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Tourism in Sleepland: Sleep management for GMs & other creative people


If you listen to the advice of the experts, you can spend a third of your life sleeping. If the average life expectancy is 78 years (a number chosen for convenience), and ignoring the first 15 as unproductive due to youth, that’s 21 full years down the spout. Even a 1% saving in sleep required gets you almost 1840 hours more productivity over your lifetime – that’s equivalent to almost 46 forty-hour working weeks, or a full year (not counting annual leave). A 5% saving gets you an extra FIVE YEARS of effort.

Sleep Management is one of the great skills that very few talk about. It’s something that comes naturally to some people and not at all to others. But any improvement yields big results on a cumulative basis. It can also yield huge benefits in the short-term, when you really have to hit a deadline, regardless of whether it’s self-imposed or the result of external factors.

My sleep regime (or lack thereof) is – depending on your point of view – either notorious or legendary amongst my family and friends (including my players in the latter group). When I was much younger, I once put in 7 days continuous effort in campaign and game prep (no sleep whatsoever) and then GM’d for 18 straight hours on the 8th sleepless day. And, at the end of it, the game was concluded not because I was running out of steam, but because my players were. Admittedly, I then slept for 23 hours straight.

I doubt I could do that these days, but the mere fact that this was humanly possible without resorting to illegal substances – or even over-the-counter medications – means that I know a thing or two about sleep, and the lack of it, that I’ve learned the hard way. As little as ten years ago. I would routinely go without sleep once or twice a fortnight on non-successive nights. Sure, I had to sleep a little longer when I did hit the hay – an extra two hours, say – and I did lose perhaps an hour to stay-awake measures and another to sleep-deprived inefficiency – but that’s still an extra four hours of productivity when it mattered.

In this article, I’m going to share some of the lessons that I’ve learned over the years, including some quite recent ones. In some cases, this is backed up by modern medical science, in others it seems to contradict that science, or even not to have been tested experimentally. Which means that YMMV when applying any of these techniques. These are patterns and tips & tricks that work for me, or that I have personally observed as applying to me. They may apply differently to you.

I should state up front that I am not a medical professional, and this should be taken into consideration when assessing the advice and techniques contained in this article.

I strongly recommend that you do not operate heavy machinery or motor vehicles in a sleep-deprived state.

Apply common sense and a safety-first attitude when considering any of the techniques provided before you start, and if you suffer any ill- or unexpected effects, stop and consult your doctor.

restfulness spectrum

Alertness Levels

Something that needs to be clarified up-front is the difference between alertness and being able to function in a low-intensity situation like GMing or performing game prep. Alertness is something that enables quick responses to changing situations and is what you need to operate motor vehicles and the like. Functionality is not enough for such purposes; though it can seem sufficient under ordinary circumstances, responsiveness to any sudden changes in the situation is compromised. The goal of these techniques is to restore sufficient wakefulness for low-intensity purposes; any improvement in alertness levels is strictly limited, short-term, and unreliable.

You can be in a fit state to function creatively without being fully rested if you have to. Your thinking may be slowed, it may take longer and more double-checking may be needed to eliminate errors, but the whole point of a low-intensity situation is that you are able to take as much time as you need to. Only when tiredness reaches the point of exhaustion, bringing a person to a state of confusion where thinking itself is fuzzy and difficult does it become impossible to perform at this level.

This establishes two end-points in an entire range of “tiredness”, from being sufficiently rested to be fully alert to having just enough functionality to get you home and into bed without falling asleep en route. The techniques that will be discussed range in effectiveness from:

  • Methods sufficient to get you past the point of exhaustion and back into a state somewhere in the yellow-green zone for a medium-short period (say, 3-4 hours) despite being in the Red Zone; to
  • Methods of sustaining a reasonable level of alertness for a protracted medium term of a week or two on reduced sleep; to
  • Methods of reducing sleep requirements by a more modest degree over a longer term period.

How Much Is Enough Sleep?

This is an impossible question to answer definitively. There are so many influencing factors – individual metabolism, diet, general health, comfort, long-term exhaustion, activity levels in the preceding wakeful period… there are simply too many variables and not all of them can be adequately quantified.

Nevertheless, collective human experience can be applied to achieve a statistical foundation that will broadly apply to everyone.

How Alert is Alert?

It must also be stated that individual capabilities vary considerably. Some people can be more creative when almost flat on their backs from exhaustion than others seem to achieve at the best of times. Cognition and Reasoning vary tremendously from individual to individual. The more you have, the more you can sacrifice to tiredness while retaining an acceptable degree of capability.

But impairment from lack of sleep is also something that varies from individual to individual. So even that general statement, rubbery and qualified and vague as it is, can’t be relied on as a broad statement, only as a trend or probability, something that’s likely to be more true than not, more often than not.

Objective measurements tend to come in three or four subcategories – physical activity capacity, reflexes and responsiveness, logic & memory, and analytic capacity & problem-solving. There are no agreed standards for what levels of each define which levels of alertness, leaving only subjective statements and personal experiences as general guidelines.

That said, great strides have been made in the understanding of brain activity during sleep, and most sleep research has stepped over these vague but real-world-functional measures directly to definitions based on the easily-measurable and quantifiable measurements of such brain activity, which is then related back to the real world by correlating subjective effects and statements with measured brain activity.

The Sleep Cycle

Sleep can be broken into two parts: a 30-minute part and a 60-minute part. These two form a repeating cycle while you sleep, from the moment you actually fall asleep. The 30-minute part is light sleep, the 60-minute part is deep sleep. The 30-minute section can restore alertness temporarily without impacting actual tiredness. The benefits are superficial typically short-term, relative to getting sufficient deep sleep to actually recover.

One question that has not yet been adequately answered is the degree of individual variation in these time-frames. Some people under some circumstances might require only a 15-minute period of light sleep before entering deep sleep, some people might have a deep-sleep span of 50 minutes instead of the full hour, or 70 minutes. What’s more, without brain-activity sensors, it would take many years of consistent documentation of sleep patterns for the individual to determine their own sleep cycle. Since most of us don’t have access to such equipment, the best that we can do is assume that we’re average, and then adjust based on subjective experience and experimentation.

The wake-up window

If you are awoken from deep sleep, you feel tired all day. It follows that the 30-minute part of the next sleep-cycle defines the “window” within which you want to awaken. Some studies have found that the effects of waking from deep sleep are equivalent to foregoing an entire sleep cycle.

This effect grows progressively smaller with each completed sleep cycle. Interrupting the first deep-sleep phase in a night’s sleep? You might as well not have gone to sleep at all. Breaking the second deep-sleep phase of the night is almost as bad. Breaking the third is bad, and the worst result that might actually be considered tolerable – though you will suffer for it all day, and will tend to need an extra sleep cycle the next night. Breaking the fourth is somewhat better, and is experienced frequently by those who – for one reason or another – complain about not having gotten enough sleep, the next day, and being somewhat irritable as a result. Breaking the fifth is a fairly mild outcome, and if the person hasn’t accumulated a sleep deficit prior, can actually be overcome for the full day (or at least most of it) using normal morning wake-up routines. Breaking the sixth is prone to inducing a sensation of oversleeping – it feels the same as having broken the third or fourth cycle.

Furthermore, breaking a deep-sleep has a greater effect at the start of that deep-sleep phase than doing so toward the end of the phase, in my experience.

Determining when your wake-up window will fall is a critical element in Sleep Management. It can actually be better to delay going to bed for twenty or thirty minutes, no matter how tired you feel.

The drowsing offset

You can’t simply state that you want to wake up some multiple of 90 minutes after you go to bed, plus a margin, however, because very few of us go to sleep the instant our heads hit the pillow. Instead, there is a period of drowsiness that precedes our actually falling asleep. This can be restful in and of itself, but we can’t assume that it will be adequate in any way for purposes of rest. What we actually want is to wake up O + n . {90} + M minutes after we go to bed, where

  • O is an offset equal to the length of “drowsy time” before we go to sleep, in minutes;
  • n is the number of sleep cycles we experience in a night’s sleep; and
  • M is the margin we allow for us to come out of deep sleep, i.e. how far into the subsequent light-sleep phase we want to be when we actually wake up to maximize the chances of waking in the light-sleep period.

The problem is that it’s impossible to anticipate how long O will be on any given night. If you’re not tired enough, or are under stress, or worried about something, or have a problem that you are trying to solve, or are uncomfortable, or aren’t breathing properly, or any of a hundred other things, it might be quite lengthy.

You can show, mathematically, that O and M should total 30 minutes by thinking of the Offset as “eating into” the 30-minute light-sleep awakening window. You can also show, mathematically, that with no Offset, M should be 15 minutes to maximize the probability of avoiding the deep-sleep zones on either`side of the Window, and that therefore the perfect M is 15 plus the offset.

You can make an allowance for your subjective impression of how long you usually toss and turn, but such impressions are extremely unreliable. I achieve best results assuming an offset of 5-to-10 minutes and a 10-minute margin.


If you aren’t asleep in ten-to-fifteen minutes, get up and do something for ten-to-twenty minutes before trying again, resetting alarm clocks appropriately, so that you reset the Offset. If you don’t, you risk crowding your wake-up point into the following deep-sleep phase and feeling more tired all day than you would getting one sleep-cycle less.

Seven-point-five hours plus adjustments: A full night’s sleep (5 cycles)

The traditional advice is that you should try for a full eight hours of sleep. Understanding how the sleep cycle works in the real world, with an offset at the start and a 30-minute window at the end, this begins to make sense. However, aiming for a full eight hours means that your wakeup point is crowding the next deep-sleep phase dangerously close, especially if you have a low offset on any given night. That’s because 7.5 hours plus a full 30-minute window totals eight hours; the offset, by delaying the start-point of the window, also leaves a margin of the same size at the end of the eight hours.

If we could be assured of a fifteen-minute offset each and every time, this would be ideal; as it is, for a full night’s sleep, I target 7 hrs 50 minutes.

If I’m extremely tired and want to crowd an extra sleep cycle into the night, the target would be 9 hrs 20 minutes. I’ll come back to this sleep-target later in the article – it is actually significant.

Six hours plus adjustments: Alertness (4 cycles)

Take another look at the Alertness Level graph. If you assume that it represents total recovery from however tired you were to being fully rested, and that this requires 5 sleep cycles, you can estimate the effectiveness of a shorter period of rest. Four-fifths of the way up is therefore an approximation of how rested you will be after 4 cycles. The result is roughly 1/4 of the way up from “Rested, Alert”.

Another way to look at it is in terms of wake-time. If we fit a full night’s sleep into a natural 24-hour cycle, and a full night’s sleep is approximately 8 hours, that leaves about 16 productive hours. In fact, we can usually work on for hours longer than that, but this is still a useful rough indicator; 4/5ths of 16 is 12.8 hours. So, as a rough indicator, going without one cycle of sleep leaves you roughly as tired after approximately 13 hours as you would normally be at your usual bedtime.

If you can normally work – on occasion – two hours beyond your usual bedtime without excessive tiredness, and another hour with some diminishment due to fatigue, adding 13 hours gets you to a full 16-hour working day on one sleep-cycle less. Plus, of course, you get to work for that extra sleep-cycle, a further 90 minutes of productive time.

What this shows is that it’s possible to work 17.5 hours every second day without noticeable ill effect. In a seven-day week, even reserving one for catching up on lost sleep, that’s still 4.5 extra hours every week, or roughly – wait for it – 5.85 extra working weeks a year.

And it’s even possible to use this pattern in a more extensive way, because it never takes as much additional sleep to recover from a lack of sleep as the total amount you are short. Two additional sleep cycles once a week can make up for four or five missed cycles during the week, especially if the loss is diffuse. You could forgo one cycle each for five nights in succession, and then make up the shortfall with one extra cycle on each of the remaining two days, or both on the 6th day of the cycle. That’s a time saving of 1.5 x 5 = 7.5 hours a week, less three, giving 4.5 hours per week, once again, which we have already established as sustainable; it’s just a different way of organizing the sleeping patterns.

But that’s to fully rested condition each week; there’s absolutely no reason why you can’t forgo an extra sleep cycle on top of those, each week, and make up the shortfall once a month or so. In fact, spread out this way, you can gain 3 extra sleep-cycles a month, for another 4.5 hours a month on top of what has already been saved from the sandman – carrying the total saved to more than seven extra 40-hour working weeks a year (or more than eight 35-hour weeks, if you prefer!)

Four-point-five hours plus adjustments: A half-night (3 cycles)

This gets you just above half-way between “Wakeful” and “Rested, Alert”. This is the minimum amount of sleep you should have before being safe to operate machinery – for a while. Using the waking-time analysis shows that you are about as tired after 9.5 hours as you would be after 16 hours effort on a full night’s sleep. Adding the three extra hours on top of that gets 12.5 hours, plus the 4.5 hours or so of sleep, gets a total of 16.5 hours. This is 3.5 hours short of a full 24-hour cycle, which is rather a large shortfall, and more than that 3 extra hours, which indicates that this is not sustainable long-term.

However, if a way can be found to re-energize you enough to get you through that extra 3.5 hours – and I offer a number of such techniques later in the article – then this is definitely sustainable in the short-term, and perhaps even the medium term. If that’s the case, then there should be examples of people using this sort of cycle out there somewhere.

The 8-on-4-off, 4-on-4-off, 6-and-1/3-for-30 patterns

And, in fact, there are. Fishing boats and naval vessels in wartime use this sort of pattern all the time. In fact, there are a number of variations. The best known of these is probably the heel-and-toe watch where people work four-hours-on and then have four hours off.

I’ve only ever heard of this pattern being employed in emergency situations of sustained duration in an acutely short-handed situation, or when cramming for major exams. Even though the proportions are exactly the same as a normal night’s sleep, the four-hours-off phase is insufficient for 3 complete cycles. In essence, this is 2 sleep-cycles twice a day, leaving those who experience it one sleep-cycle short per day. Now, that’s already been shown to be sustainable, but this pattern of sleep cycles has three substantial flaws:

  1. It makes no allowance for recovery time, and so accumulates sleep debt;
  2. It incurs at least twice as much overhead because you have to go to sleep twice as often; and
  3. It almost certainly involves waking from a state of deep sleep, inducing a condition known as Sleep Inertia.

As best I can determine, this pattern was proposed as viable following the determination that astronauts had trouble sleeping for a full eight hours in zero gravity, and consequently suffered varying degrees of impairment as missions progressed in duration. In fact, it appears to be a simplified interpretation of Segmented Sleep (see below) shown to be effective during NASA experimentation based on this problem. This was recommended to me while I was attending University as a method of maximizing study time when under pressure, the suggestion being made that it was much easier and more effective to study for 90 minutes and then take 30 off, repeat four times, then sleep for four hours, than it was to sustain study for a longer time span. The theory seems to have been that this accumulated enough study for the brain to be able to process what was learned during the shortened sleep period, like backing up a hard drive more frequently.

It didn’t work for me at the time, and I can’t recommend it as a technique for the reasons listed above. If things are really that bad, there are more effective approaches.

Heel-and-toe watches were often stood in the World Wars. I don’t know about other times. They are reportedly at their most effective when the “on” part of the cycle involves high stress and intensity of activity, which one would expect to encounter during wartime, because people could not sustain their attention levels to the required degree for longer periods. The “four hours on” thus becomes the operational parameter used to determine the sleeping patterns required. If there were three shifts of staff for each position, a 4-on-8-off pattern would be possible, though I suspect that people would have trouble falling asleep only four hours after waking; this would then become a 4-on-8-off-4-on-8-sleep pattern, which is something close to normality. The unanswered question would be whether eight hours of non-sleep recreation would sufficiently restore attention levels for this approach to work; personally, I would have my doubts.

However, in a military situation during wartime, three shifts is a luxury that can’t be tolerated. That extra shift can accommodate an extra gunner, or fire control officer, or pilot, or whatever. Which brings us back to the basic 4-on-4-off heel-and-toe pattern.

This suffers from all three of the flaws listed in the previous section. 4 hours of sleep might be better than none, but that’s about all it has going for it.

I had never heard of this approach until I saw it on a documentary – I forget which one, it was something that I caught the tail-end of by accident. A week or two later, I saw it tested on Mythbusters in the segment ‘Crab Napping‘. Essentially, it is a 20-minute nap every six hours for 30 hours straight, which is reportedly enough to be twice as good as no sleep at all during a similar timespan. This brutal schedule is routinely employed on Crab fishing vessels by the crew since it totals only 5.26% time lost to sleep over that 30-hour shift.

Astonishingly, as you will see if you follow the link above, the myth that these regular power naps were twice as good as sleeplessness was confirmed by the experiment performed by the Mythbusters team – fully rested, the two subjects scored 100 out 100, fully sleep-deprived, they scored 27/100 and 34/100 respectively, and (after recovering) employing the power-nap method the scores were 64/100 and 81/100, respectively. However, to say that they didn’t feel alert at the time is an understatement, and since confidence is such a large element of successful GMing, I would reject this approach – unless you really, really, need it.

Polyphasic Sleep – exotic Patterns
Of course, these are just a few of the wild and sometimes wacky sleep patterns we humans have experimented with. In fact, there are a whole slew of proposals, each of which has its supporters and adherents, as a read of the rather fascinating Wikipedia page on Polyphasic Sleep will show.

Do they work? That’s a very big question. Let’s just say that they might work for some individuals under some circumstances at some times of the year and leave that surprisingly complicated question at that, okay?

In actual fact, I employed a 3-cycle sleep pattern for many years. It IS sustainable over quite a long period, provided that you accept that inevitably your body will revolt and you WILL sleep 12 hours or so, whether you want to or not. The trumpet of doom won’t wake you, when that happens. On the other hand, once you realize that this is inevitable, you can actually schedule it in advance – say, once every 2 or 3 weeks, you let yourself sleep “until you can’t sleep no more”.

There is a second price to pay: such a lengthy sleep will inevitably throw your body clock out. This can be incredibly useful if you need to achieve this effect – for example, transitioning from an unemployed state to an employed state – but it can be a real pain at other times. In effect, this costs about 6 hours of extra sleep every 3 weeks – but gains you an average of 3 hours a day extra, 7 days a week, the rest of that time, for a net gain of about 18 hours a week. That’s roughly 936 hours extra productivity a year – or more than 23 extra 40-hour working weeks in the year.

It also takes time to get used to, and you can lose that adjustment in a single week of holidays.

Even then, you will eventually need to revert for a solid month or so to a normal 8-hour cycle or suffer long-term effects. You therefore have to ask yourself if it’s worth it? At the time, my answer would have been ‘yes’. At my current stage of life, where my sleep is disrupted by medical issues (unrelated to this practice), it is no longer sustainable, so the answer is ‘no’.

Three hours plus adjustments: The minimum? (2 cycles)

While heel-and-toe and other 4-off methods might theoretically represent 4 hours of sleep, or 2.5 cycles, in practice that could only be achieved if the handover and transition from “on” to “off” was instantaneous. Since it can’t be, what we’re really talking about when discussing such a sleep pattern is a 2-cycle sleeping pattern.

Now, two cycles, three times a day – which is to say, 4-on-4-off – in theory actually gets you one more sleep cycle than you would normally get in a standard 16-on-8-off 24-hour day. That’s probably a small concession, given the disrupted sleep cycle, the potentially-lengthy overheads three times a day, the mental fatigue from periods of intense concentration, etc.

But how about if we take all that high-impact concentration and stress out of the picture? Would it then be possible to cope on a single two-cycle sleep period a day and then put in a full day’s work, or something approaching it?

The answer is yes – with caveats.

This is working an extra 4.5 hours past your normal bedtime in a day, then getting back up at your usual hour the next morning. If you map that out on the restedness graph, you will find that it gets you exactly to the “Wakeful” mark – enough to write or plot or GM, at least for a while, but not enough that you should operate machinery. Using the “proportion of 16 hours” calculation, you wake up as tired as you would be after putting in a ten-hour regular day. That leaves 6.5 hours of regular day before you’re as tired as you normally are when you go to bed, another 2 hours of capacity beyond that, and one final hour of extremely-diminished capacity. But it does mean that over a 48-hour period, you get 30 hours of work done.

Whereas, operating normally you would only get… 32 hours of work capacity?

What this does is sacrifice two hours of activity capacity on the second day to get an extra four-and-a-half hours of work done on the first day. And it does pretty much mandate that you will need an extra sleep cycle on the third day.

In the long term, then, this is actually less efficient than getting enough sleep, and much less efficient than managing to sneak an extra sleep cycle every second day. It’s what you do when you have a deadline that you absolutely have to hit.

My experience is that 3 hours after your usual bedtime you start to zone out, and need to refresh yourself. When you do so, you actually gain more than the 1.5 hours remaining – you usually gain another 3 hours of alert time, if not more. And you can repeat the refreshing process a number of times. You can’t stave off sleep indefinitely, but you can come close to it – for a while.

And that makes this sleep pattern pretty much worthless.

One-point-five plus adjustments: Worse than nothing? (1 cycle)

And if 2 cycles a day is worthless, 1 cycle is doubly so. You wake up in a state equivalent to half-way between “wakeful” and “minimum function” and feel more tired than if you had actually gone without sleep. At best, you awaken as tired as you would normally be three hours before your normal bedtime. This puts you solidly in the red, “Sleep-deprived” zone – so ineffective the next day that you might as well be asleep. And falling asleep is something that you will have to fight against repeatedly, all the next day. You will have periods in which you completely zone out, or actually doze off. Forget it.

No Sleep At All: Not the worst case

Which brings me to the final configuration: No Sleep At All. There are ways of repeatedly restoring you to almost full alertness – say, to a bit above the “rested” mark – at the price of accelerating progress towards the “Minimum Function” mark each time. This also builds up your total sleep deprivation, meaning that when you do finally sleep, you will need extra cycles, probably for a couple of days, to recover.

These methods don’t work as well after 1-2 cycles of sleep, for some reason.

Broken Cycles

Let’s assume for a minute that circumstances require you to get as much sleep as you can, but to wake up in the morning with an incomplete deep-sleep cycle, which will make you feel tired all day – defeating the purpose of the “as much sleep as you can get” notion. This sort of thing happens when you know that tomorrow is going to be a late night, but you have a fixed wake-up time that can’t be altered – which makes it more common an event than you might think.

Recovery from a broken sleep cycle begins with the next complete sleep cycle. However, the second sleep cycle is often deeper and more regenerative than the first. Given these facts, it becomes clear that the plan for being as rested as possible is to have your third sleep cycle be the one that is broken, not the last one of the night.

To determine what time to set your alarm to in order to break your sleep at the right time, count forwards from your expected time of going to sleep by three hours; that’s the earliest point in time. Then count backwards from the wakeup time required by an hour-and-a-half, plus twenty minute waking margin in the middle. That’s the latest point in time. If the two are more than 90 minutes apart, move your “latest” point back another sleep cycle, so that the pattern is cycle-cycle-broken cycle-break-cycle-cycle. You will be far more alert the next day and into the following evening than you would be with a cycle-cycle-cycle-cycle-broken-cycle pattern, even though you have lost 20 minutes sleep in the middle of the night.

That leaves only the question of what to do in that twenty minutes. I recommend (1) use the bathroom; (2) 10 minutes light reading; (3) drink half a glass of water (not too cold); (4) go back to bed. It will probably take you longer to go back to sleep than it did when you first retired for the night; these steps are intended to help you relax and overcome this problem.

Staying Awake

It’s not easy going without sleep for a night. It can be done, and almost all of us have had to do so from time to time for whatever reason, but most people try to avoid it. When I was younger, and the sleep that I did get was of much higher quality, I was a bit of an anomaly because I did this regularly, squeezing extra hours of creativity into the day. Even now, I sometimes get so wrapped up in the creative process that I lose track of time and discover that it’s way past the time I should be in bed.

When you set your own schedule, as I can now do, that’s not a big deal – the worst that might happen is that I sleep through something that I wanted to watch on TV; but when you’re part of the majority with “daytime obligations” – work, appointments, whatever – that can quite often mean that there’s not enough time to actually sleep before you have to get your normal day underway. I used to be part of that majority, and evolved a number of techniques that have gotten me through the day that follows.

The Gray Zone

My experience is that at some point, tiredness will lead you to zone out. If you can get through that period, you will be rejuvenated and able to carry on until your usual bedtime rolls around again – and a couple of nights of normal sleep is all that you then need to recharge your batteries. Alternatively, an extra sleep cycle when you do hit the sack can be enough. So a lot of these techniques can be considered “Gray Zone” survival techniques, where the goal is simply to refresh yourself for long enough to get through the period where you are in danger of dropping off.

None of these techniques will do better than restoring you to “Rested, Alert” status, and you will travel back down the tiredness scale more quickly; if you get through the gray zone before again reaching the orange status between wakeful and minimum functionality, your tiredness will stabilize at the new level. If not, you need to apply one of the Gray Zone survival tricks, successive use of the same technique gives diminishing returns.

Depending on just how exhausted you are, employing one Gray Zone technique may not be enough. Eventually, you will run out of steam. You need to time it so that this happens at your normal bedtime, or exactly one sleep cycle sooner, or your body clock will get out of sync and you’ll have trouble getting enough sleep for a few nights. When that happens, often the best solution is another sleepless night. One of the most effective ways to reset your internal body clock is, in fact, the all-nighter that gets you to bed at the right time.

Adrenalin Rush

Excitement can go a long way. I don’t recommend thrill-seeking as a way of staying awake, but playing a video-game with a lot of action can serve the same function in a more socially-acceptable way. The big problem with the Adrenalin Rush as a Gray Zone survival technique is that it wears off very, very quickly. So this usually needs to be combined with another technique, one that lasts longer. In effect, you are buying time for that slower treatment to kick in and get you through the rest of the Gray Zone.

The Beverage Refreshment

Coffee and Tea can go a long way, especially if they are taken with a reasonable level of sweetener. Drink them black, because warm milk has a soporific effect that can undermine the whole point of the exercise. Use cold water if you need to adjust the temperature of the beverage.

These need to be stronger than you normally take the beverage, because your body is accustomed to that normal level of stimulation. I’ve gotten into the habit of making my usual tea and coffee about half normal strength – a level teaspoon of instant coffee instead of a heaped one, for example – so that I have that margin for a stronger cup when I need it.

Cold drinks which contain caffeine can also be effective when the environment is especially hot or cold, but I find they are less so than ordinary coffee, simply because much of their kick comes from sugar content – and the sugar rush wears off almost as quickly as Adrenalin.

Thermal Impact

The more comfortable the temperature, the easier it is to go to sleep. It follows that – within reasonable limits – thermal discomfort can help keep the Gray Zone at bay. However, heat is less effective in this capacity than cold.

This has given rise to my current “favorite” technique, the Thermal Shock Shower. I take a shower and get the water to a comfortable temperature. I then turn the heat up gradually until it is as hot as I can stand – a value that changes depending on conditions and mindset – and hold it there for a minute. Then I turn the hot water off (or at least way down) with a single movement, and leave it cold for as long as I can stand it, then turn the hot water straight back up to where it was until I’m no longer cold. This “shock treatment” is good for between two and four hours at something better than “rested, alert” status.

The Cold-Water Splash

Splashing cold water on the face and hands, or on the back of the neck, has been a treatment for tiredness for many, many years. That’s because it works, at least for a while.

Food and Sleep

The larger the meal, the more tired you feel. When you’re already heading for the gray zone, this can push you over the edge.

For many years, I did not have a refrigerator. Since I was unable to preserve food, and because it was more economical, I got used to eating one large meal a day – and existing on nothing but tea and coffee the rest of the time. That one big meal, four to six hours before bedtime, got me through the day.

What you eat also has a big effect, second only to the total quantity of food. Some sugar is good for a quick boost, but too much leads to too big a crash when the sugar rush wears off. Too much carbohydrate can also be problematic; it takes energy to actually digest such food, and even though there is a net energy gain at the end, the short-term effects when in the Gray Zone can overwhelm your system. A light breakfast cereal – one that doesn’t contain too much sugar – with ice-cold milk can be very effective at buying you an extra hour or so to get through the Gray Zone, especially if combined with a beverage.

The Walk Restorative

This works best in winter, or late at night in summer. Walk up to the nearest corner and back, or around the block. Dress appropriately for the conditions, of course. It doesn’t have to be a long walk, but most creative activities are carried out sitting down – getting the blood circulating (in combination with a little thermal shock if possible) can be very restorative.

You aren’t walking enough to consider it exercise, except of the very lightest variety. You don’t want to trigger a massive adrenalin rush because that is usually accompanied by a wave of exhaustion when it ends. It’s nothing more than stretching your legs. But it works.

For many years, this was my favorite technique. Physical disability means that even a walk this long is a struggle, and that makes this too strenuous an activity to get me through the Gray Zone except on my very best days.

Light Exercise

This ups the ante on the restorative walk. The idea is to perform just enough exercise to get the heart-rate up and the adrenalin flowing when you find yourself starting to drop off, then return to whatever you were doing. Repeat as necessary. Sixty seconds of jumping jacks, or jogging on the spot, or whatever, can work wonders.

There are a couple of caveats, however; if there is any gap between the end of the exercise and resuming work, your body can take this as a signal to crash. Plan your exercises accordingly. And, number two, it’s very easy to go too far, exercise too hard or for too long. Stop as soon as you feel more alert!

Any sort of exercise that is carried out sitting down, with the possible exception of an exercise bike, is usually less effective than one that involves moving around.

Shampoo Your Hair

Why this works, I’m not entirely sure, but a vigorous shampooing – even of clean hair – can be unexpectedly restorative. I have a number of plausible theories to explain the phenomenon, but wouldn’t bet on any of them being correct, or even being part of the story.

We’re used to not going to bed when our hair is wet. That’s one. Another is that most heat loss occurs through the scalp, and that oily/greasy hair retains more of that heat, inducing greater drowsiness. A third is that the “vigor” of the shampooing is enough physical activity to qualify as light exercise, or is sufficiently stimulating in it’s own right. The truth could be any or all of these, or none of them. All I know is that it works, especially if combined with a shave (for the men) and the Thermal Shock Shower described earlier (which should follow the shampooing for maximum effect).

The Power Nap

A power nap is a short sleep period that doesn’t last long enough to enter the deep-sleep phase. Fifteen or twenty minutes shut-eye can keep you going when all else fails.

Power Nap success hinges on three factors. First, you need to be comfortable, especially in terms of the temperature, so that you can fall asleep quickly. Second, you need to shut out external factors that carry an awareness of the time – travel masks to shut out light are cheap on the internet (my current ones cost just 45 cents Australian). And last, you need a bullet-proof way to wake yourself up – a kitchen timer can work because it can be quickly set to twenty or thirty minutes, but if you sleep through it, you’re toast.

The bathtub snooze

I used to use this technique regularly, but my current bathtub is too small. You need a tub of exactly the right size – one that lets you lie down comfortably but with Zero chance of your head slipping below the waterline when the tub is filled to chest height. Run the water hot and just relax. You can doze off if you like – the whole point of the bathtub size is making sure that it’s safe to do so. The water will cool while you sleep, becoming just uncomfortable enough to wake you at the end of a single sleep cycle (at worst) or a power nap, in effect combining the Thermal Shock technique with a power nap. This technique can be good for six to eight hours of further activity, the best of any of the techniques given here; it was the unavailability of this tool that led me to come up with the Thermal Shock shower.

The impact of illness

I don’t recommend using any of these techniques when you’re unwell in any way. Illness makes us feel tired because your body is diverting resources to fighting off the bug, forcing it not to do so will only make matters worse. What’s more, one of the impacts of sleep deprivation is a weakening of the immune system, which is a double-whammy when you’re already under the weather.

Injuries, on the other hand, can be quite useful; pain is a known stimulus. However, it’s also a distraction; what good is it to gain thirty percent more activity time if you are only 50% effective throughout the day? It follows that this is walking a knife-edge between side-benefit on the one hand and negative impact on the other.

It follows that if you are injured, you can try and take advantage of the fact, spinning an existing negative into a positive, however minor; if you aren’t, don’t court an injury, the risk is not worth the reward.

I have a back condition that gives me moderate to severe pain almost continuously; I’ve experienced just one completely pain-free day in three-and-a-half years (and I dread such, because it’s an invitation to overdoing things, making the subsequent day agony). To deal with this pain, I have prescribed surgical-grade painkillers. Because excessive activity makes the condition worse, and at least some part of that worsening is permanent, I avoid these painkillers as much as possible; pain serves as an early warning when I’m pushing my limits. Secondary considerations are that painkillers can be addictive, and that the body builds up a tolerance to them; when I do need to take one, I don’t want it to be ineffective. So I save them for when I really, really need them.

Still, I don’t think this is what they have in mind when they talk about suffering for your art.

Combinations and effectiveness

Some of these techniques are good for a quick pick-up, but don’t last very long. Others are less effective at restoring flagging energies but can produce a longer-lasting effect. But their greatest levels of effectiveness are only realized when they are implemented in combinations, and can’t actually be predicted by their effects in isolation.

While I have no evidence to offer on the point, I suggest that each person will respond differently to both effects in isolation and effects in combination. One point that definitely makes a difference is timing – I try to establish a rhythm or routine. One technique “each hour on the hour”, as it were, is more effective than implementing them at set intervals.

The Pattern of Habits

The human mind loves to construct habits, patterns, and routines. We are wired to do so by evolution because these all enable essential activities to be done by “autopilot” leaving cranial capability available for the unexpected, like noticing the sabretooth lurking in the brush up ahead. In terms of the way our minds process visual signals, this is the basis of all optical illusions, and also relates directly to the flaws in humans as witnesses.

This propensity can be turned to our advantage.

The Wake-up Routine

Having a distinctive wakeup routine for the mornings enables us to repeat that routine later in the day when tired, fooling the mind into waking up again – at least for a while, for example.

My habit is not to lie in bed, but to get up as soon as I awake. I shower and brush teeth, grab the coffee cup and start making a coffee on my way back to the bedroom to get dressed, starting the power-up procedure on my laptop/computer on the way, complete the coffee-making procedure when dressed for the day, and then visit the various websites that I need to check daily in a routine sequence. Only when all these steps are complete, in this fixed sequence, do I start my activities for the day.

The Sleep-ready Habit

In my experience, there are actually two different habits that tell the mind to prepare to shut down for the day. The first is that we get used to shutting down for the day a certain number of hours past our major meal of the day; the mind can sometimes be fooled by replacing that meal with the first of two much smaller, lighter, meals. This habit can also be tricked if we develop a habit of always finishing our meals with a particular beverage, with dessert, or with a specific activity; by skipping that activity, the brain is fooled (for a while) into thinking that the meal is not yet finished, and therefore the clock to bed-time has not yet started counting down.

The second is that we develop shut-down routines. Avoiding these doesn’t help keep you awake, but failure to carry them out can make it harder to actually fall asleep when we do go to bed, and that can in turn play hob with getting the expected amount of sleep, impacting on our wakefulness the next day. That means that whenever you DO call it a day, it’s important to finish your day in the exact same way that you usually do.

Side-tip: Jet lag
I’m lucky, in that I don’t suffer very much from jet-lag, despite not sleeping very much when traveling by plane. It’s just like staying up late, and the same tricks can work. By combining the wake-up techniques with an appropriate time-shift on the sleep-ready routines, it’s not that difficult to manage what jet-lag I experience. That said, my international travel is relatively limited in terms of destination, so I can’t guarantee results. A better and more effective technique is to start to shift your bedtime to what you want it to be in the new time-zone before you travel.

The influence of daylight

For untold millennia, humans were adjusted to a day-night cycle regulated by the sun. Even the invention of fire didn’t change that very much, because away from the fire, it was still dark. Things only started to change with the electric light bulb, when – for the first time – it became possible to bathe the environment in light, shutting out the night.

A lot of people think that we’re still ruled by the influence of this day-night cycle, and that our sleep-ready countdown is actually based on the onset of twilight rather than the eating of the main meal. My experience is that there is an influence, but that the meal is the larger factor, simply because after a heavy meal we’re always a little sluggish and tired. However, this is very much an urban perspective, and I’ve lived long enough in the country to recognize that the degree of impact of this influence varies with where you live.

The way I see it, when it’s dark out and you are surrounded by light, it creates an isolated environment around you. It doesn’t matter how dark it is outside, so long as it isn’t dark where you are; this just hides the environment from your perception.

That said, this pattern, too, can be manipulated to benefit our alertness when tired. My current residence starts to get dark inside relatively early in the day – there’s a wall between it and the afternoon sun – and that can trigger “twilight” in the subconscious. Being aware of this, I turn my lights in the work-room on at about 3 PM each day, replacing the fading light with a subjectively-equal degree of illumination. As a result, I don’t actually experience twilight, and my body continues to tick over in “daylight” until I’m ready for it not to do so. I can trigger “twilight” just by going to my kitchen without having turned the lights on, engaging the secondary habit of “sleep is X hours away”; this is because there is a street light just across the street outside of the kitchen window that provides some light but not full illumination.

In my old apartment, the situation was quite different. It had very good natural afternoon light until quite late in the day, and the kitchen was effectively in the same room as the work-room/living room. Again, I turned the living room light on just before twilight began to fall – about 5 PM in winter, about 6:30PM in summer – but to trigger “twilight” when I wanted it, I used a lower wattage of light bulb in the bedrooms. There was also a lot less illumination from outside.

I’ve also found that a pair of mild sunglasses can be used to trigger “twilight” even during daylight hours.

Designing a “twilight trigger” depends on your individual circumstances, and careful attention to developing the pattern that you want to experience. Complicating things is that sunset moves each day, and the amount of change depends on your latitude, altitude, and surroundings. Nor are the benefits all that clear-cut; they certainly aren’t enough on their own, but by making other stay-awake techniques that little bit more effective, there can be big yields in return for the effort.

The vagaries of body clocks

I’ve heard and read a lot of nonsense about body clocks over the years. I discovered way back in the early 80s that everyone has their own body clock, their own preferences for when they want to sleep. I learned the hard way that if I need to routinely get up early in the morning, I need more sleep the night before; I am a natural night owl. This factor alone is worth an extra sleep cycle per day.

This same phenomenon means that some people adapt to working a night shift more readily than others.

My preferred cycle is to awaken between 10 and 11 AM; that permits me to get by on 4 sleep cycles in complete comfort, and when I was younger, I could routinely get along on three cycles every second day. For every 2 sleep cycles or part thereof that I move this wake-up point back in time on a regular basis, I need to add one cycle to the total amount of sleep per night. Let’s see how that works:

  • Wake at 10 AM – get up after 3-4 sleep cycles of 90 mins each – bed at 4 AM / 5:30 AM alternating.
  • Wake between 8:30 and 10 AM – get up after 4-5 sleep cycles – bed at 1 AM / 2:30 AM alternating.
  • Wake between 7 and 8:30 AM (start work at 9AM) – get up after 5-6 sleep cycles – bed at 11:30 PM / 1 AM alternating.
  • Wake between 5:30 and 7 AM (start work at 8AM) – get up after 5-6 sleep cycles – bed at 10 PM / 11:30 AM alternating, and an extra sleep cycle on the weekends to make up for not-quite-enough sleep during the week.

Let’s interpret that another way: how many non-sleeping hours are in my day, and how many are left after 3 hrs/day on maintenance (eating, traveling, hygiene, etc) & travel and 8 hrs a day work?

  • Wake at 10 AM: 18 and 19.5 hrs, alternating; 7 to 8.5 hrs, alternating.
  • Wake at 8:30 AM (start work at 10AM): 16.5 to 18 hrs, alternating; 5.5 to 6 hrs, alternating.
  • Wake at 7 AM (start work at 9 AM): 15 hrs to 16.5 hrs, alternating; 4 to 5.5 hrs, alternating.
  • Wake at 5:30 AM (start work at 8 AM): 13.5 hrs to 15 hrs, alternating; 2.5 to 4 hrs, alternating, and less 1.5 hrs per week.

Project out that difference over a 50-week working year: ideal, 2712.5 hrs non-working awake time; worst-case, 1062.5 hrs. Productive time lost per year just by getting up earlier: 1,650 hours. One thousand, six hundred and fifty hours.

Now, everyone is different. My mother’s an early bird, for example, and – for that matter – so is my father. I have a friend who follows the same basic pattern as I do – but who needs between 1 and 2 extra sleep cycles a night. Unless you just happen to get lucky, as I did back in 1981, it can easily take six months or more of diligent efforts to find the setting your body clock prefers. The benefits of doing so can repay that effort – unless you are already at, or close to, your optimum window.

Voluntary Waking

One benefit of finding your ideal body clock setting – for me at least – comes in the form of voluntary waking. If I know, going to bed, that I need to wake up at a certain time, and I set my alarm clock accordingly, I will usually wake up just before the alarm goes off. It’s not quite reliable enough to discard the alarm completely, but it has been enough to save my bacon a number of times when there’s been a power failure of some sort and the alarm fails to function.

Oversleeping The Mark

As a general rule of thumb, if you need an extra sleep cycle, you are better off going to bed early and getting up at your usual time. This enables you to step straight back into your usual routines without upsetting your body clock. Quite often, tacking an extra sleep cycle onto the end of your night’s sleep will confuse those internal cycles and you will not only wake up tired for several days after, but will encounter difficulties getting to sleep when you want to.

Too late To Sleep

There are profound implications in that fact for sleep management. When it becomes too late in your personal “day” for you to get the amount of sleep that you need and still wake up at something approaching your usual hour, you have only a very limited margin before it becomes less tiring in the medium term to stay up. Failure to do so will often result in that terrible situation in which you are so tired when you go to bed that you have trouble going to sleep. When this happens, it can result in as much as an entire sleep cycle going to waste, and the near certainty that when you wake up you will still be tired and have a disrupted body clock.

The impact of Age

As we age, our sleep requirements go up (as a general rule of thumb). As you age still further, your capacity for deep sleep changes, and you need more frequent sleep in the course of the day. Instead of 90 minutes, you might find that you get 30 minutes of deep sleep in a cycle that’s anywhere from 60-90 minutes in total. The result is that you tend to repeatedly power-nap during the day, whether you want to or not, because the total minutes of deep sleep don’t actually change, they just come in smaller servings. Again, everyone is different, and there are multiple parameters that vary from individual to individual – degree of impact, degree of responsiveness to changing sleep patterns to accommodate the impact, age at which different degrees of impact take effect, and general health and fitness, to name just a few.

What this adds up to is that what works for you in one decade of your life might not work as well a decade or two later, or might be more effective – and that this assessment will no longer apply a decade or two after that.

Manipulating The Patterns

Once you recognize the patterns that apply to you and how they impact your need for sleep, you can start to manipulate these patterns to your advantage. I’ve already touched on various aspects of this practice, but there is still more to the art of effective sleep management.

On the timing of meals

Meal management is also a part of sleep management. The size and timing of meals plays a big part in dictating when we feel ready for sleep, which in turn is a big part of sleep management. I’ve already touched on the impact that the main meal has, but you can actually add to that effect by manipulating the size and timing of the other meals of the day.

Choosing what and how much to eat when you are actually hungry is the worst possible time to make such a decision. It’s far better for weight management to make such decisions before you reach that point. Similarly, it’s far easier for sleep management to make your timing decisions by counting back from when you want to sleep. You get used to eating your main meal so many hours before you go to sleep, and also get used to eating lunch so many hours before the main meal.

These decisions and needs are also affected by the waking time relative to your body clock, because you consume far fewer calories when you sleep. When I can follow my optimum body clock, I rarely eat lunch, and if I do, I subtract those calories from what I consume in my main meal of the day; but if I’ve already been up and around for 5 additional hours because I’ve had to get up for work, I need a substantial lunch, and because I’m sleeping more, a lighter main meal.

The Use of Naps

Naps throw body clocks into a state of confusion, because they are the same as both going to sleep and waking up. It’s what happens afterwards that “resynchs” the body clock and gives the act context – if you go into deep sleep then it’s a “going to sleep” event, if you go right back to work (or better yet, swing into a repetition of your morning routine) then it’s a waking-up event.

One of the big questions in sleep research is just how much deep sleep you actually need, and how effectively naps can be used to make up the rest of your daily sleep requirement.

To be honest, I haven’t used naps often enough to be able to offer much advice here. The few occasions when I have done so suggest:

  1. that the body has 90-minute “alert cycles” that are the waking equivalent of sleep cycles – an hour of intense ability preceded by 30 minutes of more superficial capabilities;
  2. that it’s easier and more effective to go to sleep in that half-hour window than it is in the hour; and
  3. that a nap restarts the clock on these cycles.

But I would not, and cannot, swear to any of these impressions.

It’s clear that power naps work. So does a siesta that contains a full sleep cycle. Beyond that, and the personal observations given above, I can’t offer any guidance on using naps.


If you wear prescription glasses – I do – clean them when you first start feeling tired. It’s astonishing how much harder the mind has to work compensating for blurry vision.

If you don’t do this in time, your eyes will start having difficulty focusing. It can take as much as thirty minutes for them to recover from eyestrain, and that’s if you catch it early – you can do long-term damage to your vision. If you are experiencing eyestrain but for deadline reasons have to keep working, try using a larger font until the very last step in the writing process. But often you will be better served taking a break and focusing on something at a different optical distance.

Personal experience also says that working on any form of digital artwork involves much greater optical concentration, and is more prone to triggering these problems, especially if you are using a small screen. Take that into account.

Sleep Triggers

When you are really tired, there are a few things that help make you drowsy, and therefore encourage you to drowse off when you are tired. I try to avoid these, or to at least plan around them.

Warmth & comfort
The number one triggers are warmth and comfort; both are bad, and in combination, they are worse. Your first instinct when tired is to put your feet up and relax; and if the room is a comfortable temperature, this can be a recipe for sleep-management disaster.

As soon as I feel like getting comfortable and relaxing for a few minutes, I turn my heater off (in winter) – summer is more problematic – and get a drink that is inclined in the direction of discomfort – a hot drink in summer, a cold drink in winter – and then hold out for ten or fifteen minutes. Or maybe I’ll go for a two-or-three minute walk if it’s substantially cooler outside than in the warm environment inside (again turning the heater off).

So long as it is neither hot nor cold, water is a known soporific. If it is at a temperature extreme that is still safe for consumption, it has a reduced effect, but can still have that function, especially if it moves your body temperature a little more towards comfort.

Warm Dairy Products
Warm milk is another soporific which has assumed almost mythological status, but it really works. Whether that is true of low-fat milks or any of the 99-other variations on dairy product, I don’t know. To play it safe, avoid any hot foods with a creamy sauce when tired!

While exercise can trigger an adrenalin response that wakes you up, when that wears off, you can slide into a lethargic state that leaves you more prone to involuntary sleep.


All these effects can be mitigated with a little advance planning. Have your water in the form of a mild coffee and accompany it with a biscuit for the sugar rush, or have an ice-cold soft drink. Immediately precede your exercise period with a snack that will provide both short-term and longer-term energy, and so on.

Tea actually has more caffeine than weak instant coffee. A LOT more. But it seems to be metabolized more quickly. Plan accordingly.

Supplements & Substitutes
There have been rare occasions when I have resorted to (legal) over-the-counter medications like caffeine pills or Energy Drinks. While these can get you past a bump in the sleep-management road, they suffer from a number of problems – they are not as effective as the other techniques offered in this article, and you have serious problems trying to turn them off when they are no longer needed. Finally, protracted use can cause long-term health issues, and that’s without taking the addiction potential into account. With due care and planning, these can supplement your armory, but save them for last resorts.

The drawbacks are amplified with anything stronger. I don’t recommend it except on specific medical advice – and even then, I would get a second opinion.

There is one other type of supplement that deserves a mention here: Multivitamins. It might be my imagination, but I have noticed an increase in drowsiness 15-30 minutes after consuming a dose, sometimes preceded by a short-term increase in alertness. I can only put this effect down to the product supplying some “urgent” need of the body, causing a short-term regenerative effect but increasing physical comfort and well-being not long afterwards – if it really exists at all.


You may be alert, but there are still consequences to not having an ideal amount of sleep. These side-effects are not dangerous unless perpetuated over the long-term without a recovery period – more on that in a little bit – but they are still worth noting. Always have some plan for compensating or protecting against these problems.


This is a big-ticket item. Insufficient sleep is known to weaken the immune system, and being alert and active for longer periods than usual places additional demands on some of the bodily systems, depending on exactly what activities you pursue. You may require a slightly different diet, for example. Monitor your health closely, take extra precautions against colds and influenza, and be sensible about your health.


When tired, memory functions are diminished in clarity, in function, and in speed of recall. In other words, expect your memory to be a little more fuzzy, for you to be unable to remember some things, and for it to take longer to remember what you can recall.

Less obviously, this also affects recall of any events that transpire while your capacities are diminished by tiredness, even when attempting to recall them after sufficient sleep. It’s as though the mental filing clerks get sloppy at every aspect of their job, including filing new memories away.


It’s called “woolly thinking” for a reason. Your cognitive abilities are impacted by tiredness; thinking takes longer, and is more prone to error. Whenever thinking seriously about something, always build at least one reality check into the process if you are tired. And triple-check any decisions that will have a significant effect on your life if your capacities are in any way diminished. And don’t be surprised if you make some downright silly decisions.

Alertness & Reactions

Reactions will be slower and less precise, more prone to over- or under-reaction. This doesn’t matter too much if all you have to do is roll a dice, but can be dangerous if you’re driving.

This is equally true of emotional and psychological reactions, something that is often overlooked. That’s why humans tend to grow short-tempered when tired, but that is only the most overt response; all emotional reactions tend to be exaggerated. Laughter can be triggered over things that we normally would not find humorous, sadness and melancholy and depression are all also less controllable.

Any pre-existing psychological conditions may also be triggered more easily, amplified, or experienced for a longer duration.


All of this adds up to a greater propensity for making mistakes when tired. Every aspect of cognition is impaired to some degree, and that degree increases as you grow more tired. If you have to make major decisions in these conditions, make them early in the day when you are least-affected.

Dealing with, and preparing for, mistakes is at least as important an aspect of sleep management as any other.


There is a big difference between successful sleep management and sleep deprivation. The goal of the first is to keep you functional on no more sleep than you need without causing the second.

Ultimately, there is no better cure for insufficient sleep than sleeping, and human beings are too variable for long-term sleep management without a safety valve.

The Quality of Sleep

How well you actually sleep at night has a major impact. Any sort of injury or health problem impacts directly on this element, entirely aside from the fact that we heal faster while sleeping than awake, simply because the body can devote more resources to the problem it is`trying to overcome.

I suffer from four long-term conditions, each of which impacts on the quality of sleep that I enjoy, and this is a major factor in my inability to get by on reduced sleep relative to my younger life. The degree of impact can be minor when only one of these conditions is ‘acting up’ to massive (when all four are causing trouble at the same time). The near-certainty is that one or more will be a factor on any given night.

What’s more, insufficient sleep and poor-quality sleep are aggravating factors in at least two of these problems. So one problem can trigger another the next day, which in turn impacts the quality of sleep the following night. The upshot is that I need one more sleep cycle now, most nights, compared to – say – a decade ago.

The limits of Endurance

Everyone has a different tolerance for sleep shortage. As far as I can determine, this capacity in the long-term has absolutely no relation to the short-term ability to function on less sleep.

No matter how carefully you manage your sleep, the combination of variables means that you will slowly erode your capacity, and eventually – usually without warning – you will reach your limits of endurance. All sorts of other factors impact on that capacity – everything from quality of sleep to stress to what you ate the day before.

When you reach that limit, no matter what you do, your body will override your desires and sleep. This might involve simply falling asleep, or it might involve sleeping through alarms. It can be almost impossible to wake someone up when they reach the point of exhaustion.

Plan your recovery

The sensible thing to do is therefore not to let things get to this point in the first place. Every two, three, or four weeks (depending on your personal capacities), designate one night when you will go to bed one cycle early and let yourself sleep until you awaken naturally. This WILL throw your body clock out of sync, so it’s best to make this a Friday night so that you can return to something approaching your normal schedule on the Sunday, ready for work the next week.


When I foreshadowed this article, in a sidebar within Bullet To The Point: The Secrets of Stylish Narrative Part 2, I ended with “You will be more creative, more productive, more healthy, and more happy if you get enough sleep.” This remains true, but no matter how necessary and beneficial sleep is, it remains “unproductive time”. Any reduction in that overhead for the maintenance of physical and mental health and efficiency yields big benefits in the amount of productive work that you get done. By a rough estimate, Sleep Management has given me more than a decade of extra productive time over the course of my lifetime – time spent, in part, on improving my work-life balance, and, in part on my campaigns and my craft as a GM.

Are you a better GM now than you were a decade ago? How much better would you be if you had been able to dedicate that decade almost exclusively to improving your skills and creativity?

Sleepland is a nice place to visit, but its not somewhere to linger any longer than necessary. Life, as they say, is too short.

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Super-heroics as an FRP Combat Planning Tool


When you’re designing a battle for an FRP adventure, how do you make it different from every such battle that you’ve had in the past? How do you make it more interesting than a mere dice-rolling exercise? It’s even more difficult than it sounds.

I have a novel solution to offer to these problems, but first I need to explain where this solution comes from.

The Origins of an Idea

It started with a confluence of random circumstances. As part of the process of compiling The Best Of 2012, I had to at least glance over most of the articles published here at Campaign Mastery in that time frame.

Concurrently with that process, I continued to read a book that I mentioned a week or two earlier, “The Superhero Reader” by Hatfield, Heer, and Worcester, and also had a conversation with the co-GM of the Adventurer’s Club [Pulp] Campaign in which we talked (as a side-topic) about the Hero Games series “The Ultimate [X]”, and in particular the PDF he has just acquired, “The Ultimate Energy Projector”, which will complete his set of these sourcebooks.

Fragmentary thoughts from all these sources – plus a couple of web sites about forthcoming movies – came together like a string of tumbling dominoes to present a number of new perspectives on the problem, and my immediate thought was that the notion that derived would make a reasonable article for Campaign Mastery.

I couldn’t get to writing it immediately, and by the time I came to write these words, the idea that I came up with had evolved through several generations to become rather more useful and significant than it was initially. In the process, this article has transitioned from an interesting but abstract theory to a piece of concrete and practical advice. However, I’m not entirely certain how clearly others will perceive the solution and why it should be effective if I offer just that practical advice, so the article will have to replicate the evolutionary path already trodden by my mental meandering.

So that’s what’s on today’s menu: A little RPG Theory, a surprising twist, some practical implementation, and then maybe a little more theory to wrap the whole bundle up and tie a neat little string around it.

Battle Factors Under GM Control

GMs have only a few parameters that they can alter to achieve the goal of making a battle interesting:

  • Antagonists;
  • Environment;
  • Circumstances & Context;
  • Base Antagonist Tactics;
  • Gimmicks.

These deserve a little amplification, principally in terms of the degree of constraint experienced by the GM:


The GM has broad latitude in terms of the antagonists. However, the need to make the battle challenging confines his choices; individual foes cannot be so weak as to fall at a single blow from a PC, and they must be sufficiently capable of inflicting damage on the PCs, which place a minimum capacity on the individual constituents; At the same time, they cannot be so strong that PCs will fall after a single hit, and the collective capability cannot exceed by too great a margin the collective abilities of the PCs. There are also practical difficulties that constrain the number of simultaneous combatants, and finally, metagame restrictions based on the GM’s ability to actually referee the combat.

By the time all these factors are taken into account, the GMs choices in this respect are considerably restrained.


The GM has total control over the environment in which the battle is to take place, save only that it should not be instantly lethal or any participant. Moreover, he can achieve substantial benefits through enabling the antagonists to make intelligent use of the environment to enhance their capabilities and minimize their vulnerabilities.

Circumstances & Context

This variable deals with two separate but related elements, incorporating both the explicit reasons why the battle is taking place and what the rewards of winning appear to be prior to the end of battle and subsequent investigation. Both these factors can have a significant impact on the mindsets of each set of combatants, and can also impose additional environmental factors that can be exploited. The GM has total control over these factors as they relate to the antagonists and in some cases will have limited control over the PC side of the battle.

Base Antagonist Tactics

Surprisingly, Fantasy characters are often broader in the range of available tactics than superheroes, who are far more constrained to respect a theme or concept. The tactics that the antagonists employ are completely within the GMs control, though they may or even should be constrained by some of the other factors discussed, such as environment. The original thrust of this article was going to be the benefits that could be achieved by thinking of fantasy characters as “superheros” and thematically constraining them in order to make it easier to make effective choices in the other parameters.


Everything else that constricts combat options or adds additional options comes under this heading, including supernatural “environmental” considerations, gates to other realms, the accessibility of reinforcements, and magic items that give characters additional combat options. There are a bewildering array of such options available to the GM, and this too can be simplified by the principle of “theming” and “categorizing” the participants along the lines of a superhero battle.

The Relevance Of Super-heroics

In many ways, it’s easier for the GM of a superheroic campaign, simply because there are so many decades of past art upon which to draw, and because most of the sourcebooks for such games employ or describe archetypes in terms of the effect of their abilities, their combat styles, and the ways these can interact.

All you have to do to access this past art is to use a known super-villain as an exemplar of the type of combatant that the PC or NPC is, find an opposition who matches their dance partner, and then draw on the fight as depicted in the comic book for inspiration.

For example, if you have a character who is a strong and nimble combatant with relatively few special abilities, and a foe who is much stronger but less nimble, you could draw on a battle between Spider-man and The Rhino (who doesn’t wear a suit of power armor in the comics. Or, if the enemy is a wizard who likes to toss lightning bolts, you might base your battle circumstances on one of the many battles between Spider-man and Electro.

Effectively, this puts every writer and artist who has ever worked on the comics “on staff” as creative consultants to the GM. If there’s a particularly interesting gimmick, tactic, or circumstance in the comic, all you have to do is translate it back into fantasy terms and you’re all set.

Every issue of a comic is likely to contain at least one combat sequence. It’s necessary for the creators of that combat sequence to overcome the same hurdle that you’re facing – the need to make the fight interesting. Why not copy their solutions?

For example, let’s take a cold-based character and a combat sequence in a factory. There’s a furnace for smelting metal, there are all sorts of chains hanging from the ceiling, and so on.

The fantasy equivalent might be a cave with a pool of natural magma at one end that has been dammed, in which the cold-and-ice-wielder has hung many chains from the ceiling, too loosely held by pitons to be used for climbing, and too high to be within reach of the PCs – perhaps with one or two that have been affixed more securely.

The cold character can lob a ball of ice into the magma to create a steam explosion, or many smaller particles to fill that end of the cave with fog. He can surround the ends of the chains immediately above the PCs with a ball of ice until they become too heavy for the piton to hold – turning the chains into boulders raining down on the PCs from above.

As a last resort, he can use a similar technique to collapse the dam, spilling lava out into the chamber. He can ice up the floors to make them slippery under the PC’s foot. He may have carved small channels across the chamber floor containing water that he can rapidly freeze, expanding them enough to shatter the floor underfoot and drop the PCs into another cavern below – possibly one filled with more magma. He could freeze silver strands to form ice javelins with an electrically-conductive core – useful if one of the enemies likes to use a wand of lightning, or if the bad guy has something along those lines up his sleeve.

He may have prepped a huge snowball up a channel, held in place by a chock that he can pull out simply by tugging a rope – think of the boulder in the first Indiana Jones movie. There may be a pool of acid that the PCs have to cross – he can cover it with a thin layer of ice and snow to hide it’s true nature until it’s too late.

There are lots of such ideas – those given above were all off the top of my head, and I have no doubt that I could double that number without too much effort, just by digging out a couple of issues of The Flash in which he fights Captain Cold, or an issue of Batman in which he goes up against Mr Freeze, or any issue of the X-Men in which Iceman takes part.

Some of the ideas may be too far-fetched to be plausible in a fantasy environment, others may be marginal but forgivable if entertaining enough, but if the PCs have to run such a gamut before they can even get to this character, they will know they’ve been in a fight – and they’ll remember it for a long time!

Beyond The Source Material: Superhero RPGs

And that’s where the article was going to end, when I started writing it. But one final thought occurred to me…

Superhero RPG sourcebooks are full of strategies that can be employed by characters of one archetype against other characters of either the same or a different archetype, and advice on how to make superhero battles interesting. Borrow and adapt it to grow your own original tactics using the principles explained already – just equate each PC to an archetype and look at the advice for challenging such archetypes. I would suggest that you first “get your feet wet” using the illustrated examples provided by the comic books to start with, though.

Someone once told me that combat should make up 1/3 of a good game session, as a rule of thumb. While I don’t necessarily agree with that ratio – it depends what else is going on in the adventure – battle remains a major slice of the activities at the game table. Make them more interesting and everybody wins, regardless of the outcome!

A Post-script:

I couldn’t conclude this article without pointing readers to Johnn’s excellent Hazards Of Combat series here at Campaign Mastery – an oldie but a goodie!

And now for something completely unrelated…

…but that should still be of interest to readers: a couple of Kickstarter projects that are of definite interest.


Flat Plastic Miniatures

The first Cab off the rank are Flat Plastic Miniatures by Arcknight, which look absolutely fantastic. With just under four weeks remaining to the campaign, this project has already raised more than 400% of its target! Unlike most Kickstarters, this shows no sign as yet of slowing down and it’s on-track to unlock every stretch goal they’ve listed! A number of different people have contacted me, excited about this project, and it’s easy to see why; it’s that same excitement that is producing the campaign’s success.

For anyone like me who is paintbrush-challenged when it comes to miniatures, this is definitely worth a look. And then a second, and a third – in fact, as many as it takes you to decide to sign up as a backer! You can check out the campaign’s page here or by clicking on the image above.

Tabletop role-playing game (RPG) modules by DigitalD20


From a kickstarter campaign that is going gangbusters to one that could really do with a bit of love from CM’s readership. Paraphrasing the email that I got from Fernando Garcia, responsible for Communications for the operation, DigitalD20 are a group of role players and lovers of new technologies attempting to create a distribution platform for d20 system RPG modules in digital format using new technologies (tablets and smart phones) while maintaining the spirit of pen and paper. The idea is to provide, in a single module, all the information needed to play immediate and easily. With DigitalD20 gamers will be able to share their own modules with the gaming community. Note that I have had to reduce the size of the image above to make it fit my page!

My thoughts: I don’t use a tablet or smartphone, which seems to make me different from about 99% of the population. In fact, I don’t use a mobile phone at all. So I’m not qualified except to say that it sounds fine in theory, looks fantastic, and would be one more incentive to change that status if the project were to get up. There will also be module editor software that runs on a wider variety of platforms such as PCs.

In fact, the more that I read about the planned project, the more interesting it sounds. An interactive real-time map showing the PCs location, and linked to the parts of the adventure that players could reach from that point, facilitating more open adventure designs. An optional “slaved” app for the PCs to use on their devices for tracking the adventure and creation of a campaign “diary”. Immediate access to all the (official) rules that you need to run an encounter that’s part of the adventure, plus illustrations, handouts, and props that can be digitally distributed to players.

Let’s be clear, here: this campaign is to finish the software which is at an advanced design stage, and develop a major multi-module adventure to be distributed with it, incorporating music and art. Back the creation of the module and you also get the software/apps that you need in order to use it, in other words, or back the creation of the software and you get a free module as well as the capability to use it for your own adventures. And, of course, if the system works as advertised, there’s nothing to stop people from making their home-grown adventures available to others. That could mean hundreds of new adventures each month that you can access for ideas.

I think that the potential upsides – if you have access to the required technology – make this worth taking a chance on. Sure, you can view documents on your existing technology without much trouble; but the potential interactivity and capability to avoid needing to go rules-hunting in the middle of the adventure make this approach potentially much more game-friendly.

Take a look by clicking on this link or on the illustration above.

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The Best Of 2012


2012 was another big year for Campaign Mastery. By year’s end, I was running the site on my own (with occasional support from co-Founder Johnn, for which I continue to be enormously grateful) and writing all the articles. This necessitated more of those articles containing my own campaign and adventure development – something tricky to accomplish without spilling the beans when your players are amongst the regular readers! There were three huge milestones – the 300,000th visitor, the 550,000th page view, and the 400th post. And, mid-year, the crowning highlight of the year, the ENnie nomination!

These achievements came on the back of continued strong growth in readers, and they came because the content continued to be very strong.

The Story Of Selection

It only gets harder to cull these down to a reasonable number. This was driven home to me rather forcefully when I examined the list of possible contenders from 2012. After a ruthless pruning, I was down to 46 great articles that I was trying to fit into 20 slots. Unsurprisingly, I just couldn’t do it, but it’s a wonderful problem to have!

I collected two sets of articles into series just so that I could point to the series’ page instead of the individual posts. I trimmed and culled and trimmed and culled some more, and got down to 32 items. I chose 18 must-have articles and series from that list, and had 14 contenders for the final 2 slots. I trimmed and culled a fourth time, and decided to inflate the size of the list to 25 entries, with 12 articles and series fighting to fit into the 8 remaining slots. And that’s where I got stuck.

None of the remaining articles was any more worthy of inclusion than any of the others. None were any less deserving, either. It was all, or none.

I compromised. The original 18, plus one of the 12, went into the official Best Of. And the remaining 11 (plus a ringer) have been placed in an “honorable mentions” sublist that forms a seperate part of the “best of” given below, and which is archived on the “Best Of” page as well, but which did NOT make the list in the RHS nav screen. They aren’t – quite – amongst the very very best of 2012 – but they are all good enough to make a list of “the very best”. If it weren’t for restrictions of practicality, they all would have made the cut.

So that’s how I split some hairs to achieve the list below.

Hey – any year with better than two “best of” qualifiers (counting series as individual posts) and more than one almost-as-good honorable mention (ditto) every month – that’s a good year by any definition!

The Best Of 2012

These are the 19 posts I’ve hand-picked as the best of 2012:


The 2012 Honorable Mentions

And these are the 11 almost-made-its, any of which could have filled the 20th slot in the Best-Of:


Okay, so this article is a couple of weeks later than the schedule I outlined in
The Best Of 2011.

Blame a couple of posts that had to be split up and posted on successive publishing dates instead of as one article, plus the Secrets Of Stylish Narrative series which was supposed to be three parts and ran to 5 plus an extra, out-of-sequence post. Either way, the end of October is close enough!

If all goes according to plan, sometime in mid-to-late February 2015 I’ll post the next part in this series listing “The Best Of 2013″. That should get me on schedule to make “The Best Of” an annual event starting somewhere around June 30, 2015!

If the posts are half as good as this collection, it will be another nightmare (of the kind that’s good to have, of course!)

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There’s Something About Undead – Blog Carnival Oct 2014


Halloween, things that go bump in the night, and all things spooky, creepy, scary, or just plain haunted. This month’s Blog Carnival, hosted by Scot Newbury at of Dice and Dragons is devoted to the subject… and this is Campaign Mastery’s contribution. BWAH-HA-HA-HAAA…

rpg blog carnival logo

I’ve got a problem with Undead, and I think it’s one that every good GM would share. Just what does the world look like to Undead?

You have to be able to answer this in order to choose what undead do when encountered. Even mindless creatures can only respond to what they perceive in the world around them, no matter how simplistic that world-view, and undead run the spectrum from essentially devoid of higher-functioning brains to frighteningly intelligent.

Everything that my body “consumes” in some way is something that I can sense. I can see, touch, smell, and taste food. I can see and touch clean water. I can feel air moving through my mouth when I breathe, especially if I do so forcefully, and can feel the pressure differential when I suck on something, such as a straw. I can feel sunlight on my face. If it’s essential to my continued existence, I have a way to sense it, because without that, survival is strictly a matter of blind chance.

Undead are usually viewed as consuming the life of their victims directly. The implication is that they can see or sense life. So it turns out that the relatively innocuous question with which I opened today’s article is just another way of restating the question. “What Is Life?”

Wow, that escalated quickly, didn’t it? In one of my very first articles at Campaign Mastery A Quality Of Spirit – Big Questions in RPGs, I advocated taking the time to answer the big questions because those answers would manifest in important and practical ways throughout the campaign. This is a perfect example of what I was talking about.

What is life?

So, rather than shying away from this rather tricky question, let’s try to answer it, at least so far as a game is concerned. Note that if you offer a different answer to this rather fundamental question, you may get completely different answers to the corollary questions spilling out of the magic box of speculation!

The state-change from alive to dead

To answer any question this profound, you need an avenue of insight, a way to get a grip on what is presently a very tenuous issue. One of the most useful such avenues that I have found, from a game perspective, is the question of an afterlife.

There are three basic models of the D&D / Pathfinder universe that are differentiated by answers to that question.

  • There is an afterlife of some sort where souls go after death;
  • Souls are reincarnated into new bodies;
  • There is no afterlife, and dead is dead.

If there is an afterlife, then the property of being alive relates to a connection between whatever goes to the afterlife – call it the soul if you wish – and the physical body.

If there is reincarnation, then the property of being alive relates to a connection between whatever gets attached to the next incarnation and the physical body. To all intents and purposes, for the purposes of this particular line of inquiry, there is no difference between these two.

If there is no afterlife, then Life is some form of energy that is present when someone is alive and that is lost or dissipated on death. Whatever that form of energy is will have a profound impact on the question, but however you slice it, this is a fundamentally different answer to the first two. So let’s set it aside, for now, and deal with the more common answer first.

A receptacle for positive energy

D&D / Pathfinder employ the concepts of “Negative” and “Positive” energies without really putting enough salt on the tail of these constructs. These essentially describe energy fields of some sort that can be manipulated directly by various forms of magic, but that form an inherent connection to the motivational force within the body. Life draws vitality from positive energy, while undeath (in most of its forms) draws vitality from negative energy. It is this capability that is lost when the body dies, so this is a property of the Soul or the Spirit or whatever you want to name that part of the person that persists into the afterlife.

By virtue of that ability, the spirit is nourished and sustained by the ambient positive energy within the environment, and – arguably – so is the connection between living being and soul or spirit. Undeath, by drawing upon an opposing ambient energy, is disruptive upon contact with positive energy.

So far, so good. These answers are all fairly conventional as far as the underlying game “physics” of the D&D / Pathfinder universe goes. It’s only when you look a little closer at the specifics that it begins to fall apart.

Equal and Opposite?

I want to plant a couple of thoughts at this point so that it can lurk in the shadows of the conversation for a while. I’ll come back to them later in the discussion, if all goes according to plan!


Most people associate the terms “Positive” and “Negative” with the labels for electrical potential terminals on a battery, and this shapes the way we think about these artificial constructs of the Fantasy World. Superficially, this makes some sense, provided that you treat the battery terminals as being fundamental opposites; as soon as you look at what these ‘battery terminals’ actually are, the picture begins to fail. Specifically, if you slice a battery in half so that each half has only one terminal, the battery stops working. You actually need both types of terminal for anything to happen, and in fact, the process of dividing the battery creates a new opposing terminal; they always come in pairs, it’s simply a question of engineering a connection point between both ends of a potential electrical energy flow from one terminal to the other that creates the other “terminal”.

In other words, the visible battery terminals are simply connecting points, and “Positive” and “Negative” are simply different “ends” of a single potential process. There are two alternative ways to interpret the battery analogy – either it’s correct, or it’s not.

The first holds a definite appeal to the modern mind, because we are used to natural cycles in the processes that make up the world around us. The water cycle – sea evaporation to clouds to rain to rivers to seas again. The Oxygen-Carbon Dioxide cycle that shows animals in symbiosis with plants. The Nitrogen cycle. Why not a positive-energy-negative-energy cycle, with living beings forming the bridge from positive to negative (ie ‘used’) energy?

The alternative also has its attractions, because it is more in keeping with the world-views of the civilizations that existed prior to the discovery of these natural cycles. The water cycle was known, but it was a unique property of that essential liquid.

Not going anywhere with this just yet, just wanted to put it on the reader’s radar as context for other discussions. Personally, I like the confluence of the battery analogy and the reincarnation cycle as an abstract concept, it seems to have some artistry to it, but that’s neither here nor there.


As soon as we start talking about “opposing forces”, there is an inherent assumption that the two must be equal in potential. This notion is appealing; with fewer individuals drawing on negative energy, there is potentially much more available per individual, justifying undead as a kind of super-being. And that’s a proposition that explains why some individuals deliberately choose to become undead. This concept stems from the concept that there is an equilibrium between these forces, giving PCs something to defend and NPCs something to upset. From a narrative point of view, there is a lot to make the notion appealing.

What is alive?

Having planted those two thoughts in the back of the reader’s minds, let’s get back to what’s wrong with the “positive vs negative” concept as an answer to the question of “what is life”.

Are trees alive? Can Undead subside by consuming this life? This question immediately throws the simple model into a state of confusion, introducing the need for some point of distinction between the life of a tree and that of a person – and most of the possible points of differentiation, such as sentience, are rapidly undermined in many fantasy games. If Elves and Druids can communicate with plants, in however limited a fashion, then plants must be sentient in some way, and so sentience ceases to function as a point of difference.

Ain’t Got No Soul

The most obvious answer is that trees and animals have no souls. But this seems to contradict one of the central tenets of the broader “reincarnation” model, so it is only viable in a “with-afterlife” game world.

Concentration Of Life Force

One possible answer exists when one considers the “consumption” of life force by Undead. Living things need food and water and air in addition to the positive energy that makes them alive. Undead need none of these, substituting negative energy at all turns for these needs. This decreases their vulnerability by making them dependent on fewer environmental resources, but at the same time it increases their dependence on a form of energy – negative energy – that can be disrupted without harming non-undead. In effect, they place all their energy “eggs” in the one basket. While this answers the immediate problem, it does so by undermining the appeal of undeath implied by “equal and opposite”. As an answer, then, it is – at best – incomplete.

Rate Of Energy Flow

The “battery analogy” can actually come to our rescue by proposing an alternative solution. Rather than the energy concentration being the reason for the inability of trees and lesser life forms to supply the “needs” of Undeath, perhaps it’s rate of energy flow. Trees, being long-lived and slow-moving (like, not at all under most circumstances) need only a trickle of positive energy. Smaller animals “consume” their energies more quickly, but their small size means that they actually need even less. A tree might have as much overall positive energy flow as a field mouse, for example; much more than an insect, but still minuscule.

Since undead sublimate all their other energy needs into the one “need”, it follows that they must consume more negative energy to sustain themselves than a living being must consume positive energy. The implication is that only larger creatures have enough positive energy flow to satisfy them.

Hold on – Undead consume more negative energy so they need more positive energy? There’s a hole in our logic, somewhere. I’ll come back to this in a moment. But first:

The Elvish Problem

While we’re at it, here’s another curly one: If Elves can’t be reincarnated (which is the state of D&D affairs pre-3.0), do they have souls? If no, why aren’t they immune to the “touch” of undeath; if yes, why can’t they be reincarnated? In other words, are Elves alive? Or are they some manifestation of the forests and environments in which they live?

There are multiple possible answers to this problem. One is to say that elves do not have an individual life force in the manner that humans do, but instead exist in some symbiotic relationship with the collective life force of their environment – redefining the entire species in the process. If the connection between individual elf and the collective can be disrupted by undead, this covers all the bases.

Another solution to this question is to invent some reason why Elves can’t be reincarnated even though they fulfill all the requirements for having that capacity. If their life-force is bound more tightly to their spirits than is the case for humans (stealing a concept from chemistry), that might work, though it should influence their level of vulnerability to undeath.

Still a third possibility is that Elves do not have Spirits or Souls per se, but nourish their living beings directly from positive energy – as though receiving continual positive energy transfusions instead of having to digest their “food”.

Bound up in, but not addressed by, this discussion are the questions of Elvish Immortality and Mortality in general.

Other answers could no doubt be contrived. But these are proof enough that answers to the problem can be devised, so that’s enough for now. Let’s move on.

The Living-Undeath relationship

The breakdown of logic in the discussion of “Rate Of Energy Flow” as a solution to the question of why Undead could not be sustained by the consumption of the life of trees has brought us face-to-face with a major problem, one that threatens to destabilize everything that’s been considered so far.

Some of the analyses of this state of existence have been founded on the notion of undead living on negative energy, and others have implicitly assumed that they stole life force from the living. This elemental contradiction is at the heart of my undead quandary. The central problem is this: what is the relationship between living and undead?

As usual, multiple solutions present themselves to me for consideration.

Moths To A Flame

The simplest answer, and one that works for low-level undead, is that they are drawn to the living as moths to a flame. They contain negative energy, and the living contain positive energy, and the two are drawn to each other because they are opposing forces. The implication of this answer, which many GMs have used, is that the touch of Undeath is as disrupting to the undead as it is to the living, and that simply doesn’t fit the modus operandi of Undead in any version of the game.

This answer uses the annihilation of matter by anti-matter as an analogy for the relationship between positive and negative energy. Which sounds all nice and dramatic, but such annihilation transforms the two states of matter into energy; what becomes of the positive and negative energy that mutually annihilate?

Having failed on all fronts, this view must be abandoned.

Overcoming of Positive Potential

A more complex version might solve the problems, though. What if negative energy did not exist, per se, but instead was the absence of positive energy? This concept has its roots in the Plum-Pudding model of the atom, a positive energy field with negative “holes” in it. As positive energy is consumed by the living, it is constantly replenished from the “universal store” of positive energy, but the transformation into a state of undeath denies that replenishment to the Undead; accordingly, they need to get their positive energy by stealing it from the living. If their net positive-energy “debt” is supplied externally, by clerical magics, the undead cease to exist as “unliving” beings, but simply stealing the life from a living being is only enough to meet their immediate consumption needs; if they steal too much from the living, those living specimens, devoid of positive energy, become new undead, losing their connection to the universal store.

Under this model, low-level undead are instinctively seeking to end their own existence within this state, but the paltry lives they can consume are in no way adequate to their needs because of the greater consumption rates suggested earlier, so all they end up doing is creating more of their own kind.

Low-level undead are analogous to a cancer growing perpetually within the collective class of “living things”. The greatest exemplar of this class of Undead is the lycanthrope, because they retain their native sentience and connection to the replenishing positive energy flow at least part of the time, but remain net energy sinks because strength and invulnerability to normal weapons increases their consumption of energy to a greater level than the replenishment can provide. I would also suggest that the sense of greater power that results might be addictive. Possible links to the moon and the night remain to be explained, as does the vulnerability to silver, but this is at least a working model.

High-level undead – Vampires and Liches – are a different story to the lower types. It can be suggested that they use the negative energy within their bodies to “block”, in part or in whole, the replenishing flow from mortals, diverting the positive energy flow for their own use, Thus, they harvest the living, functioning as parasites. But the potential for many such flows to be diverted to the benefit of the one, conferring great personal power and a limited form of immortality, explain both the great power of these undead and the attractiveness of the condition to certain personality types. What’s more, this positive energy surplus would explain how they are able to force the subservience of lesser undead, including Vampiric thralls.

Light At The End Of The Mausoleum

The preceding holds great promise as a solution to the general questions of “What is life?”, “What are Undead?”, “Can Undead consume the life of Trees?”, and so on. With this as a starting point, it would be possible to backtrack through the earlier discussions, winnowing out those suggestions that don’t fit the solution, adapting those that almost fit, and progressing to resolve questions that aren’t directly answered by the proposition.

It’s not the only possible solution; you can derive a very different set of answers by considering the negative energy of Undead as a waste product that they are attempting to rid themselves of, a set of answers that has less pathos and more villainous overtones.

Furthermore, this answer works even if there is no afterlife; it is broad enough to survive the removal of that concept, though some of the fine details might change.

Where there’s one answer, there are many; this is a principle that underpins most of my adventures, and that I have enunciated many times in these pages. There are enough solutions that each campaign and GM can evolve a unique set of solutions; this particular answer is not one that I’ve used in any of my campaigns, probably because this is the first time that I’ve ever looked at it with the undead question as my starting point before (I usually start with “What is Clerical Magic” or “What are the Gods?”).

The first step is always asking the question. Only then can you construct an answer, whose implications will then shape the campaign around it. The only certainty is that the cosmological model of the standard D&D / Pathfinder game is inadequate and incomplete – and, by permitting differentiation of campaigns and concepts, that’s perhaps a good thing.

What are Undead, that thou art mindful of them?

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Race To The Moon – a lesson in story structure


I was catching up on a Documentary series recently aired on Australian TV over the weekend just passed, called “The Sixties”. Each episode attempts to encapsulate one aspect of the singular decade of my birth, whether it be the Civil Rights Movement, the War in Vietnam, or – in this case – the Space Race.

Something that Tom Hanks said as part of the show kept bouncing around in my head, realigning stray thoughts sparked by a book on Superhero comics called “The Superhero Reader” by Hatfield, Heer, and Worcester, and what emerged was a different perspective on why many Americans seemed to lose interest in Space after the first Moon landing, why a few did not, why the popular imagination was recaptured briefly by Apollo 13, and why it faded once again.

And then I realized that this perspective had a relevance to RPG adventures and campaigns that made it worth a public exploration here at Campaign Mastery.

The Quote

“From my perspective, as a kid, we were in a race against the Russians, and the Russians were The Bad Guys, and they were winning this race, and that meant they were superior to us, and yet they were The Bad Guys.” – Tom Hanks, “The Sixties”, episode “The Space Race”.

The Makings Of A Hero

As someone who runs a superhero campaign, and has for a long time now, this quote yielded deeper meaning. In superhero comics and stories, the other side is often superior in many respects, the hero out-gunned or outnumbered or both. It was to enable the character to be more easily challenged, producing greater drama, that Superman was first explicitly de-powered in the 1970s. There is always one respect in which the hero is superior however – the quality that makes him a hero of the old school, his moral superiority. He’s the good guy, and that enables him to overcome the odds at the last second, discover some fundamental chink in the overwhelming force (relative to him) that he is confronting, and achieve the victory.

And that’s the end of the story.

The Apollo Story

The Space Race, as Hanks points out (indirectly) is completely analogous to the superhero conflict. The enemy is superior in capabilities, seemingly unstoppable, and – in the early days – failure by “our heroes” occurs again and again, while the Evil Empire goes from one triumph to another. But slowly, NASA got it’s technological act together, and began to claw back ground.

It’s not clear exactly when the “good guys” caught up with the “bad guys” (some say it was the Gemini 8 mission where they successfully docked with another rocket), but it had clearly (in hindsight) occurred by the time the Apollo 8 mission orbited the moon, its mission profile having been moved up in the schedule because the LEM (now known as the Lunar Lander) was not yet ready for testing. The Soviets, shortly before that mission, were able to place a satellite into Lunar Orbit and photograph the far side for the first time, but this paled in comparison to the feat of placing men into Lunar Orbit and retrieving them safely.

With the successful landing of Apollo 11, the popular Zeitgeist was that the story had reached its crescendo, the good guys had once again triumphed over the bad guys, finish your popcorn and let’s go home.

There are resonances with the smashing victories of the Second World War in both stories, too. There, once again, the Allies were faced with a seemingly invincible enemy, one who seemed capable of achieving victories with seemingly nonchalant ease – witness the speed with which France had been overwhelmed. But the Allies (not yet including the US), expecting invasion at any turn, held on through the Battle Of Britain to achieve an against-the-odds victory of survival; and then the Nazis were defeated by the allies (now including the US); and then, finally, the War in the Pacific was won, bringing to an end the last of the Axis powers. Each of these represented many smaller victories and achievements, and there were more than a few defeats along the way, but “the good guys” won in the end. And then that story ended, and the troops came home to hero’s welcomes.

If you were writing it as a proposed Movie Trilogy, Movies two and three would appear to be the wrong way round. The Nazis, as the original “bad guys” of the plot, can’t be defeated until the end of the last movie. But this is real life.

You see the same thing in many of the movies of the era, too. You win, and the story ends.

After Apollo

Psychologically, then, many US citizens were predisposed to Apollo 11, and the achievement of the defined mission – “Landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth” by the end of the decade – meant that the story should then end. Except that it didn’t; Apollo 12 followed, with all the drama of wet spaghetti from the perspective of the public at large. If it had been packaged as “rubbing it in”, they might have gotten away with it, but these were engineers who sought to eliminate all potential for drama and excitement from the program because those were signs of things having gone wrong. NASA’s professional pride made such an interpretation impossible. Small wonder, when the story still didn’t end (with the announcement of Apollo 13) that interest was at a fairly low ebb, and stayed there. At least until…

The Emergency In Space

Without warning, there was drama and excitement aboard the Apollo 13 mission. An explosion on board the spacecraft threatened the lives of the Astronauts in so many ways that it’s difficult to count them all. It’s worth noting that the movie (starring Hanks) actually glossed over several of the problems that had to be confronted and defeated!

Once again, we had a story of an intrepid band facing overwhelming odds – and once again, we had a triumph, perhaps one that was as great as the road to success of Apollo 11 in the first place. It would make – did make – a compelling story, and suddenly the Space Program was the hottest story in the world for the second time.

But “Our Heroes” won against impossible odds, the Crew came home safe, and the second story ended.

Except that the Apollo missions dragged on and on, like a movie that didn’t know when to stop.

The Sublimation Of Enemies

Not everyone lost interest in Space, of course. And almost universally, those whose fascination remained had a characteristic in common: they were able to sublimate Space itself, or ignorance, into the Ultimate Enemy. That was part of the nerve touched on by the original Star Trek – it showed a world in which that enemy had been defeated, paving the way for new and interesting challenges.

For most people, though, the remainder of the Apollo program, and Skylab, and the shuttle program that followed it, was just part of the wallpaper. They would miss it if it was gone, and the regretted the expense of maintaining it, but it was just there, and nothing to get excited about. Hence the budgetary cutbacks of the 70s and 80s.

Some people might debate my suggestion that the public would miss the Space Program if it went away completely, but I think the grief after the shuttle disasters showed that people did still care, in a diffuse and background sort of way.

And from time to time, there were other success stories that captured the public imagination – and, strangely, they can all be cast in the same basic mould as the ones described already. The plucky little Voyager probes which braved the dangers of deep space to bring us images of the outer planets. Half-Blind Hubble who astonished us with magnificent images – once gifted with his almost-magical corrective lenses.

Once again, as soon as their stories were done, these dropped from the public consciousness. How many people who went gosh-wow over the images of Jupiter, Saturn, and their moons, give passing thought to the space probes that captured those images and where they are today? Are they even monitored in case they discover something unexpected, out in deep space? The answer is no, obviously. You don’t have to think about these missions that way; I’m certainly not suggesting that this is the right way or only way to do so! But it is a way of looking at them that explains why they captured the public imagination – at least for a while – and then faded into the background for all but the cognizanti, and that’s what’s important here.

The Relevance to RPGs

RPG adventures and campaigns are tales in this same heroic mould. That’s a large part of their appeal. And that means that they should come to a definitive, clear, end – and then either stop, or get out of the way of the next adventure.

A long time back, I wrote an article about compacting a plotline that had been underway for too long in one of my campaigns: When Good Ideas Linger Too Long: Compacting plotlines. At the time, I couldn’t work out why the plotline had lingered too long, just that it had (because the players were clearly growing tired of it), and that I needed to accelerate the reaching of a definitive conclusion.

Now, with this new context, the reason becomes clear: The PCs had encountered, and defeated problem number 1. But the story didn’t stop; problem number 2 arose, and was defeated, but by now it was clear that the solution to adventure number 1 hadn’t solved everything. And neither did adventure number 2. Or three. Or Four. It was while working on adventure number five, which was building directly toward the crescendo of Adventure number 6 in this little mini-campaign within a campaign, that I realized that I had a problem, wrote the article referred to, and did something about it.

I also touched on this issue peripherally in my two-part article on Sequel Campaigns (Part 1, Part 2). What I have now realized is that aiming for shorter, more discrete campaigns with inbuilt plans for a sequel can be more advantageous than I had previously thought. This is a radical shift in my thinking; I typically design very broad, very long, campaigns, and those campaigns sometimes go through lulls when there isn’t a lot of caring about the campaign on the part of the players. Then a new adventure will re-engage them, the campaign will build up a new head of steam, and things will go fine – until the next dead spot.

Quite often, these lulls don’t affect the players equally; some remain interested in the campaign because the adventures remain relevant to their characters and appeal to their preferences in storytelling. That’s why dead spots don’t occur at the end of every adventure, or even every second adventure. The more players you have, the more likely it is that at least one of them will be able to sustain interest on behalf of the group, motivating and encouraging the others. At the same time, the more players you have, the harder it is to keep the campaign interesting for everybody.

A side note:
It follows that each GM has an ideal number of players in terms of sustaining overall interest in the campaign, whether they realize it or not; this is entirely aside from other administrative and GMing problems with too many players, it solely concerns the number of players that they are able to keep interested in the campaign. For me, the optimum number is 4-5; others have told me 5 or 6, based on subjective experience, and again without being able to explain why it is that a campaign with more players tends to lose one or two until it reaches that optimum level.

Finally, this places into a new context my recent two-part article, “The Wandering Spotlight” (Part 1, Part 2), which is all about maintaining player engagement in the campaign even when their characters aren’t the central focus of an adventure. Within this new context, this can be described as ensuring that other players have something to sustain interest when their part of the story seems to have ended.

Applying the Theory

This is all too new and raw to have a major impact on my campaign or adventure design. In fact, you could say that most of the lessons to be derived from these thoughts have already been implemented in my different campaigns, one way or another (described in more articles here than I can readily count). However, those changes were implemented without regard to why they worked or were necessary, beyond the most superficial understanding. What this new insight offers is a reason for the necessity of those changes and techniques to be implemented, and that in turn provides a means of validating future proposals and enhancing the benefits that it is hoped that they will yield.

Understanding this makes me a better campaign designer, a better adventure designer, and a better GM. Understanding some fundamental principle always does, even if it has no immediate practical application. But it’s still worth shouting about, don’t you think?

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Memorials To History – an ‘a good name’ extra


There is a pub in Soho that still bears the name, “The John Snow”. It is named for the brave physician who proved that Cholera was spread through drinking water, ending an outbreak in the district.

And that sparks a thought: Every place name is – or at least can be – a memorial to the history and background of a campaign.

All too often, GMs are lazy when it comes to naming things like inns and such, using traditional and fairly universal names like “The Red Sparrow” or “The Boar and Ox”. Even town names are often meaningless and placid things.

All this is a tremendous wasted opportunity.

Foundations in History

Every Inn and Tavern should be named for a famous figure or event from history. Every town should be named for someone who was important either locally or nationally famous or for some event in the region’s past. If that means that towns change their names every hundred years or so, so be it!

Use these place names to connect with the stories behind the names, breaking the details of your campaign background into bite-sized chunks. Write it as you go if you have to – so long as you maintain a compendium of the results for future reference and consistency, why not?

Of course, the major events should be outlined before you start, but every event can be expanded upon in greater detail.

If a place is named for some heroic deed, it can be a source of local pride. If a place is associated with some scene of infamy, it can be a source of shame or repentance, with the people going out of their way to demonstrate that the event was an aberration. Either way, the name can be used to give the community a personality, and that’s half the battle to making it memorable.

Here’s a list of questions that you can use to spark your thinking:

  • What happened here?
  • Who came from here?
  • Who lived here?
  • Who died here?
  • What was discovered here?
  • What ended here?
  • What is grown here?
  • What is made here?
  • Is there a local legend?
  • If not, create a local legend!

Plot Integration

Once you get used to employing significant names for places and institutions, you can start to entwine your plots with names. The Inn of Gravesend in the town of Barrowsmound may refer to some past event of no great significance – or there may be a local legend about a cemetery that broke in half and slid into the sea from which the unquiet dead emerge from time to time. Or maybe there’s a legend about a treasure buried in a Barrow, which is a type of burial mound.

The town of Matthias’ Crown may be innocuous – or it might be the site of a historic confrontation between two claimants to the throne, one of whom emerged victorious and the other who is buried in an unmarked grave somewhere in the vicinity. Or the Crown may be a literal object and not a metaphoric one, perhaps with arcane powers, if only the players have the wit to track it down.

It only takes a little of this sort of thing to have the players looking for the meaning behind every name, picking up bits of campaign background as they go, and the campaign more than half-writing itself.

A quick little post today for three reasons – first, to give me time to work on some bigger ones that I have underway, second, because the subject didn’t really need lengthier treatment, and third, because I lost time on the weekend to motorsports and earlier this week to a passing illness. Don’t worry, I’m fine now.

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Abandoned Islands – Iconic Adventure Settings


I love a great location, and one of my favorite settings is an abandoned island. There are lots of reasons for this. Here’s just a few:

  • They contain great visual elements, even when described in narrative.
  • Decay and Ruin can be used symbolically to represent almost any situation in a game. And there’s always overgrowth and undergrowth and the like for symbolic representation of everything else.
  • They are full of nooks and crannies that can hide anything.
  • If you put something underneath that ruin and decay, you can get great contrasts.
  • There’s always a story behind such places. Why is it abandoned?

Abandoned Islands in a Modern setting

Beneath the ruins of an ancient city, a super-agency has built a high-tech resource centre from which to mastermind their attempt to shape the course of future world events – whether the world agrees with them or not. Vine-encrusted stone walls lift and swing aside to reveal a hanger deck for stealth VTOL variants on modern transport and fighter aircraft. Infrared sensors and hidden cameras are mounted in collapsed and broken statues that give their eyes an eerie red glow at night. Pillboxes lie concealed behind centuries-old carved walls. Partially-collapsed staircases hidden beneath layers of dirt, leaves, and fallen branches lead to long-forgotten cellars whose walls have been rebuilt with secret entrances providing access for personnel, while caverns conceal a jetty for marine craft of all varieties to tie up – if you have the correct signalling equipment to trigger the lowering of a mechanised “reef” and a wall of razor-sharp stagalmites that block access to the jetty from the outside.

The more modern-day the campaign, the farther off-shore the island can be and still be “connected” to the campaign. This is due to two factors: faster transport, and modern communications.

Abandoned Islands in a Fantasy setting

In contrast, fantasy-campaign islands fall into two discrete types: those that are close enough to be reached by bridge, or – perhaps – by rowboat, and those which require a sailing vessel to access. The former are great for semi-isolated settings and contrast the life of the urban environment with the desolation / wilderness of the island, while the latter emphasize the isolation and disconnection from the known world; precedent for this type of usage stretches all the way back to the tale of Jason and the Argonauts.

The River Carstan runs through the centre of the port city of Jezwel, and in the centre of that river lies the island of Marshwell and the abandoned keep of Thimolise. Once, it dominated the region, but its strategic position attracted more settlers than could be accommodated within the safety of the Keep, and so the urban settlement of Jezwel sprang up. At first, the keep remained the position of power over the settlement, but its days of authority were already numbered. That authority was weakened when walls were erected around Jezwel, and much of the burgeoning bureacracy relocated, signalling a slow drifting of power into the heart of the urban community and away from the island.

The deathknell for Thimoline came when a stranger came to visit the Precept of Thimoline – a title that has since fallen into disuse. Although he claimed to be a friend, travelling with news of far places, his visit was for his own dark purposes. Late that night he stole into the mortuary and crafted a dark spell beyond the powers of most mortals and even many supernatural agencies, and the revered dead of the keep rose from their resting places to assault the living even as they slept. And each defender who fell rose again within minutes to join the army of undeath. Slowly, the alarm was raised, and the sixty-two fortunate survivors fled, burning the bridges that connected the island Keep to the town of Jezwel.

Deep within the crypts, according to legend, the Precept – the last of his line, for his sons and daughters had already fallen and joined the ranks of the enemy – confronted the Necromancer, and killed him, before succumbing to his own wounds. Others claim that the Necromancer had been summoned by the Precept himself to save the life of the Precept’s son, who was reportedly sickly and ill, but that the Precept was betrayed by the Necromancer, and that the killing was an act of revenge. None who survived know the truth.

Whatever the truth, every night the undead stir, under the command of the long-dead precept and the Undead Necromancer, and seek ways to reach the living to swell and bolster their number. For years, Jezwel was a town under seige, as the undead simply walked across the river bottom each night; but then came Stewen The White, who erected the white SoulGuard stones to confine the undead, giving his life to get the last in place before sunset and the rising anew of the dead. For a year and a day, it was thought that the threat was confined eternally, but then the Wards failed, and it was learned that they needed to be renewed each year.

In the handful of centuries since, this has become an annual tradition within what has grown into a trade centre and cosmopolitan city, but it has also grown ever more dangerous, for all manner of fell creatures have been attracted to the island, and even by dat, it is now a place of deadly danger for any who dare to set foot apon its rocky outcroppings.

The above is a slight revamping of the background to an adventure used in one of my D&D campaigns – I have the vague memory of it being the first Fumanor campaign, but I’m not 100% sure. There are three obvious ways to use this background for an adventure, and the changes made are intended to make them all viable choices.

  • Option 1: The PCs are hired/selected to renew the Soulguard Stones for another year.
  • Option 2: The PCs are hired to attempt to penetrate the catacombs beneath the keep, locate the crypts, and bring an end to the menace once and for all.
  • Option 3: One of the Soulguard stones has been broken or stolen, presumably by one of the creatures on the island or perhaps by the Undead who have long sought to escape their confinement. The PCs have been hired to solve the crime and restore the Soulguard Wards, and to try and end the menace once-and-for-all if they can.

The option chosen will require further development of the setting to support it.

Using Real Locations

Jump-starting your imagination with a real-life location can save you lots of effort, because all you have to do is recast whatever you can find out about the place into appropriate terminology for your campaign. If you are presented with a wall constructed of shattered fibro or something similar with vines growing through it, you can change it to stone, or wood, or concrete, or plastic, or whatever is appropriate. The key to doing so with plausibility is to note how long the island has been devoid of habitation, and why – then adjust both accordingly. Then employ the visual translation trick described earlier in this paragraph.

Finding Places

There are a number of web pages that list abandoned islands and communities. I’ve gathered a small collection below, but there are many more. Most, if not all these places, will have wikipedia pages dedicated to them, and a Google image search will turn up anywhere from a few to hundreds of images.

I expected it to be a problem selecting sites that didn’t have too many entries in common, but that turned out not to be a significant problem, much to my surprise!

Google Image Search Tips & Tricks:

  • Google’s web search understands the use of “plus”[term] to mean “must include” and “minus”[term] to mean “exclude” – Google’s Image search doesn’t seem to do so. Response to using quotation marks around a term – which on the web search mean “exact match only” or “must include” – can also be sporadic.
  • It’s also worth remembering that Google’s Image Search doesn’t search for images that match the search term you provide, it lists ANY image on a webpage that includes the search term – so you can end up with a lot of rejects that aren’t what you want.
  • As a general rule of thumb, the farther down the list of results of an image search a particular result is, the less likely it is to match what you are looking for – but there are frequent exceptions to this rule.
  • Once you have an image search underway, click on Search Tools, and you can restrict the size of image to whatever you want. I use two searches all the time: “Large” and “larger than 800×600″. This is great for weeding out images that are too small to be useful; the default is always “Any Size”, which gives you lots of thumbnails and small size images. The bigger the image, the more details you can usually extract from it.
  • Don’t assume that Google Images on any setting will show you the largest version of an image. If the image offered is large enough, that’s fine. But if not, you have options:
    • Click on the size link to look for the identical image in other sizes (sometimes with very minor variations). This search normally happens in a new browser tab or window, preserving the original search.
    • Click on the Search By Image link to search for similar images – sometimes these will be very close to the original, sometimes identical, and sometimes wildly different. Again, this search normally takes place in a new browser tab or window.
      • This can give you pages that contain the image.
      • Clicking on all sizes gives you the search results IN SIZE ORDER, excluding the original.
  • Sometimes, when you click on “view image”, you will get a “forbidden” message.
    • The “Visit Page” button can often get you the image when this happens. There are all sorts of ways to design a web page so that clicking on the “view image” button won’t work. These sites don’t distinguish between Googles’ search and any other website hotlinking to the image, and that’s a practice that all website operators tend to discourage because it means people can use the site’s bandwidth to download the image without seeing ads that support the website and keep it “on the air”.
    • There will sometimes be times when the page that comes up won’t have an obvious link to the image. There is one final trick that sometimes works: click the “Visit Page” button, and then, with that page still open in another tab, click the “View Image” button. Because the page is open, the site thinks that you have permission to view the image, and hey presto!
  • Finally, if you get desperate, choose the medium or small image sized options. These can sometimes get you thumbnails that link to a larger image that the website has told Google not to list.

Google Images 1

These tricks give you access to a lot more images – learn to use them all!

The List

The next time you need an idea or a location, consider an abandoned island!

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The Wandering Spotlight Part Two of Two: Shared Stories


My co-GM in the Adventurer’s Club campaign and I work very hard to maintain player engagement even when the spotlight is not on that player’s character (which only makes it all the more obvious and painful when we fail in attempts to do so). While there is little that I regard as especially novel about the approach and techniques that we employ to do this, what seems obvious to me may not be so obvious to anyone else, and that makes it a topic worth exploring.

There are two distinct phases to the approach we employ; the first is to ground each of the PCs in a place of relevance at the start of the adventure through what I described in Part One as “Prologue Scenes”. These are incredibly useful for establishing context for the adventure to follow, for keeping the world dynamic, and for giving the PCs personal lives that can then be disrupted by the adventure, to name just a few of the potential benefits. The second phase kicks in when the main adventure starts and builds on the foundations laid in the prologues, and it’s this phase that I am placing under the microscope today.

Shared Stories

Just as the PCs are individuals who come together for the main adventure, setting aside those personal independent lives for the achievement of common purpose, so the adventure itself should bring the characters together, whether that be in objective, in motivation, in mutual survival or benefit, or simply in mutual alliance. In other words, the prologues are all about the individual stories of each of the PCs, while the main adventure is something that is to be shared by all of them.

In considering the overall adventure and how it will be broken down into a coherent structure, there are nine things that we consider, and attempt to keep in mind.

These are:

  1. Rotating Spotlights
  2. Parts Of A Whole
  3. Can’t Be Everywhere
  4. Side-stories & Subtleties
  5. What’s My Motivation? (Continued)
  6. Making it Personal
  7. Everyone is somewhere doing something, all the time
  8. Partners make life easier
  9. Plot that eats itself

It’s important to realize what I mean by the term “overall structure” in this context. I mean what the major elements of the plot are, and which character or characters have a featured or dominant role in each of those elements.


Adventure Structures example 1

For example, consider the diagram to the right. It assumes that Prologues have been put in place for each character, and that Character A’s prologue leads to the main adventure by way of a second prologue for character D. But once the main adventure starts, look at what happens: Aside from one plot sequence dominated by Character A and one by character C, it’s all about D, all the time. Characters B and E don’t even get a look in – they may as well be generic NPCs.


Adventure Structures example 2

What this article, and especially the nine considerations above, are concerned with is turning that structure into the one shown to the left. D is still the central focus of the adventure, there’s no doubt, but everybody catches a bit of the spotlight, and they all make a contribution to the plot.

So let’s start by looking at those nine principles in detail.

1. Rotating Spotlights

This simply means that if this adventure revolves around character D, with arguably more substantial contributions in key scenes from A and C, the next adventure should revolve around someone else, and preferable characters B and/or E. After that, one of the others gets a feature, and so on.

It’s very rare for any one adventure to give equal prominence to everyone – and one of the ways of achieving equal prominence is for the adventure not to matter especially to any of them, which is not all that desirable. One or two characters will usually have a particularly string connection to the overall plot of any given adventure.

You can see how we implement this particular principle in our overall planning by reading Amazon Nazis On The Moon: Campaign Planning Revisited, an earlier article that looked specifically at how we order adventures, It’s a revisit on the overall subject because I employ a more complex process for plotting my superhero campaign, Zenith-Three, which I had described extensively in a still-earlier article series – you can find the link in the “Amazon Nazis” article.

2. Parts Of A Whole

It’s often said “there is no ‘I’ in ‘Team'”. Certainly, that’s the approach we take in plotting the main structure of any adventure – we View each essential step in the process of getting from start to finish of the adventure as parts of a whole, and a whole that furthermore is being undertaken by the team of PCs. By remaining aware of the abilities and experiences that make each player and each character unique – something I’ll talk about in more detail in a subsequent section of this article – we are constantly able to look for opportunities for each to play a key role even if they don’t dominate that part of the plot.

3. Can’t Be Everywhere

One of the key techniques we employ is to make sure that events requiring PC involvement pile up on the PCs so that no one character can do it all. This forces the dominant PC to delegate one of the others to handling part of his “spotlight time” as a surrogate. The more PCs you have, the more difficult this becomes, because you need more things happening simultaneously and it gets easy for the main plot to become muddled if you aren’t careful. So it’s not a complete solution in its own right.

4. Side-stories & Subtleties

Something we definitely look for are any side-issues from, or nuances of, the main plot that aren’t likely to get sufficient exposure due to the combination of PC abilities / personality and Player predilections / personality. Placing one of the other PCs (who is more likely to react) in a position to explore those aspects of the plot and then feed the results back into discussions / planning for the main plotline is usually a far better option than trying to force-feed that content to a player who’s uninterested or has a character without the capabilities for dealing with it. Sometimes, rather than dealing with those peripheral issues directly, it is better to employ a more metaphoric approach, on other occasions the direct approach is definitely the way to go. This depends on the exact nature of the additional content, the sensibilities of the player, and so on; it has to be tailored to each situation and each participant, both on a character and a metagame level.

An important sub-type of play content that falls into this category is the question of shaping, directing, or minimizing fall-out from the main plot. A second sub-type of no less significance is the gathering / recruiting of resources that the central character will need access to in order to resolve the main plotline. Both of these can provide an opportunity for other PCs to shine; it’s often simply a case of taking a scene that could be hand-waved or resolved with a single piece of roleplay and working it up into something a little more substantial.

One of the big side-benefits of this technique is that the PC takes ‘possession’ of the peripheral aspect of the main plot, providing a way for the character to invest in the main plot, resulting in a greater level of engagement in that plot on the part of that player.

5. What’s My Motivation? (Continued)

One of the sources / considerations that I listed for prologues was establishing or highlighting each PC’s expected motivation to helping resolve the main plot. Characters can often start with one motivation and discover personal relevance to the plotline as it unfolds, which is an obvious way of engaging them; but even when their motivation remains constant, it’s important to hit that beat every now and then.

Consider for a moment what’s wrong with the following outline: Before the main plot begins, we establish that character A’s motivation is his friendship with the PC who is central to the plotline. Once the main plot begins, the two do absolutely nothing together to demonstrate that friendship; they might as well be strangers thrown together by circumstance. Then the credits roll over a scene in which they are buddy-buddy again.

That’s right, the whole buddy-buddy thing seems tacked on, and you would seriously doubt how invested the character actually is in the main plot. And if the character isn’t invested in the plot, it’s a lot less likely (in an RPG) that the player is invested. While it might going too far to incorporate a scene whose sole purpose is to reinforce and reflect a PCs motivation, ensuring that there are opportunities built into scenes, that exist for other reasons, for those motivations to be touched on, goes a long way. And it gives those PCs the chance to roleplay a little, which is never a bad thing.

All that said, you need to be careful not to force behaviors onto a PC. Making it clear that PCs A and B are buddies as a result of past shared experiences, and providing an opportunity for that relationship to be roleplayed, is fine, and is as far as it should go – then let the relationship between the PCs evolve in it’s own direction.

6. Making it Personal

Unless it is becoming repetitive from one adventure to the next, you should always look for opportunities to make a main plot personal for each character if that hasn’t already been established. Every character has buttons that should evince strong reactions; look for ways to integrate “hot button” issues into the plot. A character might be ho-hum and by-the-numbers, doing it because it has to be done, about going after a corporate crook – until they discover that they are preying on old folks and orphans, or their actions have a secondary impact that is going to seriously hurt such folks. Even then, you don’t want it to be some abstraction; if the elderly are being victimized, include a couple of them (of various personality profiles) in a scene or two to put a personal face on the situation.

And if there’s nothing from a character perspective on which to hang personal motivation, consider the player. Where the player goes, the PC will follow. This is more subtle and complicated, because there needs to be a way of expressing that motivation within the parameters established for the PCs personality.

I once saw an NPC (in another GM’s game) break off the fight to help a little old lady cross the street, only to be struck down from behind as soon as “Grannie” was out of the way by one of the PCs. The other players, and one in particular, reacted quite strongly, motivating them for the first time to seriously consider the story the NPC had offered. When it subsequently transpired that the story was full of half-truths and spin doctoring for the NPC’s benefit, that one player in particular felt betrayed by the NPC, while the PC who had taken the cheap shot felt vindicated. They were both highly-motivated to play out the adventure from that point forward, though.

7. Everyone is somewhere doing something, all the time

In any plot sequence that revolves around one PC, it’s essential to always remember that the other PCs are still somewhere, doing something. They can be with the central PC, and able to react to the central PCs reaction to the plot sequence; or they can be somewhere else, where they can’t interfere. It’s always important to manage these situations carefully; you don’t want to force decisions onto the PCs, but there is absolutely no reason to arrange circumstances so that their characters want to make the decision you want.

If you don’t want a PC to be present for a particular scene, or if they don’t have a particular reason to be involved in that scene, it’s always worth asking what else they can be doing, even engineering a complication or plot wrinkle for the sole purpose of giving them something to do away from the main encounter.

Note that it’s VERY easy for this sort of planning to go astray. Contingency plans should always be in the back of your mind.

8. Partners make life easier

…well, sometimes they do. Let’s say you have a party of six PCs – it’s a lot easier to keep three pairs of PCs busy than it is to handle six isolated individuals. That’s all well and good, but the PCs themselves will usually allocate their manpower as they see fit, and this allocation will often be at variance with what you had in mind. Occasionally, you can arrange circumstances so that who should be assigned to what will be fairly obvious, but this is very easy to overdo, and it’s very conducive to plot trains. It’s one thing to tell the players how the switches on the track should be set, and quite another to set those switches on their behalf.

Or, to put it another way, the choices should result naturally from the confluence of personalities, abilities, interests, and circumstances.

A fun little exercise that can be employed occasionally is to allocate minor NPCs to players who aren’t involved in a scene. Name, basic personality, objective, and motivation, should be written as a single paragraph (as minimally as possible) and handed to such players, together with instructions to “have fun” with the role. These characters should be unimportant in terms of plot, so that you don’t have to give away any secrets to them; they are incidental extras.

Some players won’t like this, because it breaks their focus on their PC, which is the primary role they are playing; others will go too far over the top; and still others will take your “have fun” literally. Next time, leave out anyone who really objects, but most will go along just to have something to do while their characters are busy elsewhere, doing something that they will get to roleplay. In general, it’s a lot better than having players sit around waiting for the spotlight to get back to them, but it can’t be used all the time; it becomes too blatantly artificial.

The last time I can remember doing this, the PCs were visiting a nursing home for the geriatric. One player decided his “NPC” thought he was an ex-jewel thief and a born teller of tall-tales that made him seem more important than he was, another was a would-be Lothario, one was vague about just what the date was, and one did nothing but sleep – while mumbling “interesting” things between snores! Throw in two PCs trying to get witness statements, and a couple of NPCs run by the GM (who actually saw something) but who were more interested in other things – one thought the staff were stealing his money, and the other was just grumpy, cantankerous, and uncooperative.

9. Plot that eats itself

It can be the height of artistry in RPG plotting to have seemingly-unrelated plot threads in an adventure that come together at the end to reveal an unrecognized relevance that was always there, beneath the surface. Failed attempts at achieving this are also highly artificial in nature, and can be catastrophically bad gaming, fun for no-one. It’s an approach that doesn’t work if the supposedly-unrelated plot threads are too obvious in their connection to the main plot, and doesn’t work if they are too subtle, too.

Nevertheless, there is always value in having prologues and subplots relate to the main plot, however obliquely, so long as they are organic outgrowths of the personalities and “lives” of the PCs featured and the circumstances that obtain at that time in the wider world.

At one point in the pulp campaign, for example, we produced a series of front-pages to “newspapers” of the day, having determined which press sources were most appropriate to the personalities of the PCs. Each contained at least one headline that advanced the main plot and another that was designed to be of interest to the PC reading that newspaper. Note that we didn’t actually write more than a lead paragraph of each “story”, using Greeked Text (Lorum Ipsum) for the remainder. These headlines were entirely fictional and were derived using a variant of the “Chinese Whispers” method of Rumor Generation, which I described in Issue #322 of Roleplaying Tips. In this case, the process was “generalize/speculate, add bias, react, and spin the result”; repeat for each successive story while ensuring that the bias and spin were different each time. Some were alarmist, some pro-establishment, some conservative, some radical, some pro-Nazi, others pro-intervention, and some were just a vehicle for an axe to grind, but they were all peripherally related to both everyday events going on in the character’s lives at that point AND to each paper’s jaundiced views of developments in the main plot (before the PCs even became embroiled in it).

The general issue was Civil Rights, and agitation in various ports by Black Workers and Unions – a subject that was broad enough in a 1930s setting to permit all sorts of facets to come to light, and it was part of an insidious plot by a radical faction of the KKK to persuade the Authorities that they needed to clamp down, and to propel our fictitious Grand Dragon (and mastermind) into the White House. The plot, and the social issue, were eventually laid to rest, but – in the latter case – seeds were sewn that would eventually give birth to the historic civil rights movement. But, in the meantime, just look at all the tangents that this touches on – Nazism, Communism, War readiness, Social Policy, Organized Crime and the Unions, North-South tensions, Welfare, the New Deal, Democrats, Republicans, even questions about minority participation in national sports, advertising, sweat-shops, worker’s rights – the list just goes on and on – and that’s before we look at “pro” and “anti” positions on the issues. If you can’t find something of relevance to any period character in that list, you aren’t trying hard enough.

None of this was forced; we weren’t telling the PCs what to think. If anything, we were playing on the modern-day attitudes towards multiculturalism and equality of the players, setting them up for the plot twist in which the noble sentiments expressed before their time were being subverted by a power-hungry bigot as a road to power. But the point is this: it made the plot relevant to, and important to, each of the characters.

Everyone shares the spotlight: PCs

Item 2, above, points at individualism as a contribution to the collective pluracy of group participation. At the time, I promised to go into more detail in a subsequent section; in fact, there are two such sections. This, the first, deals with the PC and what the individual brings to the group; the next deals with the Player who controls the PC.

You can think of the PCs as a single organism with the combined abilities, knowledge, skills, and personality traits of its constituent parts, capable of doing multiple things simultaneously – within limits – as well as possessing some qualities and attributes that result from the collective group.

In terms of outlining the overall course of a plot, such a perspective can be very useful, but in reality this is a theoretical construct; because you have individuals deciding the actions of each participant member, once the main plot and the prepared paths through to an opportunity for resolution are determined as a broad outline, it is necessary to examine the plot in detail from the perspective of each individual PC. You want your plot to make use of some unique aspect of each individual as their contribution to the collective effort, and to reflect their individual personalities, presenting an opportunity for their uniqueness to be highlighted. In other words, each needs his share of the spotlight.

Each character can be broken down into six ways in which they are distinct to a greater or lesser extent. Knowing how each PC is different from the others in those respects allows you to present circumstances in which the exercising of that distinctiveness can or will advance or enhance the plot. Not all these opportunities will actually present themselves in play, because the players may choose a different allocation of resources or even an entirely different plan to the one you anticipate; and not all the opportunities presented will be taken up by the player in question. First, they have to recognize than an opportunity exists, for example, and second they have to decide to avail themselves of it, and third they have to succeed in doing so.

That suggests that having two, three, or even four more times as many such opportunities as you think will be needed to give each PC his share of the spotlight can be needed. Practical experience has shown that this is usually too many, because whatever a PC does he will reflect his own unique attributes and aspects in what he chooses to do and how he chooses to do it.

Providing such opportunities can be viewed as an insurance policy and a way of fostering engagement, i.e. encouraging that sort of participation on the part of the PC. In other words, looking for such opportunities and even building one or two each into your adventures is never wasted effort, but you should never lock your thinking in stone on the subject and view it as “enough”. Sometimes it will be more than enough, and sometimes you will need to leave it to the player to carve out his own spotlight time. Aiming for a better batting average than would result simply from a straight interpretation of the plot is generally enough – especially if you make a point of trying not to get in the way when a PC steps up (unless they are stealing another PC’s spotlight moment, of course).

A better approach is generally to view each stage of the plot as a problem that needs to be solved and asking how each PC can contribute to that solution. If there is no obvious answer on the part of one or more PCs, that’s when you should consider a supplementary scene or subplot for those PCs.

Points Of Distinction: Abilities

Each character is able to do certain things better than others. One might be faster, another stronger, a third might be armed against the supernatural, and so on. When you are dealing with a Fantasy Campaign, there tend to be even more variations within this category.

These are the most obvious point of distinction that separates one character from another, and therefore they yield the most predictable plots when relied upon. Nevertheless, ignoring these is usually a bad idea. Starting with the generic approach and then applying some element of differentiation between this PC and other representatives of the generic character archetype to customize the opportunity is usually a better solution.

However, skill-based abilities – characters who know how to do something specific – are often a viable point of distinction without elaboration – it depends how unique that knowledge is amongst the party. But see also my comments below.

The fact that another character was`a successful officer in the Royal Navy is enough for us to presume that he knows how to give orders in a tone of voice that makes others likely to obey, especially if accustomed to obeying such orders. This is an way in which an ability can impact a plotline by altering how an NPC will react. Other characters could issue the same instruction and the NPC will think it over; and still others could do so and be ignored.

One of the PCs in the Pulp Campaign is good at cutting through the fog and getting to the heart of a situation; another is good for legal issues; a third has morals and morality and questions of “what is right?” covered; and a fourth is great for issues of ethics and responsibility. The fifth hasn’t been with the campaign long enough to have demonstrated a particular aspect for which he is predisposed, beyond the obvious.

Points Of Distinction: Knowledge

We use this all the time. It works with the Hero System because there are enough skills that no-one can be qualified in every field, or even in the majority of subjects. It doesn’t work anywhere near as well in systems like D&D and Pathfinder because the skill points characters get are high enough that some ability in the majority of subjects is usually accessible by any given character.

Points Of Distinction: Life Experience

Not everything that a character has been through in their “lives” is always reflected in their skills and knowledge. We partially address this situation with Everyman Skills, many of which need to be defined and customized to match the individual’s background, but even these are incomplete. The knowledge that a character has spent time in the Middle East is sufficient basis to reasonably conclude that he has a tourist’s knowledge of Ancient Egypt, Pharaohs, Mummification, etc. If any of those subjects happen to be relevant, it pushes that character forward.

Even if the knowledge isn’t relevant, the appearance of relevance can be just as effective. It can shape the allocation of responsibilities by the PCs, and still provide a character with a slice of the available spotlight time.

Points Of Distinction: Attitudes & Opinions

Definitely ingredients that rarely appear on character sheets, these can nevertheless be just as influential as anything in writing. Again, the Hero System is better in this respect than some other game systems, but doesn’t offer the capacity for more than the most dominant characteristics of personality. The better you know the PC in question as the player expresses his personality in play, the more effectively you can write to that character.

Points Of Distinction: Circumstances

Not so much the circumstances within the adventure as the broader circumstances of the PC’s current status. Father O’Malley lives in a Vestry attached to a Church, the 54th Street Mission. He shares these accommodations with another Priest, who appears regularly on an interfaith radio show that discusses various subjects social, religious, and topical. He acts as a “relief priest” for the surrounding parishes. He does charity work one day a week when not otherwise engaged. He has a reputation for being fairly progressive and moderate in his social values. He has been professionally trained to be diplomatic when necessary. These are all circumstances that can be used as the foundation of a prologue, but they can also play a significant role in individual scenes within an adventure – when you need to question the nuns at a religious school, or persuade the head of a charity to give you the time of day, or simply need a connection to a friend of such a charity director, to name just a few.

He is also the shortest member of the PCs – which is something that we haven’t yet been able to make a significant factor, but you never know…

Points Of Distinction: Flaws & Limitations

Almost as important as determinant individualizing factors are the flaws and limitations of characters. Captain Ferguson is protective of his crew almost as much, if not more than, he is of his ship. He has the privilege of berating and (when necessary) browbeating them, but would be the first to interpose himself between them and anyone else giving them attitude, or worse. The relationship is very paternal.

It follows that if a crew member is seriously threatened in any manner, Ferguson will take the spotlight, and relinquish it only if specialist expertise is necessary – and even then will hover unless forced not to. So long as this “handle” is not abused too frequently, it can be used to steer involvement in an adventure. (Hmmmm – a thought – we haven’t yet done anything much with the families of those crew members…)

Points Of Distinction: Incapacities

Finally, it can sometimes be useful, entertaining, and realistic to put a PC into a situation in which he is as a fish out of water, having to cope and improvise his way to some sort of solution. It’s reasonable to assume that the PCs will hand tasks to the person(s) who combine availability with being apparently best-fitted to performing that task, given free choice; but those are a huge number of caveats. Remember the principle of “Can’t Be Everywhere”!

Everyone shares the spotlight: Players

It’s not enough to take only the PCs as played and their documented capabilities and restrictions into account. Behind the mask of every PC there is a player – one who may have vastly different strengths and weaknesses to those of the personality they are simulating; and, ultimately, it is this person behind the persona that we are seeking to engage in our plots. Who cares how much the PC enjoys the adventure, so long as they achieve victory in the end? In fact, every method of engaging and enmeshing the PC into the plot is simply a mechanism by which the person behind that character can vicariously participate in the shared activity of the game.

It can’t be disputed that such vicarious participation can be a powerful instrument in facilitating engagement, and it’s a lot easier to achieve than directly targeting the characteristics of the player. It is also prone to placing a barrier between the manipulations of plot and the player, making it less likely that the GM will tread on toes; tabletop gaming is a social activity, when all is said and done, and that’s hardly an appropriate venue for probing a friend’s moral values, politics, or other sensibilities.

Nevertheless, since it is the person behind the character who we seek to engage, it would be foolhardy to ignore the points of distinction that separate one player from another. These are inevitably going to be fuzzier and less-defined than those deriving from the game-mechanics and their clinical specificity; nevertheless, general points of distinction can be assessed and utilized to produce a better game.

Side-note: The inability to do this is one of the biggest handicaps of tournament gaming and of published modules in general; this is why most such need to be interpreted, if not overhauled completely, by GMs before usage, in order to get the best out of them (I addressed this aspect of the differences between “Canned” and “original” adventures in To Module Or Not?: A legacy article, which may be of value to anyone who wants to look more deeply at the subject).

I have divided the points of distinctiveness between players into six categories (several of which will look very familiar) and intend to look at them in what I consider the order of importance.

Points Of Distinction: Preferences

Preferences come in two divisions: what the player likes to do in his gaming and what the player doesn’t like to do, or doesn’t do very well – frustration and fun don’t often brew up very satisfyingly.

While it’s important to satisfy the gaming desires of each player, it is even more important to avoid handing them the sort of play they dislike, at least as much as is practicable. Ian M, one of our players (and the one whose comment sparked this entire 2-part article), likes to swash-buckle, and dislikes playing detective – it’s not that he doesn’t enjoy reading detective stories, it’s just that he doesn’t solve mysteries very well, in his own opinion. He prefers his games to be fairly straightforward, in other words.

For that reason, when there’s detective work involved, we will either arrange things so that the other players can assist him (even if their characters aren’t present), or find a way to present the mysteries to other PCs, or – at the very least – provide a straight-ahead path for Captain Ferguson to follow while others grapple with the puzzles presented.

Ian is the player I know best, having gamed with him since the early 80s; I don’t have quite as deep an understanding of the others. But for all of them, there are tentatively-identified “no go” areas and even-more-tentatively-identified positive preferences. Sometimes these are in opposition, and have to be balanced one against the other; but in general we’ve been able to keep our core group happy.

Points Of Distinction: Abilities

Equally, each player has his own abilities that he brings to the table, which we can take shameless advantage of, when it’s necessary. In some cases, the characters reflect those abilities by virtue of the PC having been created by the player; in others the characters abilities are actually the product of the PC-player gestalt, i.e. derive at least as much from the intelligence behind the character as they do from any game mechanics.

Points Of Distinction: Knowledge

One of the players has extensive knowledge of Occultism in World War II. Another has knowledge of maritime lore and history. A third is an expert in Anime and Manga: and so on. Each player has knowledge of various topics, with some overlap, but also with many unique corners. Any scene or adventure that touches on the transferable knowledge of the player will generally be of interest to that player, even if his character doesn’t have the knowledge that the player does.

Points Of Distinction: Life Experience

One of the players has served in the Army. Another is a librarian. A third works in a call center, while a fourth is former civil servant. Some have been urban dwellers for most if not all their lives; others are from the country. At least one has been overseas, and so has experienced customs, and international air travel. These life experiences can all be tapped in the course of an adventure, simply by using our own general knowledge of the subjects to put the PCs in a position where the player knows what to look for, and what to expect. The Dewey-Decimal system has not yet played a key role in an adventure, but sooner or later it might (will?) happen.

Points Of Distinction: Attitudes & Opinions

If these are fuzzy on the part of PCs, they are even more-so on the parts of the players behind the characters. Nevertheless, some are known by us; this enables us to incorporate scenes that reinforce or reflect those attitudes or opinions, or that use them to make the adventure more interesting. See, for example, the earlier “KKK” plotline.

Points Of Distinction: Circumstances

The final point of distinction is the one that I regard as the most problematic and likely to step on toes, so I only use it in the negative, as in “there are situations that might hit too close to home” – so I’m cautious about NPCs in those situations, and even more cautious about putting PCs into those situations.

What’s In The Shadows>

Even with all this to draw upon, there will still be times when you need to complicate what is otherwise a nice, neat plot outline just to make sure that everyone can play an active role. Eliminating a red herring is a worthy expenditure of effort, or an unrelated plot point that (entirely coincidentally) puts a PC in the right place at the right time to discover something important – even if it doesn’t seem to be so at the time.

Presence In The Periphery

The other way to permit engagement within th main adventure when the plot itself doesn’t support it is for a PC’s or player’s knowledge to be pivotal to exposing an otherwise undetectable plot twist or in some other critical manner. This only works when the individual in question is the only person able to supply the information, something that’s very hard to guarantee, and only works when the individual is already engaged – so from the point of view of this article, it’s a decidedly moot point. I mention it here only for the purpose of being as complete as possible.


Of course, there are three primary parts to any adventure – the before, the middle, and the after. It’s not uncommon for the latter to be ignored or forgotten when people discuss plotting RPG adventures, and that’s a major mistake.

There are four general types of Epilogue.

  • Individual Epilogue Stories
  • Group Epilogues
  • Springboard Epilogues
  • Deferred Epilogues
Individual Epilogue Stories

One option is to give one or more characters brief epilogues on an individual basis. This brings the adventure structure full circle and is a great way of demonstrating the impact that the adventure has had on a character. Those impacts come in two varieties: Impacts on PC thinking, and Impacts on PC circumstances, which includes character health.

In general, epilogues should be short, even compared to prologues. It’s often sufficient to tease one with nothing more than a single sentence and tip of the hat, but when you go for the tease, you should revisit the epilogue and the impact that it’s meant to display in the prologue to the next adventure – and there will be times when the two are incompatible, or where you are foregoing a prologue in order to tip the PCs into the action in a hurry.

The rest of the time, we’re talking five minutes maximum per scene, and a two-minute or less target average. One, maybe two paragraphs, and one, maybe two responses of equal length, or a single paragraph and a conversation. Again, it’s often not necessary to play out the whole thing; if the player has already indicated that they are going to have a particular conversation, it can often be more effective to end on “Janey, we have to talk…” or equivalent – and then open the next adventure not with a continuation but with a sequel to the conversation. After all, a truly great actor might be able to improvise the dialogue in such a scene and keep it interesting – but fading to black and sparing the need is, 9 times out of 10, or better, going to be more effective because the dialogue you come up with in your head is never going to sound as good in reality, especially with someone on the other end of the conversation that hasn’t read the (non-existent) “script”.

Group Epilogues

Group epilogues are where the whole group shares an epilogue that ties up a loose end or two. Note that ending on a witticism is fraught with danger because they are rarely as witty to others. And – unless the length is very carefully controlled – stirring speeches tend to run on far too long and bore the players (even if it’s one of them delivering the speech. “The danger is past. Tomorrow, the rebuilding begins.” Job done, cue the music, and roll the credits.

Springboard Epilogues

There are two sub-types of Epilogue within the Springboard category. The first is designed to tease the players with what’s going to happen next, and implies that the next adventure will open with prologues as usual; the second is designed to create a cliffhanger situation that hits the players with some sort of revelation, and implies that the next adventure will pick up right at the moment where this one left off (the epilogue might be repeated as a prologue for that sequel adventure). Both have their places and their uses.

Deferred Epilogues

The final type of epilogue is the one that you deliver at the start of the next adventure, and represents something of a hybrid of the two springboard types. In effect, it fails to punctuate the adventure it is ending, and in the process, implies that something major is coming down the road at the PCs – but heaven help you if the next adventure fails to live up to the implied hype.

The Time-Slip Variant
A variant on the deferred epilogue that I have occasionally used – and to be honest, I don’t recall whether we’ve ever done this with the Adventurer’s Club Campaign – I describe as the Time-Slip Variant. You end the variant with a cliffhanger, but in such a way that it implies or states explicitly that time has passed between the end of the adventure and the delivery of this cliffhanger. At the start of the next game session, you deliver the epilogues as though they were prologues and have them lead to the opening scene of the next adventure as usual – which just happens to be a repeating of the cliffhanger.

This delivers the cliffhanger without context and then provides the context – and a slow buildup – at the start of the next adventure. It works because the cliffhanger teases the players and then builds up tension while they wait to catch up.

A variant on the variant opens the next adventure with the rehash of the cliffhanger and then time-slips backwards with the (imaginary but vocalized) caption, “[x] days earlier…” or it might be hours, or whatever. The big tricks to employing this sub-variant successfully are (1) making sure that the PCs don’t prepare for it by acting on knowledge that they have as players, but that their PCs don’t have, yet; (2) making sure that the time in between is properly filled; and (3) ensuring that you aren’t making decisions for the players, i.e. railroading them to the cliffhanger. As usual, you also have to make sure that it isn’t an anticlimax when the time comes, because you’ve given this cliffhanger “beginning” a lot of build-up.

The James Bond Teaser Variant
Occasionally, it can be useful to consider a deferred group epilogue to an adventure that you haven’t run and don’t intend to run. Instead, you use the ending of the not-played adventure as a James-Bond style teaser at the start of the next adventure, and then segue into the prologues for the next one.

This is my favorite trick to pull with adventures where there’s been a problem with the internal logic that will take more time to fix than you have available. You cut out the entire broken section of adventure and simply catapult the players into the dramatic finish, whether it makes a whole lot of sense or not.

Immersion vs Engagement

I wanted to take a moment to clarify the differences between these two phenomena and the relationship between them.

Immersion is what results when the world feels real enough to the players that they can almost reach out and touch it, when they start thinking in character. Engagement is when the players are hanging on every word, paying attention because they care about what is happening and want to know what is going to happen next – when they feel involved in the adventure and yet able to choose their own path, to, through, and out of whatever is to come next.

You can have Engagement without Immersion, which is a good thing because you have all these pesky game mechanics that drag players out of immersion, anyway. I am not entirely convinced that, in the real world, you can have Immersion without first achieving Engagement. In theory, it might be doable, but even that theory seems suspect to me.

Wandering Spotlights & The Wide-angle lens

I started the first article (after a brief prologue) with a metaphor about a wandering spotlight, and though it so apt that I named the articles for it. So I though it appropriate to end the same way.

When you’re the GM, pretend that you are directing, producing, writing, and photographing an entire movie with nothing but a wide-angle lens. No matter what you point it at, it will pick up everything else and put it on permanent display. The camera sees everything. To make certain things stand out from this flat-pack of moving images, you have a single spotlight. It can shine on one character, or on a small group at the same time – so long as they are not too far apart. But it’s only when the spotlight is shining that you create shadows deep enough for your other cast members to vanish from sight. Use of the spotlight can immensely improve your production but it also highlights any flaws and errors.

Employ your spotlight to enhance your adventures by shining it on whatever is most significant in any given scene – but don’t forget that you have an ensemble cast, and it’s up to you to make sure that everyone gets their fair share – and that they are all hanging around somewhere in every shot!

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The Wandering Spotlight Part One of Two: Plot Prologues


In the midst of all the angst on display in the last article, correspondent, friend, and involved party Ian M included this comment:

…as GMs, Mike and Blair are very good at making sure even PCs that (by skillset, background or whatever) are more or less side-lined for a specific situation are still well-engaged.

While I don’t think there’s anything too radical or innovative about how we approach that, the fact that our technique is successful enough for a player to comment on it means that it’s worth examining for the benefit of others. Quite often it’s these little touches that seem so obvious that they don’t need to be explained that can really help another GM, and that’s what Campaign Mastery is all about.

I’ve divided this article into two parts. The first is general introduction and also deals with plot prologues; the second will be larger, and deals with engagement both in and out of the spotlight during the actual adventures within the campaign.

Spotlights & Stage Lights

A good start is to think of each GM as having a single spotlight that they can shift around, or can shut off to let the whole situation be viewed as though under general stage lighting.

Each GM can focus his attention on one PC at a time, or on the whole group or subgroup. Giving another PC or subgroup spotlight time means shifting that focus. It’s obvious that you should give each PC or subgroup of PCs their own share of the spotlight.

It’s very easy to have one main plot that serves as the central spine of the adventure and lots of smaller subplots involving the other PCs. But that’s a fairly basic technique that has inherent limitations; it means that while the main plot is occupying center stage – which it will, most of the time – non-spotlighted PCs will be marginalized. So, while we will still resort to this approach if we have to, we have developed better techniques that we employ by preference.

(N.B. I’ve had to phrase this section a little carefully because the Adventurer’s Club campaign is a Co-GM’d game, which lets us focus on two things at once if necessary. However, we usually operate as one GM with two heads who take it in turns to deal with game play. It’s all a lot simpler in the more traditional one-GM games.)

Individual Prologue Stories

First, we like to have individual prologue stories most of the time. These are minor incidents and events that represent a slice of the everyday lives of the PCs. Most important, we aren’t afraid to advance those personal lives either a little or a lot when that seems appropriate.

These individual stories help establish “normality” within the campaign, so that the main adventure itself is viewed as something extraordinary. They also give an impression of the passage of time, and help maintain relationships with key NPCs, especially those who haven’t had any spotlight time in a while or who are going to feature.


We usually put quite a lot of thought into these Prologues. Here’s a list of the usual considerations that we take into account:

  • Firstly, one of the prologues will often lead into the main adventure. That requirement takes priority over everything else, though the other sources of prologue ideas listed below will often provide the vehicle or context.
  • When NPCs known to the party are going to play a significant role in the adventure to come, we try and re-introduce them in one of the relevant “prologues”, unless their involvement is to be a surprise.
  • When a philosophic or abstract perspective is needed to provide a context for how the PC should perceive events in the main adventure, we try to give them a starting point through an incident that is analogous to, or a metaphor for, that context. For example, if the main plot is all about forgiveness or setting aside past differences, we might have another smaller encounter with a similar theme, just to help the player view things with the appropriate slant.
  • A Prologue can also be a great opportunity to go into any background on the part of the PC that is relevant to what is to come, which also provides context.
  • Is there a logical development in the character’s personal life?
  • Has the player indicated that the PC is going to try and develop a particular skill, or investigate a particular subject? Take these metagame instructions and show the character putting them into practice.
  • Is there a recurring NPC who hasn’t been featured lately? If none of the above are relevant or sufficient, give such an NPC a vignette appearance with the PC.
  • Connected World: Just because NPC “Charlie Donovan” (made up on the spur of the moment just for this example) is part of PC “A”‘s background doesn’t mean that PC “A” has to be the one that he interacts with; Donovan knows the other PCs by virtue of their relationship with PC “A”, and so could get involved in any of their prologue stories.
  • Has one particular PC been having a gloomy time of it lately? It may be time for a little sunshine in their life, even if only temporarily.
  • Conversely, if everything’s been coming up roses for the PC, it may be time to rain on their parade a little. Life’s like that.
  • We’ll also consider those last two points from the context of how the PC is likely to interact with the main adventure to come, and either foreshadow or contrast that interaction with the mood of their prologue, whichever seems most appropriate to us when writing the adventure.

Prologues are sometimes the first things we write and sometimes the last things. Often we will adopt a hybrid approach by outlining them at the start and writing any that lead to the main adventure immediately while leaving the rest until last, when we can see what else is required to balance the spotlight sharing.

What’s My Motivation?

Another key consideration in designing these prologue scenes is the answer to a simple question that we should be able to answer for each PC: What’s that PC’s motivation for getting involved in the main adventure? If, for example, their primary motivation is because of their friendship with another PC, then building that friendship through a prologue is definitely worth considering. Is it necessary, or is it well-established? If their motivation is to write a wrong, then touching on some wrong-doing or injustice outside of the situation and about which the PC can become indignant can be very useful. You can never establish a motivation for getting involved too soon!

A Party Divided

That means that effectively, the entire party has been divided, and each has his own little plotline running more-or-less simultaneously.

There was a time when this would have been considered absolutely verboten, and you can still read advice to that effect here and there. It remains one of the hardest things for a GM to do well.

Key to our approach is to spend only a few minutes, real-time, on each of these situations before moving on to the next, and working our way around the table so that we don’t miss anyone. You can read other techniques that are helpful in a divided-party situation in Ask The GMs: “Let’s Split Up.” – “Good Idea, we can do more damage that way!”

The Dynamics of a static environment

At all times, we want to progress at least one PC’s background situation through these prologues. For example, Father O’Malley resides in a vestry that he shares with a parish priest, but he has no parish of his own; instead, he acts as a substitute for any of the priests in the surrounding parishes as necessary, as well as filling in for his co-habitant, who is quite elderly. Over the last half-dozen or so appearances of that NPC, we’ve slowly been letting his health deteriorate just a little – one time, Father O’Malley had to take over a regular radio address for him, another time he had to perform services for the congregation on short notice, and so on. Where we will go with this plot thread – which has probably been so subtle that the player hasn’t consciously noticed it, but will now that I’m mentioning it – is completely undecided. He might get very sick. Another of the PCs (Doctor Hawke) may be secretly consulted, in strict confidence. The Priest might have to be sent away to convalesce. He might be far more ill than he’s been letting on, and suddenly go downhill, or even pass away, bringing in a new NPC who rubs the PC the wrong way. Or maybe he’s a hypochondriac. We haven’t decided yet.

The point is that it’s an evolving situation, and something that therefore takes a static situation (the micro-scale of the campaign world as applied to this relationship specifically) and brings it to life. Or, as I put it in another article, Time Happens In The Background.

It’s astonishing how much vitality you can give a campaign with just a little of this technique.


How long these should take to play out, game time, is a delicate question. The time scales should be as uniform as possible, unless the prologue leads directly into the main plot, in which case it may be an exception. If the spotlight of the main adventure is to focus more strongly or more often on one of the PCs than the others, something we generally try to avoid (and which is the main subject of this article), we will often give the non-focus characters larger prologue plots in compensation. As a general rule of thumb, we try to give each prologue at least 5 minutes duration, and have the total before the main plot gets underway be less than an hour – but if a prologue leads directly into the main plot, we will often only count half it’s anticipated duration toward the total, giving a little more time for the other prologues.

On top of all these considerations, we remain mindful of the overall pacing and emotional intensity of the main adventure, and adjust the prologues accordingly. If the adventure starts with a bang, shorter prologues are a better fit; if the adventure starts with a “slow burn”, longer prologues are acceptable.

When we had a string of adventures leading one-to-the-next, also known these days as the “Things Of Stone And Wood” plot arc, or the China expedition, we failed to include prologues after the initial “adventure” in the plot arc, and in hindsight, that was – not a mistake, but a missed opportunity. We could easily have had prologues relating to life on-board the ship, and the relationships between the PCs and the crews. This would have been beneficial because the prologues serve one other vital function.

Prologues as Punctuation

Because they were part of an established pattern of structuring adventures, it wasn’t all that clear to the players that these were separate adventures; instead they tended to view them as being one very big adventure. This had an impact on their thinking, because it made the adventure seem to drag on a bit. In fact, it took about 1 1/2 years, real time, to complete.

The down-time represented by the prologues punctuates adventures. If we had included them, the adventures themselves would have been perceived as far more discrete elements, and the players would recognize that we had simply made a temporary change in the campaign setting – instead of being based out of the Adventurer’s Club in New York, their home base was now the Antares, the freighter owned and Captained by one of their number.

For the record – it will be useful as an example in part two – here’s the actual breakdown of that plot arc, showing the individual adventures, and (for the first one, as an example), a complete breakdown of the structure – and note the usage of prologues:

Things Of Stone And Wood

  • Adventure 1: An Asian Affair

    • Act 1: Shadow Of The East

      • Scene 1.1: Prologue: Captain Ferguson’s Telegram – recruits PCs for adventure.
      • Scene 1.2: The 54th Street Mission – Father O’Malley Prologue, Hints Of trouble in China.
      • Scene 1.3: A Private Airfield in Maine – Tommy Adkins Prologue, Hints Of trouble in Asia.
      • Scene 1.4: The Offices Of John Macenhay – “Mac” Prologue, not played as player had retired from the campaign to pursue his university studies. Instead, i think we improvised one for new PC Dr Hawke, though I may be confusing the timeline on that point.
      • Scene 1.5: Gather Ye Rosebuds – Captain Ferguson gathers the other PCs.
      • Scene 1.6: Briefing – Warnings of trouble in China & Japan, PCs Sent to rescue Archaeologists.
      • Scene 1.7: Bargaining – Ferguson decides whether or not to take the offer and how much he will charge. Preliminary plans are made.
      • Scene 1.8: Preparations & Shopping.
      • Scene 1.9: Departure, Planning en route (approx 14-21 days).
      • Scene 1.10: Scouting – Only to be played if Tommy Adkins had decided to scout ahead in his airplane. I don’t remember if he did or not, to be honest. But we were ready, just in case.
    • Act 2: Hong Kong
      • Scene 2.1: Harbor – arrival, get instructions for secret rendezvous.
      • Scene 2.2: Leung Fat’s Tavern – Secret Rendezvous for updated intel.
      • Scene 2.3: Increasing Urgency – Receive and analyze the updated Intel.
      • Scene 2.4: Brawl – a brawl is started by people in overalls.
      • Scene 2,5: Ferguson Alone – the brawl was a distraction to permit the kidnapping of Captain Ferguson. In this scene, we brief him on his situation.
      • Scene 2.6: One Of Our Sea-Captains Is Missing – PCs and Crew of Antares realize Ferguson is missing, begin thinking about what to do about it.
    • Act 3: Rescue
      • Scene 3.1: Dragon Lady – Ferguson discovers his kidnapper to be his arch-enemy and would-be love interest, Tomoko Kasugi.
      • Scene 3.2: Offices of The Hong Kong Times – a friendly editor interprets the clues that the PCs have after the brawl and kidnapping.
      • Scene 3.3: Hing Cho Pow Warehouse & Cargo – PCs raid the warehouse whose logo was on the overalls of the people who started the brawl.
      • Scene 3.4: Ransack – PCs search the warehouse, discover evidence of piracy, one of Ferguson’s buttons, and get the phone number of the “Management”.
      • Scene 3.5: Descent – Ferguson & Tomoko Kasugi, scene ends when he spots a possible chance to escape.
      • Scene 3.6: Dinner & A Show – PCs At the Jade Palace, a nightclub owned by the Kasugis and used as a front for various criminal enterprises, and the place which belongs to the phone number found at the Warehouse. Without warning, the nightclub comes under attack by a third party.
      • Scene 3.7: Release – Before he can take advantage of the chance to escape that he spotted, Tomoko Kasugi releases Ferguson in repayment for his saving her life in their previous encounter at Formosa. He returns to the Antares to find that the others are gone and about to put their heads into the Lion’s den.
      • Scene 3.8: Let’s Get Ready To Rumble – PCs have to decide which group they will help, or will they simply try to take advantage of the distraction to search for Captain Ferguson. Either way, a complicated 3-way fight results. The new hostile forces are ID’d as “The Brotherhood Of Kali”, a band of Assassins.
      • Scene 3.9: Rescuing The Rescuers – Both the Kasugi forces and the Assassins prove more dangerous than the PCs expect. All sides are being worn down when Ferguson leads reinforcements into the fray, defeats the Assassins and extracts the PCs.
      • Epilogue: Get Out Of Dodge – PCs bring each other up-to-date and depart for China before they get held up by official inquiries and awkward questions.
  • Adventure 2: The Mysterious Orientspotlight-320755-m.jpg
      • Arrive China, deal with Port Officials, Encounter another of Ferguson’s old enemies, Travel upriver, Encounter “pirate” fort which has constructed gates that block river traffic, raid fort, attacked by peasants, discover that the leaders of the peasants are wearing Jade (a still-ongoing subplot), escape and travel upriver, encounter a supernatural river-monster establishing principle of distance from civilization, defeat it, reach destination.
  • Adventure 3: Chrysanthemum Palace Temple
      • Make Landfall, Village, Fight off Dinosaur Raiders, Reinforce principle of distance from civilization, Climb The Alps, Reach & Climb the stairs to the dig site, find the ruins of “The Chrysanthemum Palace”, find that there’s a shortage of archaeologists but plenty of signs to say they were there, enter the Temple, bypass traps, Meet the archaeologists, get rudely interrupted by Nazis holding automatic weapons.
  • Adventure 4: Ice Storm One
      • Nazis (“Ice Storm One”) capture the party, Taunt the PCs, Show off for the PCs, PCs escape and defeat Nazis, but not before the Nazis awaken the Jade Dragon, sorcerer and last Emperor of the Chou Dynasty.
  • Adventure 5: The Jade Dragon
      • Jade Dragon reanimates his statues, PCs and fleeing Nazis play tag with the statues in the shadows as they flee, Form temporary alliance with the Nazis of Ice Storm One, Archaeologists and PCs figure out the secret vulnerability of the Jade Dragon, defeat him, capture the artifacts that can again restore him to life, and plan to dump them in the deepest part of the Pacific en route home.
  • Adventure 6: Bloodsuckers & Bureaucrats
      • Travel downriver, battle with Chinese Vampire, defeat Chinese Vampire, reach Port, battle Ferguson’s old enemy who has turned Bureaucracy against them, expose corruption, learn of imminent attack on China by Japan being fueled by Yakuza who have employed Ferguson’s old enemy.
  • Adventure 7: The Gaigin Rebellion
      • Enter Japan, undercover contact with Embassy, get intel, observe newspaper headlines critical of the rush to war, decide to contact the editor, discover him to be a rival Yakuza head, attacked by Ninja in the service of the Enemy Yakuza Boss, drive off Ninja, forge alliance with “friendly” Yakuza boss and his Samurai principles, supernatural attack repelled, discover Ally has been poisoned, save his life, receive intel on Enemy Boss’ fortified island base, plan raid, execute raid, penetrate fortress, discover that he has demonic ally, defeat demon, get proof that enemy boss was pushing for war for his own greed and power and planned to overthrow the Emperor of Japan, escape with the evidence, give evidence to ally who publishes it.
  • “Adventure 8″: Epilogue
      • Depart Japan, prepare to dump artifacts but some are missing, deal with archaeologist trying to hide some of them because of historical value, evidence that Jade Emperor is already beginning to re-manifest, dump artifacts (hopefully ending the threat), return home.

Plot Prologues: Conclusion

If you don’t employ plot prologues, you’re missing a great opportunity. While they might not be for everyone or every campaign – I don’t use them in my Fumanor campaigns – they are definitely worth trying if you haven’t done so before.

This was just the Hors d’oeuvre – the main part of the article is here!

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An Experimental Failure – 10 lessons from a train-wreck Session


Tomorrow (as I write this), as usual on the final Friday of the month, I will be deep into prep for the next session of the Adventurer’s Club campaign.

Unlike the usual situation, this won’t be final prep – we usually play that campaign on the first Saturday of the month.

This article will look at the reasons for this discrepancy, and the lessons that have been learned as a result.

The Backstory

The PCs are currently pursuing a Demon through Hell in what was supposed to be an extra-special adventure to commemorate the campaign’s anniversary by taking them someplace that the players would never have expected the campaign to go.

The Last Session

As the last session got underway, the PCs had reached and passed the gates into the Palace Grounds of Hell.

We had previously established that each PC saw a completely different environment that seemed personally calculated to tempt them, interrupted by occasional flashes of a less-welcoming and more traditional Hell that was nevertheless also targeted at each of their characters individually.

It had also been established that their environments, despite the differences, were topologically similar, and that a threat perceived in one “reality” by one PC could affect even those characters who could not see the danger. Distances were not to be relied on, and neither were times of day, or durations experienced.

Father O’Malley, from Boston, wandered through a New England Autumn. Eliza Black experienced Winter in her native Canada, her favorite time of year. Doctor Matthew Hawke found himself in Spring in his native Queensland (Australia). Captain John “Blackjack” Ferguson, another Australian, experienced Summer in the jungles of Asia, the time of year and place where he was most at home. And newest recruit, Steffan Bednarczyk, a tough-as-nails Engineer from Eastern Europe who had fled the rise of Fascism found himself wandering a world in which all man’s progress and creativity had been reduced to rubble and ruin. Each could see all the other PCs, they weren’t alone, but each perceived an entirely separate environment.

The Palace Grounds Sequence
The Palace Grounds sequence had been devised to build on these differences and similarities, establishing that they were “strangers in a strange land” and helping prepare the PCs for entry into the Palace. We were striving for immersion while informing the players of the ground rules while revealing the existence of hidden allies who were hamstrung by protocols and doing their best to work around these restrictions. At the same time, while perpetuating their individual environments, we wanted to show that the gardens weren’t there for the PCs benefit, but for the enjoyment of the ruler of Hell. We wanted to touch on the remnants of his former existence as an Angel and begin hinting at his character and the drives that had led to his downfall. And finally, we wanted to increase the dramatic tension that each experienced.

That’s a lot to achieve in a single game session.

In the pre-Gates sequence, we had been at pains to advance each character’s journey in successive steps – this character, then the next, then the one after that, and so on. This method was conducive to an even sharing of the spotlight, to immediate reactions to events, but not to any single character experiencing immersion in the environment; the mood and flavor of each PC’s journey was constantly being interrupted by that of the next PC in line, which meant that the impact of each journey was diffused. While this was practical for roleplaying, it was incompatible with the goals for the garden sequences.

The plan that went awry
To try and achieve everything, I had devised – and my Co-GM had approved – a radical approach to the sequence. We laid out each character’s journey with a concordance showing where each was within their journey when something occurred, with a carefully-chosen illustration. As each reacted to events within their frame of reference, notes would be made that would be integrated into the next character’s journey, permitting actions and reactions to be assembled one character at a time into a whole journey.

In other words, character #1 would experience their entire journey from A to Z. If, at step G, they had to make their way down a rocky and unstable slope, or decided to draw their weapon, or whatever, when character #2 went through his journey (with his reactions and responses being logged as well), at step G in that sequence, they would see character #1 behaving as though they were climbing down the rocky and unstable slope, or drawing their weapon, or whatever, and could react to both their environment and that action. Character #3 would have the benefit of the their own experiences and the compounded actions of both Characters #1 and #2, and so on. The order in which these experiences were to take place had been carefully selected to build incrementally the whole-party experience.

The whole was to culminate in Captain Ferguson’s journey, in which he would experience not only his own journey, and the actions of the other PCs, but a series of constant interruptions for hints, advice, and insights from those hidden allies.

Practical Implementation
The practical implementation was to be a series of short narrative paragraphs read mostly by my co-GM while I switched images seamlessly in step with the narrative. My major narrative was to be interrupting Blair’s narration to briefly deliver the Hell-views that interrupted the journey. Here’s an example, formatted in the same way as the adventure, i.e. anything in Bold was a direction to the GMs and not something to be read aloud. The Illustrations had both an absolute number and a within-Character number.

(Pic 159 Ferguson 33) showing:
Blair: Often, there is no obvious path to follow, but every alternative is choked with underbrush or rocks too tall to scale. This invisible path now begins to trend steadily downhill. The tinkling sound of falling and splashing water becomes noticeable from up ahead. Captain Ferguson suddenly breaks through a screen of light brush to find himself looking down at (Pic 160 Ferguson 34) a small waterfall which is landing on an angled piece of flat quartz which sings in a thousand tiny chirps, one for each drop, before emptying into a pool of pristine —

Mike interrupts: (Pic 161 Ferguson 35) …pristine devastation, lava spilling down the sides of a cliff, chocked by noxious fumes erupting from red-hot rock. On a distant hilltop, a serpent, or perhaps a dragon? Screams defiance at the heavens in a full-throated roar (Pic 162 Ferguson 36) –

Blair resumes: …of pristine emerald purity. Circling the pool, which is some distance below your current ground level, you come to the stream which feeds the waterfall. Of course, just calling it a stream is like labeling a butterfly as a “pretty insect”. (Pic 163 Ferguson 37) It’s a horizontal waterfall, liquid spiderwebs tumbling over and around mossy green rocks.

Insert concordance notes:

And here’s an extract from the Concordance for those paragraphs…

AC-Concordance Extract

In theory, it should have worked perfectly.

Have you ever noticed how, whenever someone uses the phase “In theory” in the past tense, it means explicitly that it didn’t work out that way in reality? The session was an almost-total disaster. A near-walkout by one player, a near-walkout by one GM, and a near-collapse of the entire campaign.

The player stuck it out despite evident rising frustration and irritation because he could “see [we] had invested a lot of effort in it” – in other words, out of friendship more than anything else. I nearly walked from the campaign out of anger over an unrelated issue with another of the players – but calmed down somewhat after a couple of weeks. And, if I had walked, I doubt the campaign would have continued for very long.

The Metagame Backstory

There was actually a LOT more effort invested than anyone could realize. All the way back in December 2013, our writing had more-or-less reached the point in the adventure where the PCs now are – with the expectation of this stage of the adventure being played in April or May at the latest. It would have represented about an hour of game play. We had been working on the adventure for about 4 months.

All that was lost when my PC crashed in the process of saving the file, just one impact point in it’s deterioration and ultimate failure. At the time, this adventure was listed as an optional extra add-on to another adventure which was also within the same file and which had taken another four months to prepare.

It ALL had to be re-created, almost from scratch. Which always takes longer. We had the advantage in working on the first adventure of memory, but that had faded by the time we got to the second. It also leaves a lot more time for “clever ideas” (which often don’t turn out to be half as clever as they seem at the time). In the process, inflation occurred because we were trying to keep all the elements and ingredients that had incorporated seamlessly into the first version even though they mostly had to be put back in as separate “bits”.

I averaged one sleepless night per week for the entire period from early January to the end of July trying to get everything done, and searching out the images ran up a total of $150 in excess internet charges – and for someone on a Disability Pension, that’s a lot! On top of that, every spare minute (plus the time supposedly allocated to another of my campaigns) got dedicated to getting it all done.

At least part of my reaction derived from exhaustion, I’m now completely certain.

What went wrong?

The players didn’t react. The characters didn’t interact, except when we had built deliberate bits in. One found the presentation so dull that he almost walked out, as noted earlier. Another PC acted like a sociopath, incapable of any empathy or normal human feeling, because the player felt we were pre-programming his reactions to suit the narrative.

How could things have been improved?

Instead of giving all the “hidden ally” clues to one character, we should have had them either spread amongst all the PCs, or even had them all encounter them together, immersion be damned. Rather than restricting these hidden allies to pre-scripted clues, we should have allowed interaction between them and the PCs. And, critically, none of the narrative ended in a call to action; it just kept going and going.

Who was to blame?

There’s more than enough blame to go around.


I fell in love with one particular, and rather experimental, way of structuring the narrative. There was no fall-back in case it didn’t work.

My Co-GM

Part of the function of a co-GM is to throw cold water on the other person’s ideas when they won’t work. Blair either didn’t see the problem coming, or didn’t object strongly enough in the face of my error.

The Players

They didn’t interact with their environment, didn’t interact with each other, and just sat there, passively, except when prompted. Only on one or two occasions, when they were pushed into it, did they actually participate. But part of that was because of:

My Co-GM, again

The intent was for a pause at the end of each of the segments or paragraphs for the players to interact with the environment. Instead, he simply took breath and moved on to the next paragraph of narrative. This only got worse when the frustration levels on the other side of the table began to become obvious and he started rushing to try and get through it all. But at least in part, that was because of:

Me, again

I had completely forgotten the need to prepare the Concordance until we actually arrived at the Game Table. It took about an hour-and-a-half of feverish work while everyone twiddled their thumbs to finish it, even in rudimentary form, and it was far more user-unfriendly than it should have been. But without it, the whole plan would have failed completely. Nevertheless, this was a substantial reason for the “rush”.

The Ultimate Responsibility

The Bottom line is that the buck has to stop with the GMs. We wrote the adventure, decided the format, and – it has to be admitted – got too ambitious, especially in light of the loss of the (much shorter and faster) first draft.

The Forthcoming Session & the rest of the adventure

The player who came close to walking out was so unhappy with the way things had gone that he told us, in quite impassioned manner, that if the next section of the adventure was going to be the same, to tell him; he would rather stay home than experience more of the same.

But, by then, we could already tell that it had been a colossal train-wreck. I had already decided that whatever we were going to do next time, it was NOT going to be more of the same – no matter what had to be done to the adventure to make it salvageable. What’s more, I could see exactly how to restructure what we did have planned to solve the problem. The first step was to throw away more than 10,000 words and most of the 89 images – about 75% of which were originals, which had been far more time-intensive to prepare than simply finding and downloading photos from the internet. In essence, the last 6 weeks work had to be junked.

Lest that player feel guilty about it, I want to emphasize that even if he had not made the request described at the start of this section, We would have done this anyway, as our reaction to the total failure of the overambitious plan that we had experienced.

The original plan

Without giving too much away, the plan was to separate the PCs for the final leg of the journey to the Palace (each journey had stopped as soon as it came into sight). In the course of this final leg – expected to be about half the next session – they would see various impossible things and lose track of everyone else at some point, all calculated to make it uncertain who – if anyone – had been replaced by a demonic impersonator, while giving everyone cause to suspect same. This was what we had been building toward throughout the session of the train-wreck. The PCs would then gain entrance to the palace; we had enough material prepared to complete the session with various roleplayed encounters with NPCs inside.

The revised plan

Instead, we are going to fast-track the PCs to the Palace, using a single paragraph each to tell the story of their approach, and only hinting at the paranoid aspects of the situation. This should take no more than five or ten minutes of game time. We then have the half-session of already-prepped interaction with the NPCs present. This throws the timing of the rest of the adventure out, but we are going to compress some aspects of it and expand others. We also have a far more action-oriented conclusion to the adventure in mind than we had under the original plan – trying to get the whole thing to fit neatly into this session and one to follow, rather than finishing mid-afternoon, is what I meant by “throwing the timing out”. In many ways, the result should be a far more player-friendly conclusion.

So why no game session in October?

The week after the train-wreck, I was required to remain on Standby to appear in Court as a witness. That meant that no prep was possible. Which was probably a good thing, in hindsight, because it gave me time to start calming down and the lack of activity gave me a chance`to recharge my batteries. The week after that, I accidentally left my phone off the hook – and then had to do some emergency shopping after my TV decided to fry its control circuits. So, no prep was possible.

Under any other circumstances, neither of these would have been fatal to the next session even if both occurred together, because we would be working not on the next session (which, under the original plan, was virtually ready-to-go).

Even with the revised plan, if one of these two things had not happened, there would have been enough time to prep enough material to get us through the October session, based on how much we got done last week and this week.

But the triple-whammy left us one week short of being ready-to-run, with no opportunity to make up the shortfall. And that’s why we canceled the next game session.

The lessons learned

I’ve always maintained that you learn more from failure after an honest attempt than from success without effort. This isn’t the first Mea Culpa that I’ve had to make, and it won’t be the last. In order to improve as a GM, you have to push the envelope every now and then, and sometimes that means things will go horribly wrong. And, that you can learn from other people’s mistakes.

Aside from an arguably-deserved infusion of humility, I’ve identified ten lessons that can be learned from this sequence of events.

1. Narrative Triggers

Mulling over what had taken place had a definite impact on the series on Narrative that I was already writing. If it seemed like I was emphasizing the need for narrative to end on an interaction trigger, it was as a direct result of these experiences. I don’t care if the trigger requires a PC to have a conversation, enter combat, adjust a control panel, solve a problem, make a decision, or whistle dixie, the end of a passage of narrative HAS to trigger SOME sort of PC action or interaction.

2. Experimental Triggers

Without experiments, nothing gets learned. So I am all in favor of trying a different approach every now and then, especially if the GMs stock solutions are inadequate to the campaign and plot needs. But, when you DO try something experimental, have some way of recognizing early on if it isn’t working.

3. Backup Plans

…and if the experiment is failing, have some way of bailing out of it and transitioning to a backup plan. It took only about 20 minutes play to realize that things were going out-of-whack, but because we had left ourselves no alternative, we could do nothing but watch the train derail while clinging to it for grim death.

4. Objectivity

Find some way of objectively considering how ambitious you are being with your experiments. In this case, I lost perspective on what was reasonable, and became enamored of one possible solution to the plot needs. I had a Co-GM who usually pulls me up when this happens, and I do the same for him; what wasn’t in place was a pause to reflect on whether or not we were betting the farm. We weren’t – quite – but a consciously-objective review of the plan, simply because it was radical, ambitious, and untested should have been mandatory. It wasn’t – but it will be, in the future.

5. If players tune out

If your players tune out what you’re saying, what you’re putting in front of them, that should be a sure sign that whatever it is that you are doing is not working. Time for an immediate emergency rethink. And, if no alternatives come to mind, tell them straight that you don’t think what you have prepared is working the way it was intended, but you haven’t been able to think of a practical alternative other than pressing on with it. This will hopefully de-stress situations and prevent train-wrecks. It might even encourage your players to try that little bit harder to make it work, at least somewhat, for their own entertainment.

6. Experiment small-scale

Try to keep your experiments small-scale, at least until you’ve established that they work. We’ve had several opportunities to try the approach that failed in recent adventures, if only for a few minutes. Some of those opportunities were lost because the radical approach that failed had not yet been thought of, but there were still three or four scenes in the previous adventure where we could have tried it out before we were committed. As implied earlier, it would not have been too difficult to fix, simply by moderating our ambitions for the act. Which I estimate would have cut it’s length in half – further minimizing any remaining problems to a more acceptable level.

7. Speak up early and strongly if necessary

This actually refers to events in three ways, only two of which have been mentioned so far.

Secondly, Blair could have spoken up about the dangers of the approach being taken when I had lost perspective – but he was swayed by wanting to avoid confrontation, and by my evident passion for the approach.

Thirdly, I could have spoken up about the perceived problem with his delivery on the day – but I also wanted to avoid a confrontation, and furthermore had my hands full because of the semi-shoddy concordance I had put together in haste. And the last thing I wanted to admit (even to myself) was that after all that delay, play wasn’t proceeding according to plan. So nothing was said, and then it was too late to say anything. I should have called a break and spoken to him privately to remind him of the need to engage the players; what was written was meant to be a starting point, not a whole unto itself.

But Firstly (in chronological sequence): The “To The Gates” sequence was enough like the “Palace Grounds” that the player who was most upset could have spoken up sooner. It might not have changed the train-wreck – preparations were well-advanced at that point – but even knowing that he was that unhappy with the approach taken would have suggested that we ease up the focus on his character, and that could have led us to the solution identified earlier. But he didn’t want a confrontation, either. Like I said, there’s more than enough blame to go around.

Sometimes, you have to speak up. Do it politely and respectfully, but make sure that you are heard. It won’t, and shouldn’t, always change things, but saying nothing certainly won’t.

8. Remember the Campaign Core

The core premise of a Pulp campaign is, or should be, Action-Adventure. This adventure wasn’t.

Now, campaigns can’t be monotone, and sometimes a variation is needed; but these decisions should always be made knowingly. The fact that it took less than 30 seconds thought to figure out how to solve the problems in terms of the next session, and make it more action-adventure in the process, says to me that this adventure wasn’t close enough to the core of what the campaign was supposed to be about.

Fortunately, the next adventure is VERY action-adventure :)

9. Don’t throw out the baby

I was chastised but not upset by the request to be left out of the next part if it was going to be more of the same. Both Blair and I had seen the train-wreck as it developed before our eyes, and realized that the player was justified in what he had said. But in losing all enthusiasm for the campaign, however briefly, I was throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Fortunately, events conspired to give me space before I said or did anything.

I’m still angered by the situation that led me to that point. What I don’t know is how much the train-wreck itself played into it – so I’ve taken a deep breath and I’m giving the person responsible the benefit of the doubt. And, because I haven’t spoken to them about it, and don’t intend to until that question is resolved and I know what I’m talking about, I’m being very careful not to identify who it was, and not to let it influence me.

10. The Four-to-one threshold

This is a guideline that I’ve used before, to good effect. It should take no longer than four times as long to write something to a standard that’s ready for play, as an absolute maximum. If you exceed that, you had better have a good reason, like needing to extend the campaign background. And I include preparing graphics and props in that time-frame.

That the prep for the train-wreck session was taking between eight and twelve times the anticipated play time should have been a warning that there was not enough scope for player interaction with the plot. It should take NO MORE than four afternoons to prepare an afternoon’s play FROM SCRATCH – or less. And “Less” should occur more frequently than hitting that maximum.

The goal should be between two-to-one and three-to-one. Less than two-to-one generally means that you haven’t put enough thought and detail into the plot or its delivery (though there can be exceptions when building on past work). But anything more than four times is a near-infallible sign that something’s wrong – another warning that I had managed to overlook, blinded by my zeal for the scene structure that I was erecting.

Future ‘Experimenting’

I stand by the principle that GMs need to challenge themselves in order to improve, and that you learn more from honest attempts that fail than half-hearted attempts that succeed. When the existing solutions don’t seem to work, your only options are to change your requirements or seek a new, experimental solution. Not all these experiments will work – but I’ll be more aware in future of the potential for such failure, and the need to make them fail-safe to a minimum standard of playability.

I can only apologize to the players for the failings last time around on behalf of Blair and myself, and seek to move on from there.

Mea Culpa.

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The Expert In Everything?


In January, I wrote an article called The Hierarchy Of Deceit: How and when to lie to your players. There’s one type of deception that was poorly covered in the original article, though it was hinted at in the subsequent article on deceptions that are meant to be penetrated, I See It But I Don’t Believe It – Convincingly Unconvincing in RPGs. The undiscussed mode of deception: giving the impression that the GM is an expert in everything that he needs to know about.

Last week, in the comments to Thatch and Confusion – creating a village, this capability was obliquely shuffled onto center stage. EricG wrote,

The info in the blue boxes is amazing, how do you know all this information? Do you have lists for possible medieval industries? And how do you know so much about civic and social dynamics (e.g. the relation between workforce, economic value and dependence)?

At the time, I gave a fairly short answer to the general question and moved on to the specific questions, but it highlighted the omission that I mentioned at the top of this article.

Expert In Everything

A GM has to be – if not an expert – then at least well-grounded in a vast number of fields of study to be able to create his game worlds and justify his adjudications on various matters brought up by the players. If he exudes confidence in his knowledge, then those rulings will have a weight of verisimilitude that stifles table debate and allows play to continue.

In the discussion of one piece of the occasional punditry that I offer through my Twitter account (as and when they occur to me), I alluded to the list of subjects that the GM has to at least have a working knowledge of:

You never know what will turn out to be useful information. In the past as GM, I’ve drawn on information on subjects as diverse as biology, genetics, politics, history, music, art, sociology, real estate, banking, economics, computer science, software design, desktop publishing, cooking, geography, geology, thermodynamics, engineering, metallurgy, movies & media, publishing, journalism, mathematics, and many more fields besides.

Example One

Let’s say the PCs have to stop a story being published. Knowing something about the process of publishing and printing a newspaper, and the deadlines involved, creates a far richer, more detailed, and more interesting passage of roleplay than proceeding from ignorance. Knowledge of the laws relating to publishing and secrecy are also going to be immensely useful.

I have neither a law degree nor a journalistic qualification. I can’t even say that I’ve studied either one to any sort of degree. Yet, the situation demands that I have, at the bare minimum, a solid layman’s knowledge on the subject. The more you know, or appear to know, the more interesting you can make the resulting encounter for the PCs.

Example Two

The PCs in a Fantasy Game have arrived in a Fishing Village within a hostile nation, preceded by a not entirely-unjustified reputation. The children flee from them, the women lock themselves indoors. Most of the men are at sea pursuing the daily catch, and the rest are no match for the PCs and they know it. The players know that if they force the locals to assist them, as soon as their backs are turned, messengers will be on their way to the local capital; it would be far better if they can persuade the locals to tell them what they need to know willingly, letting both sides part amicably. The GM needs to know something about the society and economy of fishing villages in order to know who is still around to be approached, but he does and decides that one vessel is still in port, repairing their nets. The PCs offer to help (in order to earn some good will). The GM needs to know something about how nets are constructed in order for the NPC to sound credible – sure, he could simply say “The fisherman shows you how to repair the nets. After watching you for a while to make sure you’re doing it right, he wanders away to direct work on re-tarring the hull of his vessel,” but how much more interesting and credible would it be if he were able to actually roleplay the instruction given to the PCs?

I’ve never been in a Scandinavian Fishing Village, and have never studied the economics, sociology, and logistics of the fishing industry. I don’t have the faintest idea of how nets for commercial fishing are made, never mind how they were made in a pre-industrial era.

Example Three

The PCs have to hack a computer to get key information. This is a machine with sophisticated anti-hacking defenses. Fortunately, one of the PCs is supposed to be an expert hacker. This is supposed to be a key step in advancing the plot. While it could be achieved by simply having the PC make a Hacking roll, it is anticlimactic at best; in order to emphasize the significance of the result, it has to be delivered melodramatically and be shocking and unexpected, or the scene will have all the impact of wet spaghetti.

If the GM knows something about computer security, he can break the process down into smaller steps that make the scene both more plausible and dramatic; this, in turn, takes some of the pressure off the information itself. Knowledge gives the GM options. Even if he makes the details up so that he isn’t actually telling players (or, in this case, readers) how to actually hack a computer, he can give the whole scene credibility by describing the process as it proceeds, building up to the revelation. This sort of thing can be the difference between a good game and a great one.

When it all goes horribly wrong

Equally important is the fact that his credibility can be completely shattered by getting the details wrong. Take a look at this review of the premiere episode of the new drama, Scorpion: Scorpion Brings the Stupidest, Most Batshit Insane Hacker Scene Ever (make sure to read all the venting in the comments, too).

Now imagine that these comments are coming from your players and are directed at your RPG plot.

We expect Hollywood to get details like physics and computer science (especially vulnerabilities) wrong, and can tolerate a surprisingly high quotient of nonsense if it looks good on screen. We can even forgive some of it because it makes for a more visceral experience – this is why there are so many Hollywood myths for Mythbusters to bust. Knowing, for example, that the “Big Heist” techniques used in such genre movies don’t actually work doesn’t stop us from enjoying Heist movies. Knowing that the explosives recipes given in some media are total nonsense (or leave out key ingredients) doesn’t stop us enjoying those movies and TV shows, either. And to be fair, I don’t think Scorpion is quite as bad as the review states, but it’s still pretty bad.

But knowing something about the subject helps keep silly mistakes at bay, which is vitally useful when those silly mistakes make a nonsense of your plot.

GMs have to be experts in everything. But they don’t have time to become experts in anything outside of their own real-life expertise and the craft of being a GM, which is a big enough headache on its own. It’s not enough to be able to pretend to be credible; you actually have to seem like you know what you’re talking about, and you have to know enough to avoid silly mistakes. Sounds impossible, doesn’t it?

It’s not. And the solutions to this seemingly-impossible conundrum are what we’re here to talk about today.

Accumulate background information

I watch documentaries that are of interest. I watch TV shows that are of interest. I keep mental notes of what seems plausible and what doesn’t, in other words, I employ my critical faculties. These are things that we all do.

More importantly, I remember things of interest and integrate these into a flawed, possibly massively incorrect, gestalt view of the subject.

Watching NCIS can give me an education, however spurious, in everything from Military protocols to Investigative Techniques to Hacking to Security… the list is not inexhaustible but is far vaster than you might think.

What’s more, information can be mentally tagged by degree of reliability. We all do this, as well – when watching a news report or documentary, we look for signs of evident bias and potentially flawed assumptions. We know that shows like NCIS are fiction. Some shows contain more credible foundations than others; when Numb3rs explained how rolling codes work and are employed in auto remote-locking, you know that most of the information is credible because the show took great pains over the mathematics, to the point where each episode was used as the basis for a subsequent university lecture in higher Mathematics.

A lot of the information that I have on Medieval Sociology comes from an archaeological TV series from the BBC, “Time Team”, supplemented by other documentaries and readings. Informed critical reviews of relevant fiction can also add to the totality.

You can never be sure where the next critical piece of the puzzle will come from. Watching an episode of The British, another documentary series currently showing on Australian TV, suggested that the period on which D&D is most-heavily modeled is post-Agincourt. It did this not by presenting information that I didn’t already have, but by emphasizing that this was the coming-of-age of the concept of the “Professional Soldier” as opposed to conscript armies of peasants. However, the devastating effectiveness of longbows at that point in history is at odds with D&D – it’s as though the social concepts and precepts of one era had been superimposed on the technology of an earlier time. This defines a pair of relationships – D&D to the Norman era, and D&D to the later Middle Ages, regarding technology and some social aspects and the broader social patterns, respectively. This in turn gives me a framework and context to integrate other facts as they come to hand regarding these specific subjects into my background understanding of the standard “D&D World”. What’s more, a keener awareness of the palimpsest jigsaw that makes up the “D&D World” makes it easier for me to conflate changes that I might desire for this campaign or that. Being able to state that “Aspect [x] of the world derives from historical period [y]” makes it easier to isolate those aspects of the game world if I wanted to replace the source with historical period [z]”, for example. I might want a world in which the practice of separate temples to different deities has been abandoned, as was the case when Catholicism became the dominant religion, but in which the Greek Pantheon is worshiped as an integrated whole. Or Manichaeism. Or whatever.

To some extent, it doesn’t matter how accurate the information you gather is – just how credible you can make it.

Skim relevant articles

When I can reasonably expect some subject to come up that I don’t know enough about, I’ll look for relevant articles and snippets. I have a number of reference works – the list offered in The Literary GM: Expanding your resources for a better game is just the tip of the iceberg – and then the world of online sources. For example, if I know that I need to know something about Vellum, as I did for the village article, and Wikipedia doesn’t seem to serving up the answers, I’ll do a Google Search. That’s how I found’s FAQ, which I referenced in Thatch and Confusion. I’ll search out and skim relevant articles and commit the most useful bits and pieces to memory or as written notes.

If I need to know about medieval Scandinavian fishing villages, I’ll search for exactly that – “medieval Scandinavian fishing village” returns 1,360,000 results, plus some photos. If I know I need to know something about repairing nets, I’ll dig out the 1964 Boy Scout Manual that I bought in a garage sale many years ago, then search for “repairing fishing nets” (4,750,000 results, including “Learn to make and repair your own fishing nets” and “Knots Used to Repair Fishing Net” in the first half-dozen results. Ten minutes spent doing such research gives enough local color and specific information that I could comfortably fake the narrative. I would also spend a minute or two reviewing my knowledge of the game system (relevant skills, magic, and the backgrounds of the PCs) so that I can integrate those relevant details – and watch out for obvious traps, like the “Mend” spell in D&D 3.x, which could bring the whole encounter to an abrupt halt. I may need to insert some detail about the village being renowned for being rabidly superstitious about the use of magic, for example.

Wikipedia is your friend

While there can be controversies about individual articles, this is still one of my most-tapped resources. As with all other sources, I don’t rely on it as gospel, but interpret what I learn relative to information derived from other sources. Again, it’s surprising how far a few minutes research and skim reading will carry you. In particular, I watch out for key terminology.

No, It’s Not

Wikipedia is becoming less useful. I’ll save the details for a dedicated rant on the subject at some future point, but the long and the short of it is that they are pursuing credibility at the expense of comprehensiveness, and in the process throwing away irreplaceable reference material.

In the bad old days, I was in the habit of saving any web page that contained pertinent or useful information for future reference, because web sites came and went so quickly. Better to risk having out-of-date resources than no resources at all. Over the last decade, I had started to get out of that habit, because Wikipedia and Google were so good at providing what I needed. Now I’m getting bitten every now and then by self-censorship on the parts of these internet giants, and am seriously considering reverting to old habits.

Read, read, read

Don’t think you are alone in these needs. Provided you don’t intend your work for publication – and sometimes even if you are – other authors have had the same needs in the past, and satisfied them with varying degrees of effectiveness. Don’t reinvent the wheel unnecessarily. If you remember that you have a book by John Grisham that describes a South American jungle village, dig it out, skim to find the relevant descriptive passage, scan and paste, or simply copy what’s there – then modify accordingly. Heck, it may be enough simply to re-read the relevant narrative and fix the image in your mind.

For example, you may need to come up with an exotic form of nuclear reactor to power a starship. You might remember a description of something interesting in a novel or TV show, or you could create your own by remembering the name of a subatomic particle that sounds interesting and coupling that with the word “reactor” in a Google search. To demonstrate this, I chose “Pion Reactor” (sounds nice and exotic, doesn’t it?) Searching for that alone produced a bunch of irrelevant results because there’s a web analytics tool called “Pion Reactor” – but filtering the results by searching for “pion reactor -analytics -platform” pulled up a number of pages. In particular, “Muon-catalyzed fusion” – a Wikipedia page – sounded interesting, especially since the preview excerpt talked about Pion Decay, which is why it came up in the search results. Skimming a little further down brings me to “Pion-induced fission – A review – ResearchGate”, with the preview text refers to “Virtual Pions” as being useful intermediaries for triggering nuclear reactions. A quick skim of the first article mentioned for general principles of such reactions and then incorporating “Virtual Pions” as a key element the reactions gives me enough to come up with an entirely fictitious reactor design, with particle physics that probably wouldn’t work in real life but that sound really cool – and the fact that it’s only marginally tied to reality lets me alter the characteristics, performance, and behavior of the resulting “reactor” to my plot needs. A quick refresher on what Pions really are from the first page to come up in the search, the Wikipedia page dedicated to the subject “Pion”, and maybe a second search on the subject of “Virtual Pion” and I’m ready to go. Elapsed time – more than three minutes, less than ten.

I got a lot of the information relating to the tanning and dying industries that was so pivotal in the example within “Thatch and Confusion” from a work of fiction, “A Civil Action” – both Movie and Book – and was able to simply project it into the past. I didn’t even need to crack open the book.

Generalize, then extrapolate

That was because I knew that the book was set in a modern era, when all sorts of artificial chemicals are employed, which – according to the site I had already referenced had cut production times from months to a days – and which would almost certainly be more polluting than the older techniques, because of the intensity of industrial production, if nothing else. That was fine – I generalized the process into the statement that “parchment production uses chemicals and treatments that have an ecological impact”, then extrapolated what that impact might be.

Establish your credentials

There are times when you need to establish your credentials as someone who knows what they are talking about, especially when you don’t. The best way of doing so is to undersell your expertise on a subject that you do know well, or have prepped more extensively for. By stating that you aren’t an expert in the subject and then demonstrating a repertoire of expertise in that subject, you establish that if you don’t undersell your credibility on another subject in the near future, and have clearly “done your research” because your narrative contains key terms and details, which you can readily explain/describe, your players will accept whatever you offer without blinking unless they know better. And even then, you simply suggest that you’re simplifying for game purposes, implying that all you need is suspension of disbelief sufficient to move the plot forward. This is exactly what Hollywood does, usually implicitly rather than explicitly, employing dramatic visuals and sound effects to make something seem plausible.

Everyone knows that space travel is silent, ships won’t make “swoosh” sounds. But repeated audience testing has shown that without the sound effects, the purported speed of such vessels doesn’t register properly. Put a sound effect on it, and suddenly it seems to be traveling fast.

Redefine expectations

I want to end with a lesson from “The Making Of Star Trek” by Stephen E. Whitfield (a pseudonym for Stephen Edward Poe). The first draft of the pilot was sent out to a number of consultants for technical review; a number of points were made in response, some of which were adopted, and some of which were not. One of the ones that did have an impact was the use of a “Laser” to do various things; the comment came back “A laser wouldn’t do that,” or words to that effect. Someone (possibly the author of the criticism) pointed out that light was made up of photons; if you took the “ph” and used it instead of the “l” in laser, you got the word “Phaser” which – being something completely different from a laser – could do whatever was needed by the plot. Because it was completely made up, no-one could say it couldn’t have the abilities projected onto it by the plot.

In that moment, the relationship between technobabble was definitively established, and from that moment on, there was no excuse for getting the technical details wrong.

And that takes me back to that review of Scorpion. The real problem – well, one of them – is that they attempted to use technical language that would be familiar to the audience and make the terminology do what their plot required. Five minutes work should have revealed the plot holes and potential fixes – instead of “software” use the term “spacial model” or “dataset”, describing it as the window within which the aircraft need to fly in order to successfully land on a runway of this length, suggest that the on-the-ground versions won’t work because the “window” takes account of current atmospheric conditions, and describe the breakdown of the airport systems as being the software that gathers and interpolates this data. The aircraft on the ground have a backup copy of the last window provided by the airport systems before they went down, but the ones in the air have a copy that has been updated with the integrated wind and atmospheric conditions at different altitudes. This pushes the incredulity point farther away, making the situation and solution more credible. Oh, and the Wifi attempt failed because instead of an incremental update (small file), the aircraft systems only hold an integrated real-time model (a big file). Throw in a passing comment about the system permitting airports to be much smaller, releasing a lot of valuable real estate`for development, and you’ve used technobabble to cover all your plot holes.

In the case of the Pion Reactor, if Pions won’t do what you want, just invent a new particle – the “Trion” perhaps? – which has the unique metagame characteristic of being exactly what the GM needs. No-one can state what a ‘Trion Reactor’ can or can’t do…

The vulnerability of technobabble

It would be remiss of me to end this section without pointing out the major flaw of technobabble, a flaw that means that if abused, technobabble can do more harm than good.

The problem is Consistency. Having introduced a plot device and cloaked it in technobabble, the use of that plot device to solve future problems is seductively easy. The leading example of this phenomenon is the “Deflector Dish” from Star Trek: The Next Generation and related shows within the franchise like Voyager. It became a magic bullet that could solve almost any problem if “reconfigured” properly, and lost almost all its credibility as a result.

Dr Who’s Sonic Screwdriver is in the process of succumbing to the same problem.

A moment ago, I stated, “No-one can state what a ‘Trion Reactor’ can or can’t do” – but that’s wrong – there is one person who can and should – you, the GM.

That’s why Game Physics is so important. By looking behind the technobabble to explain how things work, they explain what things can and can’t be used for. Technobabble that isn’t backed by a functional game physics is a minefield in which the GM – and his campaign – are playing hopscotch.

I’m no expert

My professional training is as a programmer and an analyst programmer. I’ve had training in Bookkeeping, attended some first-year university courses about 33 years ago, and have completed a four week course in graphic design and desktop publishing. I’m a self-taught digital artist of mediocre caliber – skilled at some image manipulations, barely adequate when it comes to creating new images (with exceptions). I’m a self-taught composer. In fact, virtually everything else I know – where’s that long list again? “Biology, genetics, politics, history, music, art, sociology, real estate, banking, economics, computer science, software design, desktop publishing, cooking, geography, geology, thermodynamics, engineering, metallurgy, movies & media, publishing, journalism, mathematics” – is the result of self-education.

And being very good at faking expertise when I need to.

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Control-Alt-Delete – A Modern-day SciFi Campaign


This evocative illustration is by Greg Scherer, aka s1kick.

I come up with more ideas than I can ever use. Until I co-founded Campaign Mastery, I simply threw away the excess that I couldn’t use; since CM came along, it’s been my practice to give these away for free to the readers here.

Yesterday, I woke up with a complete campaign outline in my head. Since it would take almost as long to make notes on everything I had thought of as it would to write it up for everyone here, I’ve chosen to do the latter.

This article is the outline of a campaign suitable for 4-5 players, using any reasonably modern-day game system – GURPS, Hero System, d20 Modern, or whatever. Heck, you could probably adapt it to run with Paranoia, for that matter. It’s largely inspired by a number of movies and TV shows from the last 20 years or so – you’ll probably spot the references as they come up – but I’m not going to name them explicitly (a) in case I leave one out, and (b) because I want to put some distance between them and this concept.

The Premise

The PCs are all agents for a shadowy government agency. Rather than risk their highly-trained agents in the field, they have built up a bank of volunteers. These get cash, or a problem solved, or have their sentences reduced, in return for letting the minds of the trained agents be downloaded into their cortexes for a mission. If the deal is for a problem to be solved, that forms part of the mission objectives. The donors all know that this is a high-risk deal, but either they or their families will come out of it better-off. It’s an especially popular choice for the terminally ill, as all medical bills get covered, but all sorts of people have volunteered for every possible reason under the sun – and they receive some benefits simply for remaining “on standby” as a host. Some hosts have even been used multiple times and can almost be said to do this for a living.

Unknown to the donors but not the agents, it’s not just the modern-day bodies of the hosts that gets used; the agents are actually downloaded into a past version of the host. Some will know what’s going on because the hosting event will occur in a time-frame after they signed up for the programme; others will have no clue.

There are also times when one or more of the agents’ physical capabilities will be needed, and an edited upload of a given skillset from the volunteer to the agent will then occur. Most missions contain a mixture of the two.

The Missions

The Agency is supposedly not the only ones who know how to do this. Somewhere, there is an organization named Scorpion who want to arrange things so that they are in charge. No-one knows who Scorpion are or where they are based. The Original Mandate was to function in a similar fashion to the Backstep Programme in Seven Days, a series that I greatly enjoyed when it was showing. All that changed when Scorpion was discovered, which occurs pre-campaign.

These days the missions comprise of a mixture of fixing problems before they become emergencies (original premise), countering some manipulation of history by Scorpion or some attempt to take advantage of the outside-sourced emergency by Scorpion, and fixing whatever personal problem the host contracted to have solved – preventing some mistake they made with their lives, reuniting the family, or whatever, in the Quantum Leap style.

Eventually, it is anticipated that missions will be directed against Scorpion itself, but until the Agency knows who and where to target, intelligence-gathering in that area is the current order of the day.


The PCs should be a mixture of traditional James-Bond style characters (The Brawn) and a few people with indispensable skills that are completely unable to function on a physical level but whose minds are still sharp and clear (The Brains). The latter could be people tethered to life-support machines or in wheelchairs or whatever. However, they should all be within the normal-human range in abilities.

Each mission, the GM hands each player a dossier which specifies the physical characteristics of the host that they will be occupying, with any skills that the host has. The original personality will function as an NPC with the same body, who can even take it over in periods of high stress or when the agent-in-charge is knocked unconscious. Once again, these are ordinary people built within the normal human range of abilities. It’s the combination that gives PCs (and their enemies from Scorpion) their advantage over the normal population. Most of the time, they will simply offer “suggestions” – some of which will occasionally be useful – and interact, personality-to-personality, with the PC.

From amongst the many volunteers “on file”, these hosts have been computer-matched as having potentially-necessary skills and being physically able to reach the intervention point in time. There are times when beggars can’t be choosers, and the agents will be saddled with someone whose sole qualification for the mission is being able to take part in it. Other times, they may have someone with particular expertise relevant to what the mission appears to be. The Caveat is because these missions can actually turn out to be something completely different to expectations when the PCs start investigating.

Because they are involved in Temporal Manipulation, outside of the limited scope of their missions, the agents have to keep changes to history as tightly confined as possible. History has some elastic “give” but there may be limits that the Agency doesn’t want to push. That’s also why they aren’t trying for really big changes like eliminating Hitler – these are too unpredictable. Small, specific, isolated, changes are the scope of the mission profile.

On a mission, then, the PCs are hybrids of two characters – the original PC and the “host” (if in a host body) or the original PC and the “donor” (if in the PCs body).

At the end of the mission, after debriefing, the PCs are “rebooted” from backup copies of their pre-integration state, clearing away the “acquired” skills and personality, restoring the Agent to being “himself”. This also scrambles somewhat his memories of the actual mission; an important post-mission phase is using the debriefings to enable them to reintegrate those memories into a coherent whole. If this doesn’t happen, the memories will eventually return, but may contain erroneous bits that the subconscious of the PC has “created” or “romanticized” to fill the gaps.

It would also be an important phase of each adventure to have news footage or some other reports showing the impact on history that the PCs had in the course of the mission.

The “personal problems” angle is important because it permits the ongoing experiencing of “ordinary lives” within the game world. You’ll see why that matters in a little while.

The Technology Timeline

A key to making the campaign work will be plausibility in the source and limitations of the temporal “insertion” technology. From what’s been written in the preceding paragraph, it should be clear that the Agency doesn’t really understand, on a theoretical level, how it works. Deciding the answers should be left to each GM.

My inclination would be to have this be an accidental discovery seized on by the military or an intelligence agency and pressed into practical application before the researchers were ready, especially when they couldn’t give any clear answer as to how long it would take to get those answers. Assuming that the research was being funded by the military / agency (explaining how they came to know of it), it then becomes understandable why they would want to start seeing some returns on their investment before all the whys, wherefores – and bugs – were worked out.

Of course, once Scorpion was discovered, all bets were off. There could no longer be an argument about using, or not using, the technology.

An ongoing concern should be the possibility that Scorpion understands the technology better than the PCs do. This gives the GM a way to introduce anything that he wants the PCs to be able to do – by posing it as a problem for them to overcome. This inherently limits the scope of the technology so that it doesn’t get out of hand and destroy the campaign.

The Campaign

Here’s a complete outline of the campaign that I foresee:

  • Mission One should be a typical anti-Scorpion mission so that all the elements of the campaign can be introduced.
  • Missions Two-Five should be a mixed blend of the mission types. Add more if you come up with more good plots, or if necessary to have the PCs “gel” as a team. I would suggest at least two should be “prevent a disaster” in nature, one more should be “anti-Scorpion” and Scorpion should win that confrontation, one should expose the limits of the technology by sending the PCs on a mission that turns out to be unnecessary, and one should be a defensive move aimed at making sure that one of the agents actually survives to be recruited when it is discovered that he died in the past.
  • Somewhere around Mission Six or Seven, the PCs should discover that their debriefings are being edited to keep classified information The Agency doesn’t want them to know, taking advantage of the principle that the “subconscious fills-in-the-blanks” with something which quite probably has only a nodding acquaintance with the truth. In the course of missions six through ten, the PCs should become aware that life in general outside the agency is slowly becoming more and more dystopian, despite their best efforts. So far as the personnel of the Agency are concerned, this is in the agent’s imaginations, the world is exactly the same as it was aside from the changes they – or Scorpion – have made. The mission mix should be similar to the first five.
  • “Mission 11″ should be a typical mission, but the PCs should discover – in the course of it – hints that they have actually participated in a mission in between Mission 10 and the current one and have no memory of it. They should start burying hints in their debriefings of this discovery while leaving out any direct mention of their suspicion. There are three possibilities: One, the agency has found a way to edit the recorded personalities used for the “reintegration” process, or two, Scorpion has infiltrated The Agency, or three – both of these have happened.
  • Missions 12 and 13 should be “normal”.
  • Mission 14 should include evidence of a second “Lost Mission” that the PCs (and players) have no memories of. Perhaps they have acquired a skill each that they don’t remember ever studying. What’s more, Mission 14 involves direct contact with an agent of Scorpion, which the PCs remember post-mission in flashbacks, but of which there is no mention in their official debriefing.
  • Mission 15 should again be fairly normal, though it may involve doing something the PCs consider morally “gray” at best. Throughout Missions 11 to 15, the trend toward Dystopia should continue.
  • Mission 16 is when you start the buildup to the big finish. The PCs have to nobble a supposedly-friendly agency because the latter is about to launch some action that The Agency considers premature. Agents of Scorpion are encountered with exactly the same mission objective, and it is an entirely permissible outcome for Scorpion to complete the PCs mission for them.
  • Mission 17 should be normal, but – for a third time – there should be a “missing mission” discovered.
  • Mission 18, the first part of an unannounced two-part adventure, should appear superficially to be a normal mission, but the consequences of the mission should be very different from expectations. Mission 19 should be an intervention to undo the success of Mission 18, and the PCs should encounter agents of Scorpion who are trying to ensure that Mission 18 succeeded as the PCs remember it.
  • Mission 20, so far as the Agency is concerned, should be an entirely normal anti-Scorpion mission. HOWEVER, the problem to be solved is that Scorpion agents have done “X” where X is actually what the PCs accomplished back in one of missions 1-5, and in order to stop Scorpion getting in the way, the PCs have to pretend to be agents of Scorpion themselves. Prior to the mission commencing but after Integration, one of the PCs will overhear a technician being ordered to redact the entire mission briefing from his recorded memories.
    In other words, the “missing missions” are all times when the PCs are acting as agents of Scorpion, and The Agency hasn’t just been infiltrated by Scorpion, they are Scorpion!

    • There are several parts to the resulting climactic adventure. First, they have to decide how to handle their current mission – they can either try to succeed or deliberately fail.
    • Then there comes the mission debriefing. They should realize that because changes to history flow downward with the timestream, they can tell the Agency anything they want in the debriefing because the Agency receiving their reports is one that has already been affected by the change in history (if any) and won’t know any better. They will also have to find some way of communicating their discovery to their “reintegrated” selves.
    • After that comes the double-agents part of the adventure, in which the PCs properly investigate the Agency and discover who is really in charge of it. There are lots of possible solutions, some of which I’ll detail in a minute. At first, it might seem that they have unlimited time to decide what to do, but in reality, they only have until the next covert mission (when their memory records will be examined for “redacting” and possibly only until the next mission, when fresh “backups” will be made and might be examined. So they really only have a very tight window in which to get to the bottom of things…
    • …and take action, in the campaign finale.


There are a number of possible solutions as to who is behind Scorpion. Here are some of my favorites;

  • It could be a shadowy government conspiracy, a-la X-files;
  • It could be a less-shadowy conspiracy who see the world going to hell in a hand-basket and are desperately doing what they think is the right thing in order to save it;
  • …or a less-shadowy cabal trying to undo the damage from some colossal mistake very early in the program (before the PCs joined);
  • It could be aliens, manipulating the leaders of the agency using the same technology that the PCs have been employing, thereby explaining where the tech really came from in the first place…
  • Or, lastly (and my favorite) it could be older versions of the PCs trying to prepare the world to fend off some even-worse disaster (eg an alien invasion thirty years in the future, or a global war) at any cost;
  • or some combination of the above!

For example, I like the by-the-bootstraps of the aliens idea, but that can also be used in conjunction with the “undoing the vast mistake” or “future selves” solutions. If I were writing this as a novel, that’s probably the solution I would aim toward, writing the missions as a series of short stories. However, in an RPG, this leaves you open to complaints of “My character wouldn’t do that no matter how bad things got” – so I would probably go with one of the other solutions in a game, simply to remove the conflict between Villains and Players.

Time travel mechanics

I haven’t gone into these extensively in this article. The discussion of the “big finish” covers most of what you need to know. The only “soft spots” in the campaign concept are two:

  • The whole “into a past self” process needs explanation, even if it’s pseudo-science at its worst. My present thought is that by “Integrating” the two minds in the present-day, that this somehow travels back along the personal timeline of the “host” until it reaches a point at which the combination is somehow “conditioned” to begin manifesting itself. But I think a better answer is needed, if one can be found. If not, you can probably get away with hand-waving it with my current answer and inserting some sort of “conditioning” phase in the mission prep.
  • If the agency that the PCs come back to each time is one that has already been affected by the changes in history, then so have the recordings of the agents minds, which undermines the entire premise of the campaign which relies on the PCs retaining knowledge of the way things were. My best answer to this is that the temporal condition itself (ie, mechanics problem #1 above) acts to “insulate” the PCs throughout their timelines. Thus both the hosts and the sources would be aware of the way things were because they were joined mentally at the time of the change, and hence the recordings of their mental states would also be preserved.

The real problem is that you can’t protect the recordings without having the technology to protect the Agency part of the campaign, and you can’t protect the agency from the changes in history without eliminating one of the key elements from the big finale, giving the PCs the ability to lie to The Agency and buy the time they need to investigate and take action. This is at the heart of both the specific mechanical problems described above. Solve them and you solve the real problem, or vice-versa.


This is a campaign that I think would be a lot of fun. I hope it provides some inspiration for someone out there looking for a cool idea for their next game :)

Some additional resources

I should point readers to my past series here at Campaign Mastery on the subject of Time Travel in RPGs (3 parts)

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