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Small Motives and Personal Activities

'Bad Toy' by Crevecoeur Julien

(Image: / Crevecoeur Julien)

Bringing characters to life in a story or an RPG is always a challenge. Keeping characters consistent from one appearance to the next is also a constant challenge. There are a couple of tricks that I have found to help meet these challenges; and the technique that I use to satisfy the first of these needs is, in part, dependent on the technique that I use to satisfy the second. They are really two parts of one whole solution.

Bringing Casual NPCs to Life

The first part of the answer is fairly basic: everyone needs to be doing something. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about a man walking down a street or a receptionist in an office or the major villain with his grand scheme to take over the world (or some small part of it); these characters should never simply be static, frozen in place until a PC talks to them.

In the case of the Major Villain, this is fairly obvious and oft-repeated advice. Not often enough is this advice generalized to include lesser encounters. Every character needs to be doing something when they are encountered – even those who are simply waiting around need to be waiting for something.

A man in the street is going from place A to place B? You need to know what those places are so that you can make informed decisions about what the character looks like, their emotional state, their personality and the way it expresses itself, and how they will react to the PC. The man might be a guard at a bank and on his way to his place of employment – he will be in his uniform, and anxious not to be delayed. He might be a businessman on his way home after a hard day’s work, tired and irritable, and ever-so-slightly disheveled. He might be on his way to continue an illicit affair, and be furtive and trying not to be easily recognized. Or, coming from such a assignation, he might be ebullient, not as disheveled as he should be, and perhaps with a trace of perfume or lipstick that he missed when cleaning himself up afterwards.

Incorporating little hints as to what the character has been doing, or is about to do, into their appearance and demeanor brings them to life as more than simply the part of the plot that they are intended to provide.

Compare these two versions of the same scene:

  1. PC enters a shop. There is a clerk behind a counter. The PC states his requirements. The Clerk quotes a price. The PC agrees to the price and pays the clerk, then asks how soon his order will be ready. The clerk tells him to come back at the same time tomorrow. The PC leaves.
  2. PC enters a shop. There is a clerk behind the counter filling in the crossword of the daily newspaper who was looking rather bored until he heard the bell from the shop door. In one practiced motion, the newspaper is swept aside and the pen placed behind the clerk’s left ear as he straightens to greet the customer. The PC states his requirements. The Clerk quotes a price, but – afraid that he might lose the business – then offers a small discount, and suggests an upgrade to a slightly fancier product on which he can offer a more substantial discount. The PC agrees to the offer and pays the clerk, then asks how soon his order will be ready. The clerk tells him that it would normally take a couple of days, but business is light at the moment, so if the customer will return at the same time tomorrow, his order will be ready for him. The PC nods, and leaves.

The only difference between those two scenes is that the Clerk was bored and filling time. It’s also clear that the clerk is either the owner, or on sales commission, or is fearful of losing his job if he can’t drum up more business. Everything else stems from the implication that business is currently slow. But what a difference that small change makes! Suddenly, this faceless clerk has personality, there’s some interaction in the scene, and he feels real to the reader – or to the player.

Consistency and Depth

The second half of the technique is equally simple, and just as powerful: Every character needs to have a reason to be doing whatever it is that they are doing in the way that they are doing it. He needs a “small motive”.

Take our clerk – why was he filling out the newspaper’s crossword instead of working? Is it that he’s lazy. or bored, does he do crosswords for mental stimulation, or is work slow? Perhaps there’s a rival that has recently started up and is taking a substantial part of the market share, or perhaps the store’s produce has simply gone out of style. Or perhaps business is just slow at the moment – these things happen.

Most of the time, this won’t have effects as blatant and overt as in the example offered above. Instead, they will simply give context to the actions of the NPC – context that can serve as a guide to the behavior of the character and his situation on subsequent encounters, and that can help steer you if an encounter doesn’t go according to plan.

Transition: Bonus

As a bonus, this information can give the GM clues about how the NPC will transition his attention from whatever he was doing to the PCs, and offer insights as to his reaction. It’s that “small motive” again; an NPC who is filling out the newspaper crossword because he’s lazy would have a completely different reaction to potential customers demanding his attention to one who was doing so merely because business had been slow, lately. The first would be indifferent or casual at best, while the latter is likely to be so eager to cooperate that the PCs might grow suspicious if the players are sufficiently paranoid.

Assigning Small Motives

It doesn’t take much time or effort to come up with a small motive, at least at first. Enjoy this period, it won’t last.

The problem is that repetitiveness, cliché, and stereotype are less than a hands-breadth away. Because this technique is all about the mundane, small encounters that are frequent events in any campaign, you need a LOT of small motives over time, and it becomes increasingly difficult to keep them distinctive.

Worse still, without a lot of additional prep or bookkeeping, there’s no way to track the small motives that you are using as a way of guarding against repetitiveness. Pattern and habit can sneak up on you.

To get around this problem, I use a 3d6 solution and assign small motives to fit a random result. The randomness is my protection against the trap of all my clerks fitting one small set of stereotypes. NB: for this process to work, the d6s should be different colors.

The first d6: Intensity Of Focus

The first die gives me the intensity with which the NPC is focused on whatever he is doing. The higher the result, the less of his attention is available for the PCs. On results 1-3, the NPC can set aside whatever he was doing when sufficiently motivated to do so; on results 4-6, he will still be distracted to at least some extent.

The 2nd d6: Desire Of Focus

The second die gives me an indication of how much the NPC wants to be doing whatever he is currently doing, as opposed to doing whatever the PCs want the NPC to do. The higher the score, the less cooperative the character’s attitude to customers or demands in general. An NPC who has been laid off and is working his final day on the job might care more about the help wanted section than dealing with whoever walks through the door. An NPC who has his mind on a domestic situation that he is dreading but which has to be dealt with at the end of the working day, on the other hand, is likely to do his best to procrastinate while at the same time seeming very cooperative.

The 3rd d6: Attitude

The third d6 is used to give an indication of the NPCs overall attitude in general. The higher the result, the more positive it is. Values of 1 and 6 are so extreme that they represent characters with a potentially unbalanced view of the world, negative and positive respectively. Values 2-5 are more reasonable, more balanced.

What comes first: the What or the Why?

As a general rule, small motives get assigned using this system in one of two ways:

  • Motive first, Focus second – I generally use the first two die results to zone in on a possible motive first, and then use the combination of that motive and the third die roll to decide what it is that the character is actually doing.
  • Simultaneous Solution – Sometimes (never often enough!) though, a flash of inspiration will give both what the NPC is doing and why as a matched couple. It’s these results that you have to be exceptionally wary of, because this is when the forces of cliché and habit are at their strongest; but, so long as the solution matches the die roll, you are usually pretty bomb-proof.

It’s also possible to build additional nuances into the die roll structure. An even number might mean that the NPC will follow the rules (including the unwritten ones such as dealing with customers in the order they arrive and not playing favorites), while an odd number denotes someone who is more of a rebel. There are no rules to this, you can make them up as you see fit and change them regularly. That yields an additional protection against habitual patterns of NPC personas, simply by changing the playing field every now and then.

A little anarchy is good for variety and bad for predictability – and in this context, that’s a good thing!

Small Motives yield Big Rewards

Whether you implement the 3d6s technique or not, the basic technique of making sure every NPC is (1) doing something and (2) has a reason for doing it offers profound benefits to GMs for relatively little effort. Add it to your repertoire immediately, if it’s not there already!

But be warned: once they get a taste for how much your NPC encounters will come to life using this technique, your players will never let you go back.

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Finding Your Way: Unlocking the secrets of Google Image Search

Where to find Google Image Search

Where to find Google Image Search on the Google Search Page. You can also get there by doing a Google Search and clicking “images” on the menu across the top of the web-page.

For those that don’t know, Google offers a wealth of tools for finding illustrations useful to your adventure just by clicking on the “Images” button on the search homepage to enter Google Images. And, at first glance, it can seem fairly intuitive to use. But there are traps to be aware of, and some tricks that can definitely expand the usefulness of Google Images to the GM – at least until they radically change the programming again!

I promised a while back that I would delve into those tips and tricks for you, and with this article, I make good on that promise. So let’s get started…

Google Image Search results for 'old'

Google Image Search results for ‘old’ (click on this preview for a larger image)

Search Term

Google Image Search is not like an ordinary Google Search; operators such as “+[term]” (for must include) and “-[term]” (for exclude) don’t work, and searches inside inverted commas (“”) have a different effect to what has been the case with Google’s web search for quite some time, or are ignored (sometimes I think one thing, sometimes the other).

The results are all the images on any web page that uses the search term within the text of the page (and possibly within the metadata of the page). Where you get more than about 1000 results, these are sub-sorted by Google’s estimate of relevance.

You generally find the search results closest to what you are looking for in the first few hundred results. As a general rule of thumb, I consider results until I either find the “perfect image” for my needs, or until I reach the first patently ridiculous result PLUS THREE SCREENS FULL. This cuts the bulk of the nonsense results while retaining the majority of the valid results for consideration.

Vague Adjective Root

When constructing a Google Image Search, I generally start with a vague adjective that broadly covers what I want. This might be a genre, like “fantasy”, or a generally descriptive term for the subject. For period searches (routine when searching out illustrations for the Adventurer’s Club campaign, which is set in the 1930s), there are two that yield results: “1920-1940” and “1930s”. We tend to use the latter first, and only resort to the former if we don’t find what we want. The example shown uses the “root” adjective “old” for the search.

Google Image Search results for 'Cliff'

Google Image Search results for ‘Cliff’ (click on this preview for a larger image)

Sidebar: The Sub-search Strip

When there are a lot of results, Google will offer to refine the search by including a “strip” of term refinements for you to consider. I don’t know what the formal name of this part of the image search results page. Because it refines the image search, usually by changing the search term (but sometimes not), I think of it as the “sub-search strip”. I searched for the word “Cliff” (hoping that at least some of the results would be people named “Cliff” but didn’t get any). The options offered as part of the Sub-search Strip for this search are “edge”, “edge close up”, “looking down”, and “clipart”. There are more options if you click on the arrow on the right-hand side of the strip. These are the most common additional search terms that Google recognizes as being used with, or “going with,” the term currently being searched.

Now look back at the results for ‘old’ shown above. The options on offer are more diverse and less relevant to what we want:

  • things
  • the word
  • funny
  • paper
  • (more)

What that tells me is that I need to be more explicit in my search terms.

Some searches may produce text labels instead of, or in addition to, this strip of visual options – at least according to some reports that I’ve seen, though I’ve never encountered this behavior myself.

If any of the presented options do refine your search, click on them BUT BEWARE – there is no way back other than starting the search all over again. For that reason, I always RIGHT-CLICK on the option and “open link in new tab” (or the equivalent in whatever browser you’re using).

Google Image Search results for 'old man'

Google Image Search results for ‘old man’ (click on this preview for a larger image)

Adding a noun

My second step in specifying a search term is to add a noun belonging to the type of thing that I am searching for. I tend to use the most natural English in doing so, but I’ll go into search-term sequence later. Replacing “old” with “old man” has a profound effect on the results, as you can see. The results that have appeared are completely different to what we had before. Also note changes in the sub-search strip; the options now being offered are still not all that useful if what we want is a face, though, so I won’t use them at this point. More importantly, the sub-search strip’s continued presence means that I need to refine my search still more.

Google Image Search results for 'curmedgeon'

Google Image Search results for ‘curmedgeon’ (click on this preview for a larger image)

Sidebar: Getting Too Specific

Consider what happens when we replace the rather vague and generic search term “old man” with the very specific term, “curmudgeon”. Not one of the search results matches what we had before, and the sub-search strip has vanished.

Assuming that we’re searching for an image to depict an NPC, there are rather fewer viable results, indicating that this is probably an incorrect path, and we should choose a different way of refining the search, after extracting any that are worth considering – more on handling results later.

Whenever I’m contemplating a change in the search terminology, I always prefer to use a duplicate tab so that it’s just a matter of closing that tab if it’s a misstep. More frequently, though, I will simply make a mental note of the alternative search path and use it only if my needs aren’t met using the search that I already have underway.

So, why did this happen? What is the nature of the misstep, and why?

It goes back to what you’re actually seeing as search results. These are images extracted from all websites that match the search term somewhere in their content (or possibly in their metadata headers), sub-sorted by relevance if there are too many results, ordered by relevance either way. ALL images from those websites, whether they match the search term or not.

That means that the more specific your search term, the more ‘all or nothing’ the image becomes to your requirements. Using more general terminology gets more, and better, results because it’s fuzzier, and returns more results, enabling the relevant ones to bubble closer to the top of the search results.

It’s always worth trying a specific search when you want something specific. But you should always be ready to be more general and refine your search in another way.

Google Image Search Results for 'angry old man'

Google Image Search Results for ‘angry old man’ (click on this preview for a larger image)

A further descriptive element

So, I add a further adjective, one that is as unrelated to the original as possible. In this case, I have added the emotional term “angry”.

Multiple Search Terms

What happens in Google Image Search when you provide multiple search terms – “A B C D”?

You get the images from any web-page that has ANY of the search terms, i.e. “A or B or C or D”. These are in the order of n matches, then n-1 matches, and so on, where n is the number of search terms – so (in this case) it would be images from web pages in which all 4 search terms (A, B, C, and D) appear somewhere in the page, then those with 3 of these, and then those with 2, and finally, all images from web-pages that match just one of the search terms.

By changing the search to “angry old man”, I again transform the results. Note that I would normally create this search term complete (all 3 elements) before performing my first search!

The results being offered now appear completely different, because results matching all three of these terms would have been scattered throughout the original search results. Sometimes, you get lucky, and you can see the original search’s “top response” somewhere on that first page or two of results of the refined search, and sometimes not.

Things get more interesting when there are more results than Google is willing to provide. That’s about 3000-4000, maybe more. Under the original Google Image Search, you just kept loading more results, retrieving a set number of results from Google’s databases at a time. As I recall, the maximum was 50 or 100. This arguably placed less of a load on the hardware and software of the computer than what they do now – but because RAM has become phenomenally cheap (and so have disk drives), capacities have gone way up. So the new technique just keeps “growing” the same results page until you reach the cap that Google have set up, whatever that might be, or your browser crashes.

Also note the changes in the sub-search strip. The choices being offered have changed again. Still more refinement is needed to get the number of results down to something Google can manage in terms of providing relevant results. More importantly, they have changed in character. The results we are now being offered include things like “walking” and “walking stick”, indicating that we have a search that is now correct in terms of the subject matter; using a different form of refinement, image size, will be more useful than restricting what we want the “angry old man” to be actually doing in the image. But, before we head down that road, let’s talk about the effects of the search term sequence.

Comparison of the Google Image Search Results for 'angry old man', 'angry man old', ' old man angry', 'old angry man', 'man old angry' and 'man angry old'.

Comparison of the Google Image Search Results for ‘angry old man’, ‘angry man old’, ‘ old man angry’, ‘old angry man’, ‘man old angry’ and ‘man angry old’.

Does Search-Term Order Matter?

In theory, no. In practice, and in reality, absolutely – somewhat, with qualifications.

This image shows the first page of results for six different searches, i.e. the six different combinations of “angry,” “old,” and “man.” I have pre-empted part of the discussion below by restrict the results to large images just to hide the sub-search strip, leaving more space for results.

Right away, you can see that while the photos are mostly the same, the order they are presented in is quite different. And that’s the key to understanding my somewhat cryptic comments a moment ago; because, while a search with limited results is relatively unaffected, the more search results there are, the more that situation changes.

It’s when you get more results than can fit within Google’s maximum-results cutoff that things get really interesting, because that means that at least some (and potentially, a great many) results will drop off the results list, to be replaced by others that you would not get to see at all under the original search term sequence.

At the same time, notice that the first result is the same in all six searches. “Perfect Matches” are still “Perfect Matches”. In fact, the first two sets of results are identical for the entire page of results, and also identical to the sixth, at least on the first results page. So search order is a factor, but not the be-all and end-all of your search results.

Obviously, the deeper you go into the search results – the more screen-fulls down into the search that you look – the more scope there is for the “results churn” to have a substantial effect.

The standard Search Tools in Google Image Search

The standard Search Tools in Google Image Search (click on this preview for a larger image)

Search Tools

Besides refining the search with better search terms, you can also use Google’s Search Tools to exclude results that don’t match the parameters you’ve chosen. There are 6 tools to choose from:

  • Size
  • Color
  • Type
  • Time
  • Usage Rights
  • More Tools

and, once you actually set one of these Search Tools, you get a seventh option,

  • Clear.

You reach these tools by clicking on the “Search Tools” button on the Image Search page as shown.

Google Image Search 'Size' restriction menu and sub-menu

Google Image Search ‘Size’ restriction menu and sub-menu


There are three settings that are of use when searching for images. The first choice, and the one that I normally use by default, is “Large”. This usually provides an image that is at least as large as my screen area (though that is often not quite the case with more modern wide-screen ratios).

Only if absolutely nothing even close to the results I want gets found will I move to option 2, which is in the “larger than” sub-menu; I usually choose the 800×600 option. Anything smaller is not likely to be useful, and we’ve already established that there is nothing very useful that is very much larger.

And, if that still doesn’t get me where I’m going, I’ll call up Medium results – and, if any of them match, I’ll use some of the tricks that I’ll discuss later to try to find a more useful version. But that’s getting quite a bit ahead of myself.

Google Image Search 'Color' restriction menu

Google Image Search ‘Color’ restriction menu


It’s very rare that this option is useful, to be honest, but there have been occasions when – for the feeling of period authenticity, and when I have many search results to choose from – I will select black and white; and there have also been occasions when I know that I want to create a composite image, that I will request a transparent background.

More commonly, when search for an image of a map, I will choose a black and white one if possible so that any markers that I add in color will immediately “pop” from the page.

Searching for an image that was designed to be reproduced in black and white often produces better results than one that was designed for color and then desaturated to transform it into gray-scale, also referred to as “Black and White”.

But, for the most part, and except for this limited application these don’t provide enough potential results to choose from, and I am better off asking for “any color” and using image-editing tools to do whatever I need to do with it.

The other color options specify the color that you want to dominate the image – again, generally less than useful.

Google Image Search 'Type' restriction menu

Google Image Search ‘Type’ restriction menu


It’s rare that this tool is useful, but when it is, there is no substitute. The choices are “face”, “photo”, “clip art”, “line drawing”, and “animated”, and the latter is the only one that I haven’t used now and then.

I do find it interesting that choosing “face” can sometimes exclude faces, and include non-faces, and “photo” can include digital art. So the options are less than perfect, and only to be used when you simply aren’t able to get enough to choose from in any other way.

In fact, there are times when you are better adding “face” or “drawing” to your search terms instead; you often get results that way that don’t come up by using this tool – and vice-versa.

Google Image Search 'Time' restriction menu

Google Image Search ‘Time’ restriction menu


This doesn’t refer to the image, it refers to the date the web page on which it appears was last updated. When you’re looking for a specific, contemporary, image, this can be useful. When you’re searching for a subject that has experienced some profound change in public perception, this can also be useful in restricting your results to “before” or “after” the change. For example, an modern image search for pictures of Bill Cosby or Rolf Harris would bring up images very different to those representative of these people before recent scandals, accusations, and convictions. These aren’t all that useful in an RPG context, but there are rare occasions when it’s just the ticket.

Google Image Search 'Rights' restruction menu

Google Image Search ‘Rights’ restruction menu

Usage Rights

This is one of the newest tools added, and it’s one that can be vitally important, though I’m still not sure how far I would trust it; my first preference will always be a supplier where I know exactly what the usage terms are.

If you are only going to use the image privately, there’s no need to limit this search term. If there is any prospect of the image being used for a public purpose, this should be something you consider. I certainly considered it when producing the illustrations for this article, but decided that for two reasons I would probably be okay; first, this would probably be okay under “fair use” provisions within copyright law; and second, I was simply documenting the results of Google’s Image Search, and as such, any fault was theirs and not mine. Nevertheless, I was paranoid enough about it to make use of this option when I reached the point of wanting to examine a result more clearly as part of this article.

Google Image Search 'More Tools' selection menu

Google Image Search ‘More Tools’ selection menu

More Tools

It’s always seemed obvious that Google intended to introduce additional Search Tools – and yet, to date, there are only two options here: “All results” (as opposed to what? It’s not entirely clear what this turns off and what it doesn’t) and “show sizes” which toggles image size showing beneath each thumbnailed result, which is completely unnecessary but can be useful on very rare occasions.


Turns off any restriction that’s been set using a search tool.

Google Image Search results for 'angry old man', 'large' size

Google Image Search results for ‘angry old man’, ‘large’ size (click on this preview for a larger image)

Refining the search: Size

So, let’s use the search tools to refine our search and see what happens. First of all, selecting Size “Large”.

The first thing that you should notice is that the Sub-search strip has vanished, because the number of results immediately plummets.

The second thing is that the first result of the search hasn’t changed, but the second result used to be in the second row of results, and the third result didn’t even appear previously. That means that of the first page of results at “any size”, less than two were at an ideal size to be seen on a computer screen at any distance – from across the table, say.

Google Image Search results for 'angry old man', 'large size, 'free to reuse'

Google Image Search results for ‘angry old man’, ‘large size, ‘free to reuse’ (click on this preview for a larger image)

Refining the search: Usage Rights

For the first time, I have to do something that I normally wouldn’t; because I want to feature a couple of search results in detail, I have selected the rights option “free to reuse”, just to be a little safer in terms of copyright law. Tellingly, the first result didn’t appear at all on the first page of results that came up without the rights restriction.

It’s also worth observing that there are a couple of very recognizable faces in these results. The face on the top row, far right, looks vaguely familiar (I think it’s a British Actor, but I’m not sure). There’s part of the Sistine Chapel, and what appears to be Hugh Hefner, in the second row, and the third row has a photo that I think is of Billy Joel, followed by one that is definitely Patrick Stewart. The third face is also vaguely familiar, and I’m fairly sure the fourth is also an actor that I recognize. It’s also my suspicion that the third face on the top row is the same person as the third face on the bottom row, though they are clearly different photos.

As a general rule of thumb, I won’t use the face of anyone that I recognize unless that’s exactly what I was searching for, because if I know who they are, so might my players – and might impute all sorts of connotations to the character being represented that I don’t want. (That also works in the other direction – choosing a photo that belongs to someone they will recognize as a villain will imply things about the character that I may not want to be true, but which I might want the players to be suspicious of; and occasionally, for a very peripheral NPC, I might make an in-joke).

Of course, there’s always a risk that they will recognize someone that I did not, but that risk is impossible to avoid.

Image preview and Result Handling Panel

Selecting the first image result for ‘angry old man’, ‘large size, ‘free to reuse’ opens the image preview and Result Handling Panel (click on this preview for a larger image)

Selecting An Image

So, what happens when you click on one of the results?

A panel opens up in the middle of the search results page (which usually moves up or down as necessary to ensure that the result is within the viewing area of the window). The panel contains a triangle pointing to the thumbnail of the image in the original results.

On the left hand side of the panel, a preview of the image chosen comes up. If the image is larger than the available area, the preview will fill most of that side of the screen, depending on its proportions; if it is smaller than the available area, it will be shown “actual size”.

These previews are all “progressive”, which means that the image is initially shown in extremely approximate (and fast-loading) form and details then appear in greater clarity. Furthermore, these previews are all heavily compressed in file size – do NOT rely on the preview as a guide to the quality or sharpness of the actual image.

To the right of the preview are four areas of interest, and a couple of controls.

function areas of the Result Handling Panel

The function areas of the Result Handling Panel

Uppermost is an information panel relating to the Image, giving the name of the image and the name of the web page from which the image derives, separated by a vertical dividing ling. In this case, the name of the image is “Angry Old Man” – exactly what we searched for – and the originating website is “Flickr – Photo Sharing!”. Beneath that, there is the URL of the website, the size of the image, and an option “Search by image” that I’ll discuss in a little while. Finally, there is information on the image from the website, in this case that the image we are considering is the original image at the original size (2344 x 3080).

Underneath this are two action buttons – “Visit page” and “View image”. These are relatively obvious in what they do. But I’ll talk more about them in a moment, anyway.

Underneath that is a “Related Images” section that I will look at, in detail, later.

At the top right of the panel is a “close” hot-spot – click there and the panel will close back up, effectively taking you back to the search results. And, on the middle right, there is a button to move on to the next search result without the need to close and reopen the panel. After the first result, there would be a similar button on the left of the preview to move back to the previous search result.

There are also some hidden controls that I use quite a lot, which I’ll also get to in a bit.

The action buttons on the Result Handling Panel

The action buttons on the Result Handling Panel

The Action Buttons

Most of the time, what you will want to use is “View Image”. That opens a new tab containing the image that you’ve selected.

It doesn’t always work.

Sometimes, you will get a “forbidden” error. Sometimes, you will get a “hotlinking forbidden” graphic. That’s where the other action button becomes relevant. If you “Visit [the] page”, you often get a second, and even a third, bite at the cherry, if you need it.

First, you may find a link on the page that leads to the image. When that’s not obvious, or when the image as shown on the page is different in resolution to the one you expected and there is no link – so it’s not just a thumbnail – the next thing that I do is right-click on the smaller image (if there is one) and open it in a new tab; images are often re-sized, i.e. shown on a web-page at a different resolution to the actual image. I do it often simply so that I don’t get lines of text floating in mid-air (not to mention changing the way text is broken up into paragraphs).

But, even if that doesn’t work, by having the web-page open, you often signify to the hosting computer system that you now have permission to view the image – so, going back to the image preview panel and selecting “Open Image” a second time without closing the originating website can get you to the image permitted.

And, if that still doesn’t work, there is still one final pair of tricks to try. The first is to go up a subdirectory in the URL. This is real old-school stuff, so I can’t be sure everyone knows what it means; you have to understand the architecture of a URL.

A URL starts with an access protocol – usually http:// or https://. This is followed by a domain name, which may or may not have something in front of it, and will usually have something after it. is the domain name for Campaign Mastery; if the website was Australian, it would end in, if it were in the UK, it would be, and so on. That’s followed by the directory within the website’s architecture where the file is located, and, quite often by a subdirectory within that directory, and a sub-subdirectory within that subdirectory, and so on.

Let’s say that the URL to the image you want to show is but you can’t get to it because the site won’t let you. The trick is to start taking bits of that URL away in hopes of either getting a directory view of the files or access to a web-page that lets you get to the image:


The last is quite obviously the URL of the website; you can’t go any higher.

This works because there are often default web-pages, usually called index.htm or index.html or default.htm or default.html or even home.htm or home.html, that display automatically unless specifically prevented from doing so by the website configuration.

And if that doesn’t work, the next step is to do the same thing explicitly:

  • …and so on.

This technique can sometimes bypass the restrictions that have been set up and get you to the image that’s been promised. These tricks used to work a lot more routinely back in the late nineties and early naughties, but still works these days – at least often enough that they are all worth keeping in your repertoire of tricks.

The 'Related Images' sub-panel

The ‘Related Images’ sub-panel on the Result Handling Panel

The ‘Related Images’ Sub-Panel

The ‘related images’ section of the Result Handling Panel uses the title of the image selected and displays the top 8 results.

These can be the same image in a different size, or it may be an image that also appears later in the full search results, or it may be a completely unrelated image.

Related Images completely ignores any Tool Restrictions so it can also contain images that would be in your search results if you had not chosen various Tool Settings, i.e. be smaller than you had specified, or subject to different usage rights, or quite different in color balance, or from outside the time limits you had specified.

Sometimes, but not always, the 8th item will actually say ‘View More’ (it depends on how many ‘related images’ Google finds) – which is another “hidden control” that a lot of people don’t notice.

Results of Selecting the 'View More' option

Selecting the ‘View More’ option (if present) for the first image result for ‘angry old man’, ‘large size, ‘free to reuse’ causes a new Image Search to occur based on relatedness to the base image IN THE SAME TAB (click on this preview for a larger image)

View More

If you click “View More” you get a new search in THE SAME TAB, and you may note that a new Image Tool has mysteriously appeared on the results page: “Related images”.

You might expect that these images are the same ones that have appeared in previous search results, and sometimes that will be the case – but most of the time it will be a completely new set of results. That’s because all sorts of parameters are used to assess how similar one image is to another. Everything from color balance to overall lightness or darkness is taken into account.

If anything, some of the results will appear farther down in the results of the original search; I’ve noticed this phenomenon many times, but never consciously observed the reverse, where a related image is one that has already appeared in the main results panel. I suspect that this is deliberate filtering by Google, but could be wrong.

The image accompanying this section shows what came up when I clicked on the “View More” Related Images. The first seven results are clearly those that were thumbnailed in the search result selection panel. But none of these results looked familiar, even after giving considerable attention to the details of the previous search pages.

Selecting a 'related image'

Selecting the third ‘related image’ to the first result for the image search ‘angry old man’, ‘large size, ‘free to reuse’ brings up the preview and Results Handling Panel for that related image (click on this preview for a larger image)

Selecting A Related Image

What happens if, instead of the “View More” related images, one of the options already presented appeals?

For example, the third ‘related image’ immediately caught my attention.

There’s an emotionally complex blending of happiness and sadness, and a sense of wisdom and weariness. It shows a lot of character, and that is always appealing when creating an NPC.

Clicking on the thumbnail brings the image up in the results panel, updating every detail to relate to the new image except the ‘related images’ panel.

Right away, I discover that the man is deeply regarding a cat, and that is the reason he is hunched forward, not grief.

In terms of usage, that means that I can either use the personality traits as they are revealed – ‘regards cats as people,’ or ‘talks to his cat as though it were a sentient person,’ or something like that – or I can easily digitally paint out the cat and preserve my original interpretation.

The information panel now tells me that this is an image from a blog,, and that the size is only 500×567. That’s really on the small side, which is why the result didn’t come up in the original search results.

That means that it’s time to try the first of the “hidden functions” built into the information panel.

location of the hidden 'other sizes' tool

The hidden ‘other sizes’ tool is located here

You access the first by clicking on the size information. That invokes a “search for similar images by size”.

Results of the hidden 'other uses' tool

Clicking on the hidden “other sizes” tool creates a search in a new tab for other sizes of the chosen image (click on this preview for a larger image)

Search alternate image Sizes

Some people seem to think that Google always presents the largest version of any image that comes up in an image search. I always have trouble restraining myself from laughing when people suggest that. It’s absolutely not true, and this will prove it: clicking on the size in the information panel invokes a search for similar images by size, and to the side, you can see just what that produces. Unless something goes horribly wrong, a new search appears in a new tab.

As you can see, these are all different sizes of the same image, sorted by image size. Once again, a new tool has appeared in the search, one that reads “more sizes”, as well as the “similar to” tool that we’ve already encountered.

My laptop screen – my old one, at least – has a vertical resolution of about 800 pixels. Anything bigger than that suits me just fine; in this case, that means that any of the top row of results would be quite acceptable. And the entire first screen-full of results are larger than the original source image, so the odds that I will be able to access at least one of them is pretty good. But not perfect, and I’ll come back to that a little later.

Now, this result is a good one. Quite often you won’t get anywhere near as many results as this. Sometimes, you won’t get any alternatives, and sometimes there will only be a handful.

If there are no resolutions of the desired image that are large enough, I’m still not defeated. The reason is because a lot of content providers instruct Google not to index certain pages and therefore, Google Images doesn’t index the images. So the next thing that I look for are thumbnail sized images. If I find any, I use the “Visit Page” button for that image and see if there’s a link to the full-sized image.

And, if that still doesn’t work, it’s time to hit the “Search by image” hidden control.

Location of the hidden 'search by image' tool

The hidden ‘search by image’ tool is located here

Search By Image

This might be the last throw of the dice, but it’s by no means the least of them. This opens a new web search page (with a couple of variations from the usual one) based on the image as a “search term”.

Think about that for a second. If the final image is worth 1,000 words, the thumbnail might be worth at least 100 of them – the 100 that leads you to the image in question.

Results of the hidden 'search by image' tool

Clicking on the hidden ‘Search By Image’ tool produces this search results page in a new tab with six areas of interest (click on this preview for a larger image)

When you click on the link, this is the web page that comes up. As you can see, there are 6 elements that I have thought worth highlighting.

  1. The search window shows that you are searching based on an image by presenting a thumbnail of the search subject, adding the image type (jpg) next to it, and putting the whole thing in a brighter blue box. The search term itself derives from 4, below.
  2. The number of results are always worth noting when in this position. In this case, 428 is a very respectable number, but that’s not to surprising because we got quite a lot of results from the “other sizes” tool. Sometimes you will get a dozen or so results, sometimes even fewer – and sometimes (very rarely) you will get thousands. About 50 is the average, web-wide, in my experience.
  3. Speaking of the “other sizes” tool, this page gives another access to it – except that it’s not quite, because you have some additional options (all sizes is the default used by the “other sizes” tool, “large”, “medium”, and “small”. On rare occasions you may also get a “tiny”.
  4. From the page, the surrounding text, any EXIF information encoded in the image, the image name, and anywhere else that Google can think of, their systems come up with a best guess as to what the language=based search term is that would most reliably or accurately bring up the specific image in the results. In this case, it has presented a choice that might be the name of the man or of the photographer, “sokak adami”. This can be incredibly useful, as I’ll explain in a bit.
  5. “Visually Similar Images” are not the same thing as “Related Images”. The parameters are broader and fuzzier, and that can be incredibly valuable for the same reason as 4 above.
  6. Pages that include matching images is the section that we have, under the postulated hypothetical situation, come here for. Just because one site using the image has blocked you from accessing it doesn’t mean that they ALL will have done so. So work your way through the results in search of the image.
A watermarked image

An image result that has been moderately defaced by watermarks

The irritations of watermarks

Quite a lot of times, the results of an image search will produce watermarked images. If the watermarks are not too odious, you can live with them, but more frequently, they are so obnoxiously placed that the image is worthless. I got rather lucky in terms of the results of the various examples I’ve used in this article; there weren’t too many, and the ones that were there were only “moderately” damaged in usefulness. Take the example shown here, which derived from the “angry old man” image search, for example. The face isn’t badly covered by watermarks, and that’s the main thing. I have seen other images which were covered in the watermarks of two or three different image providers, either in different resolutions of the image, or – occasionally – at the same time, in the same image.

You might think that the “other sizes” or “related images” would take you to any un-watermarked results; they usually don’t. Google’s search protocols are so exacting that the watermark is considered part of the image and any unwatermarked versions are too different. Ironically, the less damaging the watermarks are, the more likely you are to be able to locate a watermark-free image.

If there’s an image result that looks perfect, but is badly watermarked, start by going to the website; often a lower-resolution version will be offered without a watermark that might still be large enough for your purposes. But if that doesn’t work, there are a couple of tactics to fall back on, and they both require the “search by image” page.

The first is to search for the “best guess” in a completely fresh image search. If there are any unwatermarked versions indexed by Google, that will often find them.

Results of the 'Visually Similar Images' link

Clicking on the “visually similar” link on the “search by image” results page causes this image search IN THE SAME TAB (click on this preview for a larger image)

The second is the “visually similar” results, of which the section in the “search by image” results page is usually only the tip of the iceberg. You get to the full set of results by clicking on the words, “Visually Similar Images”. This is what you get when I did so for the man-with-cat image. I always right-click on it to choose to open it in a new tab if I’m going to open it at all.

“Visually Similar” is sometimes very accurate and sometimes produces wildly improbably results. I see no resemblance at all in most of these to our search, for example. Where this is at its best is finding non-watermarked versions of watermarked images.

The camera icon in the Google Images front page

The camera icon in the Google Images front page opens the main ‘search by image’ popup (click on this preview for a larger image)

Speaking Of “Search By Image”…

Google has another couple of tricks up it’s sleeve.

If you go to the main Google search page and click on “Images” at the top of the page, and then click on the camera icon (it will darken as you mouse over it), you get a pop-up window with a couple of useful options for you. Both of these are also named “search by image”, and they are essentially front-ends for you to use Google’s “search by image” option on images other than those provided by a Google image search.

The search-by-image popup, 'upload' tab selected (full)

The search-by-image popup, ‘upload’ tab selected (click on this preview for a larger image)

Search By Image: Upload

The first option is for you to upload an image from your computer, phone, or whatever, and then use that as the basis for an image search.

I’ve mentioned a time or two that I maintain a clip art “library” of images collected from the web. These come from all sorts of places – Google Image Search results that weren’t quite what I wanted, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, things that I’ve stumbled across while browsing the web, and even some clip-art libraries – not to mention images that I have generated myself. I try and save versions at a size that makes them immediately drop-in useful, but that’s not always possible. If I have a small or medium image in this collection that happens to be just what I am looking for, I have two choices: I can describe the image, use that as the search term in an image search, and hope I get lucky; or I can upload exactly what I want to look for. Which of those sounds more likely to yield results to you?

This is also a viable option for repairing damaged images ,em>some of the time – upload the partially-corrupted image and search for an undamaged version.

Finally, if you take a badly-watermarked image, crudely paint out the watermarks, then reduce the image to about 1/20th if its resolution or 100 pixels wide, whichever is smaller, you can sometimes hunt down an uncontaminated image.

The search-by-image popup, 'Paste Image URL' tab selected

The search-by-image popup, ‘Paste Image URL’ tab selected (click on this preview for a larger image)

Search By Image: URL

Equally useful is the other tab, “Paste Image URL”. Imagine, for a moment, the following scenario: you are browsing the web when you come across the perfect illustration for some scene or character in your next adventure. The only problem is that it’s too small, and doesn’t link to a larger version.

All is not lost. Right-click on the image and look for “copy image URL” or something similar. It might not be there – I’ll deal with that complication in a moment – but most of the time, you’ll see it in the menu that comes up.

Open up Google, click on Images to get to Google Images, click the camera icon, and right-click and paste the URL that you’ve just copied into the search box. Hit enter, and you start a search for the image.

If the option isn’t there, and you’re using Google Chrome, you still aren’t necessarily beaten. Look for “Inspect Element” on the menu; if it’s not there, right-click on various other parts of the window to look for it. This will produce a section of the browser showing the code that makes up the site. Here, you have two tricks to try; if you know HTML, you can Control-F and search for “.jpg”, “.png”, or “.gif”; these are the common image formats used for the construction of web pages. Go through the results and try to identify the name of the image. The URL will probably be “relative”, which is to say, incomplete from the point of view of copying and pasting into your browser, but the name alone as a search term will sometimes yield results.

But, and this is my first choice, if you click on resources and look on the left-hand-side for images, then scroll through them, clicking on one at a time, you will often find the image you want, with it’s URL shown below it. Right click on that URL and “copy link address” or “copy link” – then you have what you need for an image search.

inspect element - resources - image url

Using ‘Inspect Element’ > ‘Resources’ to hunt down a protected image (click on this preview for a larger image)

For example, a few weeks ago I used an illustration from an Edgar Allen Poe book of poetry to illustrate an article. As it happens, I credited the source as per the terms of usage; but if I had not, and wanted to do a Google search for a larger version, AND was blocked by ‘clever’ code from directly accessing the image, this method quickly identified it as “july-midnight.jpg” (I had to expand a couple of items in the left-hand pane) and found me the URL. Copy link address and image search, and you find 63 results. As it happens, the one that I have put online is the largest one that Google has indexed (even though I know that I reduced it in size from the original), but that’s neither here nor there.

+1 Google (Image) -Fu Meme

With these tips and tricks, you should see an immediate increase in your Google-Fu for images! Go forth and Search…

Finding The Right Image

I rarely accept the first choice that comes up that “might” work. I will usually open from 5 to 10 results as “contenders” and make the choice from amongst those results. I may derive some possibilities from one search and more from another. Depending on the importance of the illustration to the adventure, I may spend anywhere from a few seconds to five or ten minutes choosing “contenders”; on very rare occasions, a quarter-hour.

It’s always good to have some criteria in mind for winnowing these shortlisted search results before you start, but essential to be flexible. Images that show personality, or convey a mood that matches what I want the mood to be at that moment in the adventure where the image is to be first displayed, tend to rate highly. Images with period-appropriate setting and clothing are also preferred over those that are somehow inappropriate, though images without period in-appropriate content also rate fairly highly in my book. Images that require less editing or manipulation are preferred over those that need substantial alteration, simply because this consumes time that can be spent elsewhere if it’s available. Style can be important; for the pulp campaign, a lot of standard sci-fi images are too realistic, even for mad scientist’s weird inventions. In the Zenith-3 campaign, there are three distinct contexts – a very slick and polished sci-fi look; a very grungy, dystopian sci-fi look; and a mid-80s look.

Rather than close tabs, I prefer to rearrange them in order – something chrome lets me do, but which not all browsers supports – so that the more preferred images are to the left and the least-preferred to the right. That lets me fall back on a “next best” choice if there is something about the preferred result that wasn’t initially noticed and that is a killer in terms of suitability. For location images in the Pulp campaign, that tends to be an over-abundance of electrical lines, power poles, modern street lights and modern street signs, and – sometimes hardest of all to cope with – air conditioning units in windows. Vehicle styles are also often a problem.

There are times when the best you can do is tell your players to ignore some inappropriate content, but a little effort avoids having to do so most of the time.

The Art Of Image Searching

There’s an art to choosing the right search term. Quite often, you will need to try two or three variations before you find exactly what you’re looking for, if it even exists at all. Like all arts, we learn by doing and get better with practice.

I can’t make you skilled in the practice of that art; but hopefully this article has given the information you need to make the fullest use of the tools at your disposal.

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Use The Force, Fluke: Who’s On First This Time?

Pressure Sensitive Starting Blocks by Andrew Hecker

“PressureSensitiveStartingBlocks” by Andrew Hecker, Licensed to Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. Text created with Logo Maker.

For the record, none of the PCs in the Star Wars campaign is named Fluke. But the pun was irresistible.

When we started playing Star Wars: Edge Of The Empire, we got the initiative system all wrong.

What’s supposed to happen is that each PC and NPC / NPC-Group rolls initiative to create a set of initiative slots, “ours” and “theirs”. Each player then chooses one of the “ours” slots and that’s his place in the initiative sequence until the end of the battle, while the GM does likewise with the “theirs” for whatever opposition the PCs happen to be facing.

We had part of this right.

In fact, we had all of it right except the part that reads “until the end of the battle.” Instead, as each initiative slot arrived, those who had not yet acted chose who should have that opportunity to act. The last time we played, this was ‘simplified’ to selecting an order at the start of each round, but this required remembering the sequence in which people were to act; we will probably revert to the ‘choose as the slot arrives’ next time because it’s a lot easier to simply remember whether or not you have acted. (We use a whiteboard to track initiative results and simply put a tick in each slot, each combat round).

The Effect

On the micro-scale, with decisions being taken and actions being resolved one initiative result at a time, this makes no difference at all. But what it permits is small-scale tactics, i.e. domino-planning of actions as a group through the course of a turn. The plan might be for Jeffron to cover my Wookie as he charges to melee range, or it might be for the Wookie to strip a piece of armor from a defender to make them vulnerable to the others’ blaster fire or whatever; it enabled thinking and acting as a unit, introducing an element of strategy that simply wouldn’t be there under the official rules.

Of course, the other side was doing the same think, so combat was enhanced from “I shoot, I hit, I do, next please” to a series of tactical skirmishes, with first one side and then the other gaining ascendancy. In the long term, the usual things – numbers, superiority of position and/or armament, and silly mistakes – told, and the outcomes trended toward the biases set up by these factors – but these simply outlined the parameters of the specific tactical problem to be overcome (or exploited) in that particular combat round or battle in general.

That’s a lot of impact from the loss of six words. By the time we realized we were doing it wrong, there was no way we would go to the official rules unless there was no way to salvage what we were doing.

You see, we discovered the error because of a problem – one that doesn’t arise under the official rules.

The Problem

What happens when a character falls in battle? Quite obviously, one of the slots has to be removed from the list of those comprising the battle – but which one?

The GM was the one doing the choosing, and it gave him a tremendous power over the shape of the conflict, especially in an even fight. There were occasions when – rightly or wrongly – the players felt that he was making choices that favored the opposition.

The Initial Solution

Ian, the GM, states that he was simply choosing the last slot belonging to the same faction as the now-out-of-the-battle character, but there were occasions when a used slot was removed, and other occasions when one was chosen by die roll – regardless of whether it had been used in that combat round or not. There was no consistency, and the GM was under no compulsion to make any particular decision. A house rule was needed to enshrine the viability of the house rule.

It would have been simple enough to enshrine that “last slot” as the other part of the House Rule, but there’s a problem when a character succumbs to some environmental or self-imposed condition in the course of an action – you now have more characters in a faction waiting to act than you have slots, and someone is going to miss their chance to act.

In discussion, a more interesting possibility emerged, one that solved this new problem almost as an afterthought. This rule should be accredited to all three participants: Ian Gray, Blair Ramage, and Myself.

The Final Solution

The rules we are now using would read, if we put them in writing, more-or-less as follows:

Each PC and NPC / NPC-Group rolls initiative to create a set of initiative slots, “ours” and “theirs”. Each player then chooses one of the “ours” slots and that’s his place in the initiative sequence, making the allocation as the slot is reached within the combat round.

If a character has already acted in a combat round, the slot in which he acted is removed from the initiative sequence if the character is killed or otherwise removed from the combat. If a character has not yet acted, the next available slot is removed from the initiative sequence.

This not only solves the problem with the initial solution, it imposes a new tactical consideration for each side to manipulate. If you are a character close to being taken out of the battle, you can increase your certainty of being able to act one more time before that occurs by taking an early initiative slot – but at the risk of losing that initiative slot for your faction, handing a tactical advantage to the other side for subsequent combat rounds.

Or, you could choose to act late in the round – risking not getting to act at all – but enhancing the odds of your faction winning the battle. It’s a straightforward choice if all characters are identical and in an identical situation – but as with most groups of PCs and the enemies they face, things become far more complicated when there is diversity involved. Character A has a better chance to hit, but does less damage, than character B; in the long run, they may be equally effective, but this isn’t the long run. And what if they aren’t equal? Character B may have put more into his combat capabilities while Character A has better non-combat capabilities. It changes with the situation, with the immediate objective, and with the individual PC and his circumstances.

And this solution adds this extra tactical layer for free. It takes no longer to cross one slot off a list than it does another.

Further Consequences

Further complicating matters is what we think of as the Balance Of The Force – a mixture of “Force Tokens” assigned by die roll at the start of a game that can be flipped (becoming a token for the other faction) to confer a bonus or advantage to your faction at various times – including in combat. Careful tactics can force the opposition to consume one or more of his Force Tokens, effectively giving you aces up your sleeve to be deployed whenever they most benefit your faction in the course of the day’s play; or they can utilize such an advantage that you already have to increase the likelihood of success, for example, of the “low chance to hit, high damage” character.

One of the perennial problems of this sort of Token arrangement – one that has bedeviled all the games of 7th sea that I have played, for example – is a reluctance on the part of both players and GM to expend these tokens. Instead of promoting an ebb-and-flow to combat that adds dynamism and thrill to the fight, they tend to be a stultifying factor, employed only when one side has a significant Token Advantage over the other. We have a similar system in the Zenith-3 rules that also experiences this problem despite our best efforts. In part, this is paranoia at giving the other side an advantage that can be exploited at a more significant moment in the game; in part, it’s not wanting to waste an advantage unnecessarily. But it’s a conservatism that does the game no favors.

This tactical change encourages the use of Force Tokens by both sides, helping them achieve their purpose within the game system. It encourages swashbuckling acts of derring-do that are entirely appropriate, given the setting.

Wider Application

When I set out to write this article, it was with the intent of simply describing the house rule and the consequences that came with it. It was only as I began to outline it (in my usual bullet-point fashion, in which each bullet point becomes the heading of a paragraph) that I realized that this change can be made applicable to Every Game System I Know Of, and yielding the same benefit to each.

D&D / Pathfinder / d20

In every version of D&D that I’ve played, combat is divided into turns, and each character/combatant gets to act within each turn. Some editions don’t go much farther than that; some use a formal initiative value; and I’ve see some house rules that specify “initiative slots” based on base attack value (so that fighters go first, then clerics, and so on), or the reverse.

The biggest problem that I’ve encountered with all of these approaches are the impact of things like spells that take a measurable amount of time to cast before they take effect. If everything that happens in a combat round is considered simultaneous, and handled separately only because of human limitations, there’s no problem. If you run on the system interpretation that states that the casting time indicated is complete when the GM says it is, that’s fine too. If you use some house rule to apply an initiative value to the spell activation, that works fine as well. There are all sorts of combinations and they all ultimately come down to whether or not a combat round is considered simultaneous or if the initiative sequence reflects a subdivision of time in which events happen within a sequence.

I’ve always preferred that latter interpretation because it is a more faithful reflection of the narrative that emerges in the course of play – the fastest character acts, then the next fastest, and so on. But it does make combat timing a lot more tedious when a character is doing something like movement or spellcasting that is continuous throughout the turn, because it forces the subdivision of that activity.

To apply the House Rule to these systems, all you have to do is generate your sequence of actions as normal and then throw away the ownership of each slot or initiative number. The faster character’s contribution is that he confers a higher initiative slot to his faction that can then be allocated to whichever PC can use it to the greatest benefit of his faction. He is using his speed to create an opening for the Mage, or getting out of the way of the Mage so that the mages’ spell takes effect more quickly, or whatever.

Of course, the other side also gets this ability…

Hero Games

Hero Games has 12-second combat turns in which a character may receive multiple actions depending on their character’s speed. Human-normal characters typically have two such actions. One of the earliest House Rules that I devised was an alternative action chart that did away with the “phase 12, everyone acts” overload problem, spreading phases out as evenly as possible through a turn. (More recently, I’ve gone to a completely 3.x-based system in which character’s SPD scores simply elevate their initiative numbers, but that would be covered under the previous section, so I will be ignoring that modification – described in “Superhero combat on steroids – pt 1 of 2: Taking the initiative with the Hero System” – here).

There are two ways of applying this house rule to the Hero System: the first is to simply replace the tie-breaker system with it; but that generally doesn’t achieve very much. The second way is to go the whole hog: Each character creates slots for actions in the different segments as usual, and gets to use as many of those slots as the character has Speed, but – once again – as soon as they are created, ownership of a given slot by a specific character is stripped away, and the entire group of PCs gets to pick who uses which slot as they become available or tactically advisable.

A further modification to the rules presented would be possible, in that it is always possible to trace a given segment’s slot back to it’s contributing character, and so the slot(s) that is/are lost in the current combat Turn may not be the slot)s) that is/are lost overall; but I consider that an unnecessary refinement that would do nothing but slow combat down.

In General

In fact, as I said, every RPG that I know of uses some system to distribute the spotlight during combat situations, and it is always possible to interpret those results as being “slots” in the combat-round (or equivalent). Even if it’s as simple as “all the PCs act, then all the NPCs”, there is still some internal sorting mechanism regarding who goes first – and I have to admit that I don’t know of any game that simplifies actions that much. Okay, maybe Toon – my memories are a little vague…

I don’t know of a single game system that can’t benefit from the enhanced group cohesion, tactical flexibility, and combat dynamics that these house rules offer, and to which they can’t be applied.

The Need For Consensus: A Practical Limitation

There is, however, a real-world limitation; players need to reach consensus, repeatedly, on “who acts next?” If there is a grand plan for the way the combat situation will evolve as the round progresses, that shouldn’t be an issue. But the more players that you have, the harder it is to reach consensus on anything. So you may need some additional social rules to moderate real-world behavior, and this house rule may even open a can of worms that is currently only dripping. That’s a risk-assessment that every GM would have to make for themselves.

So, Who’s On First?

If the benefits sound like they would be a welcome addition to your campaign, give implementing these house rules (or some variation on them) some thought. You have nothing to lose but your tactical inhibitions!

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The Perils Of Players Knowing Too Much

photo of lab work

Image: / Nina Briski

The Backstory

I was posting a reply to @RPGKitchen on Twitter last night (relative to commencing this article, now about 3 weeks ago) when a stray thought suggested itself.

It was recently posited that starting a campaign or adventure off with the characters engaged in activities that are relatively familiar to the players, such as gambling, is a great way to introduce new players to the art of roleplaying.

I suddenly found myself wondering if the same was true, when generalized, for more experienced players?

What would happen when a relatively expert cook played a character who was a reasonably expert cook, in an appropriate setting to display that skill – like a Kitchen?

A little thought soon made it apparent that what seemed like playing to the Players’ strengths could be a recipe for disaster!

A Question Of Catastrophe

Here’s an inescapable chain of logic to prove the point:

  1. Player knows more than the GM
  2. Player confers all his knowledge and skill to the PC
  3. Therefore PC knows more than the GM on the subject

All that remains to be shown, then, is that a PC knowing more about a subject than the GM does can be a serious problem. What are the consequences and ramifications of this situation?

The ‘Calamity Solved’ problem

For a start, it’s hard for the GM to pose a problem related to the activity. Given the expertise that the PC has to draw upon, problems tend to be either simply solved, or impossible to solve, but the GM doesn’t know this because of his relative ignorance of the subject.

That puts him in a difficult position: any challenge he poses either stalls the game (impossible problem that the GM thought could be solved) or is solved far more easily than he thought possible (“Okay, I add a quarter-of-a-teaspoon of Cream Of Tartars” and fold it through the batter”, “I put the cake-tin in a pan of water and then return both to the oven”, “I ice the sides of the cake as well and then put the whole thing in the refrigerator for ten minutes to help it set more quickly”). This displays the problem-solving skills of the character that result from his expertise but it means that there’s no need for the running-around-town (or whatever) that the GM thought would be needed, and that was his method of transitioning from the kitchen problem to the actual adventure.

You don’t need to watch many episodes of the many cooking competitions on television to realize that such problem-solving is a key capability of any half-decent cook. (“The Lemons are too small and won’t give as much juice as you need.” “Okay, I lay each on it’s side and roll it around a couple of times to break the internal cells in the lemons and extract that little bit extra juice from them – that usually works.”)

The ‘Focal Skew’ problem

Instead of the big picture being the focus of the narrative, the expertise of the character shrinks that focus to something much smaller because that solves the immediate problem. What’s more, because he didn’t have the expertise to anticipate that, this focus is skewed onto a side-issue that the GM wasn’t expecting. He can probably improvise his way back out, but it’s never a good sign when you have to start making things up on the spot thirty seconds into a planned adventure.

The ‘Confidence Issues’ problems

This sort of thing can affect the confidence that the player has in the GM. To demonstrate this, take any subject that you know a reasonable amount about, and think back to a time when you met someone who was pretending to know that subject but who didn’t know what they were talking about. I would wager that anything else that person said was undermined in its believability as a result.

There’s a very well-known TV ad (from 2005-6) here in Australia from a couple of years ago. A father is driving his young son to school when the son asks “Dad, why did they build the Great Wall of China?”

The father, not knowing the answer, replies, “That, that was, during the time of the Emperor Nasi Goreng. And, ah, it was to keep the rabbits out. Too many rabbits, in China.”

The child looks a little uncertain at this information. But this is his father! So he doesn’t probe further.

In the next scene, the child is in school, standing in front of the class, as the teacher announces, “And now, Daniel will do his talk on China”…

Google search 'results emperor nasi goreng'

Google search results obtained March 24, 2016. I’ve added smileys to indicate which results are to be taken seriously and which are tongue-in-cheek expansions of, or references to, the ‘Rabbit-proof Wall’ advert. It may help readers understand the source of the father’s idea to read about Australia’s Rabbit Proof Fence. Click on the image to open a larger (more legible) version in a new tab. Thanks to for the smiley faces (I tweaked the colors of the serious one).

This was a TV ad for an internet provider that was so successful at demonstrating why parents (and students) needed an internet connection that it doubled the growth rate of the provider.

Even today, ten years later, the ad remains part of the popular zeitgeist Down-under, as shown by these links (both of which will let you watch the ad): link 2 (2013), link 1 (2012), or check out the Google search results to the right.

Would you ever trust anything that this parent told you ever again, if that was you?

But an even bigger issue can be the effect on the GM’s self-confidence – and sometimes, that’s all we have to fall back on. Because, like the child in the ad, it’s the GM who is potentially humiliated and exposed as ignorant and foolish.

It’s not easy being a GM, you can have to work hard for your fun. There is absolutely no good reason for making it harder for yourself than it has to be.

I have known GMs who were new to the job and who would have dropped out of the hobby completely after an experience like that.

The ‘Spotlight Lock’ Problem

And then, there is the problem of spotlight lock. Compare “I mix self-raising flour, sugar, milk, eggs, and vanilla extract to form a batter, then I add crushed walnuts which I have lightly toasted in a 400° oven, I line my cake-tin with baking paper coated with softened butter and sprinkled with a light dusting of castor sugar and walnut crumb that I’ve blitzed in a food processor, pour in the batter, and sprinkle some more of the sugar-and-walnut mixture on the top. I bake it in a 350°-oven for about 40 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean. The dusting will form a walnutty-toffee crust on the cake that should look and taste fantastic, accompanied by some whipped cream,” to “I bake a walnut-cake.”

The first clearly shows far greater expertise and has far greater verisimilitude, but for a solid four minutes or more, the ‘expert player’ has held the spotlight locked onto themselves.

What’s more, the same thing could recur every time the character gets a chance to show off their expertise.

(PS: The recipe sounds about right, but I made it up off the top of my head, so if you try it, don’t complain to me if it doesn’t work!)

Problems Galore, how about some solutions?

As you can see, there are plenty of potential problems that can arise. But all of these can be avoided, with a little care.

Be clear about the level of detail you require.
Spotlight Lock derives from confusion between the player and GM about how much detail the GM wants in response to a reasonably generalized question. The best solution is, ironically, to be more specific in the questions you ask:

     GM: “Okay, so you’re baking a cake for [NPC X], whose favorite is walnut cake. How long will making a cake like that normally take?”
     Player: “About 20 minutes to make and 40 minutes to cook.”
     GM: “Are you doing anything to fancy it up?”
     Player: “I’ll put a walnut-and-toffee crust on it.”
     GM: “Anything else?”
     Player: “I’ll top it with whipped cream and a couple of whole walnuts as decoration.”

That exchange takes almost as long as the “spotlight lock” example it refers to, but the spotlight is not locked, it is bouncing back-and-forth between the GM and the player, and that implies to the other players that it could bounce onto them at any moment. What’s more, the information density is far less than in the “spotlight lock” example; as a result, the exchange comes across not as the player showing off his expertise, but as the player interacting with the situation (most experienced players will adopt this ‘limited input’ approach automatically, one of the benefits of playing with them).

Once a standard has been set, you can ask more open-ended questions in the expectation that the same level of detail will be observed, enabling you to reserve your “specific questions” for when you genuinely need more details.

Do your homework.
If you want to present a problem for the PC to use their expertise to solve (EG: not enough lemon juice), hop onto the internet in advance and use Google to search for solutions. It only takes a few seconds to get solutions – search for “get more juice from lemons”. If the problem you want to pose is that the cake is not rising properly, try “fixing cake not rising”.

Be An “Expert In Everything”.
The advice that I offer in “The Expert In Everything” is right on-point to solving these problems.

Look for problems before they manifest.
I have to admit that I’ve never done what I’m about to propose; but, at the same time, there have been times when having done so would have saved me an awful lot of grief. Get each of your players to list all the skills their characters have on a sheet of paper, plus a couple of extras covering things that don’t get described by specific skills, such as different types of combat – archery, melee weaponry, etc – and anything else that might be relevant such as “medieval history” and “medieval society”. Then get them to rate their own knowledge in each of these areas on a 1-5 scale: 1 is “know it exists” to “know a little”, 2 is “read about it in school but don’t know much”, 3 is “spotty and variable depth of knowledge from reading one or two books or watching one or two documentaries or TV shows”, 4 is “a very good lay education in the subject”, and 5 is “could qualify as an expert” or better.

Anything rated 3 could be a problem; anything rated 4 or 5 will be a problem on occasion, if you don’t prepare accordingly.

Take advantage of player’s expertise.
If you are sufficiently well-organized, you can often take advantage of the in-house expert resource. If you need a cooking problem that’s difficult to solve but that can be managed with some effort, ask the player. Don’t tell him why, or what the context is going to be, just ask for the information you need, some time before you are going to use it.

Design your adventures with an eye toward your ignorance.
Scene 3 of your adventure opens with a PC being confronted with a problem as a result of the buildup in scenes 1 and 2. But you know very little about the subject, and your research hasn’t given you any easy answers.

As with any decision open to the PCs, plan multiple paths for the adventure to take according to how difficult a solution to the problem turns out to be. “If this problem is easily solved, go to scene 3a. If it can be solved only with a lot of fussy and difficult work, go to scene 3b. If the problem can’t be solved because of the circumstances, go to scene 3c.” This effectively divides scene three into four parts: a before, which contains the narrative outlining the problem and the complicating circumstances, and three alternative resolutions to the scene, only one of which will actually take place in the adventure. This is exactly the same as “You have a choice of three doors, which one are you picking?”

Let the expert provide part of the narrative.
There will be occasions when you can use the presence of an “expert” on any given subject to save you valuable prep time. Instead of researching and writing a narrative passage, simply toss the metaphoric “ball” to the expert – even if that player’s PC knows absolutely nothing about the subject. I’ve done this a number of times in the Zenith-3, Lovecraft’s Legacies, and Adventurer’s Club campaigns, less frequently in my Fantasy campaigns.

This has all sorts of benefits. It shares spotlight time with a player who might not be getting much at this particular point in the adventure; it compliments that player on his expertise; it saves the GM prep time; it makes the players aware that the GM is aware of them as individuals… the list goes on.

The Quite-manageable Perils Of Knowing Too Much

While the pitfalls of a player who knows too much are very real, they are not difficult to solve, and can even be transformed into genuine assets without too much effort. Expertise is always a useful resource; what you do with it is up to you.

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Choosing A Name: A “Good Names” Extra (Revised & Extended)

Something unusual this week in that today’s article is a revised and expanded version of last week’s article on Names.

There are two reasons for that: first, I didn’t have time last week to prepare all the examples and material that I wanted to include; and second, today is my Birthday and I wanted to keep my obligations lighter than usual, anticipating more than the normal levels of disruption of my routines as a result.

Blank Nametag by blogmonkey (edited)

(Image: / blogmonkey)

Oh, and don’t fall into the trap of thinking that everything that’s been added is in a blue box like this. Some is, and some isn’t.

I don’t think I’ve ever described the process by which my co-GM and I choose NPC names.

Given the importance I attach to a good name (as shown extensively in the series A Good Name Is Hard To Find), this is a clear oversight, something that came to my attention while working on the Pulp Campaign yesterday last week.

We employ a fairly simple technique. To some extent, that simplicity is complicated by the fact that the campaign is a collaboration; but what we lose on the swings, we gain on the roundabouts. The need to reach agreement between us slows the task from time to time, but there are two of us throwing ideas around most of the time, and that more than makes up lost time.

That technique consists of six steps:

  1. Nationality – Naming Conventions
  2. Prioritization
    • personality
    • attributes/ability
    • culture
    • professional/education status
    • nationality
    • social class within nationality
  3. The first attempt
  4. Analysis – plot needs
  5. Stepwise Refinement
  6. Satisfaction? Or Change?

Today, I’ll walk readers through the process, step-by-step.

1. Nationality – Naming Conventions

Step one is always to identify the parameters within which we have to work – the naming conventions. That frequently requires determining the NPC’s nationality, and sometimes, the sub-culture.

A Canadian named “Jerome Peterson” is unlikely to be Inuit, or from Quebec; that means that the name and nationality immediately tell you something about the character. Similarly, a Canadian named “Patric Lavoisier” might not be from Quebec, but the smart money would look in that province first.

That’s often a more difficult decision than it first appears. There may be no cues to work from (difficult) or there may be very narrow parameters in terms of plot and required reaction to situations (difficult).

Quite often, we will have to think about stereotypes within cultures, and whether or not we want to play to- or against-the-cliché, or even a more complex (and realistic) situation in which the NPC plays to some part of the stereotype and plays against another.

A lawyer named “Ruben Dicky” is playing against type. A southern hick named “Ruben Dicky” probably is unlikely to make anyone blink. Similarly, a character named “David Jerome Fortesque IV” might be a politician, lawyer, or simply rich businessman; that name, applied to a sanitation engineer seems very out of place, but could be made to work if the personality was deliberately selected to play against type – and the name probably not used in its full form: “Davey Fortesque” works perfectly well for a character in that profession, and is just unusual enough to be distinctive.

Much often depends on the function that we want the character to perform within the plot, and the name is our guideline as to how the NPC will perform that function.

If you want a character to betray the PCs, they first have to be trusted by those PCs, so you wouldn’t choose a name with even the slightest hint of a sinister connotation. Nor would you make the name seem too sickly “nice and sweet” – trying too hard is just likely to tip your hand as blatantly telegraphing the character’s role. “Marie-Sue Goodsoul” and “Bartholomew Sludge” are both inappropriate. “Jeff Winters”, on the other hand, is colorful enough to be memorable, but is neither too sweet nor too sinister, and would be perfectly satisfactory.

Personality, if defined already, is also a major consideration, as we will want a name that reflects that personality, and in particular, we will want the way people would react to the name to correspond with the way we want the PCs to react to the character. Often, and often preferably, we will not have a fixed personality in mind, and will use the name as a guideline to what that personality should be.

For example, “Alex” is the 29th most common christian name in Italy, and Esposito is the fourth most common Surname in Italy, according to Google. Yet, there is a lot of difference between a character with an Italian Name, such as “Alex Esposito” (which sounds more anglo-hispanic), and a character whose name sounds Italian, like “Giovanni Mantecino”.

One plays to the racial stereotype in name, the other does not, even though its elements are far more commonly found in the nation.

What’s more, in any genre in which they are common, “Giovanni Mantecino” is immediately suggestive of organized crime until proven otherwise. But “Andrea Colombo”, which is just as Italian if not moreso (especially when pronounced in a faux-Italian accent), has no such connotation.

There are a lot of non-nationalistic stereotypes that we might want to play to or against, and that is still another consideration, affording more scope for creativity in some respects and less in others.

The naming of the scientist in “Back To The Future” with as common a surname as you can think of – “Brown” – plus a more distinctive christian name, “Emmett” – is no accident; the very ordinariness is a reflection of the attitude of most of the inhabitants of Hill Valley toward him as “nothing extraordinary”, i.e. no genius. The obsessive, manic, quality of the performance in the role by Christopher Lloyd doesn’t really fit the name, but the discontinuity is deliberate, for comic effect. If the name had been chosen to more accurately reflect the performance that Lloyd provided, the character would be named “Cosmo Zappelstein” or something over-the-top like that.

This choice shapes every decision that follows; the less that was pre-determined, the more strongly this stage of the process influences the final choice.

2. Prioritization

The next step is determining what we want the name to symbolize and reflect – what our priorities are. There are 6 normal alternatives to consider, and these are so important that I listed them under this step in the process summary provided earlier. The 6 are (in no particular order):

  • personality
  • attributes/ability
  • culture
  • professional/education status
  • nationality
  • social class within nationality

If there’s a particular personality trait that the NPC has to have, AND we want that trait to be obvious, we will attempt to hint at it in the name. If there are other aspects of the character that will indicate a stereotype particularly strongly, on the other hand, we may wish to finesse that impression by undercutting it with a contradictory name indication.

Let’s name a Sleazy character as an example.

There’s an obvious example from Harry Potter in the form of Severus Snape. Now, I’m not aware of Severus being a real christian name (Snape is quite believable), so let’s replace that with Silas. “Silas Snape” is immediately sinister and menacing as a name. But is that really “sleazy” or has the first attempt been mis-targeted from word one? ‘Sleazy’ means sordid, corrupt, or immoral, not outright villainous.

Another character from Harry Potter better fits the prescription: Draco Malfoy. Draco is latin for Dragon, and dragons aren’t well-thought-of in most western stories; more commonly, the name is used to denote characters who have power and misuse it. This somewhat soft impression is reinforced quite strong by the surname starting with “Mal”; the prefix “Mal-” denotes something present in an unpleasant manner or degree, or faulty and/or inadequate.

Using this as our template, ‘Slink’ becomes ‘Link’ and replaces ‘Draco’ (power is not what we want to convey), giving us “Link Mal-something”. The something can be anything virtuous, which the “Mal-” will then subvert within the name, provided that the result works as an overall name. “King” would work: “Link Malking”.


This option applies particularly when we are going to present the character with a Nickname. It provides an opportunity to tell part of the story of how the character became who he is, through the name-and-nickname combination.

Take the surname Macmahon, which is fairly neutral in tone, and see how the impression of a character changes with the application of different Nicknames: ‘Axe’ Macmahon, ‘Sloppy’ Macmahon, ‘Hack’ Macmahon, ‘Perfume’ Macmahon, ‘Grater’ Macmahon, ‘Speedy’ Macmahon, ‘Honest’ Macmahon, ‘Tingles’ Macmahon, ‘Preacher’ Macmahon, ‘Shotgun’ Macmahon, ‘Roses’ Macmahon, ‘Brains’ Macmahon… the list goes on and on, but that’s enough to demonstrate the point.

Some of these are also neutral in character, for example “Speedy”; but the majority either connect directly with a weapon or act of violence, or they invert something more peaceful to once again suggest some form of nastiness – ‘Honest’ Macmahon, for example. Even “‘Brains’ Macmahon” is suggestive of someone who is either very bright or who doesn’t realize just how dim-witted they are.

But there are more subtle approaches. Characters named for well-known scientists are immediately suggestive of intelligence: “Stephenson Fermi Unsworth” gives that impression, which is strongly reinforced (almost to, or even beyond in some cases, the point of caricature) by prefixing the name with “Doctor” or “Professor”.


There are often times when the most important thing about the NPC is their native culture. Building that into the name itself provides an immediate mnemonic device to both players and GMs, in addition to the usual benefits of a good character name.

For example. “Jean-Phillipe” immediately sounds French. So does “Christophe”. “Bud” sounds American, as does anything with “Jnr” or “Snr” attached to it; a generational numeral sounds more English. “Han Pak Wu” sounds Chinese (and traditional), but might also be Korean; it does not sounds Japanese. “Manupingu” is Australian Aboriginal in sound. It doesn’t matter where these names come from, or even if they are real – they convey the flavor of the nationality through the sound they make. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with naming a Swedish character “Philipe” – but anyone hearing the name will look for a French connection.

Professional/Education status

While this is, in itself, a clichéd approach, there are times when we want to at least tip a hat in the direction of the cliché because of the reaction that it will invoke.

This is probably the most confusing, most poorly-explained statement in the entire article. So let me start by clarifying it:

Using a name such as “Shyster” for a lawyer. Using a name such as “Newton” for a scientist. Using “Gates” for a businessman. These are clichés because they derive either from a well-known representative of the profession or use a common nickname for the profession.

Nevertheless, there are times when it is useful to hint at this association purely because of the reaction it will cause in the players. So, instead of “Samuel Shyster” for the name of your lawyer, use something that places the implication a little more at arm’s length: “Samuel Detail” or “Samuel Coldhart”. Instead of “Professor Albert Newton”, use “Professor Newton Albers”. Instead of “Dominic Gates” for your entrepreneur, use “Dominic Dawes” – the similarity in meaning between “Gates” and “Doors” creating the association for you.

The other type of occasion when this becomes important is when there is a professional title involved; it’s important that the name be a good one both with and without the title. This can also bring up the issue of customary modes of address, providing still more variations on the name that need to be examined before it can be given final approval.

“Amber Wellings” gives a quite different impression of a character to “Doctor Wellings” which is also quite different from the impression created by “Minister Wellings”, which is quite different from the impression created by “Lady Wellings”. “Madame Wellings”, on the other hand, gives a fairly similar impression to “Amber Wellings”, though it might arguably suggest an older woman than the name alone. If you want to use one of the contrasting titles, you should either use a different christian name, or try a variation (title plus full name). The latter is usually the better option because you create two different impressions of the character and layer them together – “Lady Amber Wellings”, for example. In this case, the title plus surname create the initial impression, which is then nuanced by the christian name.

When we are feeling especially clever or devious, and a title is involved, and the character is important enough to justify it, we may attempt to craft a name that deliberately has slightly different implications or overtones depending on its usage. But experience has shown that this usually ends up being nothing more than an in-joke between the GMs, and can even distract us or create an inappropriate tone at the game table (relative to the emotional tone that we want to convey), so the practice is usually not worth the effort.


There are times when the aspect of the NPC that we want to emphasize more than anything else is the nationality. At first glance, you might think that the easiest way to do so would be to Google-search a list of the most popular names in a given country, but things are not so straightforward in the modern era; many of these are often interchangeable, unless there is some distinct rendering of the name within the nationality desired.

The names of Saints and other biblical figures are particularly troublesome in this respect, and you will often find the names of Saints amongst the most common Christian names in many disparate countries. Perusing the list of most popular boy’s names in Norway, for example, one spots Jonas, Noah, Daniel, Jakob (when spoken aloud), David, and Gabriel amongst the top 50 (there are also a number of outliers that do not suggest “Norway” at all, such as William, Adrian, Tobias, Martin, Benjamin, Leon, Alexander, Jonathon, Filip (when spoken aloud), Oscar, and Herman). That’s 17 of the top 50 that can’t be used if you want a name that screams “Norwegian”.

On the other hand, there are times where the message is to be Anglicization and assimilation. “William Johannson” is a perfectly serviceable Norwegian name – but it sounds even more like a Norwegian ex-pat who has migrated to England, the USA, or Australia; the Christian name’s implied nationality undercuts that of the strongly nationalistic surname. The opposite can also be achieved – consider “Jørgan Barnes” as an example. “Barnes” is an Anglo-oriented name that would be common in any country with English roots – the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and (of course) Britain, while “Jørgan” implies more exotic origins.

However, when nationality is chosen as the priority, we always have to pause and ask ourselves “why” that choice. There are valid reasons – helping to convey the uniqueness of the location where the adventure is taking place by emphasizing a name or two that are strongly evocative adds greatly to the verisimilitude of a setting and its associated culture. But there are also reasons that are not so worthy – “individualization” for example. Such use not only undercuts the use of nationality by increasing homogeneity within the campaign, it neglects the opportunity to individualize by choosing one of the alternative priorities that is more enlightening as to the individual.

Another time when this is not entirely appropriate as a choice is as an expression of [culture]-aphilia. Just because NPC X is an Anglophile, it doesn’t mean that his name would reflect that; he didn’t choose it, his parents did. This is better communicated by means of a nickname, reserving the correct name for emphasizing/disseminating something else about the character. NPC X’s children, on the other hand, may well have quintessentially British names like “Derek” and “Roger”.

Social Class within nationality

When a character’s social class is important, the name is one of the best ways of putting character behavior into a context that announces that social class. The name “Rockefeller” may be German in origin, for example, but in the modern Zeitgeist, it exemplifies American Aristocracy. Further trappings such as inherited names (emphasizing the legacy of the name) only reinforce the impression: “Wilson Rockefeller III” can’t really be anything but old money and American.

Some names achieve similar effects using hyphenation, though this often seems more quintessentially British, especially with a British Peerage rank of some sort attached – “Lord George Winston-Cavenaugh” or “Sir Lawrence Crichton-Fellows”, for example. However, these names would translate directly across the Atlantic with only a slight push from some other nationalistic symbolism, especially in the Christian name. “George” is probably universal enough, but “Lawrence” seems more English than American; choosing something more general like “Thomas” or even something that has a more American flavor like “Bradley” facilitates this transfer.

The attaching of honors and honorifics can also emphasize social class, but these often differ from nationality to nationality. Americans, as a general rule, don’t have them. Nor are there very many in Canada. Australia has a few. The various constituents of Great Britain have many. As a general rule of thumb, however, only a few should be bestowed on an individual and represented as part of their name; there is a complicated set of rules regarding precedence of titles, and some supersede others, and the fewer you list, the less likely you are to run afoul of such complications.

3. The first attempt

Once we know what we want the name to represent or depict, what we want it to say about the character, one of us will suggest a possibility, usually the first one that comes to mind that fulfills the brief.

Sometimes the Christian name will come first, sometimes the surname. A lot depends on how we intend it to be subsequently used in conversations and discussions – sometimes the surname is more important, sometimes the individualism of the Christian name will dominate. And there are times when neither seems more important, and usage will be determined by the ultimate choice of name.

4. Analysis – plot needs

As soon as we have a suggestion, we immediately poke it with a stick in an attempt to punch holes in it, or at least, I do (and, at least sometimes, Blair does). We’ll mentally or aloud repeat it a few times to see how easy it is to use. We look at it in terms of the usage expected within the plot, and whether it serves our needs in that respect.

Is there some element if the name or it’s presentation that doesn’t quite capture the subtleties that we want to present? Names are a great way of sliding information into the campaign beneath the radar. For example, the following are all variations of “William”: Bill, Bille, Billie, Billy, Giermo, Gigermo, Gillermo, Guglielmo, Guilermo, Guilherme, Guillaume, Guillem, Guillermino, Guillermo, Guillo, Gwilym, Liam, Uilleam, Uilliam, Vasilak, Vasili, Vasilios, Vasiliy, Vaska, Vassili, Vassily, Vassos, Vila, Vilek, Vilem, Villem, Vilhelm, Vili, Viliam, Viljami, Viljo, Vilko, Vilmo, Vilous, Vilppu, Welfel, Wilhelm, Wil, Will, Wilek, Willem, Willhelmus, Willi, Williams, Williamsort, Willie, Willis, Willkie, Wills, Willson, Willy, Wilmer, Wilmot, Wilson, Wim, and Wolf. But these are NOT all interchangeable. And that’s even ignoring the possibility that William is not the name we should use at all! Perhaps “Harold” would be a better choice, or “Simon”.

Perhaps the Christian name and surname don’t play well together; we’re always cognitive of the “schoolyard effect” of a name and how that can influence the personality of the character.

5. Stepwise Refinement

If the name isn’t perfect, or – at least – isn’t “good enough” for the prominence of the character within the adventure – the next step is to try and refine it into something better. We might use a variation or alternative for either the Christian name or surname, or both. Once one of us has an alternative that he thinks is better, he then has to convince the other person that it is better; that’s sometimes as straightforward as offering the name and getting immediate acceptance, and sometimes we have to think carefully and enunciate specific reasons.

6. Satisfaction? Or Change?

One step that we like to perform, when we have time, is to then try the name out a few times in the actual usage that we expect to make. Sometimes that confirms our satisfaction, sometimes it shows that we’ve missed the mark, and sometimes we have chased ourselves down a rabbit hole by chasing entirely the wrong thing to emphasize, and the best choice is to scrap the name and start again.

When we are building a personality with the name as a seed, how easily do we find it to write or improvise interactions with that personality? How easily can we express the personality while still having scope for emotional overtones – or do we want the character’s mood to be hard to “read”?

There are occasions when a name is simple. There are also occasions when finding the right name has taken a good ten or twenty minutes.

Blank Nametag by blogmonkey (edited)

(Image: / blogmonkey)


We make extensive use of the popular zeitgeist and associations with the names. In particular, we try to avoid connecting a name with anyone famous unless that works to our advantage. Our first choice is to use the real name of the real person who occupied a given position, if there is any such individual.

That’s why the Mayor of New York City in the Adventurer’s Club campaign is now Fiorello H. La Guardia. The name brings history and associations that we can use, massage, or overwrite as necessary to suit the character’s role in the world of our campaign.

But there are all sorts of reasons why we might choose not to do so in any given case. For example, while working on the “Boom Town” plot yesterday, we needed a name for Mayor La Guardia’s personal secretary. It didn’t take long with a Google Search to locate one name from the mid-1940s, and to learn that before they were married, his future wife Marie had served in that capacity – this was while La Guardia was in Congress. The years in between were a total blank in terms of results from quick research.

If we were striving for historical accuracy, or had some other means of obtaining a quick answer, we would have taken it; but this is intended to be a minor character; it wasn’t worth more extensive searching. Instead, we decided to get creative. I suggested that it had been a while since we had featured a character from the Midwest, and a stolid, practical type might be appropriate. Examining a map showing the different Midwest states, and rejecting those that didn’t seem right for one reason or another (“too rural”; “too associated with organized crime”; “too connected with mining”; “we’ve had someone from there”; and so on), we quickly narrowed the choices down to Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio. Of those, we knew something of Wisconsin and Michigan, but not much about Ohio, so we turned to one of my Almanacs that is great for conveying a sense of a location. The number of US Presidents who were born in the Buckeye State (eight of them) is impressive, and one of them provided the next burst of inspiration – why not the son or grandson of a former US President, learning the political ropes before embarking on a career of their own? It didn’t take us long to find our way to Charles Phelps Taft II, the son of President William Howard Taft. Charles seemed to come out of nowhere, politically, becoming Mayor of Cincinnati in 1955 and holding the position for a single term, during which time Fortune magazine ranked Cincinnati as the best managed big city in the United States and earning the nickname “Mr. Cincinnati”. He was the right age (born 1897, so in his early-to-mid thirties), and it made sense to us that he might have learned from another very successful Mayor. What clinched the deal was that, while a Republican on state matters, Taft won the Mayoral race representing the Charter Party, a local minor party, and as a result, only held office for a single term. La Guardia was also a Republican, but was a vocal supporter of the New Deal; the implied slight maverick streak was a commonality that could be used to build rapport and agreement between the two. Charles Taft II was our man. It was almost certainly rewriting history, but it worked within the context of the plot and enlarged the game world just a little bit by connecting one piece of history with another.

Similarly, the Chief Medical Examiner of New York City is a half-fictional representation of the person who really held that position in the early 1930s.

But, just before we found Mr Taft, we were intending to create an entirely original NPC from Ohio, and if Taft had not been perfect for our needs, that’s what we would have done.

It’s certainly what we did for City Engineers Jimmy Rosenberg and Raymond Vecce, Deputy Commissioner Guiseppe Maglivelli of the New York Sewer & Water Department, and Deputy Commissioner Jeremiah Bradshaw of the same Department.

When To Name-Drop

The more likely the players are to have heard of the name-dropped individual, the more baggage “awareness” and context they will apply to the NPC. For example, most players will know who “Franklin Delano Roosevelt” (aka FDR) is, and may have some awareness of his policies, his political battles, and so on. “The New Deal” is still part of the common Zeitgeist. If FDR is your US President in a Pulp campaign, you are tying aspects of that campaign to historical reality.

This has its benefits and its drawbacks. The players can relate to the world far more easily, and can make certain assumptions about the society and the politics of the game world. But history is a tangled thread; this also makes it harder for the GM to change that campaign background, simply because no event ever occurs in isolation.

For example, for various reasons, it is part of the Adventurer’s Club background that the Great Depression was neither as deep nor as long-lasting as it was in our history. That has implications at almost every level. Personal: Employment is reasonably plentiful, and wages are at least reasonable. Social: the depression had profound effects on US society, which – in general – can be characterized as the democratization of the arts; for example, radio became a mass-communications medium (in part) because other forms of entertainment were too expensive. Furthermore, many of the social reforms of the New Deal would have been smaller or even non-existent, such as the Federal arts subsidies and Social Security. That meant that FDR would have needed to expend less of his political capital enacting these programs – but the loyalty that many of the middle-class felt toward him would also be weakened, making his tenure weaker. There would have to be serious doubt in the player’s minds whether or not he could hold on for the historic five terms he experienced in our history – two, maybe three is more likely. Lend-Lease will probably be his political undoing – and that will place someone completely different in the White House when Japan attacks Pearl Harbor. Heck, you even have to examine the historic undercurrents before you could even say for certain that this event would still happen. It probably will – but there’s just enough doubt about it that you would want to think about the question. So there is obviously a national and political impact, and that in turn has an international knock-on effect. But it doesn’t stop there; the same reduction in Depression Severity may or may not apply to England (it depends how much impact the Wall Street Crash had on their economy). Ditto France and the rest of Europe. In particular, it gives the Nazis a little less imperative and a slightly weaker stranglehold in Germany. Now, some of these changes are useful to us, and some are counterproductive; to get rid of those counter-productive impacts requires still more changes to history.

In essence, we name-drop when we want to bring some of the implied history into the campaign as background, context, and/or filler. As a general rule of thumb, if the players are likely to know the name of the office-bearer, we use the actual historical office-bearer unless contra-indicated.

When Not To Name-Drop

There are sometimes good reasons NOT to use the historical personage. If we intend to have the office-holder involved in anything shady or off-color, or even to look like they are involved in such activities, we will usually replace the real person with a fictitious creation, simply to give us more control over the situation. If we want the character to do anything that we don’t think the real person would have done, to protect that historical context, we will put someone else in the position. Finally, if we DON’T want the character to do what we think the real person would have done under the circumstances, we won’t name-drop.

And, of course, if we can’t find out anything about the historical reality using a reasonably quick search of Wikipedia and Google, we get inventive.

Quite often, our information falls somewhere in-between these two extremes, and we have to make a decision between inventing part of the existing person’s background and personality or creating something from whole cloth. This decision is usually based on the question of how consistent what we have to insert would be with the historic reality that we can establish.

In Fantasy

Things are a bit more difficult when it comes to Fantasy. You can’t quite so easily blend history, the modern zeitgeist, and fictional creation to achieve the richness that the Adventurer’s Club has to draw upon. You have to create more of the context yourself, through consistency and exposure of background to the PCs.

Nevertheless, it’s possible. Khalad, son of Khazad, son of Bahzad, son of Kallakh, son of Zallakh, son of Kherazk, son of Kherigh – introduce a single Dwarf that way, and forever more there will be naming traits associated with Dwarfs in the campaign. When the PCs find a scroll signed Dhalazk, it won’t take them much effort to connect the author with Dwarves and, in the process, impute a context to whatever the content is.

Similarly, Khaz et-Zekh, son of Zekh et-Lam, son of Lam et-Khal, son of Khal et-Turr, son of Turr et-Ubt, son of Ubt et-Kark: introduce an Orc that way, and despite the similarities to Dwarven names (lots of K’s, Kh’s, and Z’s), you would never confuse the two. The naming conventions are clear and distinctive. Even the meaning of “et-” is obvious when it is used in this context.

But perhaps a naming convention which celebrates some aspect of the physical reality – “Khaz Strong-eye” might suit the Orcish culture that you are creating more effectively.

Or you could incorporate the spirit-guide concept from Amerind culture, and have the “surname” reflect the spirit guide in some way: “Khaz Beaverclaw”, “Khaz Ravensblood”. It might even be that the “et-” form of the name refers to young that have not yet proved themselves by undergoing their spirit quest, while the spirit-guide-based name automatically conveys the cultural connotation that the bearer is a proven warrior.

Fantasy gives you more room to be creative, but requires you to work harder. Perhaps that’s why many GMs don’t seem to put enough effort into their fantasy names. It’s not a good enough excuse.

PC Names

The GM should always work with the players to name the PCs, especially in a fantasy campaign. Naming conventions should not be flouted with impunity; instead, they should be a mnemonic for the player to bring to mind everything else they know about the culture from which their character derives. Consider the discordance of a PC Dwarf named “Eric Bloodpants” if the naming convention suggested as an example earlier is in effect.

When a player gives a character an inappropriate name, what are they saying to the other players? Either the information they needed wasn’t available to them, or they aren’t taking the game seriously. If that’s the flavor you want, no problem; but if it isn’t, it’s disrespectful, or childish, or both, and it fails to access the richness of the campaign that is being provided. At the very least, it indicates a shallow character, and a wasted opportunity.

There aren’t enough of those that you can afford for one to be thrown away like that. It doesn’t matter what genre your campaign is; names are things to be respected and considered very carefully.

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Pickin’ and Choosin’: Cherry-picking RPG Elements

Paint color swatches

When you have so many choices, you have to choose wisely.
(image: / Jenny Kennedy-Olson)

To begin this article, I need to share a story and a recent insight relating to it. Bear with me, and it will all become relevant in the end…

An excerpt from my musical history

When I was growing up, the family lived first 38 miles (61 km) out of, and then within, a small country town in rural New South Wales (as I described in Location, Location, Location: Nyngan). Music was something that was played on the radio, or very occasionally on the TV (two channels), or that came on Vinyl, my aunt Lyn’s 45 rpm collection in particular, and later another Aunt’s 8-track. Live music? No such thing.

This foundation forever colored my expectations and experience of music. Recorded music was all about the LP, the best parts of which (in the opinion of the artist [in my more naive period] / record company [from about 12 years old]) were excerpted to be singles, choices I didn’t always agree with. I was 4 or 5 years old when I got a wind-up record player for Christmas (from memory, it broke fairly quickly) and a couple of LPs – I remember a Ray Brown And The Whispers, though I am no longer sure which – I suspect it may have been their 1968 compilation album “hits & more 1965-1968” but I’m not sure.

Growth in interest

The family had a more substantial record player from about when I was 11, and it was about then that Countdown started on TV and I became more seriously aware of music. For birthdays and Christmas and occasionally from saved pocket money (though most of mine went on Comics), the occasional K-Tel compilation album entered my collection, mostly with lurid names like “Explosive Hits ’73” and “Ripper ’76”. I still have almost all of these!

At about the age of 15 or 16, I got a high-quality cassette player (separate bass and tone controls!) through Reader’s Digest (thanks to my Grandmother), and joined a record club, beginning to buy LPs of my own. But by this point, my conceptual foundation of music was fairly strongly established.

Perceptions Of Music

I viewed albums as a collection of songs from which I was quite happy to cherry-pick the ones that I liked while ignoring those that did not interest me. The rawness of live albums was a turn-off (and still is), not a vehicle for capturing the excitement of a live performance.

The songs on an album were not like the chapters in a book, which needed to be read in sequence to understand the story; they were an anthology of short stories which could individually be taken or left. I even evolved a rating system to guide me in what albums were worth buying, given my limited income – one out of 5 for each previous album by the artist containing at least 3 songs that I liked, and one out of five for every song from the album that I heard and liked; the pass-mark started at 4, and moved either up or down depending on my financial state at the time.

Reactions & Alternate Perceptions

This attitude totally horrified some people that I met online in the late 90s, who insisted that albums needed to be thought of as a conceptual whole with a defined beginning, middle, and end, and could not be properly appreciated in the sort of piecemeal fashion that was my habit. While I was prepared to concede the point in terms of some exceptions, notably concept albums that told a deliberate story in sequential fashion like “The Wall”, for the most part an album simply happened to be the best songs available to the artist at the time, and what I liked was simply what I liked.

It was certainly a very different perspective than that of my more urban contemporaries who grew up in one of the major cities. To many of them, live music was what mattered, and LPs were simply distillations of performances polished a bit for radio consumption. It was only when I began attending university in 1981 that I saw a rock band, live – from memory, it was a free concert on the grounds in front of the university Library, and I’m not even 100% sure of the name of the act. It would be many years before I became even an irregular concert-goer.

The benefits Of Shuffle-Mode

This was an attitude to music that was to yield unexpected benefits at times. I was an inveterate maker of compilations of my personal favorites, and became hyper-aware that some songs worked at the start of an album, some worked at the end, and some could not be paired with each other successfully, no matter how strong they might be on their own.

There have been albums that sounded totally rubbish to me the first time I listened to them. Toto’s “Fahrenheit” and Def Leppard’s “Slang” come immediately to mind as examples. Each contained one song that I thought was OK, and a lot of absolute rubbish. In both cases, it was only when I engaged shuffle mode on my CD player that I was able to listen to the songs on the album without each coloring my perceptions of the song that followed – and discovered (much to my surprise) that each contained 6 or 7 songs that were really enjoyable and interesting. If I had followed the maxim of “the whole album”, these would have been relegated to an undeserved fate on the scrap-heap.

This also mirrors my first experience with The Lord Of The Rings. Someone had checked “The Fellowship Of The Ring” out of the local Library and not returned it, so my first reading of the trilogy started with “The Two Towers”. One of my long-time friends has never read the books; he started with “Fellowship” and found it moving too slowly to retain his interest. Certainly, if I had started in that fashion, I might not have read the whole trilogy either. But, because I picked up the action mid-way through as it were, the relative slowness of “Fellowship” did not have a chance to contaminate my enjoyment, and when I finally read the first book, it was in the knowledge that it was leading to the books that I had already read and enjoyed.

The same thing happened with David Eddings’ pair of trilogies, The Elenium and The Tamuli. I had read and enjoyed The Belgariad and The Mallorean (each a five-book series), but the cover art and blurb for The Diamond Throne gave me the impression that it was a fantasy-oriented romance novel – which held zero interest for me. It was only when I was given a copy of The Shining Ones (fifth book in the double-trilogy) and quite enjoyed it that I became motivated to search out the earlier parts.

There’s a lesson in those experiences that’s worth remembering – if you start reading a book series or watching a TV show that has been very highly-rated and you can’t see what all the fuss was about, skip ahead a few chapters, or to the next book in the series. If you find what you read more enjoyable that what you were initially reading, you will then be motivated to go back and fill in the blanks.

In summary – three Perceptions

So there are three different ways of looking at an album of recorded music. The first is holistically; the whole, indivisible, and an album is only as strong as it’s weakest link; the second is as a polished representation of a dynamic process (live music), which exists only to further that dynamic process; and the third is the cherry-picking approach, where each piece of content stands or falls on its own.

The RPG Parallel – 1

I look at a lot of things from a similar cherry-picking perspective. The rules of an RPG, for example.

There is, in my view, a hierarchical structure to RPG rules: The whole body of rules that are in effect is divided into Mechanics Systems, which may be sub-subdivided into Mechanics Subsystems, both of which are sub-sub-subdivided into Textual Information, Mechanics Operations and Tabulated Data Points, the latter of which may reflect some function of a defined variable.

That might not be all that clear, so let me offer a real-life example from 3.x / Pathfinder:

  • The whole body of rules = (for simplicity) the Core Rulebooks
  • One Mechanics System would be the combat resolution system. Another would be the magic system.
  • The combat resolution system is divided into mechanics subsystems for initiative & surprise, for attack resolution, for damage resolution, for hit point (i.e. damage capacity) and for damage recovery (amongst others).
  • The attack resolution subsystem is sub-subdivided into mechanical operations for calculating Armor Class and another for calculating attack bonus, plus a table of tactical effects and modifiers, plus textual information in the form of feats which, if in operation, can modify the rules and/or their application.

I am perfectly happy to cherry-pick alternatives to any of these, with the scope of the rules layer defining the consequences in terms of affected game mechanics. I might:

  • Change the way a feat works, or add an additional feat; and/or
  • Change one or more of the tactical modifiers, or add some new ones; and/or
  • Replace the armor table with a different one;
  • Change one or more of the mechanical operations, for example changing the way Armor Class is calculated; and/or
  • Change the way dice rolls are interpreted to resolve attacks, incorporating a more lenient critical hit/fumble system for example; and/or
  • Change the way hit points are calculated to make characters more or less vulnerable to a successful attack; or even,
  • Replace the entire combat system with one adapted from some other RPG, for example Rolemaster.

Of course, I probably wouldn’t do all these things; priority would be given to those parts of the system that don’t work very well, in terms of in-play efficiency, such as the rules for grappling. Second priority goes to anything that brings about a desired change in game balance or flavor; and so on.

The rules are a jigsaw puzzle of pieces made of putty, all with the same shape but with different images on them, and by changing the content of some (and, if necessary, stretching it out of shape to make it fit) I can change part or all of the “image” that results.

In other words, I cherry-pick the rules that I dislike or that get in the way of the campaign that I want to run, and cut them out – replacing them with something else if necessary.

And, just as with music, there are are people out there who are horrified by this approach, believing that the rules are sacrosanct, and that making any of these changes means that the game is not D&D / Pathfinder any more; and there are those who go even further than I do, sacrificing the “purity” of the game for a far simpler system that may be less precise but which operates far more quickly, increasing the excitement of a combat by discarding some of the nuance, polish, and detail. Heck, I do that myself on a case-by-case basis, going into “cinematic mode” when the excitement of a situation is worth compromising the reality-simulation of detail for.

Arguing about rules is like arguing over what style of music is best. It’s impossible for anyone to say “this system is the best” because we all use different standards and have different criteria by which we render an absolutely subjective and often instinctive judgment; which means, of course, that as soon as such an opinion is disagreed with, we automatically become defensive and try to justify and rationalize those judgments. What’s more, because this response is so primal, it can lead to people becoming wedded to their positions against all logic and discounting the opinions of anyone who disagrees with them. That’s the ugly psychological truth at the bottom of every edition war that there has ever been.

The RPG Parallel – 2

The adventures in a campaign are full of cherry-picking when you write them the way I do. Readers should have noted the way I synopsized scenes into one-line summaries in the course of Character Incapability: The distant side of the coin last week; but when it comes to a finished adventure, there is a lot of cherry-picking that goes on.

In particular, cherry-picking occurs in three major respects:

  1. The sequence in which a series of scenes occurs;
  2. The entry point into a scene;
  3. The exit point from a scene.

To demonstrate my point, and talk about how and why I cherry-pick events in these respects, I’m going to revisit the plot of the Adventurer’s Club adventure that is currently underway, focusing on the part of the adventure that has just been played. Once again, I’m going to synopsize it, but into less generic and abstract terminology than I did in the “Character Incapability” article. In effect, this is reverse-engineering the adventure as written and as played, because these one-line summaries are essentially the outlines that were used to write each scene in detail. I’m going to annotate the one-line scene summaries with notations like (PC) and (NPC) (so that readers know who’s who) and from time to time interject commentary about the events described, which I will place in a box.

All set? Then let’s begin:

Annotated Synopsis & Analysis of “Boom Town” session 1
  • Adventure prelude – show growth of Manhattan over 50 years through illustrations. Reputation of New York City is world-wide as “The Big Apple, the City That Never Sleeps, the financial capital of the world, the economic powerhouse of America, the place where something is ALWAYS happening.”
  • Intro adventure. Note that it is set in early January.

The Prelude highlights one possible interpretation of the title.

  • Scene 1a: The 54th Street Mission (Picture):
    • Remind Father O’malley (PC) he shares the rectory with Father Brian Donnelly (NPC) (Picture).
    • Father O’malley (PC) reading the newspaper. Loud crash from the kitchen, breakables break.
    • Dialogue from Father Donnelly (NPC, Irish Accent) – “I’m OK”, “it was a huge rat”.
    • Briefly roleplay interaction and decision of action by Father O’Malley (PC).
  • Scene 1b: At The Adventurer’s Club:
    • Stefan (PC) is having breakfast in the Dining Room (Picture)
    • …is interrupted by loud yelling from Trish’s (NPC, Picture) Office, demanding Exterminators act immediately. Mention of American Heart Association’s Tenth Anniversary Dinner which she is organizing.
    • Briefly roleplay interaction between them.

A couple of notes:

  • While each of these scenes only has one PC present, they are “public” and conducted within the hearing of all the other players. This enables me to cherry-pick scenes on the assumption that the other players have heard what is going on.
  • Because the scenes all share the one narrative purpose, they are “1a”,”1b” and so on, and not “1”,”2″, etc.
  • The American Heart Association’s 10th Anniversary Dinner will be a connecting point to other, later scenes.
  • And these are all considered part of the one larger Scene 1 in that each establishes where the PCs are and what they are doing at the start of the adventure.
  • Scene 1c: At The Adventurer’s Club:
    • Dr Hawke (PC, show picture for the 1st time) is in his room (picture), reading the newspaper.
    • A knock on his door; it’s Roger Deitz (NPC, Picture), the official administrator of the club. Asks to consult.
    • Roger wants advice on an effective rat poison that is safe for humans to be around, especially in food preparation areas.
    • Briefly roleplay interaction between them.

This reminds the players (especially the player of Dr Hawke) of the PC’s levels of forensic expertise and again mentions rats, forming a recurring theme common to each of the PCs.

  • Scene 1d: At the Docks that afternoon:
    • Captain Ferguson (PC) watching arrival of Antares (his ship); what the Antares has been doing.
    • Ferguson starts up the gangplank to board the ship. “Grey explosion of fur” erupts from sewer drainpipes and swarm of rats runs up the mooring line toward the ship. Overload the Vermin Shield, rats get aboard.
    • Briefly roleplay his actions/dialogue with ships’ crew (NPCs).

By now it’s obvious to the players that there’s a rat problem being established within the city at this point in time. This scene acknowledges this and suggests that the problem may be larger than anyone expects. It also progresses the timeline.

  • Scene 1e: At The Adventurer’s Club
    • Eliza (PC, picture) is in her room (picture) preparing to bathe.
    • Encounter with a large rat standing on the side of the tub.

Intros the last of the PCs and develops the theme established so far.

  • Scene 2, narrative introduction:
    • Newspapers that evening are full of reports of the rat plague. Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia promises swift action, makes light of the problem.
    • That night, a winter storm dumps 3 feet of snow overnight. Snowploughs clear the streets by piling the snow into drifts 5-8′ tall alongside the footpaths, reducing most streets to single-lane traffic.
    • The next day is unseasonably warmth. Storm drains flood.
    • A number of churches hold special services to thank God for the snowfall-and-sunshine combination, which seems sure to have drowned the rats plaguing the city.
  • Scene 2a: Father O’Malley (PC) is asked to preside over 3 of these services, the heaviest ecclesiastic workload he’s had in years. Briefly roleplay.
  • Scene 2b: Captain Ferguson (PC) is inclined to refuel Antares and go elsewhere, but can’t because many other boat owners have the same idea, over-stretching capacity. (interact with player) That afternoon, as the storm-water drains empty into the harbor, the outflow is accompanied by wave after wave of dead rats (action decision by player).
  • Scene 2c: Stefan (PC) is approached by Roger Deitz (NPC) and asked to inspect the drainage in the underground car park which is flooded. Roleplay until he agrees, then cut to:
  • Scene 2d: Eliza (PC) is asked to see Trish (NPC) and asked to run an errand and check on preparations at the Algonquin Hotel (about 1 block from the club) where The American Heart Associations Tenth Anniversary Dinner is to be held. Mention effects on travel arrangements because of the snowfall. Roleplay until she agrees.

Scene 2 advances the timeline still further.

The narrative introduction was deliberately designed to segue naturally into the first PC sub-scene.

There are two NPCs who have a second appearance.

Again, each of these serves the same narrative function within the plot so they are all considered part of the one scene: Establishing each of the PCs being affected by the situation (bar Dr Hawke). We could have done a little sub-scene for him, too, but that sequence was cherry-picked out of the adventure because Dr Hawke gets a big chunk of spotlight time shortly in the adventure and it didn’t add anything new to the plot.

Instead, we seamlessly continue following Eliza.

  • Scene 3a: Eliza (PC) at the Algonquin Hotel: Show hotel (exterior & interior) to establish that it is top-quality. Intro head waiter, Thomas Mitchell (NPC, Picture). He reports that the stored linen has been eaten by rats and the usual linen, while washed, might not dry in time. And he’s a bit concerned over the unusual state of some of the rat corpses. CUT TO:
  • Scene 3b: Father O’Malley (PC) is between services. Father Donnelly (NPC) congratulates him for choosing such a successful poison for the rats. There’s only one problem: Father O’Malley has not yet done anything about the rats. Roleplay, let Fr O’malley confirm with his own eyes. CUT TO:
  • Scene 3c: Captain Ferguson (PC) in the New York Harbor-master’s Office (Picture) negotiating with the Harbor-master (NPC, picture) when he notices a dead rat on the floor. It seems to be in an unusual state of advanced decomposition (picture). Ferguson knows the Harbor-master to be fussy about the office being thoroughly cleaned, daily – the rat could not possibly have been there long enough to decompose in this fashion. Something *else* is going on. CUT TO
  • Scene 3d: Stefan (PC) at the Adventurer’s Club: In the club basement (picture). Stefan’s professional assessment is that it’s flooded, and needs pumping out before a professional could look at improving the drainage. Mention Dr Tesla (who has a lab in the Club) just for the color. He spots a rat floating past, quite dead, but something about it seems strange – he can’t quite put his finger on what it is. A medical inspection might provide answers. Roleplay, let him “capture” the floating rat to get it inspected by Dr Hawke.

A deliberate acceleration of pace, quickly interchanging between the different PCs, raises the intensity of the situation and connects each sub-scene to the one that follows it.

We also chose to start the Harbor-master scene mid-way through the encounter between Captain Ferguson and the Harbor-master for pacing reasons – in effect, cherry-picking just the second half of that scene, which is the only part that is relevant to the adventure. This further quickens the pace.

Similarly, we didn’t pay attention to any preparations Stefan might have made for his inspection (though the player mentioned them) and did not require any engineering check to get his assessment of the situation, joining the character after the inspection had taken place.

Dr Hawke is again name-checked but not featured. By now the players can tell that we’ve just about finished establishing the particulars of the situation and are gradually loosening the reigns and permitting them greater freedom of action; once that process is complete, the players will have total control over what their characters say and do about the situation. Nor do we tell the player of Stefan

Observe that the narrative in each scene extends the overall plot just a little – something strange is reported without specifics in 3a, a strangeness about the circumstances is indicated in 3b and reinforced in 3c, which also contains a description of the strangeness, which leads to the obvious course of action in 3d. Having established the beginning of the adventure, with the PCs apart living their normal daily lives, the next step is to gather them all together to tackle the problem as a group.

  • Scene 4a: Eliza (PC) at the Algonquin Hotel: being shown a rat that seems to have died quite some time ago – days, if not weeks. And that seems very unlikely given the state of cleanliness of the rest of the hotel. There’s something *wrong* about it. It might be a good idea to have Dr Hawke take a look at what’s left of the rat. Roleplay briefly.
  • Scene 4b: Captain Ferguson (PC) is thinking along similar lines. Roleplay briefly.
  • Scene 4c: Father O’Malley (PC), you also are contemplating the professional services of the good Doctor. Roleplay briefly.
  • Narrative intro to scene 5: The order they are most likely to arrive in is: Stefan, Eliza, Captain Ferguson, and lastly Fr O’Malley; Stefan is in the same building, Eliza has two blocks’ walk, Captain Ferguson is at the Turtle Bay Docks, about 8 city blocks away, and Fr O’Malley is almost exactly a mile from the club premises. Show them where these locations are, relative to the Club.

While these sequences are short, they help establish the game world and give the players travel times to the club (under normal conditions), information that they can use to base future decisions on. Many of these details had been left vague through the 23 adventures that had preceded this one.

  • Scene 5a: Dr Hawke (PC) in the Adventurer’s Club Dining Room is just finishing lunch (Spaghetti Bolognese). Stefan arrives with his captured rat corpse in a toolbox. Roleplay – they decide to take the remains to the Zoology lab (next to Taxidermy) on the 6th floor.
  • Scene 5b: Intro the Lab Assistant, Winston “Gus” Osgood (NPC). Roleplay.
  • Scene 5c: At first glance, Dr Hawke can ascertain that the rat appeared to have died about a week ago, give or take – rodents aren’t his specialty.
  • Scene 5d: Closer inspection (and a successful Forensics roll at penalties) shows that the rat died from drowning in fresh water. Problem: there wasn’t enough fresh water to drown the rat until this morning, yet it’s been dead a week or so.
  • Scene 5e: Eliza arrives with her rat (on a silver platter covered by a closh). It appears to have died a week or so ago. Examination (Forensic Medicine roll) shows that it died of a broken back after someone with big feet stepped on it. Problem: Week-dead rats don’t normally appear in the middle of cleaned rooms a week after being trodden on.
  • Scene 5f: Captain Ferguson arrives (with rat in an old shoe wrapped in newspaper). It appears to have died a week or so ago. It’s fur is still wet with Salt Water. Examination (Forensic Medicine roll) shows that it also drowned in fresh water. Problem: week-dead rats don’t normally appear in the middle of cleaned rooms, and they certainly don’t do so recently enough that their fur is still damp.
  • Scene 5g: Father O’Malley arrives (with rat in an old shoe-box). It appears to have died a week or so ago. Examination (Forensic Medicine roll) shows that it died from poisoning of some sort that Dr Hawke has never seen before. Problem: Father O’Malley can state with certainty that nothing of the sort has been present in the Mission’s Basement.
  • Scene 5h: Roleplay the PCs discussing the issue.

Captain Ferguson was one of the key drivers of this discussion; his visits to various backwater pacific ports had left him acquainted with the problems that dead rats could cause, and the player asked a couple of critical questions about the drainage in Manhattan (from the middle outward in all directions, rather than predominantly from one side).

  • Scene 5i: Taking a closer look (with a magnifying glass or microscope) reveals that each rat is decaying at a far faster rate than normal, for reasons unknown, from the inside out – it has evidently been exposed to something unusual, probably through consumption. Furthermore, there is no strong odor of decomposition, suggestive of a chemical process and not a biological one. This was further indicated when Dr Hawke examined one of the dead rats further and found that flies had in fact lain eggs in the body, but whatever had killed the rats had also killed the unhatched larvae, and found that fleas on the hotel and Mission rats had died before having a chance to leave the corpses. Plague was not going to be a problem.
  • Scene 5j: Roleplay discussion of this finding.
  • Scene 5k: Prompt further discussion by pointing out that the same substance X has appeared in three distinctly separated parts of the city. Even if the PCs discount the docks because the rats have come from elsewhere through the sewer, that still leaves a large area affected by whatever is happening – and if it can affect people, it puts a lot of people at risk.
  • *** Using what they know of where storm water drains empty, the PC with the highest City Knowledge: New York City (this turns out to be Father O’Malley) can assess the absolute minimum area affected by whatever caused the rats to decay on a successful roll – show map of the minimum affected area. Prompt concerns that should affect each PC while leaving it up to the players whether they do or not, and how they are going to react:
    • Dr Hawke, there are a lot of people who live in that area, which should worry you.
    • Captain Ferguson, there are even more who work in that area. Including your crew.
    • Stefan, the area affected is just a block or two away from the Hospital in which your daughter is going to be treated when she arrives, and where Dr Hawke is scheduled to perform surgery on her in just a few days – and you don’t know the full extent of the problem yet.
    • Father O’malley, many of the people residing in the affected area are amongst the poorest in the city, including the congregation that you and Father Donnelly minister to. They can cope least well with an additional burden, and are less likely to report a problem and receive medical attention. And that doesn’t even count Father Donnelly himself.
    • Eliza, if things are as bad as they look, the US economy might well tank again, and spill effects would devastate *your* homeland’s economy (a reference to a potential recurrence of The Great Depression).
  • Roleplay further discussion until the players decide what to do. Answer questions and provide context and background as requested.

There was recurring discussion of Zombie Rats, but that was dismissed – for now, I’m still not sure the players are 100% ruling it out. Discussion of the worst-case scenario involved the need to evacuate and quarantine a band 8 or so blocks deep and right across Manhattan indefinitely, but even doing so temporarily as a precaution would be catastrophic. There was discussion of whether or not the American Heart Association Dinner was being targeted, but the problem was too widespread and indiscriminate for that.

As expected and anticipated, the immediate problems came down to three:

  • Immediate Problem #1: Does whatever did this affect humans the same way? How were they going to find out?
  • Immediate Problem #2: How much bigger is the affected area than the minimum? How were they going to find out?
  • Immediate Problem #3: Who are they notifying and what do they want them to do about it? Who were they going to call?

Discussion of these issues led to a plan to deal with each of them, and of assignments for each member.

Stefan was to get the staff of the Adventurer’s Club library searching for records of anything similar that had ever occurred, anywhere. Leaving them to the task, he was then to gain access to the sewers and attempt to locate a cause. Dr Hawke was to go to the city Morgue and examine bodies from as many different parts of the city as he could manage, looking especially at those cases with no obvious cause of death and any bodies that exhibited unusually rapid decay. Father O’Malley and Captain Ferguson were to bring Mayor LaGuadia into the picture and secure his assistance; police and emergency services needed to be warned, and plans made to implement the worst-case scenario. Eliza (who originally wanted to be on the ‘Mayor’ detail, but who would have been counterproductive as a Canadian) was to go to the hospitals and look for anything strange in their recent cases; the team knew that hospitals would not release medical information unless it was an emergency, and that only pressure from the Mayor’s Office would bring them to accept the urgency. The team were to meet back at the Adventurer’s Club in four hours for an update and to make new plans.

En route to these assignments, the team stopped in Trish’s office to tell her what was happening and get her to use her social connections to smooth their entry into the Mayor’s Office; at best, they would be told to ‘make an appointment’ otherwise, and knew it. Just as she hung up the phone after calling the Mayor’s office, “Gus” Osgood burst into the office with an urgent update: on a hunch, he had re-examined the body of the first rat, which Dr Hawke had preserved in Formaldehyde, and discovered that the process did nothing to halt the accelerated decay of the corpse; what was occurring was clearly a chemical process of some sort – and that posed a threat to the entire city if whatever it was got into the drinking water. With that news, and with a slightly clearer idea of what they were up against, the PCs split up and play concluded for the day.

Sidebar: You may be thinking that this sounds most unlike a Pulp plotline, and so far, you would be somewhat correct. But neither the readers nor the players yet know what is causing the problem, nor how big it really is. They are still grappling with effect and have not yet got any clues as to cause.

As you can see, there have been times where pacing and emotional intensity were enhanced by starting scenes part-way through, and times where the encounter was seen to develop naturally as a result of two characters being in the same place at the same time. There were times when we chose to leave an encounter before it was concluded in order to “check in” with another character. There have even been occasions where we were able to take a scene’s occurrence for granted, and skip over it completely because nothing interesting happened, joining the story later.

These techniques were especially useful when we had multiple PCs all discovering essentially the same information in multiple locations, more or less simultaniously – a situation that could have been incredibly tedious and repetitious if handled any other way.

Quite often, based on information on their daily routines obtained in the course of earlier adventures, we were able to tell the players what their character was doing before anything prior to any event of interest, letting those routines feed the PCs into the adventure in a seamless way until, at the end of the day’s play, the players are calling the shots for the PCs completely.

The sequence in which characters got their slice of spotlight exposure was no accident at any point, but was deliberately designed to share attention out equally, keep the plot developing, and segue naturally from one scene to another.

Each of the PCs made key contributions to the group’s understanding of the situation and its scope either by virtue of who they were and where they were based or through having skills that the others either lacked or did not have as much expertise in.

This session of play was built equally on what the characters could do (Character Capabilities), what they could not do (Character Incapability), and who they were as “individuals”.

This is a recipe that we will continue to employ throughout the adventure – cherry-picking the scenes that give the players a chance to play their characters and to progress the plotline. No scene was wasted; they all set something up for later in the day’s play if not contributing directly to the story.

That’s what Cherry-picking really is: selecting what matters from what doesn’t. And that’s why it’s a vital skill for the GM to master.

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Boogie to the tune of the hidden Mastermind in your ranks

Image by Barun Patro

It all starts with three NPCs…
(image: / Barun Patro)

You don’t have to read Campaign Mastery for very long to realize that I advocate careful planning, strategically targeted, in everything that I do.

That can become a problem when you want to have a villain who is smarter than you are and whose primary objective is not to be noticeable over the background chaos of events.

Well, I’ve already told readers how to run a Mastermind – I guess it’s about time I told them how to formulate a Mastermind’s Grand Plan.

I utilize a very different approach to what people might expect, one that plays a slow, organic buildup of the Mastermind – in reverse – so this might be something of a surprise…

The growth and nurturing of Masterminds

Masterminds develop and grow their power in a predictable pattern.

  1. Initially, they have nothing and are nothing, and are usually “broken” psychologically, socially, politically, or personally in some fashion. They may be an object of pity or reviled but are powerless and considered relatively harmless, possibly due to confinement.
  2. They then vanish into obscurity, and may even adopt an entirely new persona and/or name. They start gathering influence in small, local, ways, and initially do nothing but test their capabilities. Note that “local” must be interpreted in context; in the modern era, “local” might mean a small facebook following distributed quite widely in geographic terms.
  3. Their initial moves do nothing but alleviate their personal discomfort to some extent – this may be a little or a lot depending on their personality. The discomfort may be financial, physical, social, political, or psychological in nature (amongst others); it could be gaining free/cheap/discounted services, lifestyle accouterments like furniture, or ego-boosting “likes” from incipient followers. This phase establishes who they appear to be to the outward world – entrepreneur, clerk, playboy, recluse, whatever.
  4. They then start accumulating levers and resources. They may or may not have a grand vision in mind, but even if their ultimate ambition is clear, they don’t yet know how to achieve it.
  5. At some point, a critical threshold is crossed when they will evolve a definite plan to achieve their goals. Many Masterminds come a cropper at this point, setting this plan in motion as soon as it is devised; the smartest will wait for it to mature.
  6. The plan will utilize some of the resources they have gathered, and will mandate the acquisition of still more resources for specific parts of the plan. Any resources not allocated to the plan will be directed towards attaining those specific requirements. Once again, many Masterminds fall at this hurdle; for the first time, there is a pattern to their activities, and a pattern is detectable and traceable. Any resources that can’t be used to gather specific requirements and aren’t needed for the main plan are tasked by the really smart Mastermind with covering up/concealing the more serious activities.
  7. It’s during this period that the Mastermind comes to recognize the flaws and limitations of his early pawns, and that they know entirely too much; he has climbed up the mountain on their shoulders, but their usefulness is at an end, or is not worth the security risk imposed. The early underlings are eliminated in a way that leaves the Mastermind’s hands clean. He will often take the opportunity to reinvent both his identity and that of his organization. This step may need to be repeated two or three times. Each time, like a snake shedding its skin, a layer of the unwanted will be discarded. Each such purging carries risks, however, as they are hard to conceal. The Mastermind may even need to mothball his entire operation for a period of time in order to evade discovery during subsequent investigations. When the career of the Mastermind is examined in hindsight, this often marks the first time that he shows his true colors, the butterfly emerging from his formulative cocoon.
  8. This is a busy period for the really clever Mastermind. Not only must his basic plan be tested for flawed assumptions, but contingency plans must be made and the necessary resources assembled. One of the first – and another mistake that many Masterminds who have come this far make is leaving this too late – should be for his escape should something come unstuck, and right after that comes a plan (or several, if necessary) for handling public scrutiny should his organization be detected. Some Masterminds even construct a new organization around the first to provide a more palatable veneer that is then fed into the public consciousness in a carefully-controlled manner. It is also normal for Masterminds to disavow former associates and their policies (at least publicly) during this period of reinvention.
  9. Finally, during this phase, a backup plan should be designed, or if necessary, one for each possible way in which the primary plan could fail.
  10. Only when all these plans are complete, robust, and have all the resources they require, will the Mastermind push over the first domino. And if he has made no mistakes, and each part of his organization performs its function, success should – will? – follow automatically.

The Most Common Mistake

Quite obviously, this outline is broadly generalized. The mistake that many GMs make is that they attempt to follow the blueprint step by step in creating their Masterminds and their organizations.

While that creates a robustly detailed organization with a rich history, it forces the GM to jump through hoops to ensure that the organization doesn’t come to the attention of the authorities/PCs prematurely, and makes sense in the context of both their activities and events within the campaign.

It is far easier to work backwards from whatever stage the plot has achieved to meet the GM’s story needs. If, for example, he wants this Mastermind to get noticed just before all the pieces are in place, it’s far easier to create an organization at that stage of its development and work backwards.

The Seeding

Of course, for this type of organization to be credible, the GM has to create the impression that the organization has been lurking in plain sight, had anyone seen the pattern.

I solve this problem by seeding the campaign with Mastermind-plot elements without trying to create any sort of unified vision behind them, a fair distance removed from the culmination of the plot. I start with three NPCs. These should be seeded into the campaign naturally, and show up one at a time rather than in a group. One of these will either be, or have a direct connection to, the Mastermind, another will be a cats-paw being set up to be the fall guy should something come unstuck prematurely, and the third is simply a smokescreen, but I don’t know which is which.

I then identify at what point in the the Mastermind is at within the ten-stage growth pattern outlined above, and therefore what sort of activities will be required of the NPCs at this stage. I also make careful note of the number of growth stages between now and plot culmination; I need to “advance” the organization at appropriate times along the way.

The final part of the seeding is to identify a number of scenes in which these NPCs can make an appearance. These should be completely innocent of any connection to the Mastermind or his plans and have no purpose other than to establish the NPCs as an occasional presence within the campaign.

The Manipulations

Once the NPCs are established, I round-robin them being affected in circumstance by the Conspiracy/Mastermind. The actual effects on the NPCs are dictated by the point in the 10-point development cycle that the Conspiracy/Mastermind organization currently occupies.

  1. This more or less guarantees that one of the three NPCs is the Mastermind. Give two of them some baggage from the past – a youthful indiscretion of some sort – that comes back to haunt them. Let these NPCs then rehabilitate themselves in the eyes of the PCs & authorities. Quite obviously, you can’t have these incidents follow each other too quickly, so I put a “normal” encounter featuring the third NPC in between. This gives me two choices for who the Mastermind will turn out to be.
  2. One of the NPCs will receive a favor or benefit of some kind. For example, NPC1 does a favor for NPC2; if NPC1 turns out to be the Mastermind, this is to put NPC2 into their debt, if it’s NPC2 then this is a result of his manipulating NPC1, and if it’s NPC3 then this is just test of his abilities to orchestrate events. One of the three will then have a small win in a lottery or raffle, or receive a gift of some sort – it doesn’t matter which of the three it is.
  3. Each of the three NPCs will do something that earns them approval or a minor success outside of their professional capacity, perhaps after a failure or two. This could be anything from stand-up comedy to voicing a popular political opinion or getting their 100th twitter follower to getting a short story published. It’s something that overtly wins them supporters of some kind.
  4. One of the NPCs will work on behalf of a charity; one will help someone caught up in the wrong place at the wrong time evade punishment for something that they were only partially responsible for; and one will ‘accidentally’ learn a secret and give their word to keep it under their hat, so to speak (and will keep that promise).
    • NB: If “now” is at or beyond this point, each of the NPCs should also be given some huge ambition or desire. In the case of one, that will be his Mastermind ambition; in the case of a second, it will be sheer fantasy, shared with no-one; and in the case of the third, it will be the means by which the Mastermind gains control of them. These ambitions need not be sinister in nature; the road to hell is paved with good intentions. And sealed with greed.
  5. You can’t put it off any longer – once the Mastermind/Conspiracy reaches this point you have to pick one of the three to be the Mastermind, and another to be his patsy. I generally look for the most interesting fit between their ambition, how it might go wrong if it is altruistic in nature, and the plot in which the Conspiracy is to be resolved (I’ll talk about that a little later). The only overt change in behavior is that one will stop disagreeing with the other – though he may bitch about him or her behind their back. This should represent a minor change in their behavior.

    All three NPCs should also become increasingly busy at this time both in their professional capacity and outside interests; they should stop attending social functions (making their apologies) and lose touch with friends. People should start covering for them, doing them favors, etc. The third NPC (not Mastermind, not patsy) should suddenly find their world collapsing on them, driving them to the point of doing something desperate, thanks to the behind-the-scenes machinations of the Mastermind. The Mastermind then rats, with “heavy heart”, on the third NPC, and then feigns shock at the severity of the consequences. This is a calculated move to reinforce the appearance of solidarity between the Mastermind and the PCs.

  6. It’s during this phase that there should be some sort of setback to the Mastermind’s plans. This is when the Mastermind is most active with least protection, i.e. most vulnerable; something needs to go wrong to demonstrate this in hindsight, but (unless this is the phase in which the whole plot is to be resolved) whatever the problem is, it should not be irrecoverable after a bit of scrambling. Right now, the Mastermind is actively gathering specific resources that his plans require, whether they be loyal underlings in certain positions, control over corrupted authorities, finances, technologies, general manpower, or intelligence. Any of these can be the focus of the drama. Note that everything possible should be delegated to the patsy/flunky, who now becomes the figurehead. I can’t be more specific without knowing the details of the plot and the ambition – but here’s the magic: so many of these things are generic activities that you can have them taking place without knowing what the end purpose is. Masterminds gather secrets and followers like magpies! This is also a great time for an absolutely innocent encounter with the PCs that is completely unrelated to the Mastermind/Conspiracy plotline.
  7. Time for a good clean purge or two. If clumsily executed, this might lead to the exposure of the patsy; note that if this happens, the Mastermind can’t afford for the patsy to answer questions. It is for this reason that he ruined the third NPC; he arranges for that NPC to discover that the patsy was responsible for his ruination, and for the NPC to have an opportunity to take his revenge. Just in case that NPC can’t go through with it, or messes it up, the Mastermind has arranged for someone else to do the job for him, leaving evidence that implicates the victimized NPC. To the PCs, it should look like this is what you’ve been building toward all along; it’s important that you seem to bring the saga of the NPCs to what appears to be a closure.

    It may be necessary to reveal the existence of a plot or conspiracy of some sort, for several reasons, not least of which being that fear makes people far easier to manipulate. Some villains might have whole branches of their organizations that exist for no other purpose but to be discarded when it looks like the authorities are getting too close.

    A key principle is that the Mastermind will have any resources that he needs for any purpose other than actually achieving his ambition. If he needs to throw a pseudo-organization to the wolves, with a base of operations and a ‘mystery leader’ who none of the members can identify, the GM simply invents one – base, personnel, equipment, identity, goals, etc.

  8. With almost everything ready for the big reveal, this is another dangerous period for the Mastermind. Sheer scale and number of moving parts creates its own vulnerability, and it’s also easy to get so close to the finish line that one rushes to reach it, making a fatal mistake (for the plan) along the way. It’s time for another setback, something that teases the fact that the organization dealt with in the previous phase wasn’t the whole thing, and at least part of it survived.
  9. Suddenly, things should go quiet. While the op-tempo of the organization may have increased so slowly as to not be noticeable, the sudden calm should be fairly obvious. What’s more, this calm should not only affect the PCs; all sorts of other groups should pick up on the “vibe” of something big being in the wind. The ambitious should start nosing around for a way to get in on the action, if there is anything in it for them, for example, while more cautious groups might go to ground.

    Your goal at this point should be to build tension.

  10. Everything is ready – it’s time to put things in motion. If things get this far, there will of course turn out to be something that the NPC has overlooked, a hole through which the PCs can crawl, reducing the grand plan to tatters in the process.

The Master Plan

The great advantage of having everything that happens be defined in generic terms is that you don’t need to define the plan until the PCs discover it. When they do, you know how close to “ready” the Mastermind is, and can simply determine from that what resources the Mastermind has for the PCs to discover (sometimes the hard way).

It is critically important that the preparations that the Mastermind has been putting in place are what he needs to achieve his ambition, whatever it is. Work backwards from the goal and work out what the Mastermind needs, then assume retroactively that he has obtained however much of whatever he needs is indicated by his “readiness to proceed”. You neither know nor care how he got them; the fact is simply a fait accompli.

The Real Master Plan

I’ve stated that the ultimate plotline for which you need the Mastermind should be a driving factor in all your decisions. Do you want the plot to fail at the final hurdle because the Mastermind has overlooked something, or because there is some new factor that he has not taken into account? Do you want him to abandon his plans and ally with the PCs in the face of some still-greater mutual threat? Do you want NPC3 to crawl back out of the campaign’s history and blow the whistle at the 11th hour, probably by accident? Do you want an ambitious underling to overthrow the Mastermind (or try to)? Do you want an overeager member of the conspiracy to trigger things prematurely? Do you want a culture of only telling the higher-ups in the conspiracy what they want to hear to have undermined readiness – the “garbage-in, garbage-out” principle applied to conspiracies?

It is usually easiest to start by defining how you want the Master Plan to fail, then working backwards from that point. Be sure to build interesting plot twists into the story, and a little irony always works well in these cases!

I once used a conspiracy in which the Mastermind reached the point where he had everything he needed except a defense against one key factor, and knew it; the Mastermind then became convinced that no-one had access to the thing he had no defense against, and made his play. At the last minute of the 11th hour, the PCs discovered this vulnerability, and recognized that they had access to exactly what they needed to unravel the entire plot. In the course of that unraveling, it was discovered that one of the victims that the Mastermind had ruined and discarded along the way was about to come into possession of the very defensive mechanism that he needed; if he had been a little less ruthless in his early days, his entire plan would have succeeded, but he had thrown it all away years earlier….

There are huge advantages to this approach. How can the PCs figure out what is going on when even you don’t know? How can you waste prep-time on the conspiracy when you are assuming that all the activities are generic in nature or occur completely under the radar – meaning that you don’t actually invest any prep time?

Actually, viewed from that perspective, this is just another expression of my usual advice: careful planning, strategically targeted. It’s just that the strategy is not what most people would expect…

Before I close today’s article, there are a couple of crowdfunding campaigns that I want to draw to people’s attention.

Help Send A Canadian Home

RA Whipple is a Gamer who has been trapped by circumstances in Poland. Unable to afford the airfairs to get his family back to Canada, and unable to find work because his Visa has expired (and it wasn’t exactly plentiful or well-renumerated before that), he has been forced to swallow his pride and ask for help. You can read more about his situation at Please donate something if you can, and publicize the campaign whether you can donate something or not.

Interactive Dracula Solo Adventure publish the game book series “Random Solo Adventure” (our first book are available at They are currently running a Kickstarter campaign for a larger, more complicated game book than their previous offerings, based on Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Designed using the original text and interactive, this product will come with art by Macedonian artist Greenhickup.

I like to think that RPGs are international in their appeal. If you like that idea too, there aren’t many better ways to show it than by helping a Polish-Canadian family and backing a Swedish RPG product using a Macedonian artist – at least in the opinion of this particular Australian and his US-based blog…

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Character Incapability: The distant side of the coin

Flux Capacitor vector illustration with background

“This is everything you need to know – you DO understand Temporal Regression Engineering, right?”

Flux Capacitor by GDJ for Back-to-the-future-day 2015 courtesy,
Background Graphics Provided by Vecteezy users Sunshine-91, freevector, and onomonopeea
Click on the thumbnail for a larger image

Last week, I wrote about creating adventures based on what a character could do. This week I’m going to look at the far more difficult proposition of basing a mini-adventure on what a character can’t do.

This task is much trickier; just because a character is incapable of the action that would resolve whatever problem is the focal point of the situation doesn’t mean that it’s acceptable for the character to be considered helpless. No, they still have to have at least one and preferably several courses of action open to them that will resolve the problem.

At first, you might think “No problem, they can simply go to an NPC who has the appropriate skill to get around the handicap.” But that in itself raises a problem, in that the PCs are supposed to be the stars of the show, and not some GM fiat.

Nevertheless, there are simple solutions to consider:

  • Using an NPC but providing a challenge that the PC can solve before the NPC will assist, i.e. a substitution of challenge;
  • Using another PC who has the required skill, i.e. a substitution of challenger; or,
  • Providing another path to a solution for the unassisted PC.

Each of these is a viable solution, each has its virtues, and each poses its own difficulties and challenges for the GM to overcome.

Substitution Of Challenge

This works, in principle, at the cost of increased playing time; effectively, you are adding a new scene to the mini-encounter. However, there’s a complicating wrinkle: doing so also increases the spotlight time for that PC.

The simplest way to redress this imbalance, at least in theory, is to also add an extra scene or complication to the plots surrounding the other PCs. Oh, if only it was that easy…

How Long Is A Scene?

One of the questions that I very carefully avoided getting too caught up in while working on the standard terminology article for Campaign Mastery was “how long is a scene?” The answer is almost as meaningless as asking “How long is a Fahrenheit?”

But that’s not especially helpful.

I’ve written and run scenes that last for 2 minutes. I’ve written and run scenes that – excluding combat – lasted for about 20 minutes. That’s an incredibly wide variation, and is the source of the trouble.

One way of making some sense out of the situation is to measure it by the degree of interaction that the PC(s) have with events. This is predicated on the notion that it takes a relatively short space of time – measured in seconds – to read a line of narrative. It doesn’t matter if it’s 1 second or 3 or somewhere in between, it’s such a small contribution to the total scene length.

What really takes the time is interaction between the player and the GM – whether that’s the PC doing something (which needs to be interpreted), or the PC talking to an NPC (i.e. conversation between the player and GM in their respective guises). That’s because these tend to be open-ended in duration: a conversation can be brief or extended, one action may follow another, and either of these can contain additional lines of narrative interspersed.

If you rate the degree of interaction between player and GM within a scene on a scale of 1-10, then estimate about 2 minutes per point of rating, you won’t be too far off the mark. The reality might be 1.5 minutes or 2.5 minutes each, but the degree of error is relatively small – and certainly close enough for practical purposes, because there will be other factors influencing the total real-time duration of the scene that will more than swamp the resulting margin of error.

Estimating Scene Length In Advance

With a little experience, you can directly perform such a rating based on the notes in your adventure in a lot less time than it takes to read and analyze the content to assess a rating.

Here’s a breakdown of one “scene” from last Saturday’s adventure in the Adventurer’s Club campaign:

Narrative, locates PC1 in Location 1.
Interaction with NPC.
Decision by PC1, outcome not described in this scene.

In fact, there were four scenes with different PCs that all match that overall description – all that would change would be the PC “number” and corresponding location.

The narrative doesn’t count as an interaction, and because the decision is not interpreted within this scene, only made and announced by the player, it doesn’t count either. So these scenes each have an interaction rating of 1 – indicating an estimated length of 2 minutes. Some were a little longer, some a little shorter, but that average was about right – probably closer to 1 or 1.5 minutes, in reality. These scenes were, in theory, occurring more or less simultaneously; quick changes of scene like this is a technique that we commonly use to rotate the spotlight when this is the case.

Concurrent with these four scenes was another, slightly more involved scene:

Narrative, locates PC5 in Location 5.
Interaction with NPC.
Trivial Decision by PC5.
Narrative, relocates PC5 in Location 6 as a result of the decision.
Interaction with NPC.
Narrative resulting from Interaction.
Decision by PC5, outcome not described in this scene.

You will note that this introduces a new term, “Trivial Decision”. This is essentially asking a rhetorical question, and proceeding with the scene based on the answer. In effect, it excludes the decision from counting as “interaction”. Excluding the narrative section,and the decision-without-an-outcome, this scene effectively has an interaction count of 2 – the interactions with different NPCs – so I would expect it to take about twice as long, and guess what? It did.

The story then picked up on the other PCs, one after another:

Narrative relating the result of the decision.
Decision by PC1/2/3/4, outcome not described in this scene.

Normally, narrative doesn’t count as an interaction, but because this narrative involves the deferred interaction with the GMs relating to the earlier decisions by the player, this does – so each of these scenes also have an interaction count of 1.

When you add them up, PCs 1 through 4 had two scenes each with an interaction count of 2, while PC5 had one scene with a longer interaction count of 2 – the spotlight was effectively shared equally amongst them all. In terms of the overall adventure, each of these scenes served the same single plot purpose, with only the PC being affected by that purpose changing. Effectively, this could be considered a single scene taking place in 6 different locations involving 5 different PCs simultaneously – a total rating of 10.

When writing the adventure, each line given in the structure above was dealt with in an individual paragraph. Narrative text has no prefix; Interactions, canned dialogue, and any narrative that results from an interaction are preceded by a triple asterisk (***); and any decisions, rolls required, notes about interpretations of results, and any resulting dialogue or narrative, are preceded by a triple “>>>”. This makes it a trivial effort to count the number of paragraphs in a scene that have *** or >>> in front of them, giving a total interaction rating at something close to a glance.

Pacing doesn’t always work exactly as planned

We use this arrangement to structure the adventure and plan the pacing, including the optimum time to take breaks in terms of interrupting the narrative, in accordance with the two-part Swell & Lull article on emotional pacing (Part 1, Part 2). It permits some estimate of how much material we will get through in a day’s play – at least, once any unusually lengthy narrative passages, and unusually difficult decisions, and any combats are taken into account.

But there’s a lot of scope for variation on the day, and things don’t always go as planned. In this case, I accidentally left at home the plastic bag containing all the cables and extras that go with my laptop, including the external mouse. That meant that I had to struggle with the built-in pad, which meant that one piece of preliminary business took a LOT longer than planned. We attempted to compensate by keeping the dialogue with NPCs a little more brisk than usual – and, as is often the case, over-compensated. We ended up finishing the day’s place about an hour ahead of schedule, despite the initial delay, meaning that we could have taken the time for lengthier interactions.

So it’s not a perfect tool; but it’s a lot better than nothing.

Substitution of Challenge – the bottom line

If your adventure anticipates the need for a different approach (and it should), then you can thumbnail a reasonably scene breakdown like the examples described above during your planning. That means that you can determine the resulting interaction level of the scene that will actually take place, and from that, keep an eye on how much spotlight time each PC is getting within your adventure. The interaction planning “tool” that I have described makes Substitution of Challenge practical, by overcoming the difficulties experienced without it.

Substitution Of Challenger

The second approach is to recruit someone else to deal with the situation for which the PC is so ill-equipped. The downside is that the second PC takes up some of the spotlight time that should – in theory – belong to the first.

There are a number of strategies that can be applied to correct this problem, which essentially come down to different ways of making sure everyone either has a similar loss of spotlight time – so that what you lose on the swings, you gain on the roundabouts. The most obvious of these strategies is to put everyone into the same boat, so that the PCs effectively play a game of round-robin with the challenges. The problem with this technique is that it can only seem coincidental once; after that, it feels artificial and forced. Coincidence remains one of the hardest things to sell in any form of narrative expression, whether that’s cinema, television, politics, literature, or gaming, as I pointed out in The Conundrum Of Coincidence.

The second basic variant on the overall strategy to solve the problem is to restrict the “swapping” of headaches to just one or two PCs and equalize things for the rest (more or less, there will always be a little variation) and simply to add an extra complication or encounter of some sort to the other PCs mini-adventures.

Another complication that has to be carefully managed is that combat notoriously takes up a LOT more game-time than non-combat. That imposes another restriction on the nature of any complications or extra challenges.

All in all, there are so many complications that this is a very challenging solution for the GM. That makes it all the more satisfying when you do pull it off, but demands much greater detail of planning to achieve.

The Solution to (most of) these problems

Luckily, there is a solution – the same one that was used to handle “substitution of challenge”, in fact. Break the adventure into smaller slices until you get it down into scenes, count up the scenes that feature each of the PCs by interaction rating, then balance those values so that everyone gets the same total.

The differences in interaction scores tell you exactly how big an additional plot sequence the PC handing off the challenge requires to give them an equal share of the spotlight.

For example, let’s say that PC1 has a plotline with an interaction score of 4. PC2 has a plotline with an interaction score of 2. But, after 2 interaction points, PC1 realizes that they don’t have the required abilities or skills to resolve the challenge they face. Instead of claiming the third interaction point, he or she instigates an unscheduled one that is shared with PC2 – so that counts for both of them. PC2 then claims the 3rd and 4th interaction points allocated to PC1’s plotline. The totals are:

  • PC1: 2 + 1 = 3;
  • PC2: 2 + 1 + 2 = 5;

and the difference between these totals is 2. So PC1 needs an additional challenge or problem to deal with that is worth 2 interaction points – another 3-to-5 minutes of plot.

No matter how convoluted your plans get, this enables you to balance expected play over all the PCs.

Supplemental scores

At least, it would, were it not for a complicating wrinkle or two, that can be summed up: “Not all scenes or scene elements are created equal.”

There’s a basic assumption in the simplicity of the system described that narrative doesn’t go overlong; that conversations are all the same length; that non-trivial decisions all take the same length of time to make; that there’s no combat; and so on.

It’s actually not all that difficult to take each of these problems into account, solving them one-by-one by allocating Supplemental Scores to adjust each PC’s share of the spotlight.

  • Any narrative that is more than 6 lines long is “extra long”. Every 5 lines, or part thereof, beyond that adds 1/4 to the interaction total for each PC who is supposed to pay attention to the narrative. So if a PC isn’t there, they get nothing extra; if they are, they do – unless you are intending to shortcut later events by assuming that the PCs who are present will bring the PCs who aren’t up to speed when the time is right without actually roleplaying a conversation that is nothing but recapitulation, possibly erroneous.
  • Conversations can basically be described as call-and-response exchanges. A typical conversation is 2-to-5 half-exchanges; AB, ABA, ABAB, or ABABA (assuming only two participants – more complex conversations have more complicated patterns). For every 2 additional full exchanges, add 1/2 to the value of the scene element; and if two or more of the participants are PCs, add an extra 0.5 to the total for each PC after the first.
  • Decisions can be tricky, but 2 minutes is a long time, and that’s what a full additional point is worth. That means that a scale can be set up: trivial decisions and rhetorical questions (“Are you going to try and prevent the zombie apocalypse?”) are worth zero; ordinary decisions are worth 1; difficult decisions are worth 2; and extremely difficult decisions are worth 3. If there are any decisions needing more than about 5 minutes, the game has stalled, and the players have no idea of what to do; the GMs may have to resort to skill checks, hints, and/or intelligence saves to get things moving again.
  • Combat is THE trickiest problem. You can try to estimate how long the fight will take – but such estimates are notoriously unreliable. A better solution is to arrange the sequences of events so that every character has some sort of combat or pseudo-combat encounter at the same point in the scene, then run them as one big fight taking place in multiple locations, or to employ a more cinematic technique. A brief cinematic combat will take 2 minutes or less (rating of 1); a more substantial cinematic combat will take 4-8 minutes (rating of 2-4), while a really big cinematic combat will take 10+ minutes.

distribution comparisons

Distribution Of Spotlight

Whenever you split up your PCs and let them act independently, you need to plan carefully to avoid a situation in which a player is just sitting around for a long period of time.

That problem is depicted in the example above, in which PC1 is in blue, PC2 is in green, and PC3 is in Red. On the left is a poor distribution – PC3 has to wait quite a long time before receiving any GM love, and then becomes the focus of attention for quite some time while the others sit around. The distribution to the right is more balanced, but also fairly predictable; though that is better than the alternative. With a little work, it’s possible to craft solutions that are both less monotonous and balanced.

You might appreciate the principle of a balanced distribution of spotlight, but be wondering why unpredictability is such a virtue.

The simple fact is that if a player doesn’t know whether or when you are going to throw the spotlight in his direction, he is more attentive and focused. Quick rotation of focus, as described earlier, has the same effect. It isn’t easy, but with appropriate planning of the spotlight, you can have each PC doing something entirely independent of the others while still feeling part of the group.

Once again, these arrangements become a little trickier when the lengths of scenes begin to vary. Perfect solutions are rarely possible, but these are nevertheless something to be striven for.

Of course, your goal might not be to equitably distribute the spotlight as you would for an ensemble cast; your campaign might operate on the principle of the revolving star vehicle, in which each PC in succession gets a disproportionate share of the spotlight. In the long run, it therefore evens out, but in terms of any one specific adventure, it can be heavily biased. Those interested in this aspect of game philosophy should read Ensemble or Star Vehicle – Which is Your RPG Campaign?.

Low Road vs High Road

The third approach is the hardest of all – finding an alternate path to success, adapting what the character can do to get around the limitation of what they can’t..

It can be either the most- or the least-satisfying of all three options, largely depending on whether or not you (as GM) have to feed the solution to the problem to the player or if he comes up with one without GM prompting.

Quite often, a player has to look at the challenge before their PC in just the right way for a solution to present itself, and the slightest variation in nuance can be enough to derail the creative process.

To some extent, permitting players to brainstorm, even if only for a limited time-frame, can solve that problem – but it can also send players off down an entirely incorrect tangent, especially if someone makes assumptions, offers interpretations of theory as fact, or simply missed a key fact offered by the GM.

How much assistance?

Some people question the extent to which the GM should be permitted to hand-hold the players when they are fumbling around in the dark. There is a reasonable argument that players should be free to make mistakes, and that the GM should be more concerned with what the players do or don’t do than with what they should do.

There is an equally-valid counter-argument that players are not their characters, and it’s part of the GM’s job to help them bridge the gap.

There is also a valid point to be made that fumbling around trying to work out what the PCs should do to solve their problem is absolutely no fun, and that it’s more important to keep the game moving.

I take a lot of the sting out of these problems by putting an NPC amongst the PCs ranks as an ally. While my first goal is always to play that character faithfully to his restrictions and limitations, it does permit me an in-character mouthpiece to interject food for thought, sound appropriate cautionary signals, and offer ‘helpful’ suggestions. Occasionally, when it is in-character for the NPC to have the insight, he or she may come up with the right answers (after the players have crashed and burned) – and occasionally, when it’s appropriate, the character will throw misinformation, mistakes, or flawed reasoning into the discussion.

The NPC isn’t a magic mirror revealing the perfect solution, or no more often so than any given PC does; but they are a tool to at least keep the conversation moving. Everything they say has to be filtered through the players’ assessment of the NPCs personality and capabilities, and sometimes given weight and sometimes not, as a result.

The best signal that I’ve found for when I want to take the NPC out of my back pocket is when the players have discussed the situation from all angles, touched on the correct solution, rejected it for some reason, and begun to repeat themselves. That’s when there is a risk that positions will become entrenched and confirmation bias will set in. As a general rule of thumb, I’ve found that the moment something is stated for the third time, the statement takes on a life and reality of its own. Which means that as soon as you hear a second recitation of the exact same thing from a player, you are treading on dangerous ground.

I wasn’t able to find any credible information connecting frequency of recapitulation of information and confirmation bias, or I would have cited it. What I did find is that there is a wealth of anecdotal reference related to “tell me three times”. Portions of two articles in particular were of interest:

  • Tell Me Three Times: A 3-Pronged PPC Balance System by Howard Jacobson, published on Search Engine Watch, 10 July 2012, in particular the introduction and the first section (entitled “Tell Me Three Times”); and
  • Tell me three times: The importance of quality assurance, by globalPMguy, published on Boss Logic Sept 30, 2013, in particular the opening section.
  • The most reliable reference that I could find is a section in an article published in Group Processes & Intergroup Relations in 2007 (pp 239–256) by Lyn M. Van Swol of Northwestern University, entitled (deep breath) “Perceived Importance of Information: The Effects of Mentioning Information, Shared Information Bias, Ownership Bias, Reiteration, and Confirmation Bias“:
    quote start 45

    Other researchers have investigated this ‘reiteration effect’ (Hertwig, Gigerenzer, & Hoffrage, 1997) or ‘validity effect’ (Arkes, 1993; Boehm, 1994). Hasher, Goldstein, and Toppino (1977) veri?ed that repetition of information increases the perception that the information is true, valid, and reliable. Repetition may be used as a heuristic to the truthfulness of a statement when there are no other indicators of the statement’s validity, and this effect of repetition is often automatic and uses few cognitive resources (Alba, Chromiak, Hasher, & Attig, 1980; Hasher & Chromiak, 1977; Hasher et al., 1977; Hasher & Zacks, 1984).

That last quoted statement is telling, if I understand it correctly; it states that if you repeat a theory or statement often enough, or hear it repeated often enough by others, especially from different sources, you are more likely to accept the theory or statement as truthful without people actually thinking about it.

There are several other factors that can overwhelm this tendency or reinforce it. Critical dismissal or refutation of the statement by a trusted authority falls into the former category, for example, while critical dismissal or refutation by a mis--trusted authority reinforces both the belief in the theory and the prejudice against the authority (as an aside, the natural selection of preferring like-minded sources, when coupled with these facts, explains the modern phenomenon known as the Social Media “Echo Chamber”).

Bottom line: I was unable to find any definitive research on the effect on perception of validity of different frequencies of repetition, and the research paper cited was unable to verify that the effect even occurs except under very restricted circumstances where other validity triggers were also in effect. That suggests that the “echo chamber” effect only amplifies any pre-existing bias towards confirmation. Nevertheless, my personal experience is that both confirmation bias and repetition bias are real, and that a third repetition is often the trigger point.

Identifying the Low Road

The biggest problem with expecting a problem to be solved via an alternative path is that the player has to find that solution. Sometimes, that’s easy, and sometimes that’s hard.

The second biggest problem is that before the player can find that solution, the GM has to have found that solution; otherwise, he risks throwing a problem at the player that he and his character are unable to solve. Helpless PCs are never fun to play, and so insoluble problems have to be avoided!

Quite often, the best technique is to deliberately build the alternative into the encounter. You do this simply choosing another skill (this time, one that the PC does have) and deliberately creating circumstances within the encounter that make it a viable substitute.

Some examples:

  • A PC doesn’t know how to disarm a bomb safely, but does know electronics and therefore how to stop a digital timer, preventing the bomb from going off.
  • A PC doesn’t know where to find a specific biblical verse, but does know how to use Google Search – if there is an appropriate device on hand.
  • A PC doesn’t have Negotiation, but may attempt to use Persuasion or Intimidation to force an NPC to do what the PC wants him or her to do (NB: in theory, Seduction can also be used in this way, but it often has undesirable and unintended consequences and complications) – if those interpersonal skills will have the desired effect on the target.
  • A PC doesn’t know how to Shadow someone without detection, but might know how to Track them. Or how to use Sleight-of-hand to plant a tracking device on the target – if they have one. Or perhaps the PC is able to fly, and can follow the target from overhead – if the local buildings and route being taken by the target permits it. Or perhaps the PC can use a Crystal Ball or other form of scrying – if they are able to obtain something personal from the target through which to focus the spell.

None of these are likely to work “by accident”; the GM has to recognize that the ideal or simplest solution to the problem he is posing the PC requires a skill that the PC doesn’t have, and deliberately incorporate into the encounter a less-ideal solution based on a skill or ability that the character does have.

The trick is then to get the player to recognize this alternative path to success. You may need to drop a hint. For example, if I expected a character to use the “follow from above” solution, I might (a) have the target wear a wide-brimmed hat; (b) have the character complain about a sore neck (implying that they may not be able to look up very easily); and (c) offer a hint of some sort that the target is new to the intrigue business and a little unskilled by highlighting behavior that the player knows is inappropriate under those circumstances, like arguing with a waiter instead of trying to blend into the surroundings. If I forewent (b), I could also have the target look over their shoulder repeatedly, very obviously, and quite clumsily. “You spot your target as he enters the square. Spot him? It’s hard to miss him, the way he has his cloak draped over his forearm which he keeps raised in front of his mouth and skulks melodramatically as he slips from doorway to behind a stack of baskets, then to a pillar, then behind a wagon, before arriving at your table. Taking a seat, his face still covered, he leans conspiratorially towards you, and in a loudly whispered voice, offers the code-phrase you were told to expect.”

By playing this scene for laughs in this way, I establish that the target is going to be ridiculously easy to follow – so much so that the player might well smell a rat, and wonder if the target is concealing his true skills beneath this amateurish veneer.

Unskilled Skill Use: The Fly In The Ointment

There’s one perpetual risk when designing an encounter or plotline around an ability that one or more characters don’t have, and that’s the facility offered by many game systems for attempting a task Unskilled.

The problem is that you are using the character’s lack of skill to steer events in a more dramatic or compelling direction; successfully shortcutting things with unskilled Skill use violates that plan.

There are two things that GMs have to do in their planning and preparation to be ready for this issue to arise. The first is to ensure that there is a significant penalty or downside to making such an attempt and failing and that the player will be aware of the risk. This can’t be a bluff by the GM; he has to be fully prepared to back up his implied threats. The second thing is a consequence of this; the GM must also have a plan in place to salvage the situation and keep the plotline moving towards a resolution.

The idea is to make the notion of looking for an alternative more attractive to the player than taking the risk.

As a general rule of thumb, I usually consider a successful Unskilled use to yield an inferior result to a successful Skilled use in some major respect. A critical success Unskilled yields only what a successful Skilled use would achieve. And a failure, unskilled, is always far worse than a failure, skilled. The exceptions happen when I need the player to succeed in order to keep the plot advancing, or when the need for the unskilled check is because of some mistake in planning that I’ve made; under those circumstances, I’m a lot more gentle as a GM!


I thought about developing a simple checklist-style process for creating this sort of mini-adventure, but the results were either so horrendously complicated because of the three different alternatives that they were useless, or so generic as to be valueless. I thought about doing a larger example, in the same way that I did for the Character Capabilities article, but found myself short of time – because there are the three alternatives and they are so very different from each other when you get down to the nitty-gritty underlying them. And besides, because I had inserted key (smaller) examples throughout the text, I didn’t see the utility of doing so.

All that remains, then, is to wrap the discussion up. Basing a scene around an ability that the PC doesn’t have is a lot more difficult than the converse, but there are three approaches that make it possible, each offering the player a different way around the problem. Each of these carries its own set of complications and caveats, but there are ways of making these wrinkles at least manageable.

And it’s always good to challenge your players from time to time.

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Character Capabilities: An often-forgotten source of plots

Jamie's Sky by Amber Edgar via

Jamie’s Sky by / Amber Edgar

Recently, for the Adventurer’s Club campaign, my co-GM and I had to construct a number of small plotlines – one for each character – simply to mark the passage of a period of time in which the PCs should be doing something. We employed an old technique of mine – but one that has never been written up here, at Campaign Mastery, or anywhere else that I’m aware of.

That’s a shame, because it’s really quite elegant and simple. Today’s article will redress this situation.

First things first: this technique is neither game system nor genre dependent; it works for any campaign that has PCs with defined capabilities, but it does require the GM to have a copy of the PCs character sheet. I always prefer to have one of those, anyway; the number of times players have forgotten their character sheets vastly outnumbers the one or two occasions when I’ve forgotten to bring something important, like the adventure.

The Technique

The technique itself is very simple:

  1. Go through the character sheet looking for a skill or capability that hasn’t been used in a while, if ever.
  2. Think of one or more ways that the skill or capability can be used.
  3. Think of a situation in which the character might want to use the skill or capability in that way.
  4. Construct a sequence of events that puts the character into that situation.
  5. Determine the outcomes of the usage, especially in terms of success and failure.
  6. Complete the mini-adventure outline, or, if working on a larger adventure, apply the same technique to a new PC on the basis that they have to then take the adventure further.

An example, Step One

Let’s see how it might work in practice. We need a PC – so let’s invent a hypothetical one named George. We need George to have some skills or abilities; let’s assume that the game system is Pathfinder, and that George has Appraise +7 (ranks plus stat modifier) but has never used it.

The example, Step Two

So, what might you be able to do with Appraise?

In KODT #119 & 120, there was a two-part article Making The Most Of Your Skills by Jim Davenport. I talked about this article, and how I had adapted and extended it for my Shards Of Divinity campaign, as part of The Nimble Mind: Making Skills Matter in RPGs. Here’s the list of applications for Appraise:

  • Estimate the value of someone’s wardrobe to see if they are actually wealthy or are faking it
  • Determine whether or not a unique non-magical item is the genuine article or a fake
  • Identify the era of manufacture or age of an item ±25% error
  • Identify the workmanship of a notable craftsman
  • Identify the distinctive style of a particular Kingdom
  • GM may make a secret check to permit a character to notice a fake when not even looking for it. Spot gives a +2 synergy bonus to such checks.

For the sake of example, let’s select the 4th application – identifying the style of a particular craftsman – and build an adventure around it.

The example, Step Three

Under what circumstances might a character use his appraise skill in this way? One possibility is when discovering what appears to be an unknown work by a famous artist. Already this starting point has my mind ticking over.

The example, Step Four

Let’s say the character was passing through a small village fair when a painting catches his eye. With his keen eye and minimal level of training, and a skill check, he thinks it might be by a famous artist – and worth a great deal more than the asking price. It might be a forgery (but it looks legitimate), or he might be mistaken. We don’t want to give away too much unearned loot, so let’s say that it’s very small and carries a 10gp price tag – and might be worth ten times that much, or 100gp.

The example, Step Five

Normally, this step maps out the alternative paths the adventure can take, depending on whether or not the PC succeeds in their skill check or not, but I already have an idea in mind and to get to it, I want the player to succeed whether he rolls a success or not.

It’s never a good idea to give something away unearned – and that includes success or failure at a skill check. So if I’m going to let the character auto-succeed at the actual appraise check, for the sake of the plot, I need to reinterpret the situation of the check so that a failure will manifest in a different way than simple failure.

Remember: the proposition and alternative outcomes of ANY in-game-system test are always what you want them to be, within reason.

In this particular case, where something extraordinary has taken place, I think that making the appraise test without being obvious about it – and thereby attracting unwanted attention to the painting – works well as an explanation. Normally, to appraise something, you have to pick it up, turn it over, examine it closely, etc.

You may need to weigh it, or look at a candle-light through it, or drop it into a beaker of water – or acid – or any of a dozen other tests, depending on the commodity being valued – though those tests aren’t normal for paintings. You would normally need to take a painting out of its frame, and examine the back of the actual canvas, and the edges, and the material, and type of knife used to cut the canvas. That’s because, in part, you aren’t just valuing the artwork; you are also authenticating it, in your own mind.

Valuations of untested art

Art, like many things, is ultimately worth whatever someone will pay for it. If an artist is popular, the value goes up. If he’s out of style, the value goes down. Skill and Rarity are factors, as is the quality and condition of the artwork. Having a good story to attach to it can also drive up the value. But the number-one commodity is verifiable authenticity, and part of that is the history of the artwork, also known as the provenance. Who was it painted for? What happened to it? Hoe did the current owner end up with it?

Ultimately, you need enough evidence to convince an expert to stake his reputation that the artwork is authentic. Valuations therefore need to be based around two or three different values: one if the work is certified as genuine (AND not stolen), one if you can’t convince the expert, and one if it is conclusively determined that it is not genuine, because sometimes a good (or notorious) fake can have it’s own level of cache and hence value.

Let’s call these A, B, and C. Valuation D is for any common painter imitating the style of a famous artist. A very rough set of ratios to use as a guideline is

  • (10-100)xC = (3-5)xB = A, assuming the C value carries some notoriety, and
  • (2-10)xD = C if it doesn’t but is nevertheless very well done.

If the routine price for a home-painted artwork is (say) 1gp if it’s well done, then being sufficiently close to the style of an ancient master to require authentication as not being by the great painter raises the value of the painting to 2-10 gp. If the expert isn’t sure whether or not it’s genuine, then the price is a fraction of whatever it would be worth if it IS genuine; let’s say 10,000gp for A, so 20-33% of that until its fate is decided, one way or the other – 2,000 to 3,300 gp. If it is subsequently proven to be a fake, but has gained notoriety for fooling some expert, then the value is between 100 and 1,000 gp.

In terms of the treasure values listed in various sources – modules, the Pathfinder Core Rules or D&D DMG, or whatever – there are two ways to interpret the values. The first is to assume that this is the maximum value that the painting MIGHT be worth; the second is to use the ratios given to attach an artist and a story to the artwork.

Method One

Let’s say that the source lists a painting as being worth 3,000gp. Under method one, to actually get that much out of it, it has to be by a famous painter (but not a great master), and it has to be authenticated as such. Until then, it is actually only worth 20-33% of that – 600gp to 1000gp. And, if it turns out to be a fake, it might be worth only 30-300gp, depending on the story that can be attached to it. This method has the virtue of simplicity for the GM, and provides further opportunities for roleplay down the line.

If the source lists an artwork as being worth 300gp, under method one, it’s a very pretty painting by no-one famous.

That’s because method one assumes that the value being quoted is the value if the painting is genuine, and is therefore the maximum that you will get for it.

Method Two

If the source lists a painting as being worth 3d6 x 1000gp, or something along those lines, or simply states a figure in that sort of price range – let’s say 12,000gp – then the value tells you that the painting has to be one of two things: either a lost masterpiece by a famous but not legendary artist; or it is a damaged work (reducing the value) by a more famous artist that cannot be authenticated for some reason.

If it were to state a value in the hundreds of gp, you have a range of interpretations open to you under this method; that gives the GM flexibility at the price of making things more complicated. It might be a genuine painting by someone who isn’t very famous; or an obvious fake purporting to be by a famous artist; or even an unverifiable painting by an artist of fame somewhere in between this range. The value tells you it’s not a lost masterpiece, but also that it’s not a common painting – it’s noteworthy in some respect.

Choosing between the methods

I generally let the appraise skill check make the determination for me. If the character performing the “field appraisal” makes his check successfully, I will use method two; if they don’t, I will use Method one. Why? Because Method 1 leaves the true value of the treasure in doubt, while Method 2 yields a definite result.

Complicating the picture

But art is worth what someone will pay for it, and any valuation is only an estimate. The reality might be that it doesn’t come close to that value when actually sold, or that a spirited bidding war pushes the actual price received up. The latter is less likely. To find out, I roll d% and add the appraise skill of whoever has authenticated the painting. If the total is 100 or more, then the value received is between 90 and 110% of the appraised value. If the total is 90-100, then I multiply one tenth of the actual price by d10 minus d10 plus the square root of (total-90+d10-d10), cubed; if the result is a negative, reverse the d10s. If the total is 50-90, then the artwork sells for that percentage of the estimated value; if the total is below 50, then it sells for between 10 and 50% of the appraised value – or possibly fails to make the reserve, i.e. doesn’t sell for enough to have the sale go through, and the characters have to try again to sell it on some other occasion, in some other market; the people who were there on the day didn’t want it.

For example:

Let’s say that the appraised value is 10,000gp, and the appraiser rolled a skill total of 17. At the time that check is made I will make a d% roll and add it to the total, determining the actual value offered the next time the PCs attempt to sell the artwork.

  • If I rolled a 93, then the total would be 110, and I would then roll a d20 and add 90 to get the % of the estimate that the painting actually fetches when sold. An 18 on the d20 gives 108%, so the sale price would be 10,800gp.
  • If I rolled an 83, then the total would be 100, and I would do exactly the same thing. If, on the other hand, I rolled an 82, the total would be only 99, putting the sale into the narrow window for a bidding war. 99 minus 90 is 9; 9 cubed is 9 x 9 x 9, or 729; the square root of 729 is 27. I add one d10 roll to the result and subtract another; let’s say, 5 and 9,respectively, so 27+5=32, and 32-9 is 23. One-tenth of the appraised value is 1,000gp, so the artwork sells for 23,000gp.
  • If I rolled a 74, the total of 91 is still in the bidding war range – but just barely. 91-1 is 1; one cubed is 1; the square root of 1 is 1; add one d10 and subtract another (2 and 10, respectively) to get 1+2-10=-7. That doesn’t work, so I reverse the d10s: 1+10-2=9. So the artwork sells for 9,000gp despite the bidding war – telling you that the original appraisal missed something (or that the people participating in the bidding war didn’t really want to buy anything by that artist, but were caught up in the moment).
  • If I rolled a 65, the total would be 82, putting me into a wide band where the price paid is less than the estimate – in this case, for 65% of that, or 6,500gp.
  • And, if I were to roll 32 or less, the total would be below 50, so the artwork would either sell for a (relative) pittance – or fail to sell at all, if the owners had placed a reserve price.
Reserve Prices

I don’t know how these work in the real world. In my campaigns, however, I have a definite protocol based on the auction house making a profit, no matter what, for their efforts. If they sell something, they take 10% off the top. If they accept something for sale, they also charge and amount – it might be 1gp or 10gp – payable only if the item fails to sell. In effect, this is a fee charged to recover the item from the auction house. Finally, if the owners want to make it harder for the auction house to sell the item by imposing a reserve, or a minimum acceptable price, the auction house charges an up-front fee of 10% of that reserve price on top of anything they get from actually selling the item.

Anyway, getting back to our plotline…

The Example, Step 4 (redux)

Now that we know the middle part of the mini-adventure we can backtrack and fill in the start of the story in more detail.

To start with, we need George to have a reason to visit the fair. There are many possibilities, but one of the simplest is to have something that it can be assumed that he possesses – a water bottle, say – break and need replacement. Normally, I wouldn’t bother tracking that sort of detail, and the players know that, so explicitly stating the failure and the need to buy a replacement is, in effect, GM-to-player shorthand for “this is where to find today’s adventure”.

Next, we need to work out what happens at the fair itself. A bit of local color to bring the event to life. So we throw in a juggler raising money for charity, a wandering troubadour having trouble hitting his high notes, and an apprentice blacksmith who has just gotten drunk for the first time. The juggler will tell the PC where to find the leather-worker’s tent for a donation, a transaction eagerly watched by the merchants; if the PC is overgenerous, the word will spread that he has money, and prices will go up, but be flexible; if he’s charitable. but not excessive, prices will be normal and NPCs will expect to haggle; if he pleads poverty, prices will go down a little, but be declared firm; and if the PC is rude or dismissive without donating, the prices will go up 50-100% and be declared firm, take it or leave it.

Unless the PC pled poverty, the troubadour will then attach himself to the PCs vicinity until he is paid to go annoy somebody else – the length of peace and quiet being dependent on the scale of payment offered: a minute for a copper, 5-10 minutes for a silver, an hour for a gold. Once again, the merchants will watch these transactions like hawks, while trying to pretend that they aren’t, and use them to confirm their first impression of the PC.

When the PC reaches the leather-worker’s stand, he will find the leather-worker busy dealing with the drunken apprentice. While waiting, the painting will catch his eye amongst a stack of bric-a-brac on a neighboring tent.

The Example, Step 6

What else do we need? Well, we should have a convincing line of patter about the artist and the painting, and we need to work out a conclusion to the situation, which is nothing but roleplay so far, without a lot of interaction or scope for player input.

The artist: Craffel Dentro of Lostown Downs was a landscape painter about 70 years ago who became well-respected for the dramatic qualities of his sweeping brush-strokes and colorful use of clouds as an emotional subtext to the subject of his paintings, which often featured recognizable buildings or landmarks, enabling him to make witty and sometimes biting social comment about the owners of the featured landscape without actually offending anyone by voicing criticism too publicly. This “code” only became public knowledge late in the artist’s career when he confessed it to the Abbott of Monkton. A minor part of the Expressionist movement, which focused on energy and capturing motion within paintings, it was the inclusion of this hidden subtext that began to elevate his reputation. Many have tried to emulate his style since, and while some have come close to the overt expressionist characteristics, none have successfully captured the whimsy or satire of Dentro. (NB: this is all completely invented for game purposes – there is no such art movement and no such artist.)

The painting: 14 inches by 8 inches, something of an odd size. A sunset, a distant storm cloud, and a sense that the rain has just stopped; several of the leaves glisten and there is the occasional droplet of falling water. An overgrown estate and an abbey in a slight state of disrepair. A graveyard next to the abbey, with one grave cleared of overgrowth; the headstone is adorned by a Bishop’s Mitre. Party-goers frolic and dance around the grave. Unfortunately, only the side of the Abbey can be seen, and there is not enough detail to be able to identify the location. The painting is unsigned.

The PC suspects that it might be a Dentro which was originally much larger, and that it was cut down in size for some reason, excising the part which would have held the artist’s signature. The dancers “mourning” the death of a churchman who had let the (possibly symbolic) abbey fall into disrepair was the sort of sly wit that Dentro was famous for. If it were complete and an authentic Dentro, it might be worth one hundred times the asking price of 10gp; in its current state, if it could be authenticated, it might only be worth 2-300gp, and possibly less.

If the PC questions the seller, Marit Hewnshaw, she will tell him that her father was an art collector who bought lots of damaged paintings cheaply and reframed them to hide the damage. Notoriously poor at his record keeping, it was impossible to substantiate his claims of having one or two really valuable items in his collection, which she has been selling off a little at a time ever since. This was one of his favorites, and sentimentality has left it to be amongst the last of the collection to be sold.

The PC then has a choice: he can buy the painting at the asking price and try to have it authenticated, making a substantial profit if he succeeds; he can tell Marit that he thinks it might be a more valuable painting and offer a fair price for an unauthenticated Dentro, taking some risk himself but still making a profit if he’s right; or he can take sympathy on Marit and attempt to get the painting authenticated before she sells it. Or he can even hope that it doesn’t sell and try to steal it after the fair; it would be too awkward to attempt to do so now.

Unless the PC is both very careful in what he says and how he says it, AND succeeded in making his Appraise check (DC 18, so he needs 11 or less), a couple of members of the local thief’s guild will overhear enough to convince them to steal the painting. They are based in the cellar of the Blighted Unicorn, a nearby tavern of disreputable character. There are four rogues in total in the village. They aren’t very successful because there isn’t a lot to steal in these parts, and they aren’t very skilled.

Wrapping up the example

Where this adventure ultimately goes is now up to the player. He has a very diverse set of options, and so does the GM. If the thief’s guild twig that he has supporters/allies/fellow PCs to back him up (perhaps after a failed attempt to get the painting), one of them might make contact with a more competent cousin who is part of a larger thief’s guild in a nearby city, posing a somewhat bigger challenge. Depending on what the PCs decide to do, the GM can decide whether or not the painting really is a genuine Dentro or is a fake. What matters more than the outcome in terms of authenticity is the story of getting to that point.

Expanding the example

The GM could have another member of the party add substance to the theory that this is an undiscovered Dentro by getting a historian or priest to speculate on the incident that it comments on. The abbey might actually have entered a state of disrepair, or might be a metaphor for the Bishop’s flock. The party might have to travel to the nearby city and persuade/hire an expert to come and authenticate the painting. The expert they hire might be unscrupulous and deny it’s authenticity – while planning to steal it for himself. There might be a lost treasure involved, if the Bishop was greedy – and there might be a clue in the painting, when it is closely examined. There could be rival heirs, one nice and one nasty, and allegations that the painting was stolen (whether it was or not). Perhaps there’s a curse involved.

Or perhaps the legend of the PC at the village fair will grow and take on a life of its own (because it’s a good story) and forever after, he will be plagued with people bringing out their paintings for him to take a look at, “do you think it’s worth anything…?” Which would be ironic – choosing a skill because the character hadn’t used it very often and making it a recurring theme of his life.

How much you get from the technique is up to you, as is how big to make the resulting adventure. The one thing that is certain is that you will show off a side of the character that doesn’t get a lot of air-time, and get a decent mini-adventure. Anything more is a bonus.


On a completely unrelated subject:

Berin Kinsman dropped CM a line the other day to tell us about his latest project in hopes that it would be interesting to me, and that I would do him the favor of promoting it. I thought I would pass on the favor to my readers. Beren’s been a longtime supporter of my writing, from even before Campaign Mastery came alone, so any opinion I might offer could be viewed as tainted – so I won’t, I’ll leave readers to make up their own minds. Except to say that people like Beren, Lucas from City Of Brass, and Fitz (aka Brian Fitzpatrick) from Moebius Adventures are the sort of people that we want to encourage within our industry!

So anyway, here’s what Berin had to say:
quote start 45

For the last year I’ve been pouring my life into a new project called ReadWriteRoll, a roleplaying game based on the way stories are told. Now I’m launching a crowdfunding page to publish it.

The IndieGoGo campaign page is here: [or click on the image] and there is a free 9-page Preview at Drive-Thru RPG. You can read more about ReadWriteRoll here:

It’d mean the world to me if you’d help spread the word! Let everyone on Twitter and Facebook know, and keep talking ReadWriteRoll up in groups and forums! If you mention ReadWriteRoll on a podcast, vlog, or blog, let me know so I can share some reciprocal link love! Thanks!
– Berin Kinsman

I like the premise, and look forward to seeing what the finished product looks like. You might, too. If you do, the only way to make it happen is to back the project, so give it some thought!

Comments (5)

Support Your Local Hero

business superman 4 by Piotr Bizior

business superman 4 by / Piotr Bizior

Heroism is part and parcel of most fantasy campaigns and certainly central to Pulp and Superheroic Campaigns. In fact, most campaigns, driven by the need for drama, will incorporate heroism in some fashion, whether that be from greed/opportunity, enlightened self-interest, or the real deal.

How can heroism stem from greed/opportunity? Heroism is doing the right thing despite the risks and dangers that you are exposed to in the process. So the question is whether or not there is any reason why greed might lead a character to do the right thing despite danger – and there is an obvious yes answer to that question. It might be as simple as playing the hero as camouflage, or to eliminate potential rivals, or because you need to stop a mutual enemy. The Shards Of Divinity campaign was all about characters being forced to do “the right thing” because at every step, they were compelled to do so for their own benefit or advantage.

Heroism can only exist where there is opportunity for it, and those opportunities come in three distinct varieties. There’s local heroism, also sometimes referred to as “street” heroism; there’s migratory or “passing” heroism; and there’s uber-heroism, which deals with international and cosmic-level threats. A good campaign will contain a balanced mixture of all three – but everyone has a different balance point.

Today I’m going to take a look at the three brands of heroism and the whole question of balance – and, if all goes well, I will blur the boundaries between them quite a bit. Which is, of course, the opposite of what most people try and do when analyzing anything – but bear with me, and it should all make sense in the end.

But we start with the bedrock…

Primal Heroism – Us Vs. Them

When you’re defending yourself, can it be counted as Heroism? Sure it can – all you have to do is expose yourself to greater risk than the average citizen, and that happens automatically as soon as you actually do fight. This is Heroism at its most primal, because it bypasses so much social and moral baggage that is normally associated with the term.


As soon as a character determines that he and his cronies are “the best people for the job”, i.e. those most likely to succeed, even if it puts them at temporarily greater risk, you’re into a primal heroism situation. Now, that’s normally not a good enough reason for non-altruistic individuals to actually put themselves at risk – but there can be all sorts of motivational variations that plug that gap. It might be that if the characters don’t take advantage of this opportunity to act, they will have no opportunity to escape the danger if the mission fails – which means that they are actually minimizing their long-term risk by accepting a greater share of it in the short-term. Or it might simply be that they are control freaks and can’t abide critical decisions that affect them being taken without their input. Or maybe they think that the potential gains are greater than the risks – others will risk less but gain nothing – and greed is the decisive factor. Or it might be greed for authority, or respect, or fame. Or any one of those might be a stepping stone to something that the characters want to achieve.

Regardless of the reasons, this sort of conflict is the bedrock of RPGs. Only the furniture changes.


As such, it’s very easy to integrate this type of heroism into a plot – it’s often their without being recognized as Heroism, per se. All it takes is a gunslinger from out of town who starts shooting at anyone who gets in their way, or the cultural equivalent.

Even if players are not initially inclined to put themselves at risk, it can be relatively easy for the GM to apply psychological manipulation to the situation. “So are you really willing to risk your life to someone else’s attempts to deal with [the emergency]?” “Do you really trust them not to turn the rewards of success into an additional handicap for you to overcome?” Heck, even a simple “Are you really sure you want to do that?” can be enough to get players second-guessing a decision not to get involved.

Any time a situation can be described as “Us vs [x]” with the characters at risk due to that conflict – and GMs try very hard to put the PCs at risk in any in-game conflict, because it gets pretty dull otherwise – you have a situation in which the PCs are forced to behave heroically.


That said, there are a myriad of different tones that can be adopted. The tone depends on a combination of factors: How the players really feel about getting involved, how they seek to actually portray their involvement, how the enemy are perceived, how the enemy respond and react – and what happens. Anything from desperation to outrage is possible.

There’s a great danger in the ubiquity of this form of conflict, and that is that it can feel meaningless and empty at the game table – just another ho-hum combat encounter. To avoid that, you need the tone of the conflict to not only be strong and clear, but interesting and richly complex – and extremely distinctive from other such encounters that may have been experienced recently. You have to make the PCs care about what happens in some way.

Roleplay Opportunities

Players don’t often spend five minutes having their characters psychoanalyze themselves at any point in a combat encounter. At best, the player might articulate a broad general summary of what their character is thinking and/or feeling, so as to justify a decision and have NPCs react appropriately – especially if a decision might seem out-of-character.

The same is true of any story which is not told in the first person, to at least some extent.

As a general rule of thumb, our primary conduit to what a character thinks and feels is to see it demonstrated to us through their interactions with others. In an RPG, that happens through roleplay.

Opportunities to roleplay before, during, or after a conflict encounter don’t happen by accident. The GM has to create them intentionally. In particular, many GMs (myself included) find it hard to integrate natural in-game dialogue with combat – so much so that I have a strong preference for employing cinematic combat techniques whenever I think dialogue will be important within the encounter.

It’s part of your job as GM to make it happen when interaction – verbal or non-verbal – is called for by the situation.

Picture Framing

The GM articulates the tone by the manner and content in everything he says that is not being stated in character. The terminology that he uses, his tone of voice, his body language, the other senses that he engages or represents to the players – these are his tools. Context is also important; the context has to match up with the other tonal elements or the GM is sending mixed messages to the players.

If you are threatening the PCs with an enemy who has been victorious in every encounter it has had (at least until now), doom and gloom are the order of the day. Cracking jokes, even out-of-character, means that the tone does not match the context. If the PCs are motivated by greed, then the GM’s descriptions of anything indicating wealth should be fulsome, while descriptions of anything suggestive of poverty should be scant. Even poverty itself should be treated as “the absence of a display of wealth”.

In Primal-heroism encounters, the GM has the widest possible latitude in terms of the choices that he can make with respect to his language; but that diversity comes with the necessity to be clear and focused or the encounter will seem dull and trivial. Once you select a narrative theme or style, you have to stick with it.

Social Conscience vs The Profit Motive

There are those who feel that actions cannot be heroic if they are motivated by profit, or even primarily by self-defense; that true heroism is both altruistic and in defense or rescue of others. To a certain extent, I even agree; but reality is more complicated than that. Certainly, those qualities describe the most noble and pure form of Heroism; but that does not mean that characters cannot be heroic in their absence.

One of the debates that has ranged in comics circles since the 1960s is the question of whether or not Green Lantern, a man without fear, can ever have his actions deemed courageous; the argument is that courage lies in the overcoming of fear. Indeed, there are those who questioned whether or not a man who did not feel fear could plausibly achieve his “civilian” career as a test-pilot; surely he would have been grounded long before as a danger to himself and others? Test a new jet aircraft? You shouldn’t even let such a man get behind the wheel!

The solution to that particular argument is relevant to our question. First, the outward perception of an inability to feel fear – a calm head at all times, a methodical, dispassionate, and almost clinical appraisal of every situation in which the character finds himself is exhibited by test pilots and astronauts all the time, and was almost certainly the inspiration for the Hal Jordan character. That perception was then fattened into hyperbole by the editors and writers, trying to get things across to the reader in the most direct and abbreviated manner possible so that they could get on with the story. You can feel fear all you want to – but if it doesn’t cause you to hesitate in a crisis, and never interferes with your clarity of thought, then you can be said to be “without fear”. And that makes any assumption of personal risk to benefit or protect others just as courageous – just because you’re willing to accept the consequences (whatever they might be) doesn’t mean that you aren’t aware of the risks. Courage is therefore something broader than simply overcoming fear.

In exactly the same way, Heroism is something broader than that noble ideal; it can be tarnished and tainted and still be heroic. Heroism for venal reasons – “I’m getting paid very well to rescue you” – is still heroism. It might be a different kind of heroism – a more pragmatic, dispassionate kind – but it’s still Heroism.

Just thought I ought to clear that up.

Local Heroism

As soon as you take direct self-protection out of the equation, you’re talking about something more complex in terms of the form of Heroism. There are many different varieties of this more universal Heroism, but the dominant factor, as I implied earlier, is scale of threat. Things get a little more interesting when you examine the characteristics of these different forms of Heroism.

The simplest of them is “Local Heroism” or “Street Heroism”. It gets that name because that’s where it manifests.


A bully is pushing some local around, and our PC decides to do something about it because he simply doesn’t like bullies. That’s street heroism. A gang is forcing the local businesses to pay protection money, and one or all of the PCs decides to do something about it before they attract unwanted attention to the district – that’s also Heroism, though it may be tainted by the benefit that the PCs expect to gain. Both are examples of Street Heroism, and they both highlight the dominant characteristic of this form of Heroism: the motive.

In the first case, the PC might be Heroic, and this is one aspect of his personality; he might be villainous, and this is a redeeming quality. Or he might be neutral, and this is one aspect of the character that is more altruistic – but it’s balanced by others of a darker nature, such as opportunism. In an “Us Vs. Them” situation, motivation doesn’t matter, though it may color the events; in Local Heroism, it does, and needs to be taken into account as a primary influence by the GM in the way he handles the encounter.


The Hero System makes it easy – any regular deviation from enlightened self-interest is described by a Psychological Limitation which specifies its nature, its scope, and its intensity of influence over the character. There is, in effect, a “button” that the GM can push, and there is a quantified degree of influence over the PCs or NPCs behavior.

Things are more open in other RPGs, more subject to the definitions of personality employed by whoever is running the character. As a general rule of thumb, players and GMs can be guided by alignment, but this is an abstracted and simplified expression of a far more complex phenomenon. The most Lawful Evil can have a redeeming quality; the most Anarchic Chaotic can decide to help a stranger on a whim. Or not. So alignment is only the start of the story, defining whether or not the behavior of the character in this specific case is part of a pattern, or is an exception to that pattern.

In games without predefined “buttons”, all the GM can do is put a potential encounter in front of the PCs and let them decide how to react. So plot-wise, these also tend to be relatively small and simple.

That’s not to say that they are necessarily quick. One of the first problems to be tackled by Zenith-3 was the local Capo, Johnny Luca – who had total control over the local and state courts, had several members of the Police Force and even a few FBI agents under his wing, was the biggest single contributor to the Mayor’s and Governor’s most recent election campaigns (and had his thugs ‘fix’ the results, to boot, because that meant that his donation only had to make the outcome seem plausible to lull the public). It took a year of gaming and gathering evidence and allies before they succeeded in ousting Luca and cleaning up the city in which they were based, Boston. (It took another 5 years of gaming to achieve the same thing nationally. Even that didn’t completely erase the apparatus that organized crime had set up; it simply forced those who they had corrupted to resign, following the capture of incontrovertible proof against them).

Nor do these plots have to be free of broader ramifications. If the problem is contained within a single locality, its’ Local Heroism if the PCs act against the problem despite a risk.


The tone of these adventures/encounters is far less unrestricted than was the case for Primal Heroism. That’s because motivation is a player-supplied factor, and it dominates all the other criteria that dictate tone. At best, the GM might have a limited palette to draw upon; at worst, that palette will contain only a single shade, and the tone of the encounter was fixed by the context, circumstances, and participants, from the moment it was conceived.

Roleplay Opportunities

There’s a big difference between paying lip service to a motivation, effectively using it as nothing more than a justification, and actually making that motivation a demonstrated trait of the individual; the first feels tacked on, skin deep, and rings more than a little hollow; the second uses the motivation as a spotlight to illuminate the personality. But demonstrating a trait requires more than simply acting in accordance with the motivation; it requires the player to manifest the trait in a roleplaying context, to give it substance within the game.

The more strongly removed from the norm for the character, the more it needs to be roleplayed because it is an exception. The more symbolic of the entire personality it might be, on the other hand, the more it needs to be roleplayed for that reason. Only if the motivation or action is neither highly unusual nor representative of a broader personality does it not need to be roleplayed – leaving the character free to interact with others who have stronger motivations, in the form of roleplay.

In fact, many conspicuous examples of local heroism do not require combat at all, and are handled entirely within an in-personality in-game context. Take that bully example once again; while the PC could initiate combat, he could also simply intimidate the bully, or bribe him, or summon the authorities, or organize a street coalition against the bully. Only one of those options calls for full combat mechanics; the others can be handled either by roleplay or by a more cinematic combat resolution technique.

Picture Framing

Greater restriction in one aspect of the encounter leads to reduced capacity for variety in the tone and language that are used to describe the encounter. With the player taking the lead, via his character, in terms of how this type of encounter will be perceived, you need to follow that lead; this makes this one of the more difficult types of encounter to handle well (it is so ubiquitous that practice leaves it relatively easy to actually handle).

A safe default is often to use almost intimate tones and language, though it might be unclear to what part of the experience the character is relating. Specifics will need to be resolved in terms of the context of this encounter and recent history, however. “It feels good to be able to stretch yourself, to exert yourself in a cause you know is worthy with no doubts or hesitation to cloud the issues.” “You exult inside as your foe quails before your remorseless fury.”

An alternative that also works on most occasions if prepared properly, and not over-used, is to cast everything in terms of a metaphor. One of the most common (and hence the hardest to excel at – the bar is higher) is Dance. “Your foe shuffles to one side.” “Staccato footsteps leave your target uncertain of the direction from which your next attack will come; he steps nimbly back, and sweeps low in a grand gesture, trusting in the knowledge that you have to be somewhere.” “You whirl to face your new ‘dance partner'”.

Any activity that occurs in a patterned manner can be used in this way, though some may be more work than others. Weather metaphors often prove easier than you expect. I once used the construction of a building as the central metaphor for a combat – ironically, one that took place in a crumbling ruin.

Requiring the most prep work, and the greatest knowledge of the PC, is to use his or her life as the metaphor. “He presents as large a target as Fat Willy.” “He lumbers like Big Jim Deakon, and hits as hard as the ox on Jim’s farm”. You can sometimes approximate this by generalizing – if the PC was reared on a farm, a generic “farm boy” perspective might be close enough to get you to a narrative touchdown.

Also, while all the examples offered above are taken from combat, the same metaphor should extend into the pre- and post- combat narrative as well.

Finally, it is very easy to overuse the simile in these cases. I make it a rule of thumb to avoid them except in the case of the PCs life experience as the metaphor. A simile uses comparisons as descriptive technique – “Blood gushes as red as a rose”, “He might as well be in the neighboring village for all the chance he has of hitting you”, “His armor is polished like a prized trophy”. Save these for when nothing else will do, or when you get extra mileage from them – that’s why I employ them in the most personal of the metaphors, because its a way of making the characters’ background more accessible to the players at the game table.

One final technique for advanced GMs that is rarely useful, but can be incredibly effective when it is relevant, is the inverted role. When most GMs first start out, they use loaded terminology in their descriptions – positive/light for the heroic PCs and their actions, negative/dark for the evil NPCs. The inverted role simply reverses these – describe PC actions in grim and menacing terms, and use lighter, more positive and enthusiastic language for the NPCs. This is especially effective when the crowd aren’t sure who they should be barracking for, or are supporting “the wrong side” from the perspective of the PCs, because it employs the perspective of an onlooker. You can even embed dynamic shifts in the narrative as a subtext, for example the crowd getting swept up in the sport of the battle, and losing partisan perspective in favor of simple blood-lust, or starting off supporting one side and slowly transferring their allegiance to the other by virtue of the gallantry and other qualities shown on the battlefield. Villains can reveal their true natures to the crowd by low blows and other forms of “cheating”, for example. Do this right, and you never actually have to announce that the crowd are now supporting the other side to their initial loyalties; it becomes self-evident from the narrative language you are employing.

Sidebar: How Small is Too Small?

There can be a very fine line between battles that are too small and trivial to qualify as heroic and those that are a microcosm of a much larger or more significant contest. The question of “how small is too small” is one that varies with a great many other factors.

Nevertheless, the odds have to be either strongly against the character, or the numbers alone have to be overwhelming, or the conflict has to be extraordinarily epic in some other fashion, before an action can be considered Heroic.

A small group against a dragon, or an army? Those are heroic. Make it a kitten, or an army of geriatric old men, and suddenly it presents a different impression. If anything, the scale of the danger posed by these latter examples undercuts the drama of the conflict to become almost comedic.

Passing Heroism – the hero as wanderer

It’s a tale as old as the concept of heroism – wanderer comes into town, vanquishes the evil that is lurking there, and wanders off in search of the next adventure. This is certainly part of the conceptual bedrock of fantasy gaming.

And yet, due to its simplicity and elegance, it is often forgotten in the modern rush to create greater, more layered, more complex, more textural experiences and stories. Sometimes, the best thing you can do for your campaign is to reset the bar of complexity with just such a simple, elegant, situation. Think for a moment of all the things that such a plotline can do for you: it gives the PCs a breather from complex and difficult moral decisions; it gives them a chance to be heroic; it gives them a holiday from complicated and often interlinked problems, permitting them to recharge their batteries; and it permits a clear and resounding victory with none of the strings that a broader campaign-orientation attaches.


In every way except that of scale, this can be considered the opposite side of the coin to “Local Heroism”. By definition, the situation is not local to the Hero. But, where there were questions over what can be considered heroic at the local scale, there are none at all with this form of heroism because the characters can simply keep going and not get involved; it follows that any risk at all is a risk they do not have to take, and by definition, is therefore heroic to at least some degree. Even the risk of delaying something more important is enough to justify this as an example of Heroism.


The recipe for this type of plotline is simplicity itself – PCs arrive somewhere, discover that there is a problem, and decide to solve it rather than standing idly by, or moving on. The problem is self-contained, small enough to be purely local (though it may be symptomatic of a wider problem), but involvement poses some risk to the PCs. The degree of heroism depends on two factors: how great the quantifiable risks are, and how much of the risk is unquantifiable and unknown. The final ingredient is that the problem has to be large enough that the locals cannot overcome it of their own accord, even should they band together to do so.

Almost any menace can work effectively as the antagonist in this type of plot – accidents, extremes of weather, natural disasters, misguided intentions, or outright malice. I find it good policy, in general, to make the problem as different to the established normal as possible, for one simple reason: until the PCs discover the complications, the normal plotlines, with their campaign=level complexities and over-arching narratives, all look like this sort of situation.

Favorite examples include officiating at a difficult wedding, reuniting two star-crossed lovers, resolving a property dispute, and so on – all simple, small problems. I don’t care, as a general rule of thumb, if dice are never picked up in such a game session, and everything is solved by talking; that in itself can be a change-of-pace. I then throw in sufficient challenge to keep everyone in the PCs party involved, even if that requires an unrelated problem to coincide with the first – though I will always look to connect the two. Take that difficult wedding between two families who don’t like each other very much – a McCoys-and-Hatfields who have finally established a truce and are looking at this wedding as a way to bind all parties to that truce – all you need is someone bent on stirring up trouble for their own benefit, or an assassin who has confused one of the parties for someone he has been contracted to hunt down (and who escaped a previous encounter with the assassin through good fortune), or something along those lines, and you have plenty to make for an interesting diversion from the routine.

I look upon this sort of plot as a “palette cleanser” for the campaign, and it is this application that I alluded to as a way of “resetting the bar of complexity” in a campaign. You can grow over-familiar with anything, given enough exposure to it; when players stop seeing the richness of detail within a complex plotline and begin to find the convoluted layers of significance and interlocking of plotlines tiresome, you are overdue for such a “campaign cleanser”.

There are other applications that are worth considering. Such simple plotlines are a great way to give the PCs a “health report” on the game world – what are the locals concerned about? How have they been affected by recent events? How does the big picture translate to the small scale? It’s a reality check, and a form of R&R for the players, at the same time.


Simplicity and clarity are paramount to this style of adventure. Beyond that, you want a contrast with your normal campaign style, the better to balance the overall campaign; so, if “grim and serious” is the normal tone, I might go for “romantic” or “slapstick”, or even both.

Roleplay Opportunities

This type of adventure typically explores entirely different aspects of a characters’ personality from the norm. That means that roleplaying opportunities abound.

I once had a combat junkie as one of my players; he was never completely satisfied unless he got to flex his character’s muscles in the course of an adventure. He was a good roleplayer, but was never happy unless this itch was scratched routinely. When the time came for a “Passing Heroism” holiday in that campaign, I thought long and hard about how meet this need within the context of the adventure. The answer: a county fair, with a rigged strength-testing machine and an unscrupulous carnival barker. The player absolutely loved it, and got into the spirit of the whole thing, first despairing at “the wasting away of his manliness” and the “withering of flesh” that would inevitably follow his strength deserting him; a near-total collapse of confidence and creeping apathy and despair; then an accidental encounter with a runaway bull, which showed that his “virtue” was undiminished; and then roping the party cleric into a scheme as a fellow conspirator in a private quest to prove the game was rigged, and punish the unscrupulous Carnie. None of which had anything at all to do with the main plot of the adventure (gophers attacking the town cemetery), but which entertained not only the participants but the entire table.

And the heroism? It turned out that the gopher tunnels were a means of accessing a mass necromantic ritual which would raise the entire population of the cemetery as a new form of undead, one which only had to touch another dead body to also raise it as undead. “Viral undead” as it was. Of course, it wasn’t the creepy old recluse who was responsible, it was a young shepherd boy who had stumbled over a vile shrine while tending his master’s flock…

Picture Framing

Contrast with the norm is also the guiding principle when it comes to narrative. Complex and rich descriptive passages should give way to elegant and simple, for example.

It would be nice if this were also a break for the GM, but alas, this sort of adventure often needs more game prep than normal, simply because most of it is a one-off. But it is a different type of adventure, and a change is often almost as good as a holiday, as the saying goes. In particular, simple and elegant can be a lot harder to prepare and make effective and interesting than more flowery alternatives.

Some of the most fiendish writing exercises I’ve encountered stem from this challenge. “A man sits at a table. Now, make it interesting. 50 words.” “A woman walks through a doorway. Now make it emotional. 100 words.” Things of that nature.

I knew as soon as I quoted those challenges that someone would want me to include my responses to those writing exercises. In fact, the idea was that you would repeat the challenge for twenty days in a row (with weekends off) and could never utilize the same plot device a second time. The first time tends to be easy. The tenth time is tough. The twentieth time is sheer hell, because all the easy answers have been taken; so there’s not a lot of value in presenting my answers to the challenges. Besides that, I’m not 100% confident of getting this article finished in time as it is.

Passing Heroism II – something wicked this way comes

The third side of the coin – to get all existential on you – is where the opportunity for heroism comes to the character, and not the other way around.


Once again, this is an opportunity to contrast the usual fair with something different.

One of the greater challenges to this mode of heroic adventure is distinguishing it from Local Heroism and Primal heroism. The trick is to confine the threat to the individual PC or PCs affected while making the situation an indirect threat, so that self-defense is not invoked. That is best achieved by having a concurrent plotline in which the quality being threatened in the first is essential to a successful resolution of the second. For example, the threat might be to the character’s reputation, just as he has to use that reputation as leverage to a tricky negotiation of some sort, or to offer a character reference to someone in court.

Because the plot is coming to the PCs, this can actually be an opportunity to develop one or more of the main plotlines of the campaign, as you can see from those examples. The opportunity for Passing Heroism becomes the challenge that has to be overcome in order to achieve the larger campaign goal, even though the only commonality is the PC or PCs.


My favorite use for this type of adventure is a heavily supernatural or horror-based plotline, but there are times when “the fastest gun” is a viable alternative. “My uncle thinks I’m a wastrel, and won’t let me inherit the mill until I beat one of you at something, fair and square. So, [PC name], I challenge you to…” and the day after, it will be something else, and the day after that, something else again, and so on. At first, these challenges will be simple, and things that the NPC is used to, but he will make poor choices of opponent; but, like the writing exercise earlier, by the time he begins choosing opponents more cleverly, all the simple challenges will be used up. (This idea came from the first season of Survivor, which gives you some idea of the nature of the challenges).


Tone is dependent on the nature of the adventure. For a horror/supernatural plotline, I will go full-creepy on the players; for the fastest gun, it might be tragic, or a light-hearted romp, or (something very alien to my usual milieu) Western.

Roleplay Opportunities

While there are some of these inherent in the basic concept, this type of Heroism doesn’t lend itself to more intensive roleplay than usual.

Picture Framing

In terms of narrative, the style of the plot and the overall tone of the adventure are dominant, and leave little scope for alternatives.

You can occasionally get creative; I once ran the entire adventure as though it were a tale being told around a campfire, from the perspective of an NPC, making the players both participants and audience, and filling the narrative with Noir-ish first-person asides to them. Only at the end of the story, when the (unidentified) listeners had departed, did the tale-teller arise and reveal himself to be someone else completely to the person the players thought they were dealing with. Only then did it become clear that the NPC was warning another (who would shortly become a major threat) against continuing in a course of action that would bring him into conflict with the PCs. Of course, the warning was not heeded – but this had the metagame effect of telling the players of this threat on the horizon without the characters knowing about it. They spent most of the next adventure jumping at shadows and waiting for the other shoe to drop… It worked well at the time, but it was very stressful to GM in that fashion, because the game system wasn’t really geared to interactive retro-active storytelling by the players; it was difficult to integrate the past-tense of the storyteller with the present-tense of the PCs. So I haven’t been in any hurry to repeat the exercise; this is definitely an advanced technique.

Uber-Heroism – the national/international threat/crisis

Most campaigns will, most of the time, consist of the preceding types of opportunity for Heroism, and exceptions tend to be confined to specific genres and sub-genres. This category represents a clear escalation in scope, and as such, is often reserved for the grand climax of a campaign. In the Adventurer’s Club campaign, few adventures take place at this scale, though many have the potential to escalate to this scope if villainous plots are not stopped in time, though there have been more exceptions than would be normal for most Fantasy campaigns. This level of threat is more common in the Zenith-3 campaign, but even there, many adventures are smaller in scope – though with global ramifications.


Opportunities for Heroism clearly rise with the increase in threat level posed by this class of adventure. In terms of structure, the defining characteristic lies in how advanced the nefarious plot is when the PCs are able to do something about it (they may have known it was coming for quite some time).

In truth, confining threats this large to a single adventure is difficult unless they are treated as being “just part of the furniture”. More commonly, an entire campaign is devoted to the purpose, or – at the very least – a campaign phase (refer to Definitions and the Quest For Meaning in Structure if you aren’t clear on what I mean by the term). The threat is accepted as too large for the PCs to solve except from time to time in a more localized way.

That’s certainly how the Nazi apparatus is viewed in the Adventurer’s Club. When that campaign started, the Nazis were dominant in Germany, and were admired for the economic progress the nation had made; few saw them as a threat. Over time, the awareness has slowly crept in that eventually there will be another European War, and various efforts have been made to defuse or allay that threat; but, by and large, the PCs have dealt with individuals and individual operations. Fascism itself is too broad a problem to fall within the purview of the Adventurer’s Club. As our plans currently stand for the campaign, World War II will be about to start just as the campaign ends – several PCs are from Commonwealth Nations, who will expect to get called up almost immediately War is declared, effectively tearing the Club (and the campaign) apart. I’m not even sure, off the top of my head, whether or not Austria has been annexed yet (but I don’t think so).


In general, these adventures either start small and escalate as the scale of the threat becomes apparent, or start with a bang when the villainous plan is already well advanced.


These adventures lend themselves to drama; they tend to be bigger than life, over-the-top in one or more respects. Whatever tone is to be adopted is necessarily an overtone within that range.

Roleplay Opportunities

Heroism tends to imply action – there’s not a lot of passive resistance in RPGs. Action tends to drown out roleplay, unless the GM makes special efforts. Quite often, roleplay exists only to deliver context and background to the PCs in this type of adventure; they tend to be far more about going somewhere and doing something. However, it’s always possible for the players to throw a surprise in your direction; for example, when we ran Amazon Nazis On The Moon in 2015 (the Adventurer’s Club campaign, of course), the players decided to disguise themselves as Nazis to get as far into the Amazon City as possible before making their move. The result was that we had to invent additional Amazonian society and infrastructure on the spot, and quite a lot of what might have been combat encounters was in fact roleplayed.

As a general rule of thumb, though, that choice is out of the GM’s hands. The plot is a boulder rushing downhill; once it starts rolling, all the GM can do is get out of the way and wait to see how the players will respond.

Picture Framing

The other truism that will be noted is that as GMing options decline in terms of plot control, so the choices of tone and narrative style also shrink. At this scale, the dominant factors are the plotline and its context and the response of the players.

Uber-heroism II – the global/cosmic threat

Top of the tree when it comes to threat, and therefore, to opportunities for Heroism, is the threat to all existence, or so it might seem at first glance. But these threats are so colossal that the specter of actions taken in self-defense again rear up before us. That doesn’t mean that there’s no scope for heroism in this adventures, just that they are more of a minefield than it might initially appear.

At the primal level, the questions were of a threat of sufficient scope to make heroism possible; at this end of the scale, its whether or not anything is or can be achieved by heroic action.

If there is a cosmic threat that the PCs can successfully oppose at little personal risk, incurring a high level of collateral damage, or can oppose more uncertainly with far greater personal risk and the potential for a much lower level of collateral damage, the latter course is heroic.


Despite the scope of the threat, it is a common characteristic of all cosmic-level threats that they have some PC-scale focal point, enabling the PCs to act effectively against them. Quite often, the general plotline is one of investigate, survive, and take opportunities as they present themselves until that focal point can be identified. Quite often, it is not a direct action that ultimately resolves Cosmic threats, but an action that starts a string of progressively larger dominoes falling. “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world” to quote Archimedes; these adventures are all about fulfilling those requirements.

In the meantime, characters tend to deal with second-order effects – consequences – and with localized manifestations of the bigger problem. If there’s an army of demons invading, you fight them one demon, or small groups, at a time, to buy yourself time to solve the larger problem, and that holds plenty of scope for heroism.

It’s not a Deus-ex-machina if it only happens at PC instigation.


If it’s rare for a national crisis or international threat to be resolved in one adventure, it is even more rare for a cosmic-level threat to be so isolated. It does happen – my players will remember the World of strange lines, and the adventure set there, “Reflections Of Strange Lines” – I discuss the meaning and relevance of the title in Hints, Metaphors, and Mindgames: Naming Adventures (Part 2). In brief, the PCs stumble across a cosmic-level threat that is poised to escape the prison in which it has been bottled up, and re-lock the prison gate. It’s not a permanent solution – the threat is still out there – but all the immediacy has been taken out of the situation.

But that’s an exception, not the general rule. On almost all other occasions that come to mind, cosmic-level adventures that are resolved in the scope of the one adventure were unsatisfying because there wasn’t enough scope to make them as epic as they should have been.


Cosmic almost demands melodrama; Cosmic-level threats are always over-the-top in at least one respect. There is some scope for nuance, but for the most part your focus has to be tickling an increasingly-jaded sense of awe and wonder.

Roleplay Opportunities

Surprisingly, there can be quite a large capacity for roleplay in cosmic-level plots, because for the most part, characters can’t deal with the whole, only a small segment of the bigger picture. Even resolving the primary threat means reducing it to character-sized chunks – and that, in turn, makes it small enough for character interaction.

Picture Framing

One of the other problems that will be faced is that cosmic-level threats tend to be complicated and technical. Clarity in description has to be your primary goal, and what little scope remains for descriptive tone is more than consumed by the mandatory tonal requirements – awe and melodrama. What little tonal differentiation is possible must be achieved within the scope of those requirements.

That represents a special challenge for the GM to overcome, and can lead to the impression that all Cosmic-level threats are tonally identical.

The solution to this problem is to ensure that there is a consistent tonal quality when the action focuses on the smaller scale sub-problems, where you have greater latitude to pick and choose. The dominant tonal themes in such passages of “Reflections Of Strange Lines”, for example, were curiosity and reflection (in the emotional sense).

Comparing the opportunities

When I first began planning this article, I expected a relatively orderly progression in the characteristics of each type of Opportunity for Heroism. In some respects – tonal freedom, for example – that was what I found. But in others, such as roleplaying opportunities, and even whether or not actions could qualify as Heroism, a far more complicated picture emerged. Cosmic level threats exhibit some of the same problems in this respect as primal Us-Vs-Them situations, for example. There are similarities across all the examples at a given scale of Heroic Challenge – but there are differences as well. Each classification has at least one parameter in common with another. Taken as a whole, there is very little consistency and yet there is a general cohesiveness to the overall picture that emerges.

Conclusion: Heroism Is As Heroes Do

GMs are always looking to confront the PCs with challenges. Unless each and every decision is taken on purely self-interested grounds, that automatically manifests in opportunities for Heroism; alignment doesn’t matter, nobility is irrelevant, altruism or its lack makes no difference, except to the scale and “purity” of the Heroism; and even when all decisions are based in pure self-interest, there is still scope for reluctant heroism.

The opposite of Heroism is villainy (not cowardice) – and, since an opportunity for Heroism is also an opportunity for Villainy, thinking about your adventures in terms of the opportunities for Heroism that they provide is a very useful tool. The next time you are doing campaign or adventure planning, give it some thought. In particular, contemplate the significance of any absence of such opportunities, and make sure that your PCs aren’t in the adventure purely to plod from A to B, in plot terms.

Heroes are characters who make a difference. Villains are characters who take advantage of opportunities to be Heroic, for their own gain. You want the PCs in your games to be one or the other – a mealymouthed wishy-washy character somewhere in between benefits no-one.

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New-player Character Immersion Issues: Gambling To An Answer

Skydiving by Piotr Dorabiala)

(Image: / 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”.

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: / 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 / 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 / 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: / Billy Alexander;
Dice Image: / 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.


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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