituting Alert Level Red for several hours. At 6 AM this morning, an initial batch of 50 IP addresses were blocked, 10 of which were immediately unblocked as making a trivial contribution to the problem.

Six VIPs (and I’m not going to list them) made an immediate impression. They were responsible for, respectively (in order of blocking) 68, 105, 840, 70, 80, and 92 attempted accesses to the site over the 48 hours prior to the blocking. There were a number of others in the 10-20, 20-30, 30-40, and 40-50 hit range, and about a third of the blocked sites had 9 or less, but those six were the big attention-getters. In the eight hours since, these six produced 5, 3, 134, 60, 1, and 6 blocked attempts to access the site. That tells me that two, perhaps 4 of the big six now have their spam problem under control, but the other two are still running at an unacceptable level. In addition, another site that was in the 10-20 range yielded a noteworthy 15 blocked attempts to access the site. By far, the majority was 1, 2, or 3 failed attempts, indicating that many of these blocked sites will have access restored less than a day after it was blocked. So we’re heading for Alert Level Blue at the moment, but aren’t there yet. There was a definite drop in spam levels – to 200 in that eight hours – but it’s still way over the threshold.

At the same time as these numbers were being checked and documented, another 31 VIPs were blocked. I don’t have numbers yet for blocked attempts from those, but there are three attention-getters which logged 97, 60, and 452 attempts to access the site over the preceding 48 hours. So three or four of the initial big six may be about to drop out of the hostile category, but there appear to be three more to take their place. I will continue to monitor the situation, but as of right now, I’m still in Spam Alert Level Red.

An Update:

At the 12-hour mark, half of the initial 40 VIPs that were blocked were released. At the 8-hour mark for the second batch of blocked VIPs, 11 of the 31 were unblocked, and another 14 blocked. Spam dropped from over 30 per hour to about 10 an hour. That’s right, less than 1 day of this protocol and my spam problem has been cut by more than 60%, and I am now officially at Alert Level Blue – unless there’s a big spike overnight. And there’s been no visible dent whatsoever in my real-person hits as a result, indicating that to most of you, this whole “war” has been invisible – exactly as it should be!

I’m not actually going to post this until after the 18-hour update for batch one. So there will be one more update before anyone gets to read this – due about 2.5 hours from now. I’m predicting a spam count at that time of 20-30 at worst, and a more likely result of 15-20. Keep reading to see how accurately I’ve called it…

A Second Update:

One more of the original blocked batch has been released, and the total spam received: 19.I’m just about ready to declare victory!

Update 17 July 2014

Twice now I’ve dropped the alert level to blue and twice the spam level has rocketed back up to unaccepteable levels within 24 hours. That’s fine, it didn’t surprise me too much. But now I’m starting to see recidivists – IP numbers that have been blocked for spam, then cleared, now showing up in the spam list once again, some of them quite heavily. As a result, I’m taking a slightly harsher line when it comes to clearing IPs from the blocked list, instead of clearing them at the first opportunity.

It’s also interesting to observe that there are some IPs that, once blocked, have never earned their way back – one of them making 850 attempts to access the site in a single 24-hour period. All told, 1141 attempts to access the site have been blocked for spam reasons in the last 24 hours, divided among 29 different IP numbers – an average of about 40 attempts each. Most have been from Chinese servers, but the worst offenders have been from some Romanian servers, some Ukrainian servers, a handful of servers in the US, and – the worst offender of all – one server in Poland.

Overall, though, the strategy appears to be working; it’s just taking longer than I would have hoped.

Update 28 July 2014

Slowly but progressively, the anti-spam policy is working, as more and more ISPs get on top of the spambots running on their servers. Every day, more servers get released from the blocked list than get added, without incurring a fresh wave of spam. It’s still too early to call it a victory, but spam is now down to about 200% of what it was before the wave struck, a huge improvement from the 3000% that it reached at its worst.

This has given me a little time to think about the implications of this emergency strategy, and the risks involved.

First, I don’t like the idea that I can be forced to function as a weapon in denying people access to the site. Most of the blocked servers have identified themselves as being in China. It would be very easy for someone who wanted to restrict a population’s access to independent perspectives to get the webmaster to do their work for them by getting the site to block service, simply by running a state-sponsored spambot on their key infrastructure. I don’t think that will ever happen, as there are more efficient ways of blocking such access, so this is by no means an accusation. Just a concern. But, by extension, cyber warfare between any two groups can rope in any site employing this anti-spam technique simply by hacking the enemy and releasing a spambot.

Secondly, I believe in the benefits of an open internet, and this policy doesn’t sit well alongside that principle. The policy forces me to compromise my ideals, and however necessary that might be, it’s still something that leaves a bad taste in my mouth. This is only the second or third time that I’ve had to do something like this, and it will always be a policy of last resort – or close to it – as a result.

I’m always worried about one bad apple causing the site to be blocked for a much larger number of ordinary visitors. One reason why my initial sensitivity levels erred on the side of openness and spam tolerance is to minimize the impact on real users. The traffic numbers tell me that the policy works on that front, at least, but I never block a server without worrying about it.

It’s a concern that some of the earliest servers blocked have still not been released. The problem is that once a site has been blocked, I can no longer evaluate which traffic from that site are attempts to spam me, and which are genuine attempts by users trying to reach the site. The only way to find out is to release the block, and see what happens. This is more of a concern for servers located in a country from which I get a lot of traffic, like the US. So the final stages of Condition Blue need further thought. At the moment, the plan is to start releasing these one at a time at eight-hour intervals as soon as Spam levels return to pre-crisis standards. If the Spam goes back up, so does the block. Choosing which blocked servers to prioritize also needs a little more thought.

Finally, I’m always a little concerned that it provides an avenue for a direct attack on the site, simply by (potentially) getting me to block one of the servers on which I depend, or even the server on which the site resides. I don’t know what safeguards are in place within the plugin used to prevent that, and it makes me uncomfortable. If I inadvertently block a piece of my ISP’s key infrastructure, I can solve that problem by using a cybercafe to undo the change. If I unwittingly block one of the servers that the site itself depends on, there may be NO solution except to restore the site from a backup – a process that is always fraught with danger, and is never guaranteed of success.

As a result of all of these considerations, I am seriously contemplating a technological solution that automatically zaps anything it thinks is from a spambot – something that I have resisted in the past, due to the potential for false positives, but which may be the lesser of two evils. No decision has been made on the subject, and more research is needed before one can be made; a key question will be how well it plays with the existing infrastructure relating to comment management. Compatibility is not enough, I need to understand how they will work as a 1-2 punch.

The Penultimate Update: 10 Aug 2014

Things are slowly getting back to normal in terms of the Spam levels. 9 IPs remain blocked and one IP range from which truly horrid amounts of activity were resulting. In some cases we’re talking hundreds of spam attempts in a 24-hour period, in others we’re talking thousands.

I have decided on an addendum to the antispam policy to deal with the possibility that at least some of the blocked activity represents genuine attempts to use the site, however unlikely that might be. When the blocked list stabilizes, in any 24-hour period in which no new IPs are either blocked or released from blocking and in which spam levels are low, I will rank the remaining blocked IPs according to the reported levels of activity, and release the blocks on the least active. If this results in a return to unacceptable spam levels, the IP will be relisted and it will go to the back of the queue. Currently still blocked are (in ranking order least to most active):

1. 162.244.x.x Unknown location 133 hits (down from >400)
2. 112.111.x.x Shanghai, China 178 hits (down from >900)
3. 112.5.x.x Beijing, China 269 hits (down from >2500)
4. 91.200.x.x Ukraine 315 hits (down from >700)
5. 222.76.x.x Fuzhou, China 347 hits
6. 91.200.x.x Ukraine 494 hits
7. 91.200.x.x Ukraine 921 hits
8. 62.210.x.x France 1156 hits

note that the above list has been censored to avoid public identification of the owners of the servers in question, as per previous statements regarding the spam policy.

And it’s probably worth noting that five of these remaining eight were blocked in the initial day or two of the introduction of the new spam policy. Others, such as the French site, are far more recently listed. Others which I thought would be part of this final list such as a certain server in Las Vegas which had over 1100 hits listed against them managed to clear themselves eventually under the existing policies.

The problems and concerns with the current spam policy remain, but all have to be balanced against this: the policy works, at least for now.

I don’t expect to update this article again until I can announce that the last site has been released from blocking without ill-effects, and this particular spam war is over. That could be in as little as 9 days, or it could be weeks. It will be good not to lose a full day each week deleting and documenting spam sources again…

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The Flunkie Equation – quick and easy Hors d’Combat

Image from Wikipedia Commons, used under Creative Commons 1.0 License

Image from Wikipedia Commons, used under Creative Commons 1.0 License

A few weeks ago, I described my processes for creating Partial NPCs, a methodology that determined how much NPC definition was needed for that NPCs role in an adventure, in Creating Partial NPCs To Speed Game Prep. This was described as essential know-how for the article that I was originally going to write and publish that day. The Flunkie Equation is the article I was referring to.

So what is the Flunkie Equation? It’s a system by which the essential information demanded by the Partial NPC doctrine can be generated more quickly and easily, making an already-fast process (thanks to the Partial NPC process) even more efficient. I had previously described a process for establishing the critical values for more significant NPCs in The Ubercharacter Wimp, but it doesn’t work very efficiently when it comes to bottom-level flunkies, because it doesn’t tell you what values to set for the critical stats.

The Flunkie Equation provides the missing guideline that tell you how effective flunkies should be, and how many of them you need, in any given situation.

Relative NPCs

The secret in the toolkit that makes the Flunkie Equation work is the concept of “Relative NPCs”. A “Relative NPC” is an NPC whose stats and abilities are defined relative to the abilities of the PCs rather than as absolute values. I’ll say it again – You don’t need to know the absolute scores for anything – you just need to know how good the flunkies are, relative to the PCs.

Hero System

This is a little easier to implement for the Hero System because it uses 3d6 which gives a non-linear response to a linear adjustment. A relative “to hit chance” is the simplest starting point: -1 makes a small difference, -2 a bit more, -3 is quite noticeable, -4 is quite a lot, and -5 is chalk and cheese.

Applying the same differential in reverse to the chances of being hit by the PCs as you have defined for the NPCs hitting the PCs shifts the overall effective value one step further with a small difference and two steps for -3 or more.

And that’s the big trick, or, at least, its starting point: apply the same modifier everywhere you need to, but always to the effective net value that actually does the work in the game mechanics. You have just one number to remember, and you decide what that number is according to how tough you want the flunkies to be. How easy is that?

Oh and one more point that should be obvious: We’re not comparing like with like, we’re comparing the Flunky’s roll to hit with the defensive value of the PC, and the Flunky’s defensive value with the PC’s modifier to hit. Or, in Hero System parlance, we’re comparing the Flunky’s OCV with the PC’s average DCV and vice-versa.

d20 Systems

It might seem a little counter-intuitive, but it can actually be a little harder to use this technique with a d20 system. The reason is ironically because of the linear nature of a d20 roll. You see, the 3d6 approach means that a single point of difference applied repeatedly has a non-linear effect – it might be geometric, it might be exponential. And that means that you can use -1 for each step and make a big cumulative difference.

To achieve similar levels of effect with a d20, you need to use a non-linear step size. So -1 makes a small difference, -2 is a bit more, -4 is noticeable, -7 is quite a lot, and -10 is chalk and cheese.

-2 applied in three areas therefore doesn’t quite adds up to “quite a lot” of difference. -2 in four areas would achieve that level of difference – for example, to hit, to be hit, hit points per dice, and damage per successful hit – but there’s a problem with that recipe: I’m taking hit points off the table, for reasons I’ll get to, shortly.

Saving Throws

Because these don’t apply on every occasion, they don’t count for as much. So in any game where these are part of the mechanics, double whatever modifier you have applied to combat, and apply the result to all saving throws in order to achieve the same standards of effect. For D&D/Pathfinder, that means that -2 to all three types of saving throw is needed to be equivalent to a -1 on attack rolls, or a +1 to be hit.

This isn’t right!

At first glance, it might seem that this makes the Flunkies far too powerful, too closely matched with the PCs. And you would be right, if that was all there was to this approach, you would be correct if that was your impression. I just wanted to clue readers in to the fact that there’s more to the story.

The Perfect Flunky

What makes the perfect flunky, from a GM’s point of view? We could probably debate that all day, but here’s my prescription: “Hit hard, hit fast, and go down easy.”

What does that mean?

  • Hit Hard - Do almost as much damage as the PC in a round, overall.
  • Hit Fast - Hit almost as often in a round as a PC does, overall.
  • Go Down Easy - Have only a fraction of the damage capacity of a PC.

Of course, this refers to a top-of-the line flunky. It should now be obvious why I took Hit Points off the table.

Practical implementation

There are three considerations when putting this theory into practice.

Adjusting Flunky to-hit
In practice, this means that part or all of the penalty applied to the Flunkie’s chance to hit should be transferred to the Flunkie’s penalty to be hit. The guideline given above says that the Flunky should be at -3 to hit? Drop that to -1 and worsen their defense by +2.
As a general rule of thumb, 1/3 of the to-hit penalty should stay where it is, and 2/3 should be transferred.

Multiple Attacks
In some game systems, characters get multiple attacks as they grow in expertise or power. Given that there is a boosted likelihood – possibly a greatly-boosted one – that a PC will hit with most if not all of the attacks at his disposal, it becomes relatively simple to calculate the amount of damage that is likely to be inflicted by that PC in a round, on average. Dividing this number by the average damage the flunky does with a hit tells you how many flunkies are needed to match the PC.

Hit Points
There are three grades of flunky that I use as broad definitions of competence. They are “experts”, “soldiers”, and “street thugs”.

  • Expert Flunkies can cope with 2-3 average hits by a PC before they are out of the fight.
  • Soldier Flunkies can cope with 1-2 average hits by a PC before they are out of the fight.
  • Street Thug Flunkies can cope with less than one average hits by a PC before they are out of the fight. In other words, one hit and they go down.

They make up for this level of weakness with numbers. And that relationship is what is described specifically by “The Flunky Equation”.

The Flunky Equation

The Flunky Equation is defined as:

“N Relative NPCs to each PC for a roughly fair fight that the PCs will win in the end.”

The values for “N” that I use are:

  • 2 Experts per PC, e.g. Ninja
  • 3 or 4 Soldiers per PC e.g. Stormtroopers
  • 4 or 5 Street Thugs per PC e.g. Hoods & Hoodlums

Let’s recap briefly to make sure we’re all on the same page: Relative Competence is reflected primarily in how easily the Flunkies can be hit. Flunkies will be almost as likely to hit as PCs, regardless. The number of Flunkies in a fight is based on the relative competence level that you want the flunkies to display, which also defines the damage capacity of each flunky. The typical damage done by a PC, allowing for multiple attacks and assuming that they will all hit, divided by the number of Flunkies, defines the amount of damage each Flunky needs to do on a successful hit to match the PC. By defining the amount of damage each Flunkie does, you can define how easily the PCs will win, while maintaining the appearance of whatever level of competence you want the Flunkies to display.

Combat Balance

There are a number of reasons to adjust that base value for N. There are also multiple combinations of ways to make that adjustment – once you realize that one of the options up the GM’s sleeve is the notion of reinforcement Flunkies, and that the numbers of these can be made adjustable based on circumstances.

Tweaking for Combat objectives

Most of the time, Flunkies will have a simple combat objective. This might be to delay the PCs to give a more significant enemy time to do whatever it is that he wants to do, or it might be to attempt to capture or kill the PCs (good luck with that!). But every now and then, a situation will arise in which the Flunkies have a more “interesting” objective.

Some of these variant objectives will suggest an increase in the number of Flunkies in the fight, possibly with the extras held in reserve until the GM sees whether or not they are needed. These include situations such as the GM needing the Flunkies to hold off the PCs long enough for the main enemy to set in motion the next part of the plot.

Other variant objectives might suggest that the number of Flunkies be reduced because the goal is too easily achieved with the standard number – usually achieved by halving the initial number of recommended combatants and having the balance held in reserve. An example might be for the Flunkies to reach a certain control console and throw a switch, pull a level, or push a button.

In both cases, the goal is to increase the drama and tension; you don’t want it to be too easy for the PCs to achieve their goals, and you don’t want to make it too hard, either. Always, the goal must be for the PCs to be both on the verge of victory and at the brink of disaster.

“But that’s unfair!”
Yeah, it is. If game mechanics say that there should be only X enemies for a “fair fight” and that any difference in effectiveness should be addressed by increasing or decreasing the XP award after the combat – D&D, I’m pointing at you – then this approach is “unfair”.

So What?

The XP awarded should reflect the degree of difficulty of the actual battle, not of some “book value” quota based on the number of participants on one side or another. The primary goal is to provide entertainment to the players, and if you asked players what they preferred – fun achieved by occasionally punching things up a notch, or strict fairness resulting in some fights being non-events when they shouldn’t be – most players will vote for the first option. “Fairness” is secondary to everyone having a good time (Note that I’m distinguishing between “unfairness” and “anti-player bias”. The first looks at how hard a fight should be for dramatic purposes and adjusts participants accordingly; the second simply tries to make the players fail at almost everything).

Tweaking for Combat Style

Some combat styles give the GM license to have the action be more spectacular, with Flunkies doing acrobatic flips and climbing all over the furniture. Other combat styles are inherently boring – “stand and shoot until you run out of ammo”. As a general rule of thumb, the more flamboyant you are able to make each Flunkie, the less of them you need. In general, this frequently comes down to a question of mobility on the battlefield. But it also involves a more subtle factor, and one that – unlike the first – is often overlooked by GMs: the environment in which the battle is occurring needs to provide the Flunkies with opportunities to make their flamboyance work on their behalf. I don’t care how nimble the Ninja are, fighting in a mud-pit denies them the chance to be “fully flamboyant”, and negates any reduction in numbers that should occur.

The numbers quoted earlier are appropriate for a neutral environment – one that has limited opportunities for Flunkies to show off, and limited opportunities for the PCs as well. If the environment especially suits the Flunkies, reduce their numbers; if it favors the PCs and their combat style(s), increase their numbers.

Tweaking for PC Abilities

There’s one type of PC ability that needs to be given special attention, to the point of altering the number of combat participants – area-effect abilities. If the PCs have a Wizard who can lob Fireballs, taking out several of the Flunkies in one shot, you need to either negate that ability using the environment or circumstances, or allow for the need to have extra Flunkies.

Experience will soon tell you what other PC abilities you need to take into account, but anything that affects a group of Flunkies at a time is top of the list.

Major Enemy participation

A major enemy is an NPC who is significantly more capable than the Flunkies. Each major enemy is rated in PCs, and those PCs are then not counted as generating flunkies.

e.g. a 1-PC Villain is as capable in battle as one PC, and effectively takes 1 PC out of the fight with the Flunkies. A 2-PC villain is tough enough to keep two PCs entertained and out of the fight with the Flunkies. Reduce the number of Flunkies being faced by the PCs proportionately to get the fight that you want.

The Big Bad Boss

More significant still are encounters with the boss baddy. These are built to more-or-less the same standards as a 2+ PC-rated villain, but those PCs are still counted in the Flunkie Equation. That means that the PCs enemy has a substantial advantage that the PCs will need to find a way to counter.

Most big bad bosses won’t engage directly – just like the Emperor in the final confrontation between Luke and Darth Vader, he will sit on the sidelines and gloat, or go about implementing his nefarious scheme, or making his escape.

Luck is not on their side

The final factor that needs to be taking into account when assessing the number of Flunkies recommended by The Flunky Equation is this: Luck should always go against them. Never ignore the chance for bad luck or the occasional lapse in competent judgment to hinder the Flunkies, the comedically, the better. They are intended to be Hors d’Combat, so if there’s fun to be had in their demise as an effective instrument of combat, go for it! Self-inflicted impalings. A wild shot that brings a chandelier down on top of the one Flunkie who looked like overpowering the PCs and achieving their objective too easily. Knocking a grenade out of the hands of a dangerous PC only for it to roll down a set of stairs and land next to the NPCs that PC set alight a round or two earlier (that one’s from last Saturday’s actual game session).

Keep combat moving quickly

Finally, flunkies should be designed and intended to fold quickly. There’s little as exasperating as a fight with flunkies that drags on for too long. Remember the initial prescription: hit hard, hit fast, fall down easy. The PCs should be able to cut through the flunkies like a hot knife through butter, but that impression gets lost when the cutting occurs too slowly. For any fight with flunkies, use the most cinematic combat structure that you can come up with. Forget complicated initiative – all the PCs go, then all the flunkies go, then any non-combatants go, and back around again. Deal with Flunkies in packs and process them in bulk – the benefits of doing so far outweigh the liabilities. And if that artificially inflates the combat capabilities of the flunkies, that’s what the “bad luck” described in the previous section redresses.

Larger Herds

Sometimes you may find yourself in the position of needing to run a mob. Here’s a hot tip to close out this article: Break a mob into as many pieces as there are PCs and then treat each sub-mob as a single creature. That’s the way that the PCs are going to interact with the mob, so why not take advantage of that to simplify your problems?

On a completely unrelated note: Once again spambots are running rampant. In fact, at 50 spam comments being submitted an hour, they are completely out of control. As I did last time this occurred, I’m going to have to block the IP numbers which are the worst contributors to this spam deluge, at least temporarily.

I’m not sure whether or not this will just block comments or will block all access to the site – I’m hoping for the former. But if the site goes dark for you, that’s what’s happened.

As before, if the spam from a blocked IP stops, I’ll unblock it – last time most were released within a couple of days. I regret the necessity but have no other choice; deleting the spam is just taking up too much of my time to continue to be practical.

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Touchstones Of Unification Pt 2 – Concepts


This trilogy of articles looks at Theme and Concept, how they interrelate, and how these elements and their relationship affect RPG campaigns.

In part one, I looked at Theme, what it means, and how it manifests within a campaign in the form of repeated motifs within individual adventures, and argued that Themes would manifest in an uncontrolled manner if not specified in advance, and would – or at least, should – evolve in response to actual play. I also offered a set of dictionary definitions for Theme and Concept to serve as road-maps to the discussion. In the case of Concept, the definitions found were:

1. something formed in the mind, a thought or general idea; 2. An abstract idea, notion, or principle, esp. when used to unify disparate representations or interpretations of such abstractions; 3. A plan, internal narrative, intention, or philosophical principle or direction common to disparate works by a collective, group, organization, or individual; 4. An idea or invention used to help sell or publicize a commodity or service e.g. ‘a new concept in corporate hospitality’.

While the fourth seems hyperbole, and not really all that relevant to the subject, the other three are – at first glance – bang on the money. So let’s look at the role of Concept in RPGs in detail…


For my money, when applied to RPGs, none of these definitions quite hits the mark. I think of a concept as firstly, and undeveloped idea or principle, whose ramifications have not been developed, or two, a central thematic connection point between the in-game expressions of those ramifications when they are developed and incorporated into the game.

Every RPG is a collection of concepts and ideas. The game mechanics give them structure, and the interaction with the player characters defines the game itself.

That means that concepts come in all shapes and sizes.

Overarching Campaign Concepts

The biggest concepts are those that affect and shape the entire campaign. These cover everything from races to societies to types of adventure to the structure of reality. Any idea that can directly or indirectly shape events and interactions within the game is a concept, and most games start with a central concept or idea. Why not a Kingdom under siege from the afterworld? Why not link clerical magic to a network of shrines and cathedrals? Why not have a legendary and much-prophesied ruler who doesn’t deserve the prominence accorded him by destiny – but who is desperate to keep up appearances? Why not have Dwarves and Elves be (secretly) interstellar refugees from some dreadful conflict who have resettled on Earth – with that conflict about to follow them? Why not make healing different?

Big concepts that will undoubtedly influence the campaign throughout.

Internal Campaign-level Concepts

Slightly smaller in scale, these ideas affect the campaign for only part of it’s existence, but may still span considerable sections of it. For example, my Fumanor: Seeds Of Empire Campaign has multiple phases:

  • In the first phase, the characters were exploring the Golden Empire – and then fleeing from it.
  • In the second, they were discovering some of the elements of the campaign cosmology and getting drawn into the conflict between Gods and Chaos Powers.
  • In the third, they are actively seeking a weapon to use against the Golden Empire before it’s too late, while becoming enmeshed in the latest scheme of Lolth – they are very close to the end of this phase at the moment.
  • In the phase to come, they will devastate the Golden Empire, and,
  • in the phase to follow that, they will confront Lolth and begin a war of liberation for the Elves.
  • In the final phase of the campaign, all these plot elements will come together for a big finale.

A good way to think of these is to use a series of novels as an analogy for the entire campaign, while each internal campaign-level concept unifies the contents, escapades, and adventures that lie within a single volume of the series. Each volume will have some attributes in common with the one before it, but can also have a substantial change from that preceding work.

Adventure-linking Concepts

Smaller in scale once again, these are what Johnn used to call Plot Loops and what I refer to as Plot Arcs or Ongoing Subplots. A mini-plotline that gets told over multiple adventures, or may be spread over the course of an entire campaign in sporadic intervals. For example, an adventure-linking concept may relate to the entry into politics of an NPC, his rise and rise to the ultimate political office of his nation, his greatest triumph, his fall from grace, the fallout from his greatest mistake, and his personal redemption. While this character may not figure into every adventure, each time he does appear, he will advance, or will have just advanced, his personal narrative. Sometimes his presence will assist the PCs, sometimes it will hinder, and most often, it will simply be there.

Or perhaps the nature of magic is changing from one thing to another through the course of a series of adventures – first the phenomenon is observed, then a theory as to the nature of the change emerges, then that theory is shown to be incomplete or inadequate, and it is replaced with a successor that manages to explain whatever the previous one did not, then the theory is confirmed, then the cause is identified, and then the PCs have a choice between letting the change take its course or trying to stop it. But this synopsis places more emphasis on this connecting concept than is warranted; early on, the concept would be a footnote, a minor incident that is not understood. It might not even be noticed for adventure after adventure. Only when the cause is discovered and the PCs are propelled into a position of decision does this connecting subplot really have to take center stage within the plotline.

Or perhaps its as simple as an idea for a recurring NPC – one who will change little if at all in the course of the adventure, but who will be prominent within the adventures in which he does appear. Or a magic item that is central to a series of adventures or encounters. Or just about anything else that can connect one adventure to another in terms of continuity.

Adventure Concepts
  • A ghost haunts an abbey searching for the name of the man who killed his wife.
  • A villain invades the PCs nightmares to discover what they fear.
  • A researcher, driven insane by his research, knows too much; held captive by his former employer, he manages to escape and seeks help from the PCs, only for his former employer to attempt an assassination at the last minute.
  • The headstones in a small Scottish town are found to all be written backwards one morning – why?
  • Why is a crop circle in Laughtonshire suddenly appearing on Heathrow’s air traffic control radar?
  • Who is the Green Menace, and why is he stalking the PCs?
  • An elf offers a priceless magic item for sale in the Thraxton Central Marketplace for the first person to sell him their sister.

These are all examples of adventure concepts. Each is (probably) self-contained, forming a single adventure, no matter how many game sessions may be required to complete that adventure. Since I made most of them up off the top of my head, they aren’t necessarily very goof ideas, by the way!

Although they may appear to be bigger at times than smaller adventure-linking concepts, in reality they are smaller by virtue of that self-containment – which does not preclude future adventures involving repercussions or consequences, by the way.

Sub-adventure Concepts

And the smallest concepts are those that aren’t even big enough to be a complete adventure. These might be an idea for an interesting location (Stonehenge? cool!), or an idea for an interesting NPC (Thanos as an Eco-terrorist? Cool!!), or an idea for an interesting encounter (A Lava Kraken!? Way Cool!!!). But at best they may form a central component of an adventure.

The connections between Themes and Concepts

A theme has to manifest as multiple concepts, many of them variations on each other. In addition, that theme has to relate to many other concepts within a campaign, even if only indirectly.

You can think of a theme as a general statement or principle, while concepts describe all the ways that principle manifests within the campaign. Alternatively, you can think of a concept as an idea that has to fit within one of the themes of the campaign. These are alternative ways of describing the same relationship between the two. At the same time, your themes all start as ideas, upper-level concepts that hold the potential to glue a campaign together. Put those two elements of the relationship between Theme and Concept together, and you start to glimpse the full picture.

Central concepts are used to generate and select themes, which are then explored through subordinate, secondary, concepts. Other, tertiary, concepts that don’t connect directly to the central concepts are then used to explore the ramifications of those subordinate concepts. Those tertiary concepts combine with the central concepts via the themes and secondary concepts to create a web of ideas that, in their totality, define the campaign. Every other important idea has to connect with one or more piece of this web. The less significant the concept, the greater the distance possible between the ‘web’ and that concept.

You can have characters that don’t connect to this central web. You can have encounters that don’t relate to it. Not all the adventures will connect with it, but most will have at least a tangential relationship to one part or another. All the adventure-linking concepts should relate to the web, and most of them should relate in some way to the central part of that web, the themes and central concepts. Your internal campaign-level concepts should all relate to the web, if they aren’t already an integral component of its structure.

It all seems so simple and straightforward, doesn’t it?

Exploring The Theme

Central to this snapshot of the relationship between Theme and Concept is the idea of exploring the Theme(s). How exactly do you do that?

Well, let’s start with a fundamental truth: the bigger the concept, the more central to the campaign it should be, and the more exploration will be required to manifest all its consequences and ramifications, and the more often it will interact with smaller campaign elements like adventures, characters, encounters, and available choices in affected circumstances. Those consequences and ramifications are one of the defining features of this particular campaign. And that in turn means that for a theme to be big enough to be central to the campaign, it’s going to have to manifest in a fairly major or fundamental concept.

A Theme is explored by looking at all the ways it can be expressed or can manifest. How many sides to a story are there? How many ways can that theme complicate situations? Is the theme recognized as valid by society at large? How does it impact social institutions and accepted social practices? How can someone take advantage of the theme – because these types of behaviors will be more prone to become accepted practice. How does the theme interact with religious doctrines? What becomes possible because of the theme that wasn’t possible before? What becomes impossible that would otherwise have been possible? What has a higher price, and what has a lower price (and not just in terms of material values)? …and so on. The more questions you can ask about how [X] is affected by the theme, or accommodates the theme, where “X” is something very specific, the more ways that theme is going to connect with the campaign.

Not all themes are of the sort that they affect the world; there are themes that purely affect the sort of adventures that are going to take place. However, every example that I can think of, on closer inspection, should be reflected in a larger way on the campaign environment in general.

A small example
For example, “Victory always comes at a price” might start out as a theme that you initially intend to apply only to the adventures of the PCs, but this restriction raises more questions than it answers. Why do the PCs have this “privileged” position? It makes more sense for this to be a general principle within the game world, and one that will therefore have impacted on the history of the campaign world, or on the way that this history is perceived by the inhabitants.

Exploring this theme means:

  • Every PC victory should exact a price, either obviously, inobviously, or collaterally.
  • The nature of the “price” may vary.
  • There will be greater emphasis on celebrations of past victories by society, with a more mournful aspect. Think Veteran’s Day in the US, or ANZAC day in Australia. I’m not sure what the English equivalent is, but you get the idea.
  • There will be a more brutal assessment of the prices of projects in general. I forget the name of the story, but I’m reminded of a piece of fiction in which a project is quoted as costing so many billions of dollars and three-point-five lives, or something like that. (I think it’s in an EE “Doc” Smith novel, possibly one of the Skylark Of Space series). The manager baulks, saying that the board would never approve of a project with a cost like that, to which the reply comes that industrial accidents are a statistical certainty, no matter what one does to prevent them, and that in a project of this scale, it is statistically certain that this number of lives will be lost in such accidents. In a world in which it is commonly held that “Victory always comes at a price”, there would be no reaction at such a bottom line – that’s the sort of thing that would be expected, forewarning of the scale of the insurance payouts that would need to be accommodated, and an accepted part of risk management.
  • What are synonyms for “Victory” and how true is this theme in relation to such synonyms? “Success always comes at a price” – sounds fair enough, doesn’t it? Longer working hours, greater responsibility, greater accountability. Certainly sounds plausible. But there would be an implicit recognition that those who seek success are willing to pay the price, whatever it may be. This alters the perceptions of those in senior positions in a subtle but profound manner. Consider a politician – there would be a far more pragmatic appraisal of his entitlement to respect, and recompense. At the same time, a politician is implicitly recognized as one willing to pay the price, and any attempts to deflect or avoid doing so would arouse even more public ire and vehemence. The result is a far more 1950s attitude towards CEOs and leaders.
  • There would be an implicit sense of entitlement that comes from paying the price of success. If such success does not result in the expected manner, society would implicitly seek to confer a different form of success on those that have earned it. That might be public recognition, social authority, moral leadership, or public recompense outside normal channels.
  • Laws, and the way society relates to them, would also be subtly transformed. Some behaviors would cause more severe approbation than in our world. For example, admissions of guilt, surrender to the authorities, etc, would result in even greater leniency than we are used to, while fleeing a crime scene would be perceived as attempting to avoid paying the price for committing the crime, and would result in a much harsher sentence. Falsely accusing another would be a heinous crime in its own right. Libel laws would be far more ruthless and black and white in their interpretation. White collar crime would be considered just as serious as street crime, and prosecuted and sentenced accordingly. That means that there would be a greater need for low-security prisons, and more of the population would have a criminal record – but there would also be a far greater respect for someone having a “clean slate” after “paying their debt to society”.

Each of these effects needs a stage and a spotlight to shine upon them – in other words, they need to be integral to a smaller concept. Some are obvious – meeting and interacting with authority figures, meeting and interacting with former criminals, and so on. Others may require greater effort. In the case of the very first item, the GM should determine what the price will be of every victory or success that the PCs enjoy as part of the process of creating the adventure. They might make a new enemy – or a new friend to whom they will become beholden – or suffer personal harm – or any of a myriad of alternatives. But these “prices” should be prominently mentioned in synopses and often made obvious in advance.

Developing A Concept

The more central a concept is, the more exploration it needs, as I’ve already said, and the more important to the campaign it needs to be. Small concepts have a limited scope, and need to be connected to something larger to be central to a campaign.

The basic process is still the same – a matter of looking at as many details of the world around you and asking how each item within it would be altered or affected by the concept.

A small example
There is a city which is shared between the living and the undead. At sunset, the living quit the streets and lock their doors and windows behind them, and the undead begin to emerge from their crypts and tombs. The undead rule the streets overnight, only to return to their sleeping places at the dawn. Despite appearances, the town is at peace, civil order is maintained, and anyone seeking to attack will find it defended by whoever is in charge at the time. There are complete hand-overs of authority every dawn and sunset, each population has its own ruling council, and there are regular dusk and dawn meetings between the two sets of administrators to deal with any issues that might affect both populations.

This is a relatively small concept, for all that there can be a number of interesting encounters and adventures in such a setting. Interactions with the authorities. Crimes committed by a member of one group against a member of the other. Unified defenses. Trade deals done with competing interests. A Romeo-and-Juliet story with a twist.

There is also a larger theme buried in the assumptions: that undead and the living don’t have to be at war, that the undead are something more than ravening savages (even the lower-order undead like zombies and ghouls). And that means that the “normal” behavior of undead is something external that doesn’t have to be part of the package. An integrated society is possible.

That means that there should be adventures exploring the nature of undeath, and why the undead in this city are different, or perhaps why the undead everywhere else are so hostile. You have the space to look at stories of religious and social intolerance, and racial prejudice. Necromantic creation of undead becomes something more akin to slavery, another big subject that you can build adventures around.

Then we get to an unspoken assumption: that most if not all undead are human or partially human. You can either explain this, or broaden the range of undead to include Elves and Dwarves and so on.

Nevertheless, it is only by virtue of connecting the initial concept to those larger themes that this can become a central pillar of the whole campaign. Without doing so, the location is simply an interesting anomaly, the setting for one or two adventures before the PCs move on.

A larger example
For comparison, let’s look briefly at a much bigger concept: “Karmic Justice is a real force within the world; Karmic Debts can be bought and sold, and Good and Bad Karma can be bottled and traded like wine”.

Wow. Where do you start with an idea that big? It’s so broad that it will affect every being within the campaign. That makes it a central concept by definition. A campaign with any concept this big built into it can’t help but make it a central element. It will have an impact on every adventure, either directly or indirectly.

  • First, you need some house rules to describe the basic tenets of Karma and Karmic Debt. Because these are going to be so ubiquitous in their application, they will need to be very quick and easy to implement in-game – no long tables, no complex math, no die rolls.
  • Secondly, you may need more house rules to simply other aspects of the game mechanics to make room for them – especially since Karma is almost certain to have an impact on combat.
  • Next you need to think about the social impact. If Karma can be bought and sold, how is it extracted? Is the intent enough? Or is Karmic Manipulation a new form of Magic? How will social conventions change? What is the market value of Karma?
  • What happens to Karma at death? Does this have anything to do with mid-level Undeath like Ghosts? Or high-level like Vampires? Is Karma inherited (“The sins of the father”)? Do wills explicitly have to distribute Karma from the wealthy? Can those with high Karma gift some of it to the poor and downtrodden, thereby generating still more Karma?
  • Crime, Laws, Law-enforcement and Justice. Can Karma be stolen? Can criminals pay their debt to society by going into Karmic Debt? What’s the economic impact of no longer needing to build prisons? Are more policemen needed, or less? Do they need to be better equipped, differently equipped, or less well equipped?
  • Politics. Is buying Karma the same as rigging an election? Is it better to vote for someone with Good Karma – or with Bad Karma that needs to be expiated with public service? Or do you need a balance?
  • Social Status. Is having a high Karma the same thing as being wealthy, or renowned for your charity, or does society demand that it be synonymous with noble rank?
  • Theology and Religious Practices. Is there a God of Karma? Or are there several – an entire Divine Karmic Industry?
  • War and Conflict. Can an army ensure victory by building a bigger refugee camp than their enemies, thereby accruing more Good Karma? How would people in the game world attempt to “game” the system?
  • Trade. How does Karma factor into merchant agreements? Is bartering illegal because one side gets a Karmic advantage, or is it encouraged? Are there minimum prices to protect the merchant from those with excess Karma?
  • Economics. How does Karma influence crop failures and bumper crops? Is there a net Karmic imbalance between one part of the economy and another, what are the consequences, and what social institutions and practices have evolved to attempt to redress the balance? Is there a Karmic Boom-and-Bust cycle, and how to the authorities attempt to manage it if there is?

By the time you’ve finished dealing with all these issues – and others that I haven’t even mentioned, like Insurance, and Shipping/Transport, and Medicine, and the occasional oddball question such as “Can Karma be weaponized?”, you will have a very different campaign world, and a central concept that will impact on virtually every character and adventure.

What of the Concept when the Theme evolves?

An evolution in Theme generally amounts to a deemphasis of an existing theme to make room for another theme that has manifested from the interaction of Players and Campaign. It’s incredibly useful to actually have the intended central concepts and themes written down somewhere so that you can assess the impact on the campaign. Ultimately, it means building more adventures around the PCs and fewer around the game world, and that’s a good thing.

But you can go further. Themes and Central Concepts can be defined as Dynamic – changing in emphasis as the campaign proceeds. You can start with one set being dominant and gradually de-emphasize them, elevating other themes from such obscurity that they might not even have been noticed at the start – and leaving room for newly-evolved themes. This manifests as adventures that slowly evolve in the course of the campaign in tone, style, and even content.

While the “five-year plan” of Babylon-5 is quite often, and quite rightly, lauded by fans and those looking to take inspiration from J. Michael Straczynski’s science-fiction epic, the way some of the themes and central concepts evolved in the course of the series, while others remained fixed to serve as unifying touchstones, is too-often overlooked.

An evolving theme generally means simply that the Adventures change to accommodate the new emphasis. The stories that the collaboration between players and GM are telling change, evolving in response to the stories that have already resulted from that collaboration. The concepts on which the collaboration were founded remain, but some are diminished in frequency and intensity.

But some evolution is more profound. A campaign theme can be completely inverted in the course of a campaign, or can even experience a full cycle. A good example might be an optimism-pessimism-optimism cycle built into the campaign – at first, the stories are positive ones, and the future looks rosy; then a gathering shadow begins to loom, eventually reaching the point where prospects look grim no matter how successful the PCs are, but there is still a single slender sliver of hope; and then, as the campaign rushes toward a crescendo, the darkness is beaten back, inch by inch, until there is an ultimate confrontation with the architect of the darkness, and the prospect of a lasting victory and a newly-rosy future in prospect.

Or perhaps the transition is going to be from soft low-fantasy to gritty and grim, and then to epic high fantasy. The only limits are your imagination, the length of the campaign, and what your players are willing to accept and tolerate.

The Suitability of Concepts & Themes

Not all concepts will fit every campaign. A concept might find itself in direct conflict with one of the themes. That’s why you should start with one or two central concepts, then determine your central themes from those concepts, and then generate the rest of the campaign-level concepts – so that you can filter out the things that just don’t work.

Hint: Don’t throw these ideas away! Using them as a central focus for your next campaign automatically means that it will contrast strongly with the one you are creating now – which elevates both of them by clarifying the unique flavors of each.

Rejected ideas from my Fumanor campaign formed the basis of my ad-hoc Rings Of Time campaign (intended to be a one-off adventure, but so compelling to the players that they insisted on continuing it); rejected ideas from the Rings Of Time campaign then formed the basis of the Shards Of Divinity campaign.

Every time you think of two explanations for something that is going to happen, or has happened, and reject one in favor of the other, record the rejected one – you can never tell when it will come in handy!

The most common reasons for rejection of a concept, other than direct thematic conflict, is that the concept does not fit the genre or style of the planned campaign. And that’s a whole new ball of wax – one that I’ll peel away in Part Three of this mini-series!

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