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New-player Character Immersion Issues: Gambling To An Answer


Skydiving by Piotr Dorabiala)

(Image: FreeImages.com / Piotr Dorabiala)

A Guest Article by Jack Hank
You’re a GM in charge of new campaign featuring a group of novices that aren’t quite sure how to assume the guise of a character. So what’s your next move?

Ingratiating new players into a game in the hope of building a successful campaign is never easy and there are myriad of reasons why a novice might not be able to gel with their teammates.

When we explored the idea of overcoming a mental block and getting players to go against something they believe in (such as supporting the KKK in the Sons of The Serpent plotline of the Adventurer’s Club campaign), the solution was to think around the situation, and look at aspects of the history of patriotism which could be used to justify the support of white workers in the Deep South (You can read more about that problem and solution at ‘There Is A Hole In Your Mind…’: Solving Mental Block).

Similar principles can be applied to the problem of teaching new players how to step into character.

July Midnight by Myles Birket Foster

July Midnight by Myles Birket Foster, used in 1858 to illustrate “The poetical works of Edgar Allan Poe”.
(Image: www.oldbookillustrations.com)

Become a More Poetic GM

Having the ability to look beyond the scenario and come up with a creative way of building it into a game is a crucial skill every GM needs to hone. In fact, when we outlined our top tips for improving your descriptions of locations and scenes, I advised you to add a poetic element into your descriptions and keep them as concise as possible.

Taking this approach will not only add a new element of entertainment and depth to any game you control, but allow each player to become more immersed in the action. This will make the players more invested in the game, and in turn elicit more emotional responses from them. This is crucial when you’re playing with novices as they often tend to look at scenarios in a literal way and fail to fully embrace the fantasy element.

Indeed, the concept of hyperreality is one that’s been kicking around for a while in the RPG world. It basically refers to how fine the line between the game and a person’s perception of reality is. As a GM your goal is to thin that line as much as possible, but it’s not easy. Props, miniatures and visual media, such as photos in the Adventurer’s Club and Zenith-3campaigns, can all be used to make your games more immersive.

Poker Chips, Cards, and Dice by Steve Roberts)

(Image: FreeImages.com / Steve Roberts)

Using Gambling Games to Enhance Immersion

But what about when this isn’t enough? One technique that’s useful when it comes to helping new players sink into their roles and play as their characters and not themselves is introducing mini-games.

One gaming arena where persona is king is the casino world. Games such as poker, blackjack and craps all require a certain mindset and, for the humble novice, this mindset is often guided by suave gamblers such as James Bond. Taking the psychological elements from the gambling world, you can actually enhance your own GM skills and, moreover, the experience of your players.

Of course, if you’re going to initiate a mini-game of blackjack in attempt to make players more immersed in their characters, you need to learn the rules of the game first. Even if you’re familiar with the game, you need to do your session preparation, as you will be acting as a croupier or inn-keeper who guides the characters and manages the game. Make sure you know about options like splitting and doubling down, which allows for doubling of a player’s initial wager under specific circumstances.

Do make sure you read up on the basics of blackjack, as you’re going to be embodying a NPC who is already very seasoned in this game. If you are not that cruel a GM, you might even want to give players a chance to “surrender”, a blackjack mechanic which allows for a player to forfeit their hand to take half their initial bet back.

Blackjack 2 by Tracy Scott-Murray

(Image: Blackjack 2 by FreeImages.com / Tracy Scott-Murray)

Become a Better GM with Casino Games

Let’s take a look at a few scenarios from the gambling world that you can use to improve your GM skills when you’re playing any one of theleading tabletop RPGsor even their less massive counterparts.

The natural starting point for any GM wanting to host a mini-game is craps. Because you already have dice at hand, you can set up an impromptu game and encourage your players to compete in a way consummate with their character. In a nutshell, craps is a casino game that requires the player to correctly predict the outcome of a dice roll. So it’s a sweet and simple mechanic to introduce, while you’re encouraging your newbies to take active part in the storytelling, role playing experience as their characters rather than themselves.

Prepare the setting: An inn they visit after an adventure is a classic, for good reason. Someone challenges them – the innkeeper, another patron. Make him or her a well-rounded character with his own mannerisms. Now, the bets the players place have to be consistent with their character. If someone is supposed to be a courageous Warrior, they have to place bold bets such as hard totals. In contrast, a Half-Orc who was naturally drawn the short straw when it comes to intelligence should make unreasonable bets, for instance staking 45 gold on single roll when they only have 50 gold available to spend.

Roller coaster 2 by Vicky johnson)

(Image: Roller coaster 2 by FreeImages.com / Vicky johnson)

Excitement Creates Better Characters

Because of the way our brains react to situations where the outcome is uncertain, we naturally attach a greater significance to the thought process that precedes any action we make. When we gamble, it creates a sense of anticipation and excitement and these natural highs produce certain physical responses.

As the endocrine system kicks into life it increases oxygen and glucose to the brain and this creates a sense of arousal that makes us more likely to act on an instruction. By creating a mini-game that focuses on gambling, you can stimulate this excitement response which, therefore, makes players more likely to follow your instructions and lose themselves in roles they (or you) have created.

Taking this a step further, you could take the game of blackjack and apply a similar process. After outlining the rules of the game, you can then instruct your players to assume their character’s persona and play as they would.

An intelligent mage could therefore study the odds, take note of the dealer’s face card and make moves based on solid game theory. Conversely, a reckless rogue could abandon all sense of logical strategy and simply play on impulse (i.e. relying on luck), or a seasoned fighter might rely more on his ability to “read” the opposition’s facial expressions and body language. The process of fusing gambling excitement with role playing should help put the players in a more malleable state and, therefore, more likely to sink into their roles, especially if said roles are new.

Role Playing Gamers at the Burg-Con in Berlin

Role Playing Gamers at the Burg-Con in Berlin (Image: Sargoth, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Embrace Risk in Your Next Campaign

As you can see, gambling mini-games are a great way of helpingWorld of Darknessor Fate players improve their role-playing skills. It can also be a very enjoyable experience, if we judge by spinoffs such as The Red Dragon Inn, which bases much of its action on gambling, with its 5 games and 16 expansions that have inbuilt gambling games and have proved popular in recent years.

Operating on the principle that an in-game element of risk and uncertainty are can enhance a campaign, gambling games can be introduced at any time to make players to sink deeper into their roles; gambling has the effect of pushing players into a new state of mind. Accomplish that by hosting your own mini-game or having your players participate in mandatory in-campaign games.

You’ll find that games such as blackjack and craps are a great way to help beginners become better players.

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Basics For Beginners (and the over-experienced) Part 6: Challenges


Frame by Billy Alexander Dice Image by Armin Mechanist

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

I’ve been asked a number of times what advice I have for a beginning GM. This 15-part series is an attempt to answer that question – while throwing in some tips and reminders of the basics for more experienced GMs. This is the last part of the current block of three articles; the series will then take a break for a month or so.

I’m attempting to write this as though there were no problems with my laptop, in hopes of being able to post it as usual. If that doesn’t work, I have a plan B – and then a plan C

…which is exactly as far as I got before my system crashed once again – after working perfectly all day. As soon as I tried to type at anything approaching normal speed, the system died. All of which supports my current working theory that there is a crack in the circuit board – hit the wrong key too hard and bang!

So I am now on plan B, which involves an old USB keyboard – one that I haven’t used extensively for years, and that was a bit clunky (sticking keys etc) even before that – and the system is not crashing. It doesn’t prove the theory, but it goes some distance toward confirming it. Meanwhile, a longer-term solution is in the works, thanks to some generous friends and my upcoming Birthday.

The upshot is that I can still write, but with nothing even remotely resembling the speed and fluidity that I had achieved. Efficiency is down – and will be, for a while.

But enough about me, let’s get to the subject at hand…

One of the most controversial articles I’ve ever written was on the subject of challenges. That article was about the challenge-balancing architecture within the D&D game mechanics.

Every game that I can think of has something of the sort, either overt or embedded beneath the surface.

Certainly, a lot of other people have written on the same topic over the years. A Google search for “encounter balance” yields 123 million results. If you could read one a second, 8 hours a day, 7 days a week, you would reach the end of them in about 11-ad-a-half years – assuming no more were written in that time. “Encounter Level” is another 123,000,000 results (it’s possible but unlikely that there would be 100% correlation between the two searches). “Challenge Rating”, which is intimately connected to the afore-mentioned D&D game mechanic, lists 145 million results.

That tells me two things: first, that a lot of people find the subject difficult; and second, that there are no shortage of people who think it’s important, or even essential.

Why is it so difficult?

Every group of PCs is different. They have different abilities, different stats, different imperatives, and different personalities. The differences between characters at different experience level is only a subset of this larger problem. But even if all these things were exactly the same for every PC group in existence, all over the world, every group would still be different – because every player is different, perceives things differently, has different priorities both in- and out-of-game, and every GM is likewise an individual.

Now quantify all those differences and boil it all down to a single numeric value that tells you what opposition is appropriate, under a universal set of circumstances.

When you put it like that, the whole idea seems ludicrous, doesn’t it?

Why is it so important?

It’s no fun going up against characters and situations that you can solve with your eyes closed and one hand tied behind your back. It’s no fun going into a situation knowing that you have absolutely no hope of any sort of victory.

The fun in an RPG is directly-connected to a measured and equitable degree of difficulty, whether that difficulty is mechanical (needing good die rolls), narrative (coming up with a good idea to advance your cause), impersonative (roleplaying a specific character as an individual and an exemplar of his type in the many, many ways characters can be classified), or logical (here’s a puzzle – solve it).

To be sure, there can be fun beyond these things – the social interaction, for example – that can be present even if the game fails to entertain in every one of those game-related respects. But I doubt anyone would dispute that games are better when every box is ticked and you don’t need to rely on that social interaction as the sole source of fun – I doubt games where that happens last very long. You would play something else, instead, or choose an alternate form of social activity.

Is it essential?

So it’s important that challenges – no matter what form they take – be at least somewhere in the ball-park of the right answer. But is it essential that you get it exactly right, even most of the time?

The answer is, not really. If you overestimate how strong the Four-armed Gargoyle with the Mace Of Flesh Eating should be by a little but, you’ll underestimate the next encounter, and over time, your errors will average out – provided that you get somewhere close enough to a reasonable answer.

Is it even Realistic?

Actually, the answer, once again, is “not really”. In the long-ago days of AD&D, one of the primary distinctions between dungeon encounters and wilderness encounters is that the former were “managed” and “metered” to provide opposition reasonably appropriate to the characters, while wilderness encounters were more concerned with paying lip service to the concept of an ecology. Because creatures were free to come and go as they pleased in the open-air environment, a particularly unlucky set of PCs could run into Smaug on their first night out-of-town.

A lot of the advice (and some of the most interesting articles) in the early gaming magazines was directed at imposing rationality on both of these facets – from making sense of a dungeon’s ecology, stratification, and construction to creating more rational and balanced ecologies in the wilderness (or attempting to rationalize and justify the imbalances).

Over the years, it became unacceptable for a GM to permit such a lopsided-encounter to take place, and stratification of challenge levels became ubiquitous, for all the reasons enunciated in the discussion of importance. And yet, it would be hard to argue with the notion that the old-school was more realistic in that you could never know what was around the next corner; the world didn’t censor anything outside an acceptable Encounter Level or Challenge Rating.

The best campaigns imposed a rationalization that restricted the power level of oppositions to something within reasonable bounds – “semi-tamed” wildernesses and the like became the state of the art, and – arguably – the most realistic compromise of the lot. So much so that the concept even began to infiltrate the more controlled adventuring environments.

This, de facto, is a rejection of the premise of precisely balanced and metered challenges; instead, a reasonable spread centered around character capabilities became the goal. The 3.x/Pathfinder experience mechanics are a tacit acknowledgement of this, by providing a means of determining rewards based on relative ease of an encounter as actually experienced in-game, even though it was still a secondary determinant to relative Encounter Levels.

Subsequent generations of game system do their best to embed encounter balance and challenge standards into the mechanics themselves, making it more and more difficult for GMs to exceed reasonable limits without deliberately trying to do so. And yet, something was lost in the homogeneity of the resulting game mechanics – leading to the edition wars of 4e D&D. What emerged was tuned to a parity with player capabilities that was no more realistic than the original stratification model of AD&D.

An Old-school Technique

There’s an old-school technique that I learned when I first began to GM AD&D (you can read about other aspects of the experience and what I learned in Bringing on the next generation, Part Two: Gamemaster Mentors, in which I argue that it is a responsibility of experienced GMs to train the next generation, or should be, using my own experience as a template). It’s also full of good more good advice for beginners.

It’s this: mentally tally up the number of “significant advantages” the opposition have over each PC, then balance that tally with a like number of “significant advantages”. That might be increased levels, improved stats, greater numbers, a tactical or environmental advantage or disadvantage, whatever.

It didn’t take me long to refine this technique by incorporating the advantages of group flexibility/capabilities and formalizing the process but the basic principle stood unchanged until 3.x promised a more sophisticated approach. These days, I’m more-or-less back to the same approach in both the Zenith-3 and Adventurer’s Club campaigns, and they are the better for it – but the modern-day approach is far more refined. Scratch the surface, though, and this principle is still lurking underneath.

The Transfigurative Revelation

The key word in that principle is “significant”. I didn’t use any algorithm to decide what was and what wasn’t “significant”; instead, I applied the metagame approach of what “felt” significant. Again, if I missed something, or rated something as more significant than it was, it didn’t matter so long as I got the balance somewhere in the ballpark of correct.

I’m not sure when it happened – post-2010, for certain, but beyond that, I can’t be certain – but over time I realized that what I had really been doing in my pre-3.x methodology was imposing an idealized and incomplete formality on the more basic and generalized question:
“How hard should it be?”

I was already in the habit of making minor tweaks and corrections to challenge difficulties to ensure that they posed an appropriate level of struggle for the PCs; this revelation permitted me to take a still more liberal, narrative-based, and informal approach to the whole question.

The Narrative Alternative

“How hard should it be” – for a good story, an entertaining narrative, a plausible situation? That has become my silent mantra when designing challenges. “This NPC detests being interrupted with trivial disturbances, so he has made it very difficult to reach his inner chambers – and, he therefore treats anyone who does so with an appropriate level of respect and wariness.” “This NPC has an ego second only to his self-confidence, and enjoys humiliating opponents, so he makes it easy to reach him, lulling invaders into a false sense of security, then coming down on them with as much overwhelming force as he can muster.” “This NPC is cautious and paranoid; he will always have an escape route at hand, and will strive to delay characters more than overwhelm them to give himself ample warning to use that escape route after an initial test of threat level.”

After profiling the style of the architect of the opposition that the PCs will be facing, I next look at the overall narrative that I have planned. Is it essential that the NPC make an escape – at least this time? Is he a dead-end, his story having no further impact on planned events? Is his continued presence a threat to what I have planned?

The third stage is to decide, in general terms, how to transform the initial assessment of challenge to the desired outcome. At this point, I also factor in player satisfaction – just because I ultimately want them to succeed is no reason to make it too easy for them. Just because I want them to fail to permanently stop the NPC this time is no reason to extinguish all hope of doing so.

My usual technique is to build a flaw or vulnerability into the encounter’s preparations that will not be immediately obvious to the players or their characters and an equally-inobvious way that the encounter might have overcome that vulnerability. I then let events proceed as they will – increasing the effectiveness of opposition if things look too easy, reducing it if things look too difficult, playing that vulnerability “card” if the PCs don’t think of it first or the opposition is really too tough, or pulling the surprise out if things become too easy. Often, both will involve some change in the environment or circumstances.

In short, I do whatever is necessary to the challenge level to ensure a good story that will entertain the participants, inserting rational explanations as I need them.

It doesn’t matter whether the challenge is trying to pick a locked door, overcome a giant mutant alligator, discover why a castle seems to be haunted, track down a possibly-forged painting or free an ally from an enemy’s mind-control – all of which are past examples from the Adventurer’s Club campaign (except one that is still to come). I decide “how hard it should be” to make the shared narrative a good story, an entertaining experience, and then make it so.

Of course, there are some tools that I use to make things easier for myself.

Plotting Within Character Limitations

In 2010, I described a planning tool to facilitate this sort of plotting, in The Ubercharacter Wimp: Plotting within your PCs limitations. This is the first and arguably most important of the tools that I use to implement the principle of letting the story do the driving, because it gives me a means of translating “how hard should it be” into game mechanics.

For example, let’s say that there is a filing cabinet containing some information that I want the players to have, but that the owner of the filing cabinet would not want any unauthorized people to have. What might he have done? Lock the filing cabinet. Hide the information in an innocuous folder within the cabinet. Put the information in a separate safe, but put the combination into a file within the cabinet – in case he forgets it. Place a fraudulent version of the document within the filing cabinet. Encode the original document. Security systems of some sort. Booby traps of some sort.

Any or all of these can be in place to successively ramp up the difficulty of retrieving the information that for story purposes I want the PCs to have.

Let’s rule the booby-traps out on the basis that it doesn’t fit his personality. Let’s rule the coded version out because he needs to refer to this information frequently, or doesn’t fully appreciate how useful it will be to the PCs. Let’s reserve the security systems to a wandering patrol who can rattle the door to the office just as the PCs retrieve what they are looking for, posing a separate but related challenge to them getting away with the information.

Within the boundaries of ensuring that they eventually succeed, I then want to make the challenge as difficult as I can reasonably make it, but not impossible. So I look up on The Ubercharacter Wimp how good the characters are at picking locks, and assign the lock a difficulty that gives them a slightly less than 50-50 chance – but stipulate that the catch itself is flimsy enough that the cabinet can be forced open with a crowbar if the lock-picking attempt fails. Next, they have to find the relevant document in the cabinet – rather than a success-or-failure check, I will use an appropriate skill check to determine how long it takes them before they succeed. If they do really poorly, I will let them simply find the information when they do; if they do really well, I will stretch the encounter by having them first discover a fraudulent version of the document they want, then spot a logical discrepancy that identifies it as a forgery, and THEN discover the safe combination written on a receipt from the manufacturer. That tells them that there is a wall-safe somewhere; next, they have to find it. On an intermediate result, I might delay the discovery of the receipt with the combination, but omit the fake version of the documents. When they do, the combination lets them open it easily, no roll required. At which point, they find the document, and there’s a sudden rattle from the doorknob. But, if the PCs rolled really well, I might tell them that there’s no document with the information they need in the safe (letting them think they’ve failed), rattle the doorknob, and then have one of the PCs spot a sheet of used but fresh carbon paper in the secretary’s wastebasket – snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.

The key to selling all this to the players is setting the difficulty level of the original roll, making the difficulties to be overcome commensurate to the results of their skill check, but making sure that they can succeed regardless of their initial success or failure so that the overall plotline we are writing advances. Of course, if they give up too quickly, they will need to find another way to get the information they need! And, of course, if they do something stupid, like trying to shoot out the lock on the filing cabinet with a shotgun, they deserve all the trouble that they will get themselves into!

The other big benefit of this approach is that it takes what is essentially a one-character job and shares the spotlight around – it might not be the character that opens the cabinet who detects the forgery, or finds the combination, or locates the safe, or discovers the carbon paper. There’s enough going on there to share the glory – and the fun – around.

A Beginner’s Checklist

The other tool that I have available is a formalization of the procedure for answering and quantifying the question, “How hard should it be?” This is a series of seven considerations that I take into account:

  1. Challenge Concept
  2. One Chance or Many?
  3. Degree Of Difficulty
  4. Environment
  5. Circumstances
  6. Skill/Ability
  7. Opposition Specifications

Well, actually, I don’t articulate the questions or the answers, or perform the process sequentially; I simply tell the story, in the same way that I did the example in the previous section. But for beginners, I recommend that they do articulate the questions and determine the answers, sequentially. It doesn’t take much longer, and ensures that nothing important gets left out.

1. Challenge Concept

What’s the nature of the challenge, the broad description? In the example, it was gathering information from a filing cabinet. This is where you specify the type of encounter or difficulty to be overcome. For example, the challenge might be a combat encounter that forces the party mage into a front-line situation – a fish-out-of-water situation focusing on one particular character, in other words.

How to achieve that? Why not a combat encounter that wouldn’t normally pose a challenge, like a Kobold, with some sort of enhancement that targets one of the primary differences between the mage and the more combat-oriented types – like having a Hypnotoad on his shoulder. It takes him a round to put the Hypnotoad down after enthralling everyone, giving the mage (by virtue of his INT) a chance to regain his wits and recognize his predicament. The Kobold is between him and the toad – he has to beat one (or at least get past it intact) to kill the Hypnotoad and release the others, who will then make short work of the Kobold.

2. One Chance or Many?

A key question is whether the PCs will have to bet the farm on one success-or-failure check, or will have multiple opportunities for differences to manifest. Obviously, you can’t assess this until you have some idea as to the nature of the challenge.

The PCs might have only a slight advantage over an opposition, but if they get multiple attempts to hit, those advantages will accumulate in overall effectiveness. That means that if there are few (or only one) all-or-nothing opportunities for success, greater scope for diversity of challenge rating is acceptable – but will often have a disproportionate impact. Multiple opportunities permit a smaller window of tolerance – you have to get closer to the mark with your estimate of “appropriate” challenge.

If partial success, or eventual success, are permitted even on a single roll, you have greater latitude than normal, there is a broader tolerance.

3. Degree Of Difficulty

How difficult, with everything taken into account, do I want the challenge to be?

4. Environment

If the environment is a factor, does it make the difficulty greater or smaller – indicating that the base difficulty has the opposite relationship to the overall degree of difficulty? Let’s say that the environment poses a significant additional difficulty, that means that a relatively simple challenge under normal circumstances which can take advantage of the environment will present a substantially greater effective challenge – so what I want is a relatively simple base challenge.

5. Circumstances

What are the circumstances? Being rushed increases the difficulty of any challenge. Being under fire might also do so. There are numerous other examples. Again, what you need to know is what this tells you about the base difficulty of the challenge, so that you can get the overall difficulty to the level required.

6. Skill/Ability

What skills or difficulties can one side or the other apply to the challenge? This covers a broad swathe – everything from powers, magic items, class abilities, skills, even character levels if they are significantly different from those of the expected enemy. I don’t try and create a shopping list; it’s more of a gestalt impression and key differences between the challenge and the capabilities that the PC or PCs bring to the encounter.

Exclude everything that’s irrelevant – but be sure to think outside the box; a clear example being the use of physical force to open the filing cabinet in the earlier example.

Once again, you want to subtract from your “working difficulty” anything extraordinary to reach a determination of the appropriate base level of challenge that will – when everything is taken into account – yields the desired opportunity for success or failure, and hence the degree of struggle.

7. Opposition Specifications

The final step is to determine the base challenge and put it into descriptive language that implies the degree of base challenge. This not only facilitates narrative passages leading up to and during the resolution of the challenge, it enables you to assess the value and effects of alterations to your assumptions.

For example, you may have factored the effects of an adverse environment on the PCs into the difficulty of the challenge; the PCs, when the time comes, employ a spell to make themselves more comfortable within the environment, mitigating or even annulling those effects. Because you’ve thought about it in advance, even if it was only by a second or two, you can take these alterations into account without batting an eyelid or breaking stride.

When to assess

There are two different times when it’s appropriate to assess these questions. The first is during the adventure creation process, and the second is at the moment when the PCs (or NPCs – I employ the same process) have to meet the challenge.

During Prep, I won’t necessarily try to think of everything or get too specific. I will have a narrative flow, a basic outline of the circumstances and conditions, written up so that I can describe the situation to the players, and then a brief summary of each of the topics raised above, plus notes on success or failure. The filing cabinet example, if it were preceded by a description of the room and circumstances (“working in the dark by flashlight”) would be a perfect example.

The reader might note that no details concerning the precise challenge levels, in terms of game mechanics, were incorporated within the description; I simply listed all the things that I could think of that might be there, in logical narrative sequence, and then excluded things that didn’t fit the parameters of the overall story, including the personalities involved. Nor, aside from ruling those few things out, did I decide in advance which of the possible challenges the PCs would actually encounter. That is all set aside for the second assessment – in the moment of encountering the challenge, i.e. within play.

Why? Because this process elevates plot over game mechanics. I want to present the players with heroic challenges and the opportunity to overcome them – and sometimes, that can mean “throwing” an earlier challenge in order to ensure that the real challenge is met. Once again, the filing cabinet example is a perfect representation of this approach: I need the PCs to have the information in question, either to increase the drama and significance of the ultimate challenge (by giving the PCs details of what the antagonist is up to) or simply to ensure that the ultimate challenge takes place (by telling the PCs who or where that antagonist is). That means that unless things go very badly awry, no matter how badly they role, they will succeed in overcoming the challenge of retrieving the information from the files.

I mentioned, in passing, the possibilities of doing something stupid, or of giving up prematurely; I will always have a “Plan B” up my sleeve for these eventualities, though that “Plan B” might well confer additional advantages to their antagonist. PCs always have to pay for their mistakes – but there’s no reason why that payment has to be levied at the moment it is incurred.

The Sculpture Analogy

There is a rather neat analogy for describing any plotline from the perspective of a reader (in a novel) or a player (in an RPG). The experience of reading the story, watching the movie or TV show, or playing the game, is not dissimilar to the process of creating a sculpture from a block of stone or clay. I have seen that process described as the art of seeing the finished sculpture in your mind and simply removing all the bits of material that don’t belong.

You start with what is essentially a blank slate, a block of material; little or nothing is known beyond the identities of the protagonists. It might be that the players also know the identity of the antagonist, or they might not – or may think they do (when it’s actually someone else completely). As play proceeds, one unknown after another is resolved, like the sculpture excavating waste material, until – at the denouement – the complete story is revealed, and the “sculpture” is revealed. And, if that story inevitably leads to another, that’s akin to the sculptor taking his finished image and carving a new object out of it (perhaps putting back some of the material previously removed).

In the same way, when play begins, the GM has a broad idea as to the shape of the finished adventure (though few, if any, of the details are resolved), while the players have little or no idea. The process of playing the game slowly reveals the finished story, cutting away unknowns one after another until the “true shape” of the narrative is revealed.

The filing cabinet example shows that individual challenges are a miniature representation of the same process. The initial description of the elements that might form the final shape of the challenge of retrieving the information is the GM thinking of what the final shape of this part of the finished story might look like, but it is only through interaction with the players that the specifics are revealed.

A handful of Do’s:

I have ten rules of thumb to round out this discussion of challenges – five “Do’s” and five “Don’ts”.

  • Do reward cleverness
  • Do reward success
  • Do make corrections as you go
  • Do have an encounter exit strategy planned
  • Do justify deviations from consistency (even if only to yourself)
Do reward cleverness

When the PCs do something smart, even if it doesn’t directly alter the circumstances of the challenge you are presenting, reward them. Either make it a little easier, or give the clever character a little extra reward. Intelligent game play may not make the job of running the game any easier (just the opposite) but it makes the process of adventure design easier and contributes to a more satisfying result all round – and so, should always be encouraged.

If the PCs placed one of their number at the door to listen for approaching footsteps, for example, that has no direct impact on the challenge of getting the information – but I would have the cleverness (or, in this case, the sensibleness) “rub off” onto the challenge, on the principle that cleverness in one area is symbolic of cleverness in general. A lookout thus justifies making the information a little easier to find – maybe it’s in the safe after all.

This should always be balanced with the demands of a satisfying experience, however. It confers an advantage, not a victory.

Do reward success – and punish failure

If a character makes a critical success, they should always be rewarded in some way in terms of plot, either directly or by proxy. Again using the filing cabinet example, another of the PCs might discover a note on the secretary’s desk of the hotel that she has booked the antagonist into. Or maybe the antagonist has doodled some sort of cryptic clue to his master plan on the margins of the document.

Of course, balance then demands that a failure makes life more difficult. This might be a direct or indirect penalty. Perhaps the antagonist has recruited a bodyguard, or has some means of being forewarned that the PCs are going to interfere. Perhaps there is an alarm on the safe after all – one that lights up down in the security office. It won’t do anything to alter the outcome of the current challenge, but the antagonist will know someone has been inside his safe, and can take extra precautions – and it won’t take a genius to put two and two together when the PCs show up.

Do make corrections as you go

Every GM under- or over-estimates the difficulty of a challenge from time to time. Always have a pair of back-doors at hand – one to get the PCs past the challenge if you’ve overestimated the difficulty, and one to throw a roadblock into their path if it all seems too easy. One of the best examples of the latter is simply to have one of them make a die roll, ignore the results, and tell the player “[character name] suddenly has the sinking feeling that this has all been too easy.” Player paranoia, never far from the surface, will do the rest.

As a general rule of thumb, I prefer to have something specific up my sleeve, saving that wild card for when nothing else will suffice. Think of the sequence in “Diamonds Are Forever” in which Bond discovers that there are two Blofelds – one natural, and one a perfect double. This is that sort of twist, which has little overall impact on the plot, but produces a momentary “down elevator” sensation in the pit of the stomach.

Do have an encounter exit strategy planned

The worst thing you can possibly do is have an all-or-nothing combat encounter, or some other sort of “save or die” situation. These are marginally tolerable when it’s a fight with the primary antagonist at the climax of an adventure; the rest of the time, they should be strictly forbidden.

Overestimate the challenge somewhere along the way badly enough, and you can discover, all too late, that you’ve incorporated such an all-or-nothing plot train-wreck into your adventure inadvertently.

Always make sure that you have a way out, for both any antagonist and for the PCs.

Example:

Final confrontation with the antagonist. The PCs stuff things up, or the antagonist gets incredibly lucky, or perhaps you badly underestimated the degree of challenge that he would pose; either way, his dastardly plan is on the verge of succeeding, and there’s the PCs can do to stop what might well be a campaign-wrecking outcome.

Time to deploy the golden parachute you have up your sleeve. At the moment he is about to achieve total victory, the antagonist makes a mistake, or a PC realizes that there’s something everyone has overlooked until now, or the villain abandons his plan because this unprecedented success has given him the opportunity to shoot for an even grander ambition – in the process, giving the PCs another bite at the cherry in a subsequent adventure.

What? You don’t have another adventure planned for this eventuality? That’s all right – the PCs don’t know what it is, either. Maybe the villain has the US nuclear launch codes, and is about to seize power by blackmailing the world with the threat of nuclear annihilation – but discovers proof of aliens at Area 51 and decides to seize the opportunity to become a Galactic Overlord, instead. But you haven’t worked that out, yet – so do something open-ended: the villain grabs a briefcase, leaving the nuclear football that until now was his target, and makes his escape. You have until the next game session to figure out what he grabbed, and to raise the stakes accordingly.

Victory snatched from the jaws of defeat is always the sweetest. And hubris can afflict anyone when everything seems to be going their way. Take advantage of these facts.

Example the other:

But perhaps you have made a mistake in the other direction, and the antagonist is too easily overcome. Time to deploy the trapdoor full of high explosives: The antagonist bites down on a hollow tooth packed with cyanide, and with his dying breath, states “Cut off a limb and two will take it’s place. Hail Hydra! The diversion has served its purpose…” Examining the body, the PCs discover that it’s actually their mailman or whoever, wearing a prosthetic disguise to make him LOOK like their antagonist.

What the real antagonist was actually up to, you have no idea at this point; the key point is that this was all a diversion from something. You have until next adventure to make up your mind – in the meantime, listen to your players speculating to get ideas. What they thought was the main course has suddenly turned out to be just the hors d’oeuvre…

Do justify deviations from consistency (even if only to yourself)

Isaac Asimov was fond of quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”. Emerson was writing about perceived truth, and how it can change from one day to the next, but the point has a greater validity: consistency for its’ own sake is not a virtue. Neither is capricious inconsistency.

If an early encounter, or part thereof, reveals that you’ve over- or under-estimated the challenge posed by a foe or situation, do something about it – don’t cling to a foolish consistency. And then come up with a plausible reason for the deviation. Their enemy lands a couple of crippling blows at the start of the battle, and what was supposed to be a difficult victory for the PCs begins to look like an unmitigated disaster? Weaken their opponent, immediately. And justify it: “And then his Potion Of Fortitude wears off…” – though you don’t necessarily have to hand-deliver the cause to the PCs so blatantly: “And then he shudders and seems to shrink an inch or two, as though some magic enhancement had run its course…”

Or perhaps it’s environmental and not personal. The PCs shoot at the villain, but they all miss, because you’ve set his AC (or equivalent) too high. It seems there’s nothing the PCs can do to stop him. And then one of them notices that there is a fast-moving “curtain of air” between them and him, looks around and spots the controls.

The most fearsome power armor in existence is only dead weight if the battery pack can be removed.

Make good use of power-ups – if the villain is too weak, activate one; if the villain too strong, have one that was in operation wear off. If the lock on the chest is too hard to pick, maybe the hinges are less secure, or the eyes through which the padlock is threaded.

A few Don’ts:

  • Don’t sweat imperfection
  • Don’t overwhelm the shared narrative
  • Don’t belittle the PCs
  • Don’t assume failure
  • Don’t assume success
Don’t sweat imperfection

I’ve written this multiple times in multiple articles: don’t ever expect to be perfect. You’ll have good days and bad days; use reviews and prep to wallpaper over the bad ones and move on. Assume that you’re going to make mistakes, and have plans in place to recover from them.

It’s astonishing how much confidence you can draw from assuming that something will go wrong and you have a plan to cope with it.

Don’t overwhelm the shared narrative

This is another way of phrasing “don’t railroad your plots”. You can steer the ship, but can’t control the flotsam and jetsam carried by the river on which it sails. Even at high tide, the surf still draws back before the next wave breaks. Make sure that the players have at least an equal part in the shared narrative, both amongst themselves, and overall.

There is an obvious disproportion to the scale of the input that you have, as GM, when it comes to instigating plotlines. That also needs to be balanced, by giving the players a disproportionate level of input into the outcome of an adventure, perhaps diffused through the middle part of the adventure as well.

Don’t belittle the PCs

No matter how great an advantage an opponent might have, no matter how arrogant and boastful, he should never humiliate the PCs. There’s an art to this: go over-the-top and the players will discount the statements, anesthetizing the humiliation that would otherwise be inflicted.

“You pathetic little worms never had a chance; I spare your lives as a measure of contempt for your inability to stop me. You may leave,” is unacceptable.

“You pathetic little worms never had a chance against me, for I am the sun and moon, the lord of all creation, perfection incarnate, master of all that I survey, and so shall it be for all eternity! I spare your lives in the vain hope that you will learn to respect your betters; now, begone, for my patience wears thin!” is absolutely fine.

Why? Because arrogance and overconfidence – even when you have something to be overconfident about, like a humiliating demonstration of prowess – are weaknesses that can be exploited. After the first speech, if I were a player, my inclination would be to give up, because it was hopeless; after the second, if I were a player, I would wink at the other players, bow, and state “I have seen the light, my lord, and wish to remain at your side to render whatever small service could benefit one so magnificent,” – and then start looking for opportunities and hidden weaknesses. Because the arrogance of the second version is so over the top that I can use it to manipulate the enemy; if the GM is even half-way consistent in roleplaying the character, he would never be able to resist such outrageous groveling, and would keep me around as a trophy. The wink, and going over-the-top myself, should indicate to the other players what I’m up to – and they could then signal that understanding with their own overacting: “Traitorous scum, you betray us all! I can never forgive this, there shall be undying enmity between us forevermore!”

The PCs should never have no hope of eventual success. No hope in the short-term? That’s a whole different story. If they can’t win right away, they can look at changing the conditions that make their enemy unbeatable. And if they can’t change the conditions, maybe they can change the question, altering both the definition of victory and the obstacles to be overcome to some combination that can be achieved.

Which brings up an interesting side-issue:

Is one back-door to victory enough?

Given that providing only one route to success could be viewed as railroading, providing only one way out of an impossible conundrum is arguably not good enough. However, it has been my experience that where there is one solution to a problem, there are usually several; and that means that one, plus a willingness to give the PCs a fair chance of success, is probably enough, most of the time.

A related question from the other side of the GM’s screen is “How much of a partial or conditional success is needed before we count it as a victory – at a price?” The answer will vary from group to group and even circumstance to circumstance. There will be occasions when only total victory is deemed acceptable, and no price is too high; there will be the occasional situation in which any concession won is a victory, provided that it costs less than the concession is worth. And there is a very wide territory in between. All this talk of “success” and “failure” puts most things into too harsh a black-and-white contrast; most of life is a shade of gray.

Don’t assume failure

You should never assume that something is impossible; there’s almost always a way if you’re determined enough. Be prepared, as per the boy scout motto.

Don’t assume success

At the same time, no matter how trivially easy it should be, don’t assume that success will be automatic. Even with the filing cabinet example, there were two ways to fail: giving up too quickly and doing something silly. Failure is always an option.

The Experience Connection

There is, in many game systems, a direct correlation between the difficulty of a challenge and the awarding of experience for first attempting, and second succeeding at overcoming, that challenge. By doing away with the numeric indexing of challenges, no matter how flawed and inadequate the system was, I have also broken the XP system.

The Runaway-XP problem

Of course, there are those who would argue that it has always been broken, and all I’ve done is give it a fitting burial. That’s because of an inherently-unstable feedback loop built into the system.

GM underestimates the degree of challenge. PCs get additional experience, PCs use that experience to become more effective in combat. GM needs to ramp up the opposition in future in order to pose a challenge. If he doesn’t, he hands the PCs easy victories – slow but steady accumulation of more experience at minimal risk. If he does, he puts some risk into the equation – but also increases the rewards of success. What’s more, the relationships aren’t linear; the power gains are exponential. Exponentially-exponential in the case of Mages. Fixing this problem was so critical to D&D 4e that the entire system had to be rewritten to house the cure.

A recommended divorce

The best solution is to finalize a divorce between Challenge Difficulty and experience, in effect throwing away the entire XP-generation part of the game mechanics and replacing the whole thing. And, since the new structure of challenge difficulty is narrative-based, it makes a certain amount of sense for the same to be true of the replacement for the system of awarding XP.

Once again, this is a problem that I’ve tackled in the past, in a 2011 article entitled Objective-Oriented Experience Points. Although envisaged specifically in 3.x / Pathfinder terms, it works for ANY RPG that hands out experience points. What’s more, it can easily be adapted to determine the increase in wealth or resources that should accrue from an adventure, if any, pulling the other fang of Monty-Hallism, and deflating any trend to Munchkinism.

Concluding Advice

One of the best ways of looking at a game is as a narrative on which you and the players are collaborating. Think of them as experts in the protagonists; your role is to provide whatever spark of inspiration is needed to keep the story moving, and make sure that the players get to contribute equally.

Ensure your players have an input into the shared narrative on which you are collaborating, remember that little worth winning comes easily, but that the ‘good guys’ should win in the end without ever being handed that victory on a platter, and your game will be successful. And if that means that the PCs fail to achieve the total success that usually completes a story, that simply means that you’ve saved the villain for a sequel – or for another chapter. All you really have to avoid is painting yourself into a corner without an escape route.

External keyboard scoreboard: Zero laptop problems. Which still doesn’t prove my diagnosis, but at least means that I have an effective (if inconvenient) solution…

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A Hole In Your Past: Character Connections With Yesterday


Friends by Gratsiela Toneva

Image by FreeImages.com / Gratsiela Toneva

I had a lot of trouble finishing this article – my laptop has started powering down of its own accord without warning, then immediately booting up again. Sometimes, it will run without a problem for hours, on other occasions it will function for only seconds. What it means is that the laptop rebooted multiple times during the writing of the article, disrupting trains of thought and momentum in the writing process. So if the concluding sections seem a little less coherent or more scattershod than is usual, that’s the reason.

We all lose touch with people from time to time; they fall out of our lives with a randomness possible only to the intersection of two chaotic situations. I had a dream last night in which I went on a random train journey, got off at a random stop, and accidentally reconnected with a couple of such people, who by sheer coincidence (and the logic of dreams) just happened to be at that location at that time.

When I awoke, of course, the dream (and that was just the start of it) made little rational sense in any real-world way. And yet, there is an incident that occurred a few years after I first moved to Sydney that I will never forget.

A lesson in the improbable

I come from a small country town, population 2700 at the time.

I was in a city of population 1.625 million.

Going to a store that I had never visited before, on my day off work, I was crossing the main street of the city at a busy intersection, in rush hour. Roughly 1000 other people were cross the street at that exact moment at that exact intersection.

And I ran into someone that I knew from my high school, the class which had been one or two years more senior to mine.

We barely had time to exchange pleasantries, but – what are the odds? I was in a class of 4 my senior year, his was a class of about 10 in their senior year. There would have been no more than 20 people of my generation I would recognize from that time period, and only three or four of them at most would have moved to the city. Four people in 1.625 million? That’s less than 0.00025% chance. Assuming a generous 6 chances of meeting someone specific per day, you would have to wait almost 93 years for there to be better than a 50-50 chance of it having happened.

Another

It was a number of years later. The city had grown in population to about 3.5 million. I was walking down the same street at a different intersection at an even busier time of day. There were easily 3000 people on that particular side of that city block, probably many more. And who should I bump into than one of my old school teachers, someone that I had known for at least 5 years, who was leading a school group from my old home town.

Again, there were probably no more than 20 people who would fall into that classification in all of Australia. The odds were therefore even longer.

Here’s where it gets interesting: This was the third time in a decade that the same thing had happened to me – different teachers, every time. On one occasion, there were two of them. That’s 20% of the teachers that I knew from my high school!

And still another

Fast-forward another 15 years. Central railway station is one of the largest in the public transport network, used by 11.35 million people a week – that’s about 1.6 million a day. Even assuming that half these trips are the same people coming and going, that’s still half the entire population of the city from 25 years earlier. Let’s further assume that only 75% of these are during the peak hour – I think it would be closer to 90%, but this will do: roughly 608,000 passengers per peak hour.

During my time in the city, I had worked for about half-a-dozen businesses or government bodies of various size. So it was greatly surprising when, waiting for my train to arrive, I found on the platform (waiting for a different train) one of my ex-bosses – who was now working for a completely different business, located in a completely different part of the city.

My employment at the time was a 10-month contract; I used that railway station twice a working day throughout that period. That’s about 600 trips. The chance that I would meet an ex-boss on one of them is about 0.1% by my rough estimation. And yet, I beat the odds.

The Moral:

Improbable connections happen. The odds of this event were ridiculously low. But it happened.

Lives are chaotic and unpredictable, and someone from the past can reappear without warning, blown in by those winds of chaos, and sometimes blown out again just as quickly. Soap operas use this coming-and-going all the time.

And that got me to thinking, when I awoke, that this was a tool that could be used by GMs to provide a set of connections between the PCs in their games and the rest of the game world, and used to trigger desired changes in NPC statuses, emotional states, and conditions.

And so, I devised a game technique to do just that.

The Technique

The GM may want to do this for major NPCs, but can wait until he is sure that he wants a specific character to change, then use this as a guideline. No, this is for the players to fill out about their characters, and then turn the results over to the GM for his use in populating the experiences that the characters will have in the future.

The process, from the player’s perspective, is quite straightforward:

List 3 people with whom the subject PC has lost contact.

For each:

  1. How long ago did your character lose contact?
  2. What was their basic personality?
  3. What was the relationship like?
  4. List 1-3 anecdotes of interaction between your character and the NPC from when they knew each other.
  5. What were the circumstances of separation?
  6. How has the subject PC’s life changed since they last interacted with the lost contact?
  7. How have those changes to the subject PC’s life changed his personality since they last interacted with the lost contact?
  8. What does the subject PC/NPC think of the NPC now, in hindsight?

This provides ammunition that the GM can use in various ways, because there is one key variable left under his control: How the lost contact’s life has changed in the intervening period, and what has that done to his or her personality.

In reality, three is a barely adequate simulation of reality – there should be a dozen or more for every period of the character’s conscious life – but three is enough, if, each time one gets used, the player creates a replacement.

Applications

At first, I thought that the GM would need to guide the players, suggesting one or more of the above and getting the players to complete the rest. But I’ve since thought some more about it, and realized that any answer can be manipulated by the GM to achieve his goals. This section will show you how.

But first:

Why it works

There is a notable difference between these “lost contacts” and any other NPC. These have been created by the player to be part of his character’s past. That might seem like a little thing – after all, a GM could easily create an NPC of his own that is exactly what he needs, and simply tell the PC “this is someone from your past”.

It doesn’t exactly work out that way.

The difference is that the player is invested in his character, and therefore also in the background of that character, and by getting the player to add this specific information to that background, you are also getting the player invested in the relationship between the PC and the NPC – and that is what you are manipulating, and by extension, how you are manipulating the character from the outside.

If the GM does the work and simply introduces the character as “someone the PC knows from their past”, there is none of that investment, and therefore the player is free to keep his character at arms’ length from whatever manipulation the GM performs. If they go along with something, it’s because they can, not because the internal logic of the character demands it of them.

That also leaves them free to resist it if they so choose, rather than buying into the drama of the situation that the GM creates. And that devalues the utility of the whole concept.

Application: Trouble for a PC

When caught between a rock and a hard place, all characters are capable of putting their own self-interests ahead of those of their friends, no matter how virtuous. “My daughter has a life-threatening condition. They came to me and offered me a cure – what could I do?”

Or perhaps the NPC has gotten in over their heads and come to the PC for help (they need a reasonable expectation that the PC will be able to solve the problem).

Then there is the fall from grace (or worse, the fall from someplace far more remote than a state of grace!).

Heck, simply showing up to visit can be enough to set off fireworks for the right NPC-PC relationship – if the PC’s current partner is the jealous type.

Lastly, there are some people with whom things always seem to start innocent and then get completely out of hand as catastrophe piles on cataclysm.

There are so many different kinds of trouble and ways to get the PC involved in such trouble that this is practically a no-brain-cells-required default for what can be done with characters from the past. Unfortunately, that also makes this usage a little predictable, even soap-opera in some cases.

Application: A victim of fate

Greater benefit can sometimes derive by simply having the NPC be a complicating factor for a while.

Imagine the following: You’re from a small country town, but have moved to the big city. A friend (but not a close friend) from your high school days lobs up on your doorstep with a completely legitimate reason for being in town. They expect you to show them the sights, maybe even let them stay at your place for a couple of days, and maybe to help solve whatever problem brought them here in the first place with your urban-fu.

Now imagine the same situation – when you’re Superman, with a secret identity to protect.

But that’s nothing compared to the problems that the NPC can bring with them, if they have been a victim of fate in the intervening years. We all know stories (and can invent more) of people who failed to live up to their potential – in the most clichéd form, could not handle the pressure of expectations – and dropped, or crashed, out. Similarly, we all know people who seemingly have it all, only for their lives to unravel at the seams. I can’t help remembering the classic episode of the Simpsons in which Homer meets his brother.

That’s because these events rarely happen in isolation; there is usually “splash” on those around them. And that “splash” can be a vehicle for all sorts of character-driven plotlines – from the PC helping the NPC get back on his feet to the NPC getting the PC caught in the middle of something he normally wouldn’t touch with a barge pole.

Application: A good/bad influence

Some people are a good or bad influence over others. Completely without malice, bad influences get others into trouble by getting them to do things that seem just a bit of harmless fun at the time. Good influences, on the other hand, can make characters holier-than-thou and excessively zealous in upholding the law, or some principle. That usually comes right before a fall of some kind; not only is it hard to live up to such lofty standards day in and day out, not only do standards of morality vary from person to person when you get down to the very fine details, not only will the PC have past acts that by the new moral standards are unacceptable, but excessive zeal and black-and-white morality is not in itself a good thing when taken too far.

Application: A trigger for change

This is perhaps the loftiest application of the technique, in which the PCs character is forever changed by the experience they have in the company of the NPC who has (temporarily) re-entered their life. There are three basic ways this can happen: They can awaken the PC to the trend their life is following, often by providing an object lesson; they can force the PC into some sort of act of redemption for the past; or they can so radically transform the circumstances of the PCs present that his future suddenly assumes a completely different shape. There are less common examples as well, but these are the three big ones: an object lesson, a reformer, or a wrecking ball.

Application: An unexpected opportunity

Sometimes, the NPC is a victim, or wants/needs to victimize the PC. This usually takes the form of one or both being offered “an unexpected opportunity” that they cannot refuse, only to learn that there’s more involved than they bargained for. This uses the presence of the NPC as a catalyst and delivery vehicle for the opportunity itself. When the player has some change in their PC’s life or circumstances that they want to achieve, this is often the easiest way to do so, and sometimes, the only reasonable way.

Application: Confronting the past

One of the major benefits of this technique is that it makes the character’s past relevant to his modern-day existence to an extent that is possible in few other ways. In particular, when a PC has experienced some sort of personal transformation in between the two parts of his existence – past vs present – this provides a means of bridging the gap between what was and what is, and of illustrating the price of that transformation.

This application can be all about

Application: You’ve come a long way, baby

Most lives transform a little at a time, punctuated by occasional periods of catastrophic change. As these transformative events accumulate, we become someone different in both personality and circumstances, but it’s only when we look back on our situations as they were on some past date and compare with the way things are now, that the extent of the changes that we have undergone really confront us.

The return of someone from a PCs past offers just such a milestone for comparison. This is particularly useful if the point of comparison is between the character as he is, mid-campaign, and how he was at the start of the campaign. This self-discovery can be a cause for celebration, or a cause for angst, or even both, as the character discovers that he has lost part of himself that he liked, and that was to be central to his life – from the point of view of what the player expected.

Expectations vs Actuality – that’s the motif at the heart of this application of the technique.

Application: In need of rescue

Of course, one of the most basic applications is simply as a springboard into some sort of action sequence or adventure. And the simplest of those is when an old friend needs rescuing – and that is then how they reenter the PC’s life, with a bang!

Application: The morality test

Of course, the ultimate application is forcing the character into a difficult moral position – “betray a friend or let him get away with X” is about the simplest of the ways that this approach can be used. Many more sophisticated approaches are possible.

Application In Practice

The whole reason that this technique works is because both the NPC and the PC treat each as though they are still the people they were, even though the world has changed around them, and changed them as a result. This forces them to confront the changes that the campaign has wrought on both them and their circumstances. As a tool for bringing the campaign into focus while making a character’s history relevant, this is hard to top.

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Definitions and the Quest For Meaning in Structure


Old bridge in Sweden by FreeImages.com / Owe Sleman

Old bridge in Sweden, photography by FreeImages.com / Owe Sleman

Back in Campaign Mastery’s special 750th post, I included some correspondence between myself and Tracey Snow which I reformatted into an interview format. Part of that “interview” went like this:

quote start 45

Do you have a glossary for terms that you use in your articles? Your recent article where you try to define an adventure talks a lot about that specific term but in various articles, you have used many different terms to discuss varying ‘sizes’ of storyline. I’m trying to get a handle on what each term means to you. I find it a little difficult to tell which ones you use a synonyms for each other and which are unique (I can attach my effort to define them if it will help).

My reply was,

quote start 45

A Glossary? Not really; my terminology evolves as my understanding of best practice evolves. That was what actually led to the article on trying to define an adventure! If you were to send me your attempt at definition, I will turn it into an article on the subject of clarifying the terms, if that would be of benefit to you and others :)

The reason I don’t have one is for the same reason that I have poor game-table record-keeping: I’m too busy doing it to stop and take notes! The only difference is that the “it” in question is writing an article instead of running an adventure!

The heart of today’s post is the draft glossary provided by Tracey, with some annotations and some additional entries. But first, I wanted to expand a little on the reasons for the use of so many synonyms. While the primary reason remains the one stated above, I’ve realized since that there is more to the story.

Synonyms and Confusion

Have you ever had someone explain something to you and you simply didn’t follow what they were trying to say? I’m sure it’s happened to all of us at some point; I’ve certainly been on both ends of that type of conversation. When that happens, there are three courses of action to choose from: (1), you can go over the exact same line of discussion again, perhaps more slowly, in the hopes that this gives the person who isn’t understanding you a chance to catch up; (2) you can try different analogies and different ways of phrasing things in the hopes that this will provide a flash of insight; or (3) you can simply give up.

When you’re writing something non-fiction, like these articles, (1) takes care of itself simply by the person reading the article going over it again; there’s nothing that you can do, they either understand what you were trying to say, or they don’t. (3) means that they simply stop reading, and once again you have absolutely no input into the process; as a writer, you’ve already done the best that you can to present your thoughts in an orderly and structured way that makes them accessible. But choice (2) is a more interesting story.

There’s nothing you can do to change the text you’ve already published other than appending a clarifying note, or discussing the subject further in response to specific feedback. But, the next time the subject comes up, instead of repeating yourself using the same exact terminology that you did last time, and which readers may or may not have understood, you can employ variants on the descriptions and labels that you use for various processes and topics that are more relevant to the subject at hand in the hope that the difference in context will open an avenue of understanding, both to what you are writing about in the current article, and in the past article.

This happens all the time, too – I’m sure we’ve all read something and not understood it, but later gone back to it and it’s absolutely crystal clear. It might be the first chapter of a novel, or a textbook, or something that you’ve read on the internet. It might be ten minutes or it might be ten years in between – but you get it the second time and you didn’t, the first. The difference lies in the changed context of what you have read in between the two attempts.

I was about ten when I read, in a second-hand textbook on algebra, an explanation of differentiation as a mathematical relationship between a function and it’s rate of change, and made an immediate and intuitive leap to the concepts of integration and second differentials. I understood it completely. When I got to actually studying the subject in high school, my maths teacher was alternately astonished at how much I already understood and exasperated at the difficulty of the questions that I would hit him with from time to time. It wasn’t until I was studying for my HSC – the Australian equivalent of SATs – that I read what my actual textbook had to say on the subject; in class I had been able to skip right over that and move on to actually using the math. It might as well have been in Greek; it used number theory and sets and trends and limits as the starting points and made zero sense to me except by working backwards from my understanding of the subject. If I had been trying to learn the concept from that second textbook, I might still be trying to understand it today – and failing. That was how I came to the revelation that context changes how you explain things, and something that might be opaque when explained one way could be totally and immediately clear when explained in another.

If there’s an important subject, I’ll tend to have a lot to say on the subject, which usually manifests in a number of references to that subject in the course of different articles. Each time, I’ll try to explain it in a way that makes the primary subject clearer, even if that means employing a different terminology for the same concept; the context is different.

Once you understand the idea being referred to, you can look back at something that talked about that idea but that you didn’t understand at the time, and go “oh, right – that’s another way of describing X, and I see what the author was getting at now.”

But there’s a downside: if you haven’t yet grasped “X”, you can end up even more confused than when you started. This is not a poor reflection on your intelligence, or your level of experience; it simply means that you haven’t understood one of the key concepts yet. That’s more likely to be the fault of the writer, who may have done his level best to explain something but failed, than it is to be a failure on your part (there are exceptions for things like legalese)!

In addition, a lot of the terminology derives from different media outside of gaming, and they sometimes use the same term for different things. The scale of the narrative also changes some meanings, as you will see when you look at the definitions below.

So that’s how you end up needing a Glossary. Which brings me to Tracey’s contribution to Campaign Mastery…

Sources

The definitions have been derived from the following articles and annotated or corrected as necessary:

Glossary Of Terms

Campaign

A “Campaign” is made up of Adventures that may or may not have a larger linking narrative and may or may not impose definitive contextual gaps in between (i.e. has a common attribute of continuity, which may be “serial” or “episodic” or something in-between).

An overarching narrative comprising the sum of many adventures, which normally have one or more PCs in common, also usually connected by commonality of game system. May or may not have one or more themes that influence many of the constituent adventures.

Adventure

Adventures are a single story or episode within the larger narrative of the Campaign, linked thematically, tonally, stylistically, and conceptually into a single sub-narrative. An adventure may also contain elements (usually referred to as “linked sub-plots” or simply as “subplots”) that violate those qualities but form part of a dispersed wider narrative. One Adventure may link to another in various ways, but each can be considered isolated and self-contained within the context of the Campaign. If the Campaign is a book, an Adventure is Chapter; if a Campaign is a book series, each Adventure is a separate volume.

Adventures are sometimes referred to as “Scenarios” but this is an outmoded expression, deriving from the equivalence “Synopsis = Adventure Outline” or “Adventure Idea”. Early articles will use this term more often than later ones, and for the last 14 months or so I have been deliberately depreciating this usage as obsolete terminology. “scenario” in the lower case might still be used from time to time in the sense of a plot idea suggested hypothetically or speculatively, but this usage is also avoided as much as possible to limit confusion.

A single adventure lasts an average of 2.5-3.5 play sessions. Two makes an adventure seem short, five or more makes it seem long, subjectively.

Part

A Part is a ‘hunk’ or ‘chunk’ of an adventure defined by a shift in focus or tone.

Can be further divided into Acts (see below), or an Act may be subdivided into multiple Parts.

When a Part is divided into Acts, the term Part is used in the filmic sense eg “The Deathly Hallows Part One” and represents the insertion of a new layer of structural relationship not usually present or necessary. In such usage, the term is normally capitalized. Such Parts are often subtitled to further differentiate between them.

When an Act is divided into parts, the term is sometimes not capitalized except when used within a title. Some books divide the content into parts, for example. Subtitles for such parts are not unheard-of but are much more infrequent. This usage generally indicates a subdivision for convenience within the act and shifts in tone are often less radical.

Continuity is usually much stronger between parts than it is between Parts, and it is unusual for significant shifts in time to occur, whereas Parts are more flexible.

Sometimes used purely for stylistic effect as an indicator of thematic or subjective continuity from one smaller adventure to another.

Act

Where there is no major change in tone, but the adventure is deliberately planned to span more than one game session, I will divide it into Acts instead.

Adventures can be divided into Acts in which different dramatic considerations are in play, within the service of the Adventure as a story or plotline.

Acts are comprised of Events and Scenes, each of which may be broken down further into elementary constituents of PC actions/interactions, GM Narration, Dialogue, etc.

Encounter / Event / Scene

Elementary constituents of an adventure or part thereof, such as PC actions/interactions, GM Narration, Dialogue, etc.

As a general rule of thumb, an Event requires a PC action in response, an encounter permits PC-NPC interaction but may be resolved with a PC action response, and a scene contains location and narrative contexts and may also include passages of narrative as well as one or more Encounters or Events.

Campaign Theme

An element or transition of style or content that will recur throughout the campaign. It can usually be summed up in a relatively pithy and very brief statement.

Think of themes as tag-lines that sum up all or a significant part of the campaign – or are intended to. As game play proceeds, the interaction between plot and player, between PC and environment, will generate new themes, some of which may supplant the themes the GM initially had in mind.

Background Element

An essential concept or idea that has been used to construct the campaign background. It can include anything from an interpretation of a race, or a class, or the political structure of the game, or questions about what is considered moral, or the most fundamental in-game answer to questions of (natural) philosophy such as “What is magic?” or “What are the Gods?”.

Treatment

Roughly synonymous with Adventure, more accurately, “Draft adventure”.

A “treatment” represents an adventure in a planning form, and may be relatively unstructured. A “treatment” is generally an intermediate stage between a single adventure idea (i.e. a single-sentence summary of an idea) and a more formalized structure that is ready to be written as a playable adventure. A “treatment” of the original movie Star Wars might be, “Luke discovers that he is the son of a Jedi and that a beautiful princess needs rescuing. Engaging a notorious smuggler as an ally, he and the last Jedi rescue the Princess and discover that they have been unknowingly transporting the schematics to a terrible new planet-killing weapon with them, which are intended to permit the Rebel Alliance to identify a vulnerability in its design. Armed with the results, Luke and his fellow pilots attempt to destroy the Space Station / Weapon while fighting off the evil Darth Vader, slayer of the Jedi order, murderer of Luke’s father, and captor of the rescued Princess.” This treatment expands the basic idea “Luke Skywalker and allies oppose the Empire and it’s evil representative Darth Vader” to the point where it can be divided into Acts, Parts, and Scenes, i.e. Structured.

Phase

Sometimes synonymous with an Act.

More usually, however, this is a general term for campaign-level shifts in tonality or style.

Plot

All plots are narratives describing the transition from A to B, regardless of the length.

The main job of a GM is to make the process of transition as interesting as possible.

Plot Arc

An organizational principle that ties together occurrences of a wider plotline together across multiple occurrences within different adventures in a systematic way.

Narrative superstructures that connect a bunch of related plots together into a single super-plot.

Number of Episodes of subplot before that plot arc is resolved:

  • Small: Subplot played out within 2-4 Adventures
  • Standard: Subplot for 6-10 Adventures, culminating in 0-2 Adventures where they are featured.
  • Major: Subplot lasting 10-20 Adventures. May provide the focus for at least 3 full Adventures, not all of which will necessarily occur at the end of the plot arc.

Each plot arc represents one journey of transition or development for a character; some are designed to bring the character full circle, having no direct lasting impact, while others are designed with the cooperation of the player to make some lasting change to the circumstances, psychology, or personality of the character at the heart of the plotline. Most of the plot arcs described in Campaign Mastery are of the latter type (unless I explicitly state otherwise in an article), and I’m not going to specify which ones aren’t in case my players are reading.

Note that some Plot Arcs may target important NPCs instead of PCs. For example, a Plot Arc in which an NPC is first established as a villain and then over a period of time becomes first a reluctant ally and then a fully-reformed individual.

Plot Loop

Synonymous with Plot Arc. I tend not to use this term even though Johnn likes it, because I find it counter-intuitive.

Scenario

Refer “Adventure” above.

Episode

A synonym for an adventure or (more rarely) for a single game-session of play. Used primarily when analogies are drawn between Television series and Campaigns.

Nested Campaign Structure Hierarchies

Simple:

  • Campaign
    • Phases
      • Adventures
        • Scenes = Narrative and at least 1 encounter or event

Adventure divided into Acts:

  • Campaign
    • Phases
      • Adventures
        • Acts
          • Scenes = Narrative and at least 1 encounter or event

Adventure divided into Parts:

  • Campaign
    • Phases
      • Adventures
        • Parts
          • Scenes = Narrative and at least 1 encounter or event

Acts divided into Parts:

  • Campaign
    • Phases
      • Adventures
        • Acts
          • Parts
            • Scenes = Narrative and at least 1 encounter or event

Parts divided into Acts:

  • Campaign
    • Phases
      • Adventures
        • Parts
          • Acts
            • Scenes = Narrative and at least 1 encounter or event

Phases are generally used only as a GM-planning device. Similarly, parts and acts are rarely announced to players; these are structural reminders to the GM used primarily in planning the adventure. From the player perspective, the structure is simply:

  • Campaign
    • Adventures = Narrative plus events plus encounters

In general, the bigger and more complex your planned campaign, the more structural layers and tools you need to use in order to manage your planning effectively. There is absolutely nothing wrong with using the player-view structure (subdividing adventures into Acts, Parts, and/or Scenes as necessary) and letting phase relationships evolve of their own accord. You concede a bit of control over the bigger picture but greatly simplify the sophistication of planning that is required.campaign tree

Adventure Trees

These adopt a less linear approach, and more closely resemble a flowchart. Some adventures are separated by decision forks, which may be treated either as part of the preceding adventure of the next adventure. These represent decisions available to the players as to what the PCs short-to-medium-term activities will be, from which the GM determines what adventure will occur. The major difference between the two forms of the structure is that one gives the GM planning time, while the other does not appear to do so, though planning (at a simpler level) is still possible.

If presented with a choice between three options (a, b, and c), if the players choose a, events from b and c proceed without PC input and may appear as subplots, or the GM may hold them in stasis until the PCs get around to them. In general, it is often beneficial to have them proceed, evolving into B1 and C1 (representing the way the situation has evolved without PC intervention). The diagram to the right illustrates the basic concept.

This is also sometimes described as a “responsive” campaign structure. While theoretically ideal, it is not always practical, because it does not guarantee that the players will choose ANY of the options, which generally forces the GM into random encounters without direction or narrative momentum.

Wrap-up

I hope this discussion, and the glossary above, helps any readers out there struggling with the concepts of campaign structure. I would also point readers at

for more information on campaign structures.

While some of these may seem to be more about the content of adventures and scenes than the structure, it has to be remembered that the only reason a structure exists is to deliver that content in a way that is fun, dramatic, realistic, entertaining, and comprehensible, so they are relevant to the discussion.

Once again, huge thanks to Tracey for her efforts in compiling the original version of the glossary, and for being brave enough to permit it to be offered publicly. She said she wouldn’t feel right accepting co-author credit for this article because the words were mine – but the structure and organization of them were hers (until I put my two cents’ worth in). And if there’s one lesson to take away from today’s article, it’s this: Structure and Organization are important. Cheers, Tracey!

On a completely different subject, last year in Yrisa’s Nightmare and other goodies, I gushed about how good Neodygame‘s Magnetic Scenography looked. Well, their kickstarter is up and running, so if you like the look of them (and if any of you have any money left after the massive wave of support for 7th Sea, 2nd Edition), stop by and take a look. At the moment they have a long way to go and could do with a little love from supporters.

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TCCT and N: Excessive Wealth in D&D


gold coins

Photo by “Dry2” courtesy Pixabay.com

There are certain topics that are classics, because you never seem to run out of questions being asked about them, or out of different answers with which to respond.

For the most part, Campaign Mastery steers clear of those, simply because so many others have provided good advice on the subject.

But every now and then, I like to take a run at one of these classic topics, just to see if I have some thoughts to offer that aren’t to be found elsewhere; after all, other sites are perpetually coming and going.

Possibly the oldest “classic question” of them all is how to separate PCs from excessive wealth.

Well, my mantra whenever this arises is TCCT and N. That reminds me of my standard solutions to the problem:

  • Thieves
  • Con-men
  • Craftsmen
  • Tax-men
  • …and the Needy

But there’s always a complication or two…

Thieves

A PC reaches for his money pouch only to find that it contains nothing but pebbles. Another keeps his wealth in a backpack – but he hasn’t noticed that there’s a small slit in the back of it, and his bulging coin-purse with it’s hard-won contents is gone. The mage uses a portable hole to contain his wealth, reference library, and a few other bulky odds and ends (ladders and whatnot). Everything is still inside – except the gold, gemstones, and jewelery. The party, it seems, are the victims of some very professional thieves…

Expect your players to go spare. Potty. Nuts. Incendiary. Meltdown.

And then, they will want to know two things: how, and more importantly, who.

Those are the complications that need to be faced in this manner of draining wealth.

The Manual Thefts

For the first two cases, it’s not all that difficult; in a skill vs skill contest, there will always be a winner and a loser. It just means that the pickpocket was more skilled (rolled a higher total) than the spot skill total of the PC. Normally, you have the player make those rolls, but an exception can be justified when you can’t let the player know that there is something to spot. The GM can even “cheat” by only deciding what skill the thief had based on what total he needed in order to succeed and have the confidence to expect to succeed – which can be a whole other question.

The higher the character level of the PCs, the higher their spot skill – it’s usually a solid survival trait for a PC to prioritize having it as high as they can manage – so the harder it is to justify that such a high-level thief “just happened” to target the PC. On the other hand, the higher the level of the PC, the greater his reputation and likely wealth, so the more reasonable it is that such a thief would deliberately target the PC. It’s not even really “cheating” if, once established, the thief’s skills remain at the level determined – it simply means that you are matching the opposition in the plotline to the PCs abilities. You could have even worked out what skill would be needed in advance – but there are better things to invest your prep time in, when there is such a simple solution at hand.

Those better things are personality traits for the thief, an appropriate legend and backstory (which may be more-or-less the same thing, if the thief tells the truth about his background – but I wouldn’t bet on that), and an adventure in which the PCs set about hunting down the thief.

That’s the most important thing about this solution to the money problem – that it not be accidental or arbitrary (which the players find really upsetting and hard to believe). No, they should be flattered – in fact, you should make a point of trying to puff up the PCs egos; “look at how famous you have become” – because players will ignore the flattery but take it as ‘justification’ for what has happened.

The logical end-point of such an adventure is for there to be a confrontation – one in which the players will expect to get their treasure back, with interest. Avoiding this problem is the third complication to be considered.

The Exotic Theft

The third case is a little more problematic. Paranoid characters (and paranoid players) will take extraordinary precautions to protect their wealth, and after their first loss to a pickpocket, even more balanced characters are likely to jump on the ‘personal security’ bandwagon.

I’m a firm believer that all forms of protection are an arms race with one side occasionally in front of the other. Yet, for as long as I can remember, portable holes, bags of holding, and ever-full haversacks have been viewed as the ultimate form of protection simply because the rulebooks don’t offer any way of penetrating same.

Rulebooks, bah! What do they know? About your world, in particular?

The bottom line: it’s happened. There are three possible solutions to the problem of how:

  1. You come up with a plausible vulnerability in these forms of ‘ultimate security’ – one that’s not common, and is brand new, and that no-one else in the world is publicizing. If everyone of importance is using this technique to hide their wealth (and why wouldn’t you, if you thought this to be the perfect solution) and their important documents, you might well find (eventually) that the authorities have known about it for a while, and been trying to keep a lid on it until they can catch the perpetrator. Or perhaps its a genuinely new breakthrough, and the PCs are about to cause the mother of all economic panics and security scares – if they are even believed.
  2. You can “cheat” and simply insist that it’s happened – and let the players speculate on the ‘how’ until you hear an answer you like. Then adopt it, and proceed as per solution 1.
  3. Or you can “cheat” and have someone figure out a way to make the wealth in such storage invisible or intangible or hide it with an illusion – the wealth is really still there, it just can’t be accessed or spent for some reason. But this suffers from even more problems than the first solution, so unless you have a brilliant “how” up your sleeve, you are better off avoiding this answer.

So, how might such a theft take place? Perhaps Shadows can penetrate into the extra-dimensional space, and the thieves have learned how to turn their shadows into animated servants. Perhaps you can ensorcel a coin to serve as a cross-dimensional tracer, permitting you (or someone smaller, if that’s necessary) to gate into the space. Perhaps there’s a way of making one such bag ‘dimensionally resonant’ with another, essentially creating one ‘larger’ container – for a short period of time.

Where there are three answers, there will be 300; you just have to think of them, or prompt the players into doing so for you. Once you have settled on a solution, your next problem will be: What else can you do with this technique? How will various authorities and groups react once this knowledge becomes known? Might it not be better to ensure that the PCs don’t blab about the problem – permanently?

Perhaps the solution to this “perfect storage” problem has been found several times in the past, and part of the officially (and very secretly) proscribed response is to not only suppress the solution but suppress any knowledge that a solution exists.

Suddenly, the PCs find themselves dodging death squads sent by supposedly-friendly governments…

The ramifications and consequences are the most critical aspect of any particular solution to this problem. Pick one that fits with your future campaign plans (if any), or the one that both sounds most interesting and plausible, if not.

Turning The Tables

So the PCs have tracked down the thieves, and forced open their strongroom after a visiting a violent retribution on them for their daring. Aren’t you back to square one?

If the thieves are foolish enough to store their loot in ready cash, yes. Any form of negotiable valuable is just as vulnerable – and no-one knows better than they do that any security can be breached. If that was the case and it was your money, what would you do?

Well, if it was me, I would convert the currency into something valuable that didn’t LOOK valuable, or that a thief would have a great deal of trouble converting back into cash. In particular, I would invest in things – and then borrow against them for my day-to-day expenses.

And that’s how the Paladin ends up with a 12% shareholding in a seedy brothel somewhere. Because it’s a minority share, his choices are limited – he can’t sell (under the terms of ownership) until the debts are repaid (even though it wasn’t him that incurred them); he can’t openly acknowledge ownership; he doesn’t have the authority to shut it down; all he can do is give the authorities the info they need to shut it down on his behalf, making the 12% share worthless.

Or perhaps the thieves have used the money to buy something it’s illegal to own – an automatic on-the-spot death sentence. Or they have used the money to buy “hot” local merchandise, which they have dispatched to another city with some of their number to exchange for other stolen property/sell – people who will now pocket the proceeds.

On paper, the thieves come with a certain level of wealth; the trick is making sure that this wealth is either in a form the PCs cannot access without great personal risk, or that the PCs cannot access at all. “The label says ‘Chaotic Evil,’ not ‘Chaotic Stupid.'”

The bottom line: the money is gone, from the PCs perspective.

Con-men

Even better is finding a way to get the PCs to hand over the money of their own accord.

There’s a great deal of variety in the sophistication of con games. Some are blatant, and easily spotted using the proverbial “if it seems too good to be true, it probably is”. Some are even more obvious to an even moderately-perspicacious individual, capable of entrapping only the greedy and truly gullible.

But there are some that are quite sophisticated. Plausible-sounding investments – and I’m not talking about anything as obvious as selling a city-owned Brooklyn Bridge, or a tract of swampland. Making it look like the perpetrator is another victim of some non-existent third party, for example, costing them everything – so much that they have to leave town and start over somewhere else.

The more care and sophistication you put into the planning of the Con, the more likely you are to successfully separate the PCs from their cash. But sometimes it can be as simple as a stock market or real-estate bubble that wipes masses of currency out of existence for whole segments of the populace. Misery loves company – so make sure the PCs have no excuse to be lonely when they are commiserating.

Heres one example: A famous and very well-respected Captain is putting together a trading fleet to ferry grain, ore, and other valuable commodities from one Kingdom to another where they are worth considerably more. He needs investors to help fill the holds with the initial shipments; he already owns the ships, and can even conduct tours of them, ensuring that they completely sound. The ownership papers are impeccable and readily confirmed through the Palace (the former owners). The man’s reputation and honor are equally-impeccable. He expects a cash return of 30% on the investment, though he would rather roll that over into a share in still greater and more valuable future cargoes. The whole thing looks legitimate because it is legitimate.

The night before he is to set sail, the Captain is accosted and replaced by a Doppleganger (or simply someone in convincing disguise). That person (lacking the skills of the Captain) loses one of the vessels en route to the destination (running it aground on a reef) but shepherds the rest safely to their destination (not necessarily the destination he was supposed to reach, mind you) – then sells the lot, pockets the money, and vanishes without a trace. Six months later, the Captain’s lifeless body is discovered…

Or perhaps the Captain is simply tired of being the squeaky-clean poor man, and does the deed himself. His honor may be forever tarnished, but his bank accounts glitter – and he is safe in a country that’s barely on speaking terms with the one from which he departed.

The only thing better than risking your own money is risking someone else’s instead – for a percentage of their profits, if any. Hiding the extent of your personal exposure is such a small deception… and of course, these ventures are called “risky” for a reason.

An added bit of credibility can often be obtained by asking for just a little more than the PCs can afford – but close`enough that if they scramble to raise just a little more, they can get involved in the scheme. Somehow, that always seems more believable than asking for a little LESS than you can afford.

Magic Items: Problem? Or Solution?

There are some things that happen with modern tech that SHOULD have analogues in the magic-equipment of a game environment. One of them is the cheap knock-off that looks good but only works for about three days, or has some other flaw. Now, if you know what you’re getting into, that can be the perfect solution to a sticky problem: a temporary armor upgrade, for example, and who cares if it becomes rusted iron 48 hours after you use it? But when the knockoffs are sold as the real thing, at something close to real-thing prices (a little less because the seller needs the money in a hurry), this is yet another con-job – and yet another way of separating PCs from excessive wealth.

The possibilities are limited only by your imagination: A portable hole with a hole in the bottom of it? That often-forgotten magic item, the Millipede Feather Token? The treasure map who’s X migrates on the page from time to time thanks to flawed divination magic? The crystal ball that can inexplicably only show you what happened in a location 24 hours ago? The 1′ x 1′ area of effect of the Wand of Cut-down Blade Barrier?

Many of these items can eventually prove useful in their own right (just not in the way the purchaser expected), or enhance the flavor of a setting. But they can all extricate gold from otherwise frugal player-characters, too!

Once again, we have an arms-race situation – frauds improve, and then the ability to detect them catches up with the modern techniques, and then someone clever thinks up a new dodge…

Craftsmen

Nothing soaks up cash faster than trying to keep current with fashion. Or a craftsman who spots a customer with unlimited wealth. Gaudy up anything the PCs have made for them with everything you can think of – special buttons, exotic materials, special silk for the sewing, a special needle, a more comfortable fabric, etc, etc. Let the PCs pay through the nose for clothes that will last decades instead of years – and then have them become LAST year’s style, worth -4 charisma modifier to anyone who knows fashion.

The trick is to add things to whatever the DMG lists as the basic price – and make sure that the PCs do in fact get something for their extra expenditure. “I used magically-enhanced copper eyelets in your leather armor to make it more resistant to lightning bolts! That leather was polished by hand for three weeks straight using Gershwin Wool and Seal Fat for that extra little bit of pliability, and that deep color – you don’t get that with just any tanning agent, that comes from compressed Moonbus Caterpillars soaked in Beholder Saliva for 23 years, that does!”

And, if the PCs try to demand the basic item listed in the rulebook for the basic price, not only should they be considered socially gauche, but the GM should emphasize that it doesn’t fit quite right, it’s itchy, the seams leak whenever it gets wet, and so on – play on the lack of quality and style. K-Mart vs Versache – in the medieval fantasy arena.

In reality, you will get more mileage from spreading these out. One set are itchy, the next don’t fit quite right, the replacements leak water whenever it rains, then there’s a button hole missing, then they fray really quickly – and persist for as long as it takes to get the message across that if you buy the cheap stuff, you get the cheap stuff, and the prices quoted in the PHB are minimum prices for minimum standards.

Craftsmen are skilled, but if you want quick and dirty, they will prepare goods to that standard, as quickly as possible, and then move on to something that pays a little more for their time.

Tax-men

Not only are greedy nobles always coming up with new taxes to inflict on those who can afford them (and who aren’t exempt, such as themselves), but a few “crafty” craftsmen might see fit to mention a few extras – to anyone who seems able to afford the price. One of the penalties of being forced out of the dirt cheap clothing is that suddenly, you look prosperous, a classic example of the nouveau rich – but without the protections of Nobility.

Tariffs, fees, levies, taxes, “subscriptions” – you name it, and the adventurers should be soaked for it. Whether it exists or not. “Tomorrow is the holy day of Brannoth; if I’m not to be at the temple all day praying, I have to buy an exemption.” And, of course, there is the price of “insurance” – which doesn’t mean that the maker is promising the goods are fit for service, it means that the local criminals have HIM paying “insurance” and he’s passing that cost on. With a money-handling fee.

I’m sure it was once the practice, somewhere, sometime, for vendors to charge 10% handling fee every time they had to give change. The merchant isn’t a money-lender, with stacks of coins to disburse – “those licenses are expensive!

Throw in guild fees and tithes, and the effective tax rate for Adventurers should be around 70%.

Inflation and Devaluation

One price impact that you can’t normally use is Inflation. That’s because it requires a floating currency, which lets the government simply issue more of it any time it runs low.

Instead, the word of the day is Devaluation.

“Silver just isn’t worth as much since the Dwarves of Spring Mountain opened their second mine and started to flood the market.” And because of the taxes, it costs more silver to hire a craftsman for the same job, or the same length of time, as it did last year. And on top of that, you have all that loot being recovered by Adventurers.

The effect should be subtle – only worth mentioning every year or two, game time – but there should be a slow “creep” in the price of things, not because the currency is worth less through inflation and rising costs, but because the currency is worth less through devaluation of the standard.

…and the Needy

Finally, we have the needy. There have always been more worthy causes and greater need than there has been wealth to satisfy those needs. One of the first things a GM should create for their game worlds is a list of thirty or more recognized charitable causes. On top of that, there will be beggars and orphaned children and perhaps even the cultural equivalent of buskers – all of whom can be ignored, of course. In which case, maybe you need to ramp up the impact of the casual curse.

Try telling the 15th beggar today that you can’t spare a silver when you obviously can – and when they have the power to make your life miserable.

Servants

Past a certain point, you simply aren’t socially acceptable without servants. First one, then three, then five, ten, fifty… Servants are either slaves or you have to pay them. And in this socially-enlightened year of the turnip, slavery is unacceptable. But it’s not just the wages, which are very dependent on the ability of the servant at performing his role; the master is responsible for the upkeep, feeding, and lodging of his entire retinue. New clothes for everyone! Soon, the logistics will demand still more servants to provide for the ones you already have. And with each step up the social ladder, the need for those servants to be presentable will also increase.

And every time a PC baulks, his best “servant” should receive a better offer from the banker across the street to come and work for him….

Timing is everything

It would be more than a little suspicious if these things all started happening at once, just as the PCs came into money. No, they should start small, and be introduced incrementally. At low levels, characters rarely have “excessive wealth” to worry about, anyway. Be careful with your timing and subtle in your approach and these can become a badge of honor – “My Fighter is so renowned that for the first time, someone tried to con him today” should indicate to the players that these things are a symptom of their success.

I once saw a proposal that increased class levels brought with it sufficient class expectations that actually gaining the level should cost 100 times the square of the level in annual expenses, in gp. This notion lumps all of the above into a general expense, which may work for you too. 2nd level – 400 gp. third – 900. fifth – 2500. tenth: 10,000. And so on.

The problem with this proposal was always that there was no adequate teeth to it; there was no real penalty for a character refusing to pay. But if this problem can be solved, this may be the solution you are looking for. Personally, I think it lacks flavor and ignores the opportunities for roleplay and verisimilitude that are implicit in the more detailed answers.

The one certainty should be that excessive character wealth should be a problem that solves itself, which is to say, no problem at all.

But, if these techniques still aren’t enough to get your loot problem under control (just how much booty have you given away!?), perhaps you need to take the next step and make the loot part of the plot (see also Loot as a plot mechanic and The Value Of Magic).

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Basics For Beginners (and the over-experienced) Part 5: Characters


Frame by  Billy Alexander, Dice Image by  Armin Mechanist, Numeral & Compositing by Mike Bourke

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

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

Characters are the single most important thing that a GM can create. Properly-created characters create their own stories through interaction with the environment and the PCs; and, furthermore, since we are all (at least in part) products of our environment, reflections of it, characters also embody that environment. Without characters, it’s all just a pretty still picture in the players’ heads. It’s characters that bring it to life.

If you have the characters, then, you don’t really need anything else.

But where do the characters come from? Ah, that’s the rub.

There are five main sources that I can think of, in general terms:

  • Plot
  • Personality
  • Environment
  • Antagonist
  • Concept

Plot

The most common origin of a character idea is plot – we need someone to do something, be something, tell the PCs something. From this central purpose, we determine those elements of the character that are logically derivative of that purpose – why the character would choose to do this, or how they become that something, or how they know what we want them to pass on to the PCs, and then those elements that derive from those, and so on.

The results are inevitably less than the whole character. So we then have to figure out what to add in order to complete them. The main goal is to ensure that what we add to achieve this does not inexplicably and inextricably contradict anything that we have already established; it’s fine for characters to be conflicted, and to make choices – even to make mistakes.

The elegant approach is to find the one puzzle piece that “unlocks” the character – that, through its logical consequences and derivatives,
fills in all the holes. The humanistic approach is to start with the earliest piece that we know, and add something to match it – then track that forward. The narrative approach is to find some particular “story” for the character’s history to tell, one that adds context and realism to what has already been decided.

The real truth is this: you can spend so much time and effort on trying to find that elusive “perfect truth” that you can never be completely satisfied in any reasonable time-frame.

When writing a novel, that’s fine; we can rewrite and tinker with characters endlessly until we actually get them close to our vision of “perfection” for their role. When creating for an RPG, there are practical time limits. So we substitute instinct and creativity for planning and go with the best answer that comes to mind – and then move on, to the next whatever-it-is that we have to create.

Both of these approaches are extremes, and they both operate by first denying the existence, and potential value, of a compromise that lands somewhere in the middle. But there is a better way, and it’s not all that difficult. But that’s getting ahead of myself.

Personality

Sometimes, the pieces that are missing from a plot-driven creation are all that we do have to go on. That usually means that we have a personality, and that how the character acts within any given story will be a derivation of that personality and how their history and experience leads them to perceive the situation that they are in.

In other words, we come up with a personality, develop a reasonable backstory for how the character came to have that personality, and then drop them into a situation because we expect the reaction to be “interesting” in terms of interaction with the PCs.

Once again, this only gives us part of the story. And, in fact, we have essentially the same set of options available for filling in the missing pieces, plus one more: the mechanical approach is to determine what we want the character to do about the situation they find themselves in, then determine what capabilities they require in order to attempt or achieve those actions.

Environment

We need an environment that is shared by the characters in order to ensure consistency. But sometimes, certain characters are a logical outgrowth of an environment. The difficulty is in determining how far to stray from the stereotype that springs to mind, and how the individual will differ from that stereotype.

It’s very easy to say that we want the character to be different from the stereotype in every way, but not all that practical. Stereotypes are associated with particular settings and situations for a reason; there is always a grain of truth, a commonality between them, at the heart of a stereotype, and denying that singular reality produces a character that is so implausibly removed from their reality that they simply don’t seem real. Instead, we need to embrace and transform that commonality and all that it entails – and only apply the kaleidescope of possibility to everything else.

Guess what that adds up to? Incomplete characters – again.

Antagonist

In some ways, an antagonist seems like the easiest character of them all to construct. We already know that they have to oppose the PCs, and that they have to be able to resist the obvious reactions of the PCs to such opposition, so that the two factions can have an interesting “dance”. That usually means pinpointing a point of vulnerability on the part of the PCs and then constructing a character to take advantage of that weak point.

This is akin to using the PCs as a “negative mold” from which the shape of the Antagonist is formed – and, as such an engineering-related description implies, this is ultimately a mechanical technique, all about what the Antagonist can do. Much – but not all – of the rest of the character should derive logically from that foundation – but that’s not enough.

Once again, the character is incomplete – but if any character needs greater depth and more singular effort, it’s an antagonist, simply because they will be subjected to far greater scrutiny than Joe The Barber or Damien the Waiter or Helen, the Astrophysicist, for that matter.

And, once again, the same solutions are available – and inadequate.

Concept

The final source of characters is the high concept, where we have some idea that just sounds cool, or interesting. An elf who has lived 10,000 years and still worships the “old gods”. An AI that has been “corrupted” in the human sense of the term, not the computer sense. A character whose entire body has been replaced with nanotechnology and who can consciously direct them to alter that body as he sees fit (I have a villain who will eventually appear in the Zenith-3 campaign who meets that description).

These are all “concept” characters, and they all have obvious holes. Answering the “why” and “how” will usually fill in some of those holes, but rarely all.

Take that Elf, for example: how did he live this long (he might not know himself)? Did anything happen to him to cause his extreme (in D&D terms) longevity? To what does he attribute his longevity? How has this lifespan altered his viewpoint on a range of contemporary issues? What is his personality? What are his goals? Who or what does he care about? What are his skills and physical attributes? What can he do? Who knows of his age? What are his current circumstances? Who are the people around him? What’s his story? What happened to the “old gods” and why is worship of them notable?

Lots of holes. The logical inferences of his concept may fill some of them completely, satisfy others only partially – and contribute nothing at all to the rest. Much depends on who “the old gods” were, and what that means that you can deduce about someone who worships them.

For the rest, you will need to alloy the concept with something else – and once again you have the same inadequate options.

A better recipe

The primary idea, and logical inferences relating to it, can fill anywhere from 20% to 90% of a character. The better the original concept, the higher that percentage will be. But what about the rest?

Earlier I listed a number of different approaches. As soon as I have filled out as much of the character as I can, based on the source of inspiration and a reasonable internal logic, my next move is to decide which of them is going to be the most useful in producing character elements that will contrast and compliment with whatever I have already determined.

There is no consistency as to which of the approaches is the best one to choose; no universal correlation that I have been able to find. Instead, I use a process that enables me to try each of them quickly and contemplate the combination that results. Quite often I will find something that fills most of the empty spots in my character architecture, but that still leaves a few gaps for another idea. As a result, I end up with a character that is primarily exactly what I need, with most of the remainder made up of something that adds depth to the character, and just a hint of something more divergent:
Character Elements

That’s my recipe: Essentials, something Complimentary, and a Contrasting Highlight. Of course, most characters won’t be this complex – I may have gotten a little carried away in trying to illustrate the principle!

There’s something else that’s important to note about the Contrasting Highlight: it should be complimentary to the Secondary, but can be a complete contrast to the Primary.

What do I mean by “Complimentary” and “Contrasting”?

These have been used in the artistic sense. A compliment adds to something without contradicting what’s already there; a contrast is a contradiction that applies in limited circumstances.

A criminal who visits his elderly mother once a week is a contrast, because it undermines the stereotype. A criminal who steals medicine every week for his elderly mother is complimentary, because it adds to this example of the stereotype. You can have as much “complimentary” material in a character concept or background as you like (so long as your primary needs of the character have been met); contrast, on the other hand, needs to be sparingly applied.

There are articles out there which advise to make everything a contrast (using different terms, perhaps) in order to avoid cardboard cut-out characters, ie flat stereotypes. I’ve even written a few of them myself, many years ago. What the above very brief example shows is that contrasts provide interesting characters – but compliments make even more interesting characters, and ones that don’t require so much effort to rationalize and roleplay.

The Technique

I realize that all this might not mean very much without a substantial example, so I’ll offer one shortly. But first, to that technique that I mentioned:

  1. Complete The Primary
  2. Identify the largest “hole” that needs to be filled
  3. Using each of the techniques listed, describe in one line an idea for filling that hole
  4. Test each for comprehensiveness
  5. Test each for complimentary nature to the primary
  6. Select the secondary from the ideas
  7. Test the remaining ideas for comprehensiveness
  8. Test the remaining ideas for complimentary nature to the secondary
  9. Select the tertiary from the ideas
  10. Complete the character

Those steps sound very complicated, but they aren’t, they are very quick in practice. What’s more, once you’ve done one or two characters this way, you won’t even need to write those one-line sentences down; you will be able to formulate a line of description in your mind and assess its value immediately.

Let’s break it down, step by step:

1. Complete The Primary

Every character has a function, described earlier. Creating a character that fits that function leaves gaps that need to be filled, but the nature and size of those gaps depends on the function. The possible game functions are:

  • Plot Need
  • Personality concept
  • Environmental Inevitability/Local
  • Antagonist
  • Concept Fulfillment or Expression
2. Identify the largest “hole” that needs to be filled

Thinking about everything you don’t know about the character, what’s the one term that clearly applies to most of the empty slots? Is is background, early history, current circumstances, plotline, personality, abilities?

That may not be the biggest hole. There is a secondary factor to take into consideration, which is the likelihood that you will need that information in order to run the character. You don’t need to know about a character’s childhood, for example, except in terms of what it says about the character now. If the character is not supposed to engage in battle, you don’t need his physical attributes – and if you intend to use a more cinematic style for any such battle, may not need the specifics even if he is to engage in battle.

Take that long-lived Elf, again – either he’s unbelievably fit for his age, or he’s unfit for physical combat due to age – and both are completely plausible. Or another example from the same character: Will he be an enemy, an ally, or enjoy a more complex relationship with the PCs? I can see that going in any of the three directions, and producing very different interpretations of the same basic concept.

The biggest “hole” to be filled is the term that the things you will need to know have in common.

3. Using each of the methods listed, describe in one line an idea for filling that hole

This is fairly straightforward. I’ve implied written answers, but you won’t need those for very long, if at all; the primary goals of writing the answers are (1) to keep the answer concise; and (2) so that by the time you’ve gotten to idea #5 you haven’t forgotten idea #1.

The methods, just to refresh your recollection, were:

  • The elegant approach, finding the one puzzle piece that “unlocks” the character.
  • The humanistic approach, adding to the earliest backstory and forward-tracking the consequences.
  • The narrative approach, finding some particular “story” for the character to be living.
  • The mechanical approach, determining what we want the character to do about the situation they find themselves in and the capabilities they need to have or be acquiring in order to attempt or achieve those actions.

There is also a fifth option which didn’t come up earlier:

  • The personality approach, taking a role model from another source and fitting this character to that expression of character.
4. Test each for comprehensiveness

This barely takes a thought, for me at least; others might struggle with it a little more. How many of the empty “boxes” do you think this idea will allow you to tick? A general sense of “most”, “lots”, “some”, “a few”, or “none” is all you need.

I usually conduct this step and the next simultaneously.

5. Test each for complimentary nature to the primary

How well does the idea fit with what you’ve already decided? Is it complimentary, or contrasting – or wishy-washy?

6. Select the secondary from the ideas

Picking the most comprehensive idea from amongst those that are complimentary to what you’ve already decided is very simple after the two assessments – unless you have two distinctly different candidates of equal value. That doesn’t happen often, but does happen occasionally. When it does, you have three choices: Pick one of the two by some arbitrary standard and go with it; Develop the character both ways and then pick between the two options; or try to incorporate both into the character simultaneously. My first instinct is to try the last option; either it will work, or I will reach a point of contradiction somewhere in the character, giving me more information on which to make an informed judgment between the two.

As a general rule of thumb, the idea that spawns the most ideas in your imagination, or that gives you the strongest sense of the character as an individual, is usually the right choice, and the choice that you will end up making.

7, Test the remaining ideas for comprehensiveness

You might think that you have already done so, but the goalposts have moved – comprehensiveness in this case means “filling all the holes that the combination of primary and secondary choices have left.”

But it still only takes a moment. Once again, I usually implement this step and step 8 simultaneously.

8. Test the remaining ideas for complimentary nature to the secondary

This is a little trickier. You want something that’s complimentary to the secondary idea that you are going to incorporate, and that contrasts, at least a little, with the primary. You want a choice, in other words, that is both plausible and that makes the character a more rounded individual.

9. Select the tertiary from the ideas

Once the two assessments have been made, it’s time to make your choice. It’s more often that you will get multiple answers of equal probity in this assessment; deciding between them is sometimes a difficult. If the character is plot-based, I will generally choose the option that interferes least with the primary; otherwise, I will go with the one that I think will be most fun for me to play.

10. Complete The Character

Using the selected source material, create a complete description of the character (complete in that it has everything that you think you are going to need) and then use that to construct any game mechanics that are required. Use the shortcuts given below for the latter!

Where do the ideas come from?

It won’t have escaped the attention of most readers that this article has leaned heavily on generalization and general principles. Where are the brass tacks? Where do the ideas come from? Almost at the end of it, those questions have not been answered.

That’s because I have already done so, elsewhere. I direct your attention to the following (partially excerpted from the BlogDex) VERY long list of relevant articles on Character Creation:

Also of value, in this context, may be the following articles:

An example

Time is starting to get away from me, so this might not be quite as comprehensive an example as I originally intended, but we’ll see how I get on. To start with, I don’t have any characters on tap with their workings so this will have to be a new creation. Since I don’t want to tip my/our hand in any of the campaigns I run, this will be for a generic D&D/Pathfinder/Fantasy campaign.

Because it was the first thing that came to mind, I am going to use the Concept approach (besides, I don’t have a plot on tap, and so can’t use the ‘plot needs’ approach; don’t have a specific campaign environment to build from, so I can’t use the Environment approach; most of the character examples I’ve given lately have been of the Antagonist variety and think a change of pace would be a good thing, so I don’t want to use the Antagonist approach; and don’t have any PCs to tailor an interaction with, so I can’t really use the Personality approach. This is what’s left.

Step 1: Primary Creation

My idea is this: a Demon Hunter, sort of a Van Helsing character, but who is part Demon himself.

So, the usual questions: Who is he? Why is he a Demon Hunter? How did he become part-Demon, How did he become a Demon-Hunter – and which came first?, How do these two statuses affect him now and how have they affected his past? Where is he from (in general terms)? What is his personality? and What can he do that ordinary people can’t? Oh, and – What does he do to the Demons he hunts when he catches one? What is his relationship with the PCs going to be like?

But the first question that needs to be answered is whether or not this is part of an existing campaign where Demons have been encountered already (tying the creation more inflexibly to what’s in the sourcebooks) or will this be a new campaign or a first demonic encounter, giving me a much freer hand? I’m going to assume the latter, simply because I think what I come up with will be “more fun” that way.

So, logical inferences:
His being a Demon-hunter has something to do with his being a half-demon, I’m guessing. It could go the other way, but that would be merely an act of will to overcome the demonic influence – for now – and that’s an idea that I’ve done before. So he became half-Demon, or was born that way, and somehow that has led him to hunt his own “half-kind”.

Right away, a story presents itself to me: A bored student – clerical or arcane – and his friends have a go at Demon Summoning. It gets out of hand (that sort of thing always does) and they really get a Demon. It’s on the verge of chowing down on our bored students’ soul (whatever that is), when another Demon Hunter crashes through the door into the basement where all this is happening and slices the Demon in two. The dying demon, in turn, tears his prospective victim in half and uses the matching half of the student to bind his wounds long enough to blast the Demon-Hunter and escape. (In an established setting, with demons already defined, that couldn’t be done). With his last breath, the Demon-Hunter replicates the process to save the student’s life – warning that his existence will always be imperiled until he can get the rest of his body back and finish the job on the Demon who has it.

So, that makes him physically a literal half-Demon instead of Genetically so, and more or less forces him to abandon everything that he had and was – a spoiled student from a wealthy background – in favor of a new career as a Demon-Hunter. How about Morally and Emotionally? To keep him still being ‘him’, the character needs to be mostly human in those departments – but with a Demonic influence slowly tainting his existence. Which implies that the other half of the story is mostly Demonic, but with humanity slowly tainting It’s purity.

That puts some impetus into the story, a ticking clock – the character is a time bomb of unknown delay that has already been triggered. A sense of urgency is always a good thing in a ‘driven’ character.

What does he do with the demons he captures? He kills them, or tries to – the Demon can always flee back to its own realm, but perhaps can’t return for a period of time. Or perhaps demons are immortal, but can be exiled into some nightmare plane from which escape is difficult and existence is tortuous. That idea gives the Demons a much stronger motive for fleeing from a hunter, even a dying one – which helps make sense of that “origin story”.

We can surmise something of his capabilities: he has to be effective at finding and attacking Demons – most humans, even very skilled ones, couldn’t do what this character’s progenitor did with one blow. So we have to assume that he has some sort of enhanced senses, and that his combat capabilities are much higher against Demons than they are against anything else.

That, in turn, raises the prospects of a very interesting variation on the standard cosmology: Demons are more effective against their fellow Demons than they are against the Gods or Celestials or Angels or whatever they are called this day of the week; Celestials are also more effective against their own kind than against Demons or Devils; so, in order to confront each other and play out their philosophic differences, both sides need mortals.

About the only other element that we can get from this concept is that the plotline that brings him into the PCs’ circle is going to have something to do with Demons, or at least that the Demon-hunter will suspect that.

So far, that gets us about 60% of the way to a finished character. We know that the character is a combination of two stereotypes: the tainted soul seeking redemption, and the bored rich kid who got in over his head.

Step Two: Identify the largest “hole” that needs to be filled

Off-hand, I would say that the biggest hole is the character’s relationship with the PCs, which raises a related question of what sort of character we are going to have – a hero, an anti-hero, or a complex character? All we know at the moment is that he isn’t an antagonist, though whatever he’s doing might still put him at cross purposes with the PCs.

Most of the unanswered questions are about the effect that this half-Demonic status has had on the characters’ life. His personality will also hinge on this determination. We have some hints about both of those from the Primary, but don’t as yet have enough information to complete the creation.

Step Three: Using each of the techniques listed, describe in one line an idea for filling that hole

Plot: The PCs come into possession of a ring of Demon-Summoning (or what the NPC thinks is one) and the NPC wants it. Alternative idea: The PCs have an encounter with a demon or a demon’s mortal subject, and wants to test them to be sure that they have not been tainted. Third alternative: both.

Personality concept: The character is far darker and more villainous than the idea suggests, and his tale of being a bored rich kid is a fabrication; he was an elderly man terrified of death, and the demon summoning was to bargain for eternal youth. His wish was granted – at a price he didn’t expect – and he subsequently learned that he was now equally-vulnerable to Demonic attacks. He hunts demons as a form of pre-emptive strike, and always tries to sucker others into occupying the front lines in these confrontations. That’s what he has in mind for the PCs – as soon as he wins their trust.

Environmental Inevitability/Local: Coming up empty on this one. That’s the problem with a generic fantasy environment.

Antagonist: You could argue that the Personality idea qualifies, but the “antagonist” has a different definition – it means a character that is specifically designed to have mechanics and abilities that oppose those of the PCs. Since we have no defined PCs, this is a null item. If I were designing this character for the Zenith-3 campaign, I would be focused on the fact that while the different types of meta-energy in that campaign can’t normally coexist, Resistances to them can – so my focus would be on resistance of all forms. If I were designing the character for the Adventurer’s Club, Father O’Malley would be the center of my attention, and I would reinvent the Lych’s phylactery as a way of making the NPC temporarily immune to the good Father’s spiritual retribution. But I’m not.

Concept Fulfillment or Expression: And we’ve already used this as the primary source of ideas.

Step Four: Test each for comprehensiveness

The plot ideas don’t tell us very much more than we already knew. The Personality ideas add a lot to the character, and its all relevant material – and they even tell us something about the plot usage of the character. Personality wins this test, hands-down.

Step Five: Test each for complimentary nature to the primary

The three plot-based ideas are all more antagonistic than is justified by what has definitely been decided so far – and they are all a little obvious and lame, as a result. There’s only one personality concept, but it produced immediate spin-off ideas – and these are all complimentary to the ideas I already had, adding to them. The personality idea again wins the contest.

Step Six: Select the secondary from the ideas

Which makes the decision pretty much automatic. The personality idea is the secondary, and our character takes a darker turn.

Step Seven: Test the remaining ideas for comprehensiveness

We only have one remaining idea – the plot usage. It doesn’t add much to the character, but it does give us an initial plotline that the character can use for getting close enough to the PCs to tell his (false) sob story, setting them up for the betrayal to come.

Step Eight: Test the remaining ideas for complimentary nature to the secondary

What’s more, while the plot ideas may be contradictory to the primary idea, they are definitely more complimentary and plausible once the secondary “darkening” of the character is taken into account.

Step Nine: Select the tertiary from the ideas

Hobson’s choice, perhaps, but the assembled whole works. So the plot ideas are our tertiary component.

Step Ten: Complete the character

The character description is already more-or-less complete; most of it would be a matter of cutting-and-pasting. So, instead, let’s outline the adventure that has derived from that character description:

  1. The PCs have a demonic encounter and come away from it with a ring.
  2. The Demon-hunter shows up to “test” the PCs. They may or may not cooperate, but he’s not likely to give them a choice. They come up clean, but the ring is demon-tainted, which causes a brief misunderstanding when it corrupts the “test results”.
  3. The Demon-hunter demands the ring. He may try to buy it. He seeks to build trust between himself and the PCs by telling his story. He then warns that the Demon they encountered probably escaped and only appeared to be destroyed, and he intends to make sure of it. He invites the PCs to accompany him on this brief quest and insists that they accept.
  4. The Demon-hunter and PCs track down the Demon (who had simply escaped, because Demons are a lot tougher than the PCs thought), and deal with him once and for all by exiling him to the Plane Of Torment. This gives the NPC the chance to fill the PCs in on more of the background to his existence.
  5. From time to time, the Hunter will turn up when he comes across a nasty demon and ask for the PCs aid. From time to time, they may come across a Demon and find that he is not far away. (Several encounters). Slowly, they begin to form the impression that he hasn’t been completely honest with them.
  6. The PCs come across a half-demon – the half-demon who has the NPCs other half. They contact the NPC who willingly joins forces with them – only to betray them rather than destroy and exile the demon. The true story comes out.

Simple technique, powerful process

This is a simple technique that anyone can use, no matter what your level of GMing expertise. Ideas might come more fluidly, more quickly, to GMs with experience, but anyone who can pose a “what if” can use them. What gives them power is the structured process of filtering the results.

I’ve presented multiple ways of generating ideas in the past. This technique provides a framework for integrating them into a character – and, along the way, I’ve tried to salt the article with hints as to what makes for a good one.

The next part of this series – in a fortnight’s time – will focus on Challenges.

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Ask The GMs: Iceberg Plotlines: Massive Plot Arcs in RPGs


This is the second of these Ask-The-GMs that I’m tackling without recourse to my usual allies and fellow-GMs.

Today’s question is asks about something I’ve described using a number of different terms over the years. My current euphemism is “Iceberg Plots”, because 9/10ths (or more) of the plot doesn’t show in any given adventure.

Ask the gamemasters

The question comes from “Onion” of OngoingWorlds.com, who I know better as my twitter buddy David Ball (@OngoingWorlds). Ongoing worlds is a hub for play-by-post RPG campaigns of all genres.

“Onion” wrote:
“What do you think of slow-building storylines, ones that develop over time and are always in the background? Do you think they can work successfully in a rpg campaign?”

The short answer to this one has been offered a number of times here at Campaign Mastery (and will be offered again, below), but there are a couple of stings in the tail this time around. First, I have no experience with play-by-post games, so my advice might not translate all that well; since the focus of Campaign Mastery is tabletop RPGs, though, I don’t intend to let that stop me. But the second part of the description throws in a curve ball: “…are always in the background.” And that can cause problems…

Iceberg Plots, a.k.a. Ongoing Subplots

An iceberg plot is an ongoing subplot. It’s not the central focus of an adventure, it’s something that happens in the background, and may or may not involve one of the characters; it could simply be an ongoing evolution of that background, the passage of time affecting NPCs who in turn are relevant to the day-to-day lives of the characters either directly or indirectly.

It’s very useful for verisimilitude that a background not be static, that it evolve over time. I first wrote about that in Lessons From The West Wing: Time Happens In The Background over five years ago.

It also gives the players the impression, rightly or wrongly, that the world is “responsive” – that their actions (and those of NPCs) have consequences that will affect the game world.

But the biggest advantage that they offer is that by breaking the “static background” mindset for the GM, they actually do make the world more responsive to the consequences of PC actions! It’s a much shorter leap from “the world is changing just a little” to “the world is changing just a little because of what you did” – far, far shorter than going from a never-changing static environment to a dynamic one. If the world is changing anyway, all you need to do is pay attention to what the PCs are doing – something that should happen anyway – and include that as one of the factors driving changes.

The difference between an Iceberg Plot and a Dynamic Background Element

An iceberg plot is slightly more than an evolving background element, however. “Plot” implies direction, it implies a story – and stories have structure, a beginning, middle, and an end, at the very least.

You might have a local sheriff whose job is to maintain law, order, and peace in the streets. From time to time, he’s a thorn in the side of the PCs, from time to time he may be an ally, most of the time he’s just part of the furniture and as inexorable as the law of gravity. That makes him a background plot element.

If his attitudes evolve over time, especially in regard to his attitude toward the PCs, and if he slowly gets older and more infirm, and begins training a hand-picked replacement for when the specter of old age finally catches up with him, that makes him a dynamic background element. Instead of being the same every time he gets involved in an adventure, he – and his relationships – evolve in response to events and the passage of time.

If the GM has a plan for the character – if he is to slowly become convinced that the Chancellor Of The Exchequer is plotting against the head of Government, and begins letting that conviction influence the way he does his job, eventually leading to the Sheriff setting up a revolutionary faction for the purpose of ousting the Chancellor before the damage done to the nation is irreparable – then the character is no longer merely a dynamic background element, he is an iceberg plot. The changes from adventure to adventure might be minute, or might be significant, but they have a narrative structure, and the changes are not random – they have a purpose. There might even be times when the Chancellor does something that gives the Sheriff pause to reconsider, seeming to reverse the trend, or even completely doing so as the two come to a new understanding of each other’s postures and positions; that’s fine, too. It’s a story – it just happens to be one happening on the periphery of the players’ awareness, and that doesn’t usually affect them all that significantly.

In fact, from the players’ point of view, there is no difference between a dynamic background element and an iceberg plot; all it means to them is that the character is evolving in the way a person would, under the circumstances. Only from a metagame perspective is there a difference.

It’s All About The Players

At the same time, it must be remembered that the GM’s NPCs are not the stars of the show. That honor is reserved exclusively for the PCs. Iceberg plots only matter if they eventually get the PCs tails caught in the machinery – if the plot becomes significant to the PCs, in other words. There’s that sting in the tail that I mentioned earlier: an iceberg plot cannot “always stay in the background”. Eventually, events have to catch up with the PCs, and become centrally important – until the iceberg plot is resolved, one way or another.

Iceberg Advice: Make It Interesting (but not too interesting!)

There’s not much that’s more boring than trivial gossip about people you don’t know and don’t care about. If the gossip is salacious or juicy, that’s a different story. And if the GM is simply relating news about events that don’t directly affect the PCs, what he’s sharing is, basically, game-world gossip.

That’s a serious problem for iceberg plots, where the whole idea is to keep the plot from attracting too much attention until it’s had time to ripen and mature.

From experience, I can tell you that no more than one in five ideas for iceberg plots can meet both targets, and therefore succeed as plotlines. Probably not more than one in ten such ideas make good iceberg plots. There’s a constant tug-of-war between making it interesting and keeping it submerged.

The best solution is to ensure that the protagonist(s) of the iceberg plot regularly engage with the PCs on a matter completely or almost completely unrelated to the iceberg plot. That frees the GM to carefully plan each step of the iceberg plot using in-game appearances of the NPC as a ticking “clock”.

Iceberg Advice: Keep Up The Momentum

Think about some TV drama that you like. If a background plotline gets mentioned once a year, how much interest will it hold? Twice a year is almost as bad. The iceberg plot has frayed at the end, and snapped.

You don’t have to mention the plot every episode, or every adventure – but you definitely need to keep it as a regular presence, part of the plot “furniture”, and that is best achieved by having one or more of the NPCs involved appear regularly within the campaign.

Nor does there need to be an obvious or significant development in every appearance of one of the iceberg plot’s principle characters, but these need to happen frequently enough that there is a clear evolution taking place over time.

If you’re playing every week, this is easy to manage. A character featured in the iceberg plot can show up because of his “day job” every two, three, or even four weeks – no problem. This both keeps his existence and situation in the back of the players’ minds and keeps his situation from becoming too seemingly significant.

The less often that you play, the harder the tightrope becomes to walk. Playing once a fortnight, a monthly mention generally means roughly every 2nd adventure – that’s fine. Even every adventure can be tolerated, if the involvement is natural – the PCs landlord, for example.

Playing once a month means that every adventure requires an appearance by the character. That very regularity means that his problems become more significant to the PCs, and it is that much harder to keep the iceberg submerged. The best solution that I have found is a second iceberg plot revolving around the same character, so that the plot that you care about becomes just another part of that NPCs ongoing soap opera. Simply by giving you something else for the character to talk about, it deflects attention away from the important plotline.

The Lifespan Of An Iceberg

Tension, like subplots, can only be sustained for so long. There comes a point where the audience – your players in this case – get tired of waiting, when they want you to just get it over with.

If you wait too long to resolve your iceberg plot, it will have no impact, or even negative impact, when you do bring down the curtain. That’s what happened to the TV series “Moonlighting” – to quote TV Tropes, “Moonlighting: This was the whole premise of a romantic Dramedy series starring Bruce Willis and Cybil Sheppard as private detectives. The whole show jumped the shark in the fifth season when they finally consummated their relationship; the tension was simply gone and it become yet another sitcom. Lampshaded in the series finale, a great example of the show’s frequent Breaking the Fourth Wall: The two detectives come back to the office to find it being dismantled by people working for ABC; an ABC network executive tells them that viewers had enjoyed watching them fall in love, but after they’d already fallen they lost interest.”

(An additional note adds, “In reality the downfall of Moonlighting had a lot of other causes as well. Mostly it was the result of tons of behind-the-scenes problems that plagued the show for the duration of its run, ranging from script and episode delays to a writer’s strike that struck mid-season to the declining quality of scripts to the (infamously combative) lead actors who simply didn’t want to continue working on the show. Bruce Willis launched his film career with Die Hard between the third and fourth seasons and Cybil Sheppard, reportedly never pleased with the long working hours, wanted more time off to spend time with her growing family.”)

One of the benefits of planning an iceberg plot is that you can avoid this fate. First, you can keep the situation developing, rather than a static situation that seems to edge towards development and then falls back into its established rut; Second, you can ensure that the conclusion to the iceberg plot carries enough unresolved plot developments that the game can survive the conclusion of this long-running element; and third, by successfully keeping the plot almost-submerged to just the right degree while it is developing, you can prevent its conclusion from being too important to the ongoing campaign.

The major problem is knowing when a plotline has gone on for too long, and the campaign would be better served by canceling the resolution and leaving this as an ongoing dynamic campaign background element. As TV tropes notes in their section on Jumping The Shark, the telltale signs are only noticeable in hindsight – and at some remove. It’s altogether too common these days to be a prophet of doom and pronounce any change at all to be an example of “jumping the shark” – read this page (but for the love of heaven don’t click on any of the links or you might not escape for hours – TV Tropes is just that interesting a site…!)

On a Completely unrelated side-note, I was once asked why I thought TV tropes was so fascinating. It’s because it’s all about why people like what they like, and don’t like what they don’t like, and why other people don’t like the same things you do, and how those things have changed over the years. It simultaneously confers community upon those who felt alone in their opinions, reassures that those opinions are valid, argues with you just enough to get you thinking independently, and fills in all the spaces in-between with nostalgia. That’s a very heady brew…

The only consistent way that I have found to measure the “breaking point” of an iceberg plotline is to count the number of opportunities to resolve the plotline in the intended manner that have not been taken by the GM. Generally, you can get away with one or two of these in complete safety, but the third time you fail to bring down the curtain puts you into dangerous territory. On exceptionally rare occasions, you may be able to get away with as many as half-a-dozen aborted resolutions, though I have never seen this actually happen except by counting threats to resolve the plotline that never actually eventuate.

Somewhere in between these limits is the normal breaking point, in which interest in the plotline frays so completely that it no longer matters.

But this neat and simple guideline is contaminated by the fact that even solutions to the problem that don’t occur to the GM still count if they are obvious to the players.

So, that’s the foundation of the secondary solution: listen to what the players say to each other about the plotline when they aren’t in character. The major reasons why this is not the primary test is because player personalities are a factor (some players like to complain/criticize/speculate, others don’t share their opinions during the course of the game, or give the GM too much rope, some may simply dislike the specific iceberg plot, and so on), and because player reactions can only tell you when you’ve persisted for too long after the fact, and sometimes not even then.

The Life Cycle Of An Iceberg

Iceberg plots, like all plots, have a natural life cycle. They start with veiled beginnings, progress through a growing significance until they reach the point of ubiquity as a plot element, and then achieve criticality and “come to a head”. Crucially, there is also a fifth stage that is often neglected, but which can be just as important as the others – “After the titanic”.

1. Veiled Beginnings

In the beginning, the significance of the circumstances is not apparent. The iceberg has not even revealed the general shape of the part above the surface, to extend the metaphor. This might be one or more casual meetings between a PC and the protagonist of the iceberg plot, or a series of coincidences, or rumors, or newspaper accounts (or their cultural equivalent); they don’t even cause a ripple in the main plot of the day and aren’t even as prominent as a piece of “plot furniture” – they are wallpaper.

There should always be one PC who is more connected to the plotline than the others, and who should therefore be the focus of the relationship. In the Zenith-3 campaign, St Barbara is the team leader, so almost all political and administrative relationships have her as their focus; Blackwing is an ex-cop, so any relationships with law-enforcement types usually go through him.

That doesn’t mean that an ongoing subplot can’t connect with another PC; it simply makes it a little more noteworthy when one does, prompting immediate suspicion that this may be part of an iceberg plot – even if it’s just some window-dressing to conceal one. For example, Blackwing recently had an encounter with the Press Secretary of the Mayor of New Orleans (in the 2056-game world) and the two had a definite chemistry. He was impressed with her expertise, professionalism, preparedness, and competence; she was impressed with his poise and ability to take direction, even when what he was doing didn’t come naturally to him. Will anything come of it? Possibly, but probably not – her professionalism would get in the way, as would some of the character’s personal issues. However, the interaction will make him more aware of those personal issues (as a character), setting him up for a more significant plot iceberg (plotted in conjunction with the player) in times to come. So, in a way, this could be viewed as the first “glint” off that future plot iceberg. (More on this “real-game” example a little later – I can talk about the planned plot iceberg because the player knows all about – well, about most of it! – at least in general terms).

2. Growing Significance

From that beginning, the overall “shape” or nature of the plot becomes clear, and begins to impact on the characters in minor ways, primarily if not completely outside of the main adventure. For example, this might affect where a character is found when an adventure starts, or what he is doing. Initially, there should be little or no importance to these snippets of “character life”; they should be casual and occasional. Over time they gradually transition to the state of ubiquity, which I will discuss in a moment.

First, I need to revisit the question of how long this phase should last. Specifically, every instance of the iceberg plot should be different, however slightly. There may be a number of discrete “steps” to a relationship, or there may be angst about taking that next step, but there needs to be both development and importance without significance.

Importance vs Significance

The differences between those last two terms often cause confusion when discussing this topic. Importance means that it matters more and more to the character when it happens, and even begins to shape his in-between adventures circumstances; Significance means that it begins to matter to the other PCs for reasons beyond their relationship with the primary PC, and becomes a significant factor within adventures.

That means that you need to have enough variations on the theme on tap to continue the development of the plotline without making it too significant, or prematurely over-important. I’ll talk more about that in conjunction with the example, later in the article.

Evolution, Revolution, and Revelation

Any plotline will contain periods that fall into one or more of these categories, and each one will occur at least once in that plotline. They require different handling, so I thought I would take a moment to discuss each.

Evolution means that an event is a logical progression from whatever happened last time the plot iceberg manifested. It may be necessary that you call the players’ attention to the minor differences that have resulted from this evolution, or it may not – that depends on the circumstances, the plotline, and the individuals. However, you need to be subtle about this, as calling attention to the development makes it clear that you are deliberately progressing this as a plotline, breaking immersion, and undermining all the benefits of having an iceberg plot in the first place. That usually means that you can’t just do it off-the-cuff, but need to spend a bit of time carefully polishing your narrative.

Revolution takes place when some sort of significant milestone is achieved in the iceberg plot. If you aren’t careful, these can be Significant as well as Important, and can even loom as more Important than you want them to be. These problems are best avoided by presenting this as a natural evolution that the characters have been progressing toward for some time – an inevitable result of development. That makes the revolution more about “how far things have come” than about “where things are going.”

Revelations are the trickiest of all three, because by their nature, a revelation demands a reappraisal of everything that has occurred so far. Any flaws in your handling of the other two elements in the past can come back to bite you at this point. I often find it useful to employ a camouflaging smokescreen as misdirection: to prevent focus on the things that I don’t want the PC to pay too much attention to, I will accompany a revelation with some minor crisis or problem of a more immediate and potentially significant nature (the misdirection) and then orchestrate an easy resolution of this minor issue (the smokescreen). The implication is that the “big problem” is solved, or at least shelved, and anything else is minor and not worth worrying about.

3. Ubiquity

Ubiquity is reached when everyone (including other PCs) can assume that the focal PC is engaged in the plot iceberg whenever they don’t know where it is. It’s the point in a romantic relationship when family and friends begin telling each other that they should start making serious plans for an eventual wedding. The relationship is established and shows every sign of having established a new stability, replacing the situation that existed prior to the commencement of the plotline. The status has become quo.

This is a danger point, because this is the last opportunity that you have for tossing your plans and retaining the situation as a new dynamic background element. You also have the difficult question of how long this phase should persist; you need it to be long enough to confirm the impression of a new status quo, but not so long that it becomes unbelievable when you upset the applecart.

4. Criticality

Criticality occurs when the iceberg plot is revealed in its full terrifying majesty, when Important becomes Significant, and the plotline becomes the central focus of an adventure (or, at least, one focus). Criticality may occur in phases as one shoe drops after another and what it looked like you were building towards unravels before the players’ eyes.

Until the iceberg strikes the Titanic, it’s just a hunk of ice. Criticality is the point at which disaster not only cannot be averted, one or more PCs can see it coming – but are powerless to prevent the train-wreck.

5. After The Titanic

The significance of plotlines, iceberg or otherwise, is in how they alter the world, and how they alter the focal character. The aftereffects should mirror the buildup that took place: an immediate life-changing impact, and ongoing consequences that gradually lessen in intensity as a new status quo develops post-event.

The need for an extended after-effects phase is easy to demonstrate: once again, think of a TV show that you enjoy. Imagine that, over the course of a year, a new relationship develops between one of the principal characters that you like and a guest-star. One episode before the season finale, the relationship shatters and the guest-star departs, having wrought havoc on the principal character’s life. And the next week, that character is exactly the same as he or she was before this plotline started.

Such a miraculous recovery does more than strain verisimilitude to the breaking point, it breaks it and then jumps up and down repeatedly on the grave-site.

If PC actions are to affect the world, then NPC actions have to affect the PCs just as strongly.

That is why I felt it important to have Saxon collaborate on the plotline that has been mentioned a number of times as an example, and which will be dissected below.

Re-floating A Sinking Iceberg

There are times when what looked good on paper doesn’t work when playing. This can occur for all sorts of reasons; but the reasons don’t immediately matter. The bottom line is that what you had in mind simply isn’t working.

The character who was supposed to win their trust only to betray it is universally mistrusted from word one. The character who was supposed to die a poignant death was saved. The players see right through the villain’s master plan – and expose a plot hole big enough to pilot an aircraft carrier through.

When something goes wrong, you have three options: Abandon it (as quickly as possible), Alter it (immediately), or Live With It (possibly giving the PCs the opportunity to turn the tables).

Abandon It

Give up on the idea and write the circumstances out as quickly as possible. The character who was supposed to win their trust realizes that they don’t trust him or her and leaves – immediately. The character who was supposed to die will remain alive and well, and you’ll work out how your campaign plans can be salvaged later. The villain abandons his master plan – and begins concentrating on formulating a more devious one. End of plotline, move on.

Alter It

This is a constant temptation, and it’s rarely a good idea. Not only are the players sensitized to the plotline in question, but such “studio executive meddling” rarely has a good outcome. More often, this is taking an axe to a sinking ship’s hull to open a new hole “for the water to run out”.

I was going to say “never” but there is a sub-variant of “Live with it” in which this might work, under limited and exceptional circumstances – the perpetual problem of blanket statements. “Alter it” in this context means to rewrite your campaign plans assuming that the NPC part of the focal relationship always and deliberately intended to fail at whatever they were doing. You always intended for that dying character to be saved – now here are the consequences. The character who was supposed to gain the PC’s trust only to betray it always intended to do so bad a job of it that they weren’t convinced; they were coerced into even making the attempt. Or whatever.

This makes an immediate transition from Iceberg plot to Significance, regardless of the level of Importance that had been attached to it. Whatever the main adventure was supposed to be will have to wait – the PCs have just been handed a new and higher priority.

You may be tempted to do this on-the-fly. Don’t – at least, not completely. Take a few minutes to think through the ramifications and prepare yourself, or what you end up with will have even more plot holes in it than your failed plan proved to have.

Under no circumstances should you contemplate using the dice to overrule the players. This is railroading of the worst kind.

Live With It

My game plans always predicate the risk of failure. I work hard to ensure that whatever I need to happen in order to justify future plots is served by the very existence of the plotline in question; the adventures aren’t how I manipulate the future, they are side-effects of the circumstances that are shaping the future. That means that I have no stake in the outcome of any given adventure or plotline; the outcome is more-or-less irrelevant to the big picture. So let the players have their victory, they have seen through my scheme and earned it. Reward them with some XP and move on.

That’s possible because my plans are always reasonably general – even when very specific. It might be that for plot reasons, I need a manipulative demagogue to take power within the game; if the PCs expose and discredit the NPC I was grooming for the post, that’s fine, I can introduce another – or bring the NPC who does come to power fall under the control of one – or I can simply find another way to achieve whatever the demagogue was supposed to achieve, in campaign terms.

This is all made even easier because I don’t decide on what a villain has planned until after I have decided what the villain’s ambitions and goals are, and how the plan will accomplish them (or at least move his circumstances in the right direction). Knowing that, and his personality, enables me to determine what he will do when his scheme is blocked – and, unless the PCs manage to translate their achievement into a further one by stopping him as thoroughly as they spoked his plans, thats what he sets about doing.

In other words, the plans are never my plans, they all originate with, and belong to, a responsible NPC. All I do is make sure that there are plenty of NPCs out there with plans and ambitions that the PCs will want to oppose, and the rest more or less takes care of itself.

An example from Campaign Mastery’s Past

In The Echo Of Events To Come: foreshadowing in a campaign structure, I offered an example from the future of my Zenith-3 campaign: a detailed iceberg plot of romantic nature centering around one of the PCs (Blackwing) and an NPC Reporter. That plotline hasn’t started yet – the incident that I described earlier involving the Media Liaison / Press Secretary can even be considered to be foreshadowing it, as I noted above.

I would ask my players (other than Saxon, who collaborated with me on the plotline) to stop reading at this point and skip to the end of the article (Control-F and “Revisiting The Question” will take you there).

Everything in a blue box (like this text) from this point on is quoted text from that article. I’m going to interrupt it here and there to comment in terms of the context of this article.

A Big Example

I’m going to wrap this article up with a big example from the planning for my Superhero campaign, an entire character plot arc that will form a subplot for several years of game play before coming to a head. The basic plotline for this plot arc was developed in collaboration with Blackwing’s player, after assessing the character’s current mental and emotional state, and the vulnerabilities that result. In particular, it was decided that the character is currently:

  • Inclined to trust anyone who seems supportive;
  • Inclined to mistrust his own judgment; and,
  • Susceptible to feelings of frustration and doubt.

In this plot, someone publishes a book that would destroy the PCs’ reputations, and they must ride out the media storm that results without making things worse.

I then go on to describe how foreshadowing is used within the plotline, but that doesn’t matter here. Each step in the evolution, each appearance of the iceberg plot, is identified by a code, which I then describe so that readers can understand the significance.

Dismembering The Code:

  • The first two letters identifies the plot arc of which the event is part. In most cases, this will be “BW”, an abbreviation of “Blackwing Plot Arc”. In some cases, it may be another code, indicating that this plot iceberg complicates or interacts with another one, or with another plotline.
  • Each major event or step in the plot arc is then indicated by a two digit number – “00, 01,” and so on.
  • Some events are broken down into sub-steps, indicated by an alphabetic character – “BW03a” for example. These either occur simultaneously or successively – this is usually clear from context. If not, it means that I will decide when I get there.
  • Some sub-steps are so significant that they are further broken down into events, also identified with a two digit numeric code, for example “BW17h01”.

Some abbreviations:

  • “BW” refers to Blackwing. Aside from the team brick, he’s also a detective. And a living dimensional interface, though that doesn’t really play much of a role in this plot arc.
  • “RA” refers to the “Runeweaver Addiction” plot arc in which one of the PCs is found to be addicted to magical power-ups.
  • “St B” is often used as an abbreviation for “Saint Barbara”, the team leader and media spokesman, named for the patron saint of artillerymen and others who deal with explosives.
  • “Champs” and “Z-3” are both abbreviations for the PCs team. “The Champions” are their parent team, and the team’s public profile; to the parent team, this group of characters are known as “Zenith-3”.
  • “V” refers to Vala, a psionic member of the team with emphasis on information-gathering abilities.
  • “IMAGE” are the government agency which has been put in charge of liaising with the PCs. While they have no direct authority over them, the PCs operations would be greatly hampered if IMAGE were opposed to them.
  • “BC” refers to “The Bright Cutter”, which is the team’s (slightly small) starship, and the self-aware computer system that runs it. Another major plotline deals with the question of whether BC is a member or a slave to the PCs – one of several plots relating to the rights of “artificial people”.
  • “De” refers to “Defender”, a Kzin Martial Artist, who hates and mistrusts humans but serves with the team to repay a debt of honor.
  • “KB” refers to Kira, the AI who runs the Knightley Building, the team’s Headquarters. Modelled on a “reconstruction” of Kiera Knightley’s personality as presented in various Film and TV roles, and owned by the Knightley estate, who also developed the experimental building that houses it (2056, remember). The full name “The Knightley Building” is used to refer to the building itself as a location.

I’ve edited the above slightly to make it a little clearer – the original article provided context that this one doesn’t. Okay, on with the example:

The Plotline

  • BW00 – St B meets Reporter Amber Lawrence when both appear on a Talk Show.
  • BW01 – Meet Reporter – after RA13

This is the veiled beginnings phase. It ends when a second chance encounter ends with the reporter asking BW out on a date. You will note that I make notes about the timing of events – “after RA13” for example – when those plotlines are likely to impact on the iceberg plot or vice-versa.

  • BW02 – First Date w/reporter – after RA15
  • BW03 – Second Date w/reporter interrupted by emergency (BW has to leave, reporter tries to convince him to take her with him) – after RA16
  • BW03a – Reporter files story on the emergency & on Champs readiness to go into action at any time – sympathetic piece
  • BW04 – Third Date w/reporter – after RA25 – an emergency right in front of them – she meets rest of team – date resumes afterward – steps up the seduction, first sex (at her place)

The Iceberg Plot has clearly entered the “Growing Significance” phase; you can tell, because it can now be identified as a romantic plotline. Note that any involvement with other PCs is purely incidental at this stage.

There are a couple of milestones (“revolutions”) in these four appearances. The second date can be considered one such, and going back to her place after the interrupted third date is another. BW03a is critical, as it connects with the PC’s “trust anyone who’s supportive” mindset. Note also that there is clear development – an uninterrupted date, a date with an emergency to disrupt it, and a date resumed and a relationship progression in spite of a second disruption.

  • BW04a – The morning after
  • BW05 – “On The Job” encounter, Reporter gives info that helps in a case (Lunar city?)
  • BW05a – Reporter uses [her] insights to give a more thorough report than anyone else
  • BW06 – “On The Job” encounter, reporter gets into trouble trying to “get closer to the story”, was confident BW would rescue her
  • BW06a – Reporter files inside story of the mission – first argument?

In order to submerge more of the iceberg, I then downplay the romantic angle and simply deal with an evolving professional relationship between the two. That comes to an end with a “Lois Lane” moment in BW06, and the slow strengthening of the relationship is demonstrated by the argument that is expected to follow between the two. That is, of course, another milestone; and you can’t have an argument in a romantic plotline without a reconciliation, so that’s what comes next…

  • BW07 – Fourth Date w/reporter – asks for more explanation about something, puts finger on weak point of incomplete St B press conference, sex at her place
  • BW07a – BW’s expanded explanation is used to clarify press conference/official line – second argument?
  • BW08 – Reporter comes across trouble, calls BW
  • BW08a – Reporter files inside story of the mission
  • BW09 – Fifth Date w/reporter, asks BW to spend the night (her place)
  • BW10 – Sixth Date called off (her deadline), Reporter asks if she can meet BW at base later, spends the night in his room

Tentatively, boundaries and professional courtesies are being established between the two, and is an increased level of trust. BW10 is another milestone in the relationship because the team live in a secure environment; this means telling someone outside of the team about the relationship, making it that bit more “real”. This is emphasized by the next step in the plotline:

  • BW10a – The next morning meet staff and computer. NB: NO [news] story follows, builds trust
  • BW11 – Team uses reporter to leak a story to bait a trap – reporter warns there will be a quid-pro-quo sometime
  • BW12 – Reporter again spends night in BW’s bedroom – gets inside scoop on a mission but doesn’t use it, makes a point of that with other team members / base security
  • BW13 – Big story inadequately explained – Reporter calls in favor from BW11 for the real story, manages to spin it to protect the real secret while giving the inside story – trust escalates.

At this point, the romance can be considered an established factor for all the team members. The iceberg plot has now reached the stage of Ubiquity, which means that it is time for me to prepare for the Criticality phase.

  • BW14 – Reporter asks to spend a day “on the job” with each team member, doing an “in-depth” profile for a series
  • BW14a – A day with St Barbara (BW’s reaction)
  • BW14b – A day with BW
  • BW14c – A day with RW
  • BW14d – A day with De
  • BW14e – A day with V
  • BW14f – A day with KB + BC
  • BW15 – In-depth profile series appears, revealing insights into team personalities & history that team might have wanted to keep private, but that might have been identified by a keen observer
  • BW16 – A big story that the team had been hoping to sweep under the rug is exposed by the reporter – focus attention on the ethical conflict the reporter has been “dealing with”.

The relationship has transitioned from Important to Significant, as it now impacts the other PCs directly. BW16 is immensely important; this is my last exit point from the plotline before Criticality occurs. At this point I can still call off what I have planned and let the relationship continue or die as a dynamic background element; what happens next “pulls the trigger” and moves the plotline into the Criticality phase. Note also the use of “misdirection” to obscure the situation (and give me an out) in that final event.

  • BW17 – rumors of a forthcoming book, a tell-all expose being written under a pseudonym, reach the team via a gossip column
  • BW17a – St B is able to verify that there IS a book
  • BW17b – IMAGE ask V & BW to investigate the book to discover what is in it
  • BW17c – V & BW are able to ascertain that whoever wrote it has received a six-figure advance
  • BW17d – V + BW are able to get their hands on a partial galley – revelations are dynamite – BW as a convicted Killer, RW as something akin to a Drug Addict, St B as a sexual predator, De as a human-hating megalomaniac, V as a revenge-thirsty invader of secrets, off-dimensional origins of the team, team as a political tool brought in to shore up support for the Throne
  • BW17e – Reporter asks BW about the rumored book

One final piece of misdirection, necessary for consistency of character, and intended for the benefit of the other PCs since Blackwing’s player co-wrote this whole plotline. One key outcome of the whole plotline is the revelation that the team are from another earth in a parallel dimension – something that the team always suspected would come out eventually, but that they couldn’t find a way to soft-pedal to their satisfaction.

From BW17a on, the train-wreck is inevitable and the PCs can see it coming – but they should not immediately connect it with the reporter, that was the point of the trust buildup in the first place. I will probably run BW17e (above) and BW17f (below) simultaneously, in game time/ real-world time.

  • BW17f – V discovers that the reporter is the author – as she uncovers a new chapter describing the team reaction to the book – does she tell BW?
  • BW17g – Resolve the reporter plotline – she reveals that the sex was great but only a means to an end, “the people have a right to know who and what they are dealing with – I’ve done it before and I’ll do it again”.

The train-wreck happens, Blackwing finds that his “professional” and “private” life have collided. Outside of the impact on Blackwing, this plotline serves two important purposes: first, it comments on the price that the heroes have to pay for what they do (one of the campaign themes of almost every superhero campaign), and two, it gets the “revelations” into the public arena, which is the “big picture” purpose of the whole plotline. If I abort the calamity between Blackwing and the Reporter, I can still achieve this end by having one of the IMAGE personnel be the author. In fact, using this vector for the “metagame plot deliverable,” I can call off the entire plotline at any earlier point and still advance the campaign’s overall plotline.

  • BW17h – The book is published. Effects, aftermath: “The Crucible Of Opinion”

“The Crucible Of Opinion” is a partial quote from an episode of the West Wing, from which part of this plot was derived. It’s there to remind me to review the episode in question as an aide to writing the event.

  • BW17h01 – copies are distributed to all members, instructions to review them immediately, anywhere in the book they are mentioned – we have to know what to expect in fallout
  • BW17h02 – St B reacts to content questioning her morality and trustworthiness
  • BW17h03 – BW reacts to content suggesting that he is a corrupt ex-cop and a homicidal killer
  • BW17h04 – RW reacts to content describing him as a drug-addicted ex-soldier who lives in a fantasy world with little resemblance to reality
  • BW17h05 – De reacts to content describing him as a fanatic incapable of loyalty
  • BW17h06 – V reacts to content describing her as a naive pawn, incapable of self-assertion or critical self-analysis
  • BW17h07 – BC reacts to content describing him as a servile automaton with delusions of independence
  • BW17h08 – KB reacts to content describing it as a failed, even dangerous, experiment in machine intelligence which has been corrupted into thinking itself the equal of a living being
  • BW17h09 – “The staff want you to know that you have our full support. We’ve got your back, just tell us what you want us to do.”
  • BW17h10 – St B reacts to content about the other members
  • BW17h11 – Gov’t reacts to content – “The Champions have our full confidence.”
  • BW17h12 – RW reacts to comments about the other members
  • BW17h13 – Media requests for interviews go ballistic – they weren’t this heavy even when the team first arrived
  • BW17h14 – De reacts to content about other members
  • BW17h15 – Public opinion is strongly polarized by the book. Those who distrusted or opposed the team already now attack with venom, those who supported them defend them with passion.
  • BW17h16 – BC reacts to content about the other members
  • BW17h17 – The initial media response fans the flames of the vitriolic election campaign currently underway – “the timing is simply too coincidental to be plausible” for some. The book is seen as an attempt to deflect attention from the very real political problems of the Empire. Curiously, some attack Z-3 for participating in such a loathsome charade, while others consider them victims of a bureaucracy capable of any extreme.

Lots of people reacting. Some of it deliberately pushes PC “buttons”. All this can be described as the “After The Titanic” phase of this plotline. Note that I haven’t specified, or made room for, Blackwing to react to the personal crisis that instigated all this; how the PC reacts will depend on too many circumstances, but will undoubtedly color and influence those roleplaying opportunities that are listed for him. Such an opportunity is explicitly provided in BW17h21, below.

But my ulterior motive as a GM is revealed by that last item, which both influences the direction of politics within the game world and evolves a further piece of dynamic background – the relationship between the team and the government. Note that if I have to, I can simply have public opinion shift to achieve the same result, even if the team have managed to prevent the publication of the book that was to serve as the “trigger” – or I can have a copy of the book “leak” to achieve the same ends. There are many paths leading to the main plotline that will eventually occur, and I can pick another if this one is blocked; aside from the interactivity between players / PCs and game world, providing plausibility for that plotline is one of the major reasons all this exists as plotline.

  • BW17h18 – KB reacts to contents about the members
  • BW17h19 – A spokesman for the former government condemns the new government for their lukewarm support of the team, describing the official response as “damning with insincere platitudes”. They point out that they were fully supportive, and that the Throne encouraged this; but the reformers first act upon assuming power was to order the team to disband. This latest statement shows that the government cannot be trusted and should never have been elected and should now be impeached.
  • BW17h20 – Protesters begin to assemble at the Knightley Building. Police and security are concerned, caution against inflaming the situation.
  • BW17h21 – BW reacts to content about other members and the knowledge that his relationship with the author led to all this
  • BW17h22 – Media begin showing news footage & photographs of BW and the author together in public. Some suggest that the Champions actively encouraged the book as a ‘safe’ way of leaking things without putting the public offside, and that the new gov’t disbanding the team was a response to learning these secrets and distancing themselves from the team. Others suggest that she has sanitized the book, and there is a lot worse still hidden.
  • BW17h23 – V reacts to content about other members and to their reactions to everything that is going on.
  • BW17h24 – IMAGE (ie the civil service) demands an official media policy & press conference to deal with the book. “Control the message or the message will control you.”
  • BW17h25 – Team meeting about these events to agree on a response
  • BW17h26 – The team hold a press conference
  • BW17h27 – Security report that fans and supporters of the team have started to gather for a 24-hour vigil of support outside the Knightley Building. The police are setting up cordons but things could turn ugly with any provocation – and both sides are doing their best to provoke the other.
  • BW17h28 – IMAGE’s legal experts report that there is nothing actionable within the book; because they are legally-registered eccentrics, they are not covered by or subject to normal libel laws. Legally, public or media can say anything they want to about the team.

Fallout continues – but the last item is worth noting as it highlights a consequence of the “legal framework” in which the team operates that they were previously insufficiently aware of.

  • BW17h29 – Protestors and supporters clash, and the situation around the knightley building devolves into a riot. Police want Z-3 to stay out of it, you would only inflame the situation.
  • BW17h30 – Gov’t (ie politicians) demands an increased media presence by the team over the next few days.

A crisis is always followed by Crisis Management. Interviews are a relatively down-key solution, but that’s because they usually work. The alternative is to go to ground and wait for the media (and public) to find something else to scream about, and that’s dangerous because it hampers your ability to respond to anything else that might happen. Note that there is symmetry to the plot arc, or iceberg plot, or plot loop, or whatever you want to call it: the whole plotline started with interviews and developed with interviews, so it’s only appropriate that interviews are part of the aftermath.

  • BW17h31 – St B is interviewed about the book and whether it represents a breach of trust, and whether or not there’s more and worse.
  • BW17h32 – V is interviewed about her relationship with St B. Interview is constantly disrupted by religious extremists.
  • BW17h35 – De is interviewed about his loyalty and trust issues
  • BW17h34 – RW is interviewed about the allegations in the book concerning him.
  • BW17h36 – BC is interviewed (remotely) about his role in the team and how long he’s been with them etc.
  • BW17h33 – BW is interviewed about his relationship with the author. When did it end? Does he feel betrayed? Does he still have feelings for her? etc
  • BW17h37 – St B is (sympathetically) interviewed about the reasons for secrecy
  • BW17h39 – BW is invited to return serve on the author and spill any dirt she doesn’t want to be public.
  • BW17h40 – RW is asked how his teammates really feel about the book
  • BW17h38 – V is asked how all this looks from an alien perspective.
  • BW17h41 – De is asked what he really thinks of his teammates
  • BW17h42 – BC is asked about his relations with the team and why they have kept him a secret

You can sense the winding down of the whole situation as you read through the above. One round of difficult interviews and media sympathies begin to soften; public opinion will almost certainly be following suit. The curtain has just about finished coming down on the plotline.

  • BW17h43 – St B is informed that the media are beginning to find other news to occupy them, and that the media storm roused by the book is fading. There remain the usual number of requests to interview her (as much because ratings always spike when she appears as because of the current situation), and there are a few requests for Blackwing – normally an unpopular interview subject – because of his close relationship with the author, but that the real media darling to have come out of the whole episode is the Bright Cutter – they can’t get enough of him. Requests to interview him are running two-to-one compared to St B’s normal – they are calling him the “forgotten Champion”. The current expectation is that the book will be a three-day wonder, and this is day three.

I like to throw the occasional twist into the outcomes – and unless they have read this despite my request, there is no way that they will anticipate that this NPC will become a media darling, even though something similar happened to the equivalent member on the parent team years ago.

  • BW17h43a – V, RW, and De are informed that they have no extraordinary media requests for today and can resume their normal schedules.
  • BW17h44 – BW is interviewed, but the focus is on his new-found eligibility as a bachelor. What sort of girl does he like? Or has this whole experience soured him on women? After the interview, the reporter tells him to chin up, he’s almost out of the goldfish bowl – the public are losing interest in the story, and the press will soon follow. And, in case he’s gotten the wrong idea, she’s happily married already!
  • BW17h45 – BC is interviewed about his impressions of the Empire. How much of it has he seen? What did he like? Where else has he been? How did it compare?
  • BW17h46 – St B is interviewed about the difficulties of those in sensitive positions maintaining outside relationships in general. The book is never explicitly mentioned.
  • BW17h47 – BC is interviewed about his perspective on the political questions. He dodges the brier patch with great professionalism while reaffirming an overall moral stance.
  • BW17h48 – St B is interviewed about the coming season’s fashions, and her uniforms, and whether or not she would ever consider letting a professional designer work with her wardrobe choices.
  • BW17h49 – BC is interviewed about his perspective on religious issues. He again avoids trouble without offending anyone. Several church Ministers try to trip him up but it quickly becomes clear that he is VERY expert in theology, has read every Holy Book on Earth-Halo, has perfect recall, and can quote from them at length. He soon has them tied in knots over their refusal to denounce criminal acts (base on West Wing episode I). If he keeps this up, she [St Barbara] might be able to hand over the job of Media Liaison.
  • BW17h50 – St B is advised that the BC has accepted an invitation to be interviewed by one of the most controversial religious right-wing fundamentalist figures on the radio, something every other member of the team has managed to avoid by listening to the advice of IMAGE’s media dept.
  • BW17h51 – BC is interviewed by the radical fundamentalist reporter. He is polite for a while and then takes total control of the interview, publicly humiliating her over her extremist position. (base on the religious critique in the West Wing). It looks like it’s going to be a whole new PR disaster for the team, but at the very end he confirms his support for religious tolerance and the rights of individuals to choose for themselves; he doesn’t have any final answers, and even if he did they would not apply to humans anyway. What he cannot abide is religious intolerance and bigotry and evil cloaked in the pretense of righteousness. He then reminds her that she insisted that he reveal his thoughts on the subject.
  • BW17h52 – BC is finally asked what he thinks about the contents of the book. He systematically tears its credibility to shreds, while maintaining that on the occasions he met “Miss Lawrence” [The reporter] she was not at all biased or deceptive; he is quite sure that the book was reedited by an unknown third party to attack the team’s credibility, putting the most hostile spin possible on every statement it contains.

If you think back to the very beginning, this whole plotline starts with Blackwing being a guest on a Talk Show. Once again, the aftermath is a mirror to the events of the buildup.

A few more things to take away from the example:

  • I’m not an expert on media relations or handling a political crisis. I simply paid close attention to a TV show that featured this sort of thing (The West Wing) and especially the extras, which included interviews with the show’s consultants like Dee Dee Myers, who were.
  • One of the major problems that will have to be overcome is the presence of a Telepath on the team and the potential for premature unmasking of the plot. Countering that meant introducing a new technology into the campaign, and a plotline was developed (and has already taken place) explicitly to do this. It’s only partially effective as a solution, but it should be enough.
  • Most of the buildup was written by trying to decide what would logically and realistically happen next in terms of an unfolding relationship between the PC and NPC who were the focus of the plotline. Notice that most of the non-milestone events can be moved around, hand-waved, or canceled without overly affecting the outcome; no single one of them is critical to the outcome, rather it is their accumulated weight that matters.
  • There has been a lot of thought put into customizing the crisis and its fallout to the individual PCs in my campaign. Should any of them change, the content would have to change as well. But this helps make the players feel like this is really happening – verisimilitude again.
  • While most of the events are presented only as vague general outlines, they are also quite explicit in terms of what I want that scene to achieve, plot-wise.
  • I would expect that all the events of BW17h would form a single “adventure” – they are practically a scene-by-scene breakdown of the plot already, and have to be continuous or simultaneous with each other. (I might even call it “The Crucible Of Opinion”). Other parts will be subplots, located within other adventures or character-driven plotlines.
  • Every PC will be affected in some way, more or less permanently; but outside of specific effects that the plotline aims to achieve, and those character consequences, everything else ends up more or less reset to where it was at the start of the adventure. It’s relatively “contained” as a plotline. Note that at no point do I dictate what a PC will do (other than the things agreed upon with Blackwing’s creator in advance), or how they will react; I simply use NPCs to ask them how they are reacting. Most of the character effects will have ramifications in plotlines featuring those PCs later in the campaign, and can be summarized as ‘airing their dirty laundry in the worst possible light’.

Revisiting The Question

So, if the question is, “can slow-building storylines that develop over time work in an RPG, the answer is an unqualified and demonstrable “yes”; but they can only do so if they matter to the PCs, and that means that they can’t stay buried beneath the surface forever. At some point, they have to explode into the lives of the PCs. Hopefully, this article has given GMs the tools they need in order to use this particular plot type, and avoid the pitfalls that lurk for the unwary.

Next in this series: A Target With Warp Drive: Digital Maps and Minis for Sci-Fi.

Comments (1)

A New ERA and other products to empty your wallet


Image by James Choe

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

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

ERA: The Consortium

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

The Core Book

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

So, what’s in it?

Pages from the Era: The Consortium Core Rulebook

Pages from the Era: The Consortium Core Rulebook

Background

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image by Victor Adame Minguez

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

Basic Rules

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

The Campaigns

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

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

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

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

Other Content

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

Image by Florencio Duyar

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

The Production Values

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

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

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

The Index

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

The Secret War

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

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

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

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

Pages from Era: The Consortium - The Secret War

Pages from Era: The Consortium – The Secret War

The Kickstarter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other ERA products

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

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

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

ERA Lyres

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

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

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

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

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

Era: Silence (in development)

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

ERA: Survival (in development)

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

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

The possibilities are endless.

ERA: The Empowered (in development)

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

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

Synergies and Common Patterns

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

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

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

The Final Analysis

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

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

Tavern Tales

cropped excerpt from an image by Chantal DeAngelo

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

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

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

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

image by Chantal DeAngelo

One of the images by Chantal DeAngelo / Tavern Tales

Gameplay promise

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

Image by Chantal DeAngelo

Image by Chantal DeAngelo for Tavern Tales

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

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

Which all sounds very promising, doesn’t it?

The Core Mechanic

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

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

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

image by Chantal DeAngelo

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

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

Free Playtest PDF

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

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

The Forum

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

Image by Marcel Goriel

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

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

Production Values

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

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

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

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

Cropped excerpt of an image by Chantal DeAngelo

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

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

The Kickstarter

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

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

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

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

A further bonus

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

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

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

Both are products by gamers for gamers.

And that brings me neatly to product #3…

Pathfinder Tales: Bloodbound by F. Wesley Schneider

Pathfinder Bloodbound cover

Pathfinder: Bloodbound
by F.Wesley Schneider

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

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

Well, my review copy arrived late last week…

Preliminary Impressions

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

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

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

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

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

Analyzing The Amazon Reviews

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

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

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

Further Reflection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So There We Have It

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

Comments (8)

Bidding For Characters (and related metagame alternatives)


gavel-2

photo credit freeimages.com / Jason Morrison

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

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

Old Method 1: At-Home Generation

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

Variations

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

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

The problem:

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

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

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

Old Method 2: At-The-Table Generation

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

The problem:

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

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

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

Newer Method 3: Phased Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Newer Option Four: The Structured Team

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

Variations

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

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

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

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

Which brings me to my new idea…

New Option Five: Bidding For Characters

There are eight simple steps to this process.

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

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

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

An example (following the same steps)

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

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

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

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

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

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


Part-4

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

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

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

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

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

The most enjoyable part – factors

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

Day-to-day variations

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

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

Campaign Variations

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

Character Variations

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

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

GM Variations

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

Adventure Variations

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

Player Variations

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

Existing Classification Systems

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A richer classification system

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

It’s based on three premises:

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

range on axis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Immersion in Character: from Persona to Tactician

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

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

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

2. Immersion in World: from Participant to Observer

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

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

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

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

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

4. Immersion in Drama: From Actor to Action

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. Immersion in Conflict: From Gritty to Clean

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. Immersion in Plot: From Novelist to Jock

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

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

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

7. Immersion in Interaction: From Second Skin to Omniscient

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

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

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

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

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

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

8. Immersion in Amazement: From Fantasy to Simulationist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Practical Application: Classification Of Game / Adventure

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

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

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

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

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

The Practical Application: Recruiting Players based on preferences

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

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

The Practical Application: Designing Campaigns / Adventures based on preferences

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

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

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

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

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

Player Surveys

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

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

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

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

Zones Of Intersection

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

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

Zero Zones Of Intersection

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

One Zone Of Intersection

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

Two-to-Three Zones Of Intersection

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

Four-to-Five Zones Of Intersection

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

Six Zones Of Intersection

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

Seven-to-Eight Zones Of Intersection

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

Nine Zones Of Intersection

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

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

The Prep-time relationship

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s the bottom line:

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

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

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

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

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

On a completely unrelated note

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

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

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Pieces of Creation: Mictlan-tecuhtli


Mictlantecuhtli by Anagoria Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

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

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

The Mystery (in brief)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mictlan-tecuhtli (Pavel Dimitri Chirkhov)

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

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

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

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

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

Powers:

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

On addition, he has the following abilities:

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

Conversion

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

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

Appearance

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

About The Name

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

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

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Ask The GMs: Building on opportunity


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

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

Ask the gamemasters

This question comes from Tchaico, who wrote:

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

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

What Do You Need?

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

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

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

Justification

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Authorization

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

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

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

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

Accommodation

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

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

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

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

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

Supplies

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

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

Support Infrastructure

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

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

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

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

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

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

Budget

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

People

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

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

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

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

Administration

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

Going Forward: Expectations

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

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

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

Going Forward: Internal Reactions

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

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

Going Forward: External Reactions

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

Going Forward: The Peter Principle

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

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

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

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

The Bigger Picture (for the rest of us)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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