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Stealth Narrative – Imputed info in your game


I was incredibly tired after Co-GMing on Saturday – while the game session went well, this was only the second time that I have GM’d since undertaking a regime to control my blood sugar after the recent Diabetes diagnosis, and it took a lot more out of me than I expected.

In fact, I ended up spending all Sunday recovering and then slept most of Monday, meaning that there was no possible chance of getting the next part in the New Beginnings series done. Instead, I have decided to do another “filler” article, simply because it will be very quick to write – which suits my limited time-frame.

This article was actually inspired by a piece of spam that I zapped last week. You know the type – endless automated variations on the same stock phrases that say nothing meaningful and are almost-painfully obvious, at least to human eyes. In this case, the Spam was lauding Campaign Mastery, suggesting that this was the place to visit to receive “imputed info”.

That phrase, the result of a piece of code mindlessly plugging a verb vaguely synonymous with one in a basic phrase into a noun vaguely synonymous with knowledge or information, got my attention and started my mind ticking over. This article is the result…

Imputed Information

“Imputed Info”. What does that mean? Well, “Info” is short for information, which can be defined as “facts with context or meaning”, as opposed to “data” which has no context or meaning until it is interpreted. That’s the difference between “Data Management” and “Information Management” – the first is about the storage, processing, and management of raw inputs and isolated facts like measurements, the second is about manipulating data to yield, reveal, study, and analyze meanings within the context of the source conditions.

“Imputed” is a word that you see fairly infrequently. In many contexts, it actually implies a negative connotation to whatever it refers to; it means, according to the Collins Concise English Dictionary (1984), either (1) to attribute or ascribe (something dishonest or dishonorable) to a person, or (2) to attribute to a source or cause (usually a dishonorable or deceptive one). Google rolls both these into one and adds a variation on the second specific to the world of finance.

So what, then, is “imputed information”? It is either information obtained dishonorably, or distributed dishonestly, i.e. stealthily or secretly. Robert Heinlein was famous for doing this – sneaking bits of background information into his dialogue and story without resorting to exposition either directly from an omnipotent narrator or indirectly through the mouths of his characters. He didn’t lecture the reader, or have his characters lecture each other, on how the science or society worked; instead, the two sides discussed the subject and, in the process, built up the facts the reader needed to make sense of the story without them even noticing most of the time.

“Imputed Information”, then, is information delivered by stealth (or at least, that’s the interpretation I’m choosing to employ). Having a writing style that is so readable that the meaningful content can be absorbed without the reader even noticing that they are being educated. That sounds incredibly complimentary to me as a writer, but I don’t take compliments from spambots as holding intrinsic value; but it also sounds like a skill that all GMs should master, or attempt to.

Narrative Breakdown

I’ve already done a well-received six-part series on Narrative (The Secrets Of Stylish Narrative) which I thought was probably going to be my last word on the subject. But this thought opens up a whole new chapter, so to some extent this article should be considered a postscript to that series.

Narrative can be divided into two types: useful and waste. The series focuses on stripping narrative down into its constituents, eliminating the waste and redundancy, and then rebuilding what’s left into a more streamlined, stylish result.

Useful Narrative can be further subdivided into two categories: essential and flavor. Essential narrative tells the players what they (appear to) need to know about whatever is being described, excluding anything that they cannot perceive. Flavor makes it interesting and part of the environment. One of the attributes of the technique described in the series takes flavor and incorporates it into essential narrative so that the flavor doesn’t have to be delivered separately, though I don’t believe it explicitly said as much – this was “imputed information” within the article. The net result is that a block of Narrative text can be compacted into 10-50% of its original size – with a realistic average of 20-25%.

That’s excellent, as far as it goes, but “implied information” suggests techniques that can take it even further, perhaps even halving again the size of the narrative block. An A4 page of text contains about 550 words, a Letter-sized page about 575. A page of narrative being squeezed down to 55-60 words? Wow. But that’s not as impossible as it sounds, through the application of two principles: “Just In Time Delivery” and “Imputed Information”.

Just In Time Delivery

In industries of all sorts, “Just In Time” means that whatever you need for the next step in the project is delivered just at the moment you need it, not days, weeks, or months in advance. It reduces the need for storage space, but mandates reliability of delivery to deadline. Although I dislike relying on it, and actively prepare backup alternatives in case unreliability results for whatever reason, I employ Just In Time techniques to write this blog – usually finishing an article only a few hours short of the publication deadline. I’m far more comfortable if I can build up a lead, because it means that I can take as long as I need to take in order to ensure a quality product, ie something worth reading that communicates its content easily (and hopefully effortlessly on the part of the reader).

In terms of narrative, a “Just In Time” Delivery would mean delivering information to the players just before they need to take it into account, and no sooner. That’s not all that practical in a real-world situation, because there’s a limit to how much information you can insert elsewhere without it getting in the way. You need to extend “just before they need to take it into account” to allow for absorption of the information and avoid bottlenecks in the interaction.

Imputed Narrative

It’s also essential that the information being presented “just in time” is not intrusive; you can’t simply drop a small narrative block into a piece of dialogue or action, you need to actually incorporate that narrative block into the relevant sub-scene by having the NPCs interact with it.

In other words, deliver the narrative in question as Imputed Information.

There are four golden rules that make this a lot easier than it sounds: Foundation, Expected and There, Expected and Missing, and The Unexpected Presence.


Foundation Narrative exists to create expectations in the minds of the players. It’s a general description of a location, person, or object. It should present no more information than is necessary to visualize an approximation of the basic scene. Foundation consists of a generic label for the subject and explicitly stating an overall flavor that lets the players create the scene in their minds. “A businesslike office.” “A sterile laboratory.” “A dank and claustrophobic dungeon.” “An opulent bedroom”.

Expected and There

If a detail would be expected to be present from the foundation, it doesn’t need to be described within the narrative block; those details can be delivered by Imputed Narrative, if they are needed at all. A library implies bookshelves and books; a bar implies bottles of alcohol on shelves.

Expected and Missing

If something is missing that you would normally expect to find, it may or may not be necessary to specifically mention its absence. For example, if there is no Bed in the Bedroom, that’s probably worthy of notice. If there is no desk in an office, ditto. If there are no diplomas on the walls, that’s not necessarily so important as to need mentioning up-front; you can deal with that absence using Imputed Narrative.

There are some cases where there is a hidden analogue. There are no bookshelves on the walls because there is a virtual bookshelf (and computer monitor) built into the desk, for example. This is noteworthy enough to be foundation narrative, but because it is so easily interacted with, belongs to a “half-and-half” category of narrative that I’m going to refer to as “Transitive” – it’s Foundation narrative that is delivered in an Imputed Manner, and hence “transitions” from one category to another.

The Unexpected Presence

If something is present that you don’t expect to see in an office, it should be mentioned in the Foundation because it is either directly relevant on a need-to-know basis or provides essential flavor needed to visualize the scene. “A businesslike office with a suit of medieval plate mail displayed in the corner instead of a potted plant.” “A sterile laboratory with a painting of dogs playing poker on the wall.” “A dank and claustrophobic dungeon with a bar and bartender in the corner.” “An opulent bedroom with a bomb on the nightstand, counting down: 12… 11….” The additions are things the players need to know, or that not only add flavor to the environment directly, but add flavor to the room’s usual occupant by association and implication.

Of course, an unexpected presence can be so subtle that it is initially unnoticed. If that is potentially the case, the GM should prepare for it with a section of optional add-on narrative that only gets read if the appropriate die roll is made – and I recommend that the GM should have the players make such die rolls as they are about to enter the room, rather than interrupting the narrative for perception checks, breaking his narrative ‘stride’.

The Limits of Imputation

I recommend that no more than one piece of imputed information be delivered in any non-narrative statement, and only when the imputation can be performed seamlessly. This is an extremely limiting restriction, but the primary goal of any non-narrative scene or sequence is for it to continue to do its job.

Delivering Transitive Narration

Transitive Narrative can be an exception, because you can carry quite a lot of it in describing whatever the NPC is doing when the PC or PCs enter the space, or what the object is doing when the PCs examine it. “The General Manager is standing beside his gold-inlaid oak desk with a golf club in hand, putting golf balls across the carpet into a cup while talking to someone using a faux-ivory hands-free phone. A Stock Market ticker display runs continuously across the face of the desk courtesy of a built-in computer monitor. He waves for you to seat yourselves in the crushed-velvet armchairs as he completes his negotiations and punches a button on the phone to end the call.” Add that to the appropriate Foundation description “(A cozy well-organized office”) that precedes it and you have an immediate setting. You haven’t even provided one word of description of the individual himself, but most of you will already have an image of him in mind – mid-forties or -fifties, gray 3-piece suit, decisive, intelligent, able to multi-task, organized, and with a slight maverick streak. Appearance and personality are all implied by the narrative, which is itself buried within the description of what the person is doing.

Delivering Imputed Narrative through Dialogue

This is no more difficult to do. Instead of simply announcing, “The King replies, ‘The realm is under dire threat from within, and the peace that we had all hoped for seems to have slipped beyond grasp,'” all you have to do is (a) have him do something appropriate at the same time, and (b) have that something contain Imputed Narrative: “The king opens the thick metal shutters that protect the room from Archers and gazes through the narrow windows inset into the castle wall as he replies, ‘The Realm is…'” (and you know the rest). After a couple of words back and forth, he can move and take a seat on the Throne (more implied narrative) or help himself to a handful of grapes from a sideboard, or a slice of meat, or whatever.

There may also be opportunities to embed narrative elements into the dialogue itself. “I surround myself with objects of beauty and commemorance of the past,” he sighs, “but while others may find inspiration in a painting like this, I see only a reminder of all we stand to lose, and all that we have already lost.” – when all you have mentioned in description was that the room was “richly decorated”.

Delivering Imputed Narrative through Combat

A little trickier, this, because the logical connection between combat events and the target of the implied narrative is (a) partially out of your control – it depends on what exactly a PC does, and (b) has to be connected to that target by iron-clad logic and commonsense. You can’t talk about the tapestries unless it’s reasonable for the NPC to interact with the tapestries during the fight. Nevertheless, its possible to embed critical information into the non-narrative byplay of A does B during combat. “He attempts to grind your face into the wall. You notice that what appeared to be rough-hewn rock has in fact been carved with strange runes or symbols.” “Pulling a 9mm from a shoulder holster, he fires in your direction while doing a barrel-roll across the room towards a briefcase on an antique oak writing desk.”

The Hidden Bonus

Actually, there are two of them. The first, and most obvious, is the whole point – the players absorb the details of the narrative subject without realizing it. These details inform them not only directly about the scene being played, but by generalization and extrapolation, the wider world beyond the immediate.

But the hidden bonus is this: the need to deliver imputed narrative forces the GM to keep their NPCs active (appropriately), part of their setting, during scenes and sequences where it’s all-too-easy for them to become static “talking heads”. Dialogue and action scenes become part of the story beyond their outcome, and the non-narrative parts of the game become more vibrant and alive – while further abbreviating the static, boring bits. Winner!

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Always Something There To Surprise You – Plots as Antagonists


The subject of today’s article emerged during a twitter discussion between John Kahane (@jkahane1), Joe Kushner (@JoeGKushner), and myself (@gamewriterMike) on Twitter last week.

The conversation started when I mentioned to John that I had just started a mystery plotline in my Zenith-3 (superhero) campaign, and that special effort was going to be needed to make the conclusion live up to the buildup, and that one of the ways that I intended to deal with that problem was to make the ultimate killer larger than life. John replied that in his experience, “Murder mysteries are hard to run in RPGs every time, and larger-than-life villains make that tougher.” He then made the point that a general solution needs to work regardless of genre, implying that some genres permit whiz-bangery and over-the-top characters more tolerably than others.

This is an absolutely spot-on point, but one that we didn’t explore at the time, because the conversation moved on with my reply, “[The] Best answer is to make the Mystery the star of the adventure!” and John’s reply “Always is. But never as easy as that! :)”

John continued, “If the mystery isn’t the star of the game, then what was the point of doing a mystery to begin with, right? :)” and Joe pointed out that “In the last few novels I’ve read, the point of the mystery was to immerse the reader into setting characters.”

I responded that this solution doesn’t work very well in an RPG – it can be very dry and non-interactive, just the GM giving page after page of narration to read. A better RPG approach was to “make the plot the key antagonist of the adventure” rather than the villain ultimately responsible in-game.

It was at that point that I suggested that it might be worthwhile writing an article on the subject for Campaign Mastery – and so, here we are.

I should comment further on one of John’s points. He’s quite right in saying that larger-than-life villains can often make mysteries tougher, and that’s because by virtue of being larger than life, they attract attention to themselves – making it much harder to sustain the mystery. It will work in this case because the villain won’t actually appear (if all goes according to plan) until the final confrontation.

The Metagaming Approach to Mystery

Treating the plot as an antagonist is obviously metagaming, and I make no bones about that. Rather than in-game developments driving the plot, the plot is driving in-game developments. But it differs from the most egregious examples of Metagaming in a number of key respects.

  1. Plotlines must be dynamic; only the start- and end-points of the plot can be fixed;
  2. Characterization cannot be violated;
  3. Continuity cannot be violated;
  4. Causality cannot be violated;
  5. Challenges must continually be presented whose outcome defines the course of the investigation, not whether or not there is ultimately a successful solution/conclusion;
  6. The purpose is to provide fun for the participants. The GM’s role is to referee the contest between the metagame “antagonist” and the in-game characters, not to force one particular course of events on the players (which would violate rule #1 above).

Six specific mandates that enable metagaming to work for you, not against you, at least in this particular application.

The problem of Metagaming

Metagaming has a bad reputation as an RPG technique. This largely stems from the use of metagaming to force PCs into following a pre-scripted path between beginning and ending in an adventure, also known as a Plot Train, in which players have no control over the course of events and may as well not be there. It is the dynamic interplay between players and GM that makes an RPG a collaborative effort, with neither in control of the course of events.

Dynamic Plotlines

Mandating that metagaming techniques can only be used to make plotlines more dynamic, changing as needed to make the game more entertaining and more responsive to the activities of the PCs, rather than forcing them to conform to some fictionalized “ideal narrative” such as you would find in a script or a novel, is a key difference between the technique I am suggesting and what most people think of when they speak of metagaming.

The concept is one of making the challenges and opportunities that shape the plotline responsive to the PCs, not the PCs responsive to the shape of a pre-determined plotline. I think you’ll agree that this is quite a significant difference!

Fixed start-point

Almost every plot to which this technique can be applied has a fixed start-point: The PCs are presented with a mystery that they have strong motivation to solve. The essential parameters of the mystery are defined for them – what evidence is at the scene, who the victim is, where the victim was discovered, and so on. In most cases, there are one or more unusual or novel features presented to make the puzzle more interesting. In those cases where the initial mystery appears more prosaic, you can expect to need a plot twist or two to emerge fairly quickly to provide that novel feature – in other words, the initial start-point is deliberately deceptive, and the start-point is not as prosaic as it initially appears to be. So far as this technique is concerned, this initial plot twist is also part of the basic start-point.

Fixed end-point

Most mysteries also have a partially pre-determined end-point, in that the GM should know who has committed the “crime” that poses the mystery, and how. The end-point is the final confrontation between perpetrator and the PCs. Where this confrontation is to occur and how it is to be resolved are usually, but not always, unknown.

Dynamic routing

The path to solving a mystery is never a straight line, because that’s dull. Instead, you need surprises and plot twists and unexpected directions and challenges to be overcome.

Starting from Times Square and heading for Jersey City is fairly straightforward. 7th Avenue to the Holland Tunnel and then the I-78W and you’re right in the heart of your destination. 7.1 miles and 21 minutes estimated travel time.

A more creative and challenging route passes through Albany, up to Quebec City via Sherbrooke, down through Trois-Rovières to Montreal, West through to Ottowa, across the northern side of the Great Lakes to Detroit, then to Springfield, Illinois, to Kansas City, to Salt Lake City, through Reno and Sacramento to San Francisco, south to Los Angeles and San Diego, cross the Mexican border at Mexicali, south down to Guadalajara, North-east to San Antonio and Dallas, East to Jacksonville, south to Orlando, North to Atlanta and Nashville, North-East through Knoxville, Roanoke, Harrisburg and Scranton, East to Middleton,then south to Sparta via Ogdensburg, then East through Clifton on the I-80 E to the I-95, south and then east to approach Jersey City from the West Side. It’s definitely the long way around at 9,916 miles, an estimated 154 hours of driving, but it gets you to exactly the same destination from the same starting point – and will definitely show you things that the direct route won’t.

This is analogous to an RPG in which the first suspect is immediately and obviously guilty and in which the PCs have overwhelming proof of that guilt, an open-and-shut case, as it were, vs. a far more complex path to the final confrontation in which the PCs start looking in the entirely wrong direction, which eventually results in a plot twist that leads them off in other wrong direction, with its own twists and turns, followed by yet another wrong path driven by complications, before slowly heading in the right direction and seeing things fall into place one after another until the final resolution is reached.

Viewing the plot, the mystery, as an antagonist who will respond to PC attempts to move in the right direction with complications and deceptions and red herrings designed to lure them off-course via a more interesting, entertaining route, enables the pathway to success to be as convoluted as is desirable, changing and evolving in a move-countermove pattern in response to the choices, theories, and interpretations of evidence by the players.

The mystery is “willing” to be solved – but it has to be “wooed” first, seduced and cajoled into giving up its secrets. The mystery makes itself as complicated a story as it needs to in order to achieve the maximum entertainment from the journey.

A proportionate response

It might seem that the simplest specific technique for achieving this is a proportionate response – whenever the players propose an action, the GM assesses that action in terms of how directly it can lead to the solution, and inserts difficulties in proportion. A more refined variation might take into account inherent difficulty of the action relative to the capabilities of the PCs.

The problem is that this produces an entirely-too-predictable pattern. “We must be onto something, the GM is trying to make it hard for us”. This is a pattern that interprets the GMs position as hostile, as “the enemy”, rather than the position of neutrality that the GM should seek to adopt.

The GM’s job isn’t to make solving the mystery harder for the PCs; it’s to make solving the mystery more fun for the players.

Success is necessary

The other problem with the “proportionate response” approach is that the PCs need to succeed regularly. If they set out to learn something, they should learn something. If they attempt a chemical analysis or a cross-examination, they should get answers. Things shouldn’t be handed to them on a plate, but they shouldn’t be so difficult that the players feel they are getting nowhere, either. The trick is to get the PCs to ask questions that don’t lead directly to the solution, so that they can be answered without compromising the mystery.

Keep It Entertaining

A better formula is to assess how much fun the GM can provide for the players as a result of the proposed PC actions, and let that determine how easy that action should be as a result. Again, this can become predictable, though – it is to be hoped – with fewer objections on the part of the players!

The best approach is therefore to combine the two approaches. A proportionate response to determine how severe a complication to interject into the process, with the fun factor determining how easily that complication should be overcome.

A useful plotting tool is always to ask yourself how the perpetrator expected to be able to get away with whatever it is that they have done. False alibis, throwing suspicion on someone else, adulterating physical evidence, people who will lie, either for the perpetrator or for their own perceived benefit, and so on – and don’t forget that this is an evolving process; they won’t stop trying to make themselves look innocent.

It’s a maxim of the Columbo television series that the most co-operative individual is guilty until proven innocent. In it’s own way, this is clever, because it means that the perpetrator seems to have a handle on the course of the investigation and can meddle in it as they see fit – though this usually is done so heavy-handedly that it becomes obvious that they are trying to throw the investigation off course. Far better to try and react, and cooperate, to exactly the same extent that you would if you weren’t guilty. Be no more helpful than you would have been, and hinder no more than you would have done, and for the same reasons as you would have done. The criminal who does nothing unusual after the crime is the hardest to detect.

The dangers of the big picture

I’m a big advocate of always keeping an eye on the bigger picture. This is, however, one occasion in which this practice can lead you astray. Don’t let your long-term plans get in the way of an entertaining game for the players in this adventure. If the course of the mystery brings the PCs into contact with someone who is not who they seem, it might be tempting not to risk exposing them as someone of interest, preserving their perceived innocence until that part of the big picture comes to fruition.

Don’t Do It. That eventual plot twist will have even more power if the PCs suspect the double-agent and then clear him or her as a result of their investigations! Don’t be afraid to complicate your future if the result is a better adventure right now!

Characterization cannot be violated

Of course, if you had a completely wide-open field of possibilities, it would be easy. Every time the PCs think they have their man, throw in a complication that shows they could not have done it. Keep going until the clock indicates that it’s time for the adventure to end, then make the next suspect the real perpetrator.

This throws internal logic to the winds. Characters change as necessary to make the plot more complicated. Nothing is predictable any more, and this quickly becomes boring and unrealistic to the players.

There can be rare occasions to take this approach, but as a general rule, it is not acceptable. (I have in mind a specific adventure I ran in which a suspected double-agent was in fact a mercenary, selling his talents to whoever would pay his price. So he started as a Bulgarian who was secretly a Russian Spy, then was revealed as a triple-agent working for the Americans, then as a mole within the American organization for an international organized crime cartel, and then as having infiltrated that crime ring on behalf of the Russians. No matter who came out on top, he was able to claim loyalty to the cause. On top of all that, he was being framed for the crime which brought him to the attention of the PCs in the first place by someone who had no idea of any of this!)

As a general rule of thumb, personalities, once allocated to an NPC, should not change. If you need them to behave in a way contrary to the way this personality suggests they would, you need to arrange circumstances so that the NPC is put into a position where they think this is their only alternative, within the bounds of their personality.

A great example is of someone who thinks a son is guilty of the crime (possibly falsely) and who therefore does everything they can to misdirect the investigation even though they are clearly a good person who would normally be cooperative, even to the point of trying to make themselves look potentially guilty through suspicious behavior. Or of someone who is guilty of an unrelated crime who destroys or degrades evidence of the main crime to protect their real secret.

Continuity cannot be violated

No retro-active rewrites of events are permitted (except in a time-travel plotline of course – which is a whole separate headache). Once a relevant piece of information is in the hands of the PCs, you can’t change the events that led to that piece of information being relevant. If an individual becomes obviously guilty in the eyes of the players because he committed the crime as the GM originally envisaged it, you can’t retrospectively rewrite the crime scene to have someone else commit the crime. Instead, you need to shed doubt on one or two of the key pieces of evidence pointing to the guilt, sending the PCs off on a wild goose chase – but that doubt needs to result from actions that can be performed now, not that are being inserted retroactively as having happened then.

This comes back to the impartiality of the GM and avoiding a “him vs them” situation at the table. You have to be able to lay every event at the feet of an NPC and have it be reasonable that the NPC has caused that event. Violating continuity essentially means deciding retroactively that you were lying to the players – and that’s not on. The NPCs are your agents, and you can introduce more if you need to – they can and should lie when its appropriate.

The times when you are most tempted to rewrite the past happen when there’s a plot hole in your very clever plan, and the PCs a climbing down it. The correct way of handling this problem is to ask yourself (a) which NPC could plug that plot hole now (not back then) and (b) why they would do so, within the boundaries of any established personalities and capabilities.

Causality cannot be violated

If the PCs do something which should reasonably have a particular outcome, it should still have that outcome. Players need to be able to predict the outcome of their actions. Unlikely as it might seem, I have seen GMs try to violate this action because the normal outcome would be detrimental to their plot. This is “bad metagaming”.

The urge to do so has two origins – the first is failing to anticipate what the PCs might do or attempt to do in a particular situation, and the second is by presenting subjects of possible activity in a provocative manner.

Overlooking a probable action
  • “I mindscan for an aura of guilt”.
  • “I cast a truth spell on them all and ask each if they did it.”
  • “I listen for changes in their heart rate to find out which one’s lying.”

I’ve seen mysteries fall apart through all of these actions because the GM didn’t remember that he had already let the PC do this in an earlier adventure, and plan accordingly. And I’ve seen the GMs in question announce that it doesn’t work, despite having already established that the PC could do so. In one case, the GM attempted to cover his tracks by having the NPC have taken precautions against the ability in question even though there was no reasonable way for him to know that he needed to do so. In the others, they simply rewrote what the power could and couldn’t do.

Neither response is acceptable. If your mystery is about to be undone, you need to come up with a reason for it not to work that doesn’t violate causality or continuity.

  • “They all feel guilty about something, not necessarily the same thing.”
  • “They all say they didn’t do it while under the spell’s influence. The perpetrator probably doesn’t think he did anything, he blames the victim for causing it to happen.”
  • “You hear no changes in heart-rate that indicate a lie” (because the person lying has a pacemaker that keeps his heart-rate even).

Okay, the last one’s a bit of a fudge, but it gets the job done. It’s not something that the criminal did to defend against the unusual investigative technique, he didn’t know that he would need to protect himself against – it simply changes the circumstances so that the results don’t give the game away, introducing a complication. As soon as the PCs find out about the heart surgery, they will discover how they were misled by this test, but in the meantime, they have prima-facae evidence of innocence, and can be led off down the garden path for a while.

Listing elements in the wrong order

If you want to draw attention to something, mention it last, or first, or immediately after something that’s especially attention-getting, like first mention of a dead body. If you don’t want something to get a lot of attention, bury it, and put something more interesting to one side of it. If the item is sufficiently part of the expected landscape, you can even get away without mentioning it specifically, so long as you emphasize that everything you would expect to find is present.

For example, if the criminal gained access to the scene by means of an air vent, or simply left by means of such a vent, don’t call attention to the vent – but don’t try to be too obvious about hiding it, either. Mention it too prominently, and someone will look into it; when that happens, there is an instinctive response to try to change what the PC would reasonably expect to find if the air vents had been used for congress to or from the scene in order to preserve the mystery. This is entirely the wrong way to fix the problem! Far better to come up with a reason for whoever discovered the body to have concealed the evidence of the vent having been used, thereby giving a good reason for the PC to find nothing.

In fact, because the GM could never be sure that the PCs would not pick up on mention of the air vents, he should have had something of the sort planned anyway!

Challenging the PCs

The PCs should encounter various challenges that have to be overcome in order to solve the mystery, but the eventual solution to a mystery should never reduce to the success or failure of such a challenge. Success or failure changes the course of the story, but not whether or not it reaches an end!

It follows that every failure must result in the information that a success would have delivered being provided to the PCs eventually, anyway. It might be that this happens too late for the PCs to do anything about it – the criminal might have gotten away in the meantime – but the loose ends should be wrapped up.

There are several ways to challenge the PCs “safely”. In general, these are all about changing a “What” or “Who” question into a “How and when” question.

How information is revealed

For example, the challenge does not determine “What information is revealed?” but instead determines “How and when will information be revealed”. There must always be another path to the answers that can and will eventually be followed. Success can indicate immediately, or at the conclusion of a defined process; failure might mean waiting until someone else looks at the question. It might or might not even be obvious that success was not achieved. “You find nothing, but are not completely certain that there was nothing to find.” “A power surge wiped the hard disk”.

How information is hidden

The converse is to change “What information is hidden?” into “How and when will any hidden information be revealed?” This is more a matter of the questions the GM should ask himself, than one that is likely to be asked by a PC, but you never know…

Coincidence & Human Nature

Coincidences do happen. Human Nature will always be a factor. Take advantage of both of thees facts to create more challenging circumstances as necessary.

If you have, for example, an uncooperative witness, overcoming the challenge should never be just a matter of succeeding in a Skill Check. At most, a skill check should reveal that the witness knows something that might be helpful but has reason not to volunteer it. The PCs need to identify that reason and find a way to overcome it, ‘unlocking’ the witnesses knowledge. Once you have that key, that’s when a Skill Check can be used to actually obtain the information, for whatever it’s worth.

The Hurdles to be overcome

It’s a fact that the GM needs to be mindful of: Mystery plotlines will suit some players and some PCs better than others. Things can get awkward when the situation suits one and not the other – a player who’s good with mysteries but whose character is not, or vice-versa. Careful attention needs to be paid to ensuring that everyone gets their share of screen time, both as players and PCs. The challenges that are to be overcome can be a great way to move the spotlight onto someone else. The combat monster gets to conduct a raid in order to secure evidence that the detective needs, for example.

It follows that whenever you contemplate inserting a complication because things are happening a little too easily for the PCs, you should evaluate the opportunities for such spotlight-sharing, choosing the nature of the complication and its eventual resolution accordingly.

Never a dead-end, only a roadblock

The final point that I want to make under the heading of the Challenges to be overcome by the PCs is that they should never result in a dead-end where all avenues of investigation are blocked. An individual course of inquiry might reach a dead end, but there should always be a “next step” for the PCs to make, and the players should always know about it before they encounter the roadblock. How easy that “next step” is expected to be is an entirely different saga!

Metagaming to maintain challenge

The main directive to follow under this approach is to invent complications as necessary to increase the fun – and the difficulty – of solving the mystery, but to do so within the scope of specific parameters. You must never violate the “truth” of the solution (obfuscating it is entirely acceptable, however), must never violate the personalities of the NPCs involved once they have been established (but you can manipulate responses by altering the circumstances in which they find themselves), must never retcon your way out of a problem (but can introduce new factors that have the same effect), and must never violate the players’ trust that you will adjudicate their efforts fairly. So long as you do not violate these restrictions, anything’s fair game.

Roleplaying the “Antagonist”

With so many options open to the GM, how do you make this sort of thing manageable? Well, you can just go with whatever comes to mind first, but that’s not all that reliable as a means of making good choices, just of making easy ones. The best technique I have come up with is to treat the “Antagonist” as a Mastermind, plotting against the PCs for its own motives, and with a distinct personality of its own complete with things that it will and will not do.

This focuses and characterizes the options that are open to the GM into a relatively confined range, making selection of obstacles and twists easier, but it has a side-benefit of considerable worth: using a distinct and different personality each time gives each adventure a quite different flavor.

This Antagonist is not malicious, or vindictive; it toys with the PCs for its own reasons, helping here and hindering there. It is, however, normally omniscient and omnipresent, though you can further refine the personality by limiting those aspects of its capabilities.

Don’t make it too easy

As a general principle, don’t make it too easy for the PCs; there’s nothing worse than a color-by-numbers mystery, where all the players have to do is keep themselves awake and wait. Nor should it be enough for the players to “phone in” their participation; activity needs to be purposeful and not be happening for its own sake.

Don’t make it too hard

There comes a point at which the GM has to accept that the PCs are going to start closing in on the solution. You should never obstruct them until there is only enough game time left to achieve the solution and final confrontation; it’s far better to allow a little time for some minor reverses in the course of that “closing in”. I never introduce a complication without some idea of how long it will take to resolve, so that I leave enough room for the end of the adventure.

You may be tempted to make the mystery the focus of the day’s play to such an extent that the actual confrontation is delayed until the next game session. I’ve tried this a few times, and while it’s not the worst approach in the world, I have found that it makes the final confrontation far more anticlimactic than it would otherwise have been. In general, unless that confrontation is itself intended to be a springboard into some bigger plotline, I will strive HARD to avoid this, and even then, it’s better to end play with the confrontation and discovery of the bigger plotline as a cliffhanger than the other way around, if time can be manipulated to permit it.

Progress must be continuous

I hinted at this when stating that “Success is necessary,” above. At any arbitrary point, the PCs should be able to say that they are closer to a result than they were, that they have eliminated incorrect solutions and, in general, “made progress”. While there are times when you can and will handicap and counter the players with glee abandon, there will also be times when you may need them to have a stroke of good fortune, or to dangle a carrot in the form of at least part of a solution in their direction. You need to monitor the mood at the table closely, and at the first hints of frustration, act immediately to provide demonstrable progress.

Maintaining neutrality

Above all, the GM must maintain neutrality, favoring neither the “Antagonist” nor the PCs. This can be very difficult to do when engaging in a battle of wits – and that’s what this metagaming technique ultimately boils down to – and so special attention needs to be paid by the GM to his neutrality. If the players do something clever, intuit something, deduce something from information available to their characters, they need some progress as a result. Adhere to the principle of generating the maximum level of fun from the adventure, rather than trying to force the adventure down some pathway to a solution; let the path between puzzle and solution grow organically from the soup of ingredients you’ve put in place, and this technique will reward you.

I should conclude by pointing readers to the other articles on this subject: The Butler Did It: Mystery Plotlines in RPGs and its sequel article, The Jar Of Jam and The Wounded Monarch: Two Mystery Examples. Readers might also find Ask The GMs: Penetrating the veil of mystery to be useful, looking at why Mystery adventures can be so hard to create, and how to remove some of that difficulty.

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Stride The Earth in 7-league boots: Travel (and Maps) in FRPG Pt 2


I’m taking a scheduled break from the New Beginnings series before the big push to conclude it. It will be back next week, all going according to plan.

This article is a sequel of sorts to one I published a few weeks ago, The Gradated Diminishing Of Reality – Travel in FRPG. I recommend that you refresh your recollection of that article before you start in order to get the most out of this one. It’s not necessary per se, but it would be beneficial.

At least in theory, a League is defined as “the average distance a man can normally walk in an hour”. Because this is a relative measurement, subject more than a bit to circumstances, converting a League to a more rigorous measurement – whether it be miles or meters – is neither precise nor very satisfactory.

And yet, for RPGs, a league is an astonishingly useful measurement, and one that is all too often overlooked because we are so used to the precision of modern measurements (something I’ll come back to, before I’m done).

In this article, my goal is to awaken the reader to this usefulness and bring the League back into focus as the first measurement of choice for GMs. I think they are that handy!

7-league Boots

Seven Leagues in one step. Now that you know what a “League” is supposed to represent, you can interpret that. Seven leagues is fairly close to the maximum distance that can be covered by an army in a day – it takes longer to break camp, get into formation, pause for meals, and set up camp than would be the case for a small group or an individual. An individual wearing these mythic boots does that in ONE STEP.

Even if that “One Step” is all that the boots can do for the day, that’s an enormous amount of ground covered, but the tradition has no such restriction. In a piece of fiction, you might be able to get away with magic this powerful, but not in an RPG – not without imposing some additional limitations, anyway. “They only move you in a straight line”, for example – so that a small error in direction means that they only get you somewhere in the vicinity of where you want to go. Limited numbers of “Big Steps” per day. I have seen one variation that cost the wearer 2 points of temporary CON loss, and 1 HD of hit points, per stride, leaving it to the player to determine just how urgent his travels were.

I’ll revisit the meaning of “7-League Boots” from time-to-time in the course of the article, and not just because I’ve referred to them in the title, but the text is really all about Leagues as a useful concept.

Hex-Grid Scales

Let’s think about the meaning of a League as defining the scales of maps for a while.

1 League Per Hex

If your map is drawn at the scale of 1 hex=1 League, then simply counting hexes tells you how many hours the PCs will need to travel in order to reach their destination, at a reasonable pace of travel. The same technique tells you how far they will get before lunch, where their evening campsite will be, and so on. No thought required, the scale itself makes the map more useful in game administration terms. How useful is that?

Of course, drawing anything at this scale makes them fairly big and detailed. I wouldn’t want to have to map a continent that way. Instead, I am more likely to employ this scale for a 24-hex radius around a site of particular interest – that’s a full day’s travel, hour by hour, in any direction from that site of interest.

A standard sheet of A4 paper is 20cm across, plus margin, then 50 hexes (24 plus 24 plus 1 for the site itself, and round up to get an easy number to work with) then each hex is going to be about 4mm across.

I haven’t seen any hex-grid that size, though it would not be all that difficult to create with modern graphics software. But 5mm hex-grid is quite common-place, and if it doesn’t quite give you a full day’s travel to each side, it comes close enough.

3 Leagues per Hex

This is an even more useful scale. Why? Because you can walk 2 hexes in a morning, and 2 hexes in an afternoon. Four hexes is one day’s travel. And six hexes is a day’s forced march, and 5 hexes is a day’s riding without pushing the mounts, and 7 hexes is a day’s hard riding, rising to 8, 9, or even 10 if you can change mounts frequently along the way. And three hexes is about right for a carriage over rough roads, rising to 4 on a good road – though carriages often push on into the twilight for an extra hex if it carries them to a refuge.

Four is such an easy number to work with when converting usual modes of transport, as well – if you have a normal movement of 30′, which is the case for most humanoids in Pathfinder, and you are dealing with a creature that flies at say 90′, all you have to do is multiply by the ratio of three to get the equivalent – ie, 12 hexes in a day for normal travel, 18 hexes for the flying equivalent of a day’s forced march, and so on.

It’s such a useful scale, because it’s so darned versatile.

Here’s a different perspective on this scale: 28 hexes is a week’s travel on foot. So if your maps are done 28 hexes wide at this scale, you have lots of space around the edges for labels and map keys, and each map can be called “one week” – a nice mnemonic scale. If you have three maps that are side-by-side at this scale, and the destination is on the third map, you can say “It will take 2-3 weeks” just by counting the number of pages.


Three adjoining map hexes at the three-league scale. Side “A” on the first is also side “A” on the second, Side “B” on the second is also side “B” on the second. Lots of room for a key!

12 Leagues per Hex

The final scale worth contemplating turns each day’s travel into a single hex, and that’s another very useful scale. Along a major road, that means that there will be an inn or settlement in every hex.

That in turn makes it possible to grade every road by the number of vacant hexes between such landmarks. A class-2 road has a community or accommodation in every second hex, class three roads have two empty hexes to each occupied one, and so on. Four nights of roadside camping is “country lane” standard; anything more qualifies as a backwater track.

Aside from these rather useful values, every 30 or so hexes represents a full month’s travel, so each map can be considered to “one month” in size. This makes relative distances easy to work with, and (at the same time), can impress on the players the real magnitude of the distances.

It also makes some aspects of military logistics much easier to work with. Unless arrangements can be made to garrison an army, they will have to return from whence they started before the onset of winter. An army can exert power no more than about four “map pages” away under these circumstances – and every one of those closer to home base increases the number of months that they can do so by two, starting at one for the 4-map mark. Some leeway may be possible if the campaign is in the direction of more tropical climates, of course.

Keeping Things In Perspective

For many years, the goal in cartography has been accuracy in placement of every detail shown. As a consequence, there are debates about the psychological impact of maps and the consequences – unintended or deliberate – of classic attempts to preserve the clarity of what the mapmaker found relevant, such as the Mercator-projection map that has become one of the standard ways to view the world, instantly recognizable. Discoveries in this field are still being made; for example, it was found in 2009 that people believe that it will take longer to travel north than south, that it will cost more to ship to a northern than to a southern location, and that a moving company will charge more for northward than for southward movement, simply because it is harder going up than down (Journal of Marketing Research, Vol 46(6), Dec 2009, p715-724).

With the arrival of Aerial Photography, and later, GPS systems, true accuracy became possible down to incredibly fine resolutions. I remember reading at the time of initial deployment of the GPS satellites that one town had been relocated on maps by 30 miles (!) as a result. (I looked for a link, but couldn’t find one – it has most likely been drowned out by more modern references). These days, the focus seems to be on correcting errors in Google maps – the presumption being, I suppose, that everything else has been fixed already. and, If this claim is to be believed, those errors can have serious repercussions.

We have become accustomed to maps being treatable as literal references to where things actually are. Yet, this has never been the case completely – reference the Cartographic Errors section of Wikipedia’s page on Cartography (while you’re there, read the whole page, it contains lots of fascinating tidbits) and this page at “The Map Room” that lists Cartographic errors reported on other websites.

Stepping away from that ideal for our fantasy RPG maps is not only truer to the accuracy possible in the eras most such games are set, but permits us to make them more useful for both GMs and players.

7-league boots in perspective

Six hexes at the three-league scale is a day’s forced march. It’s twelve strides with 7-league boots – at about 1.5 seconds per stride, that’s eighteen seconds travel.

Sixty hexes – more than will physically fit on a printed page at any reasonable resolution – at this scale is 10 days forced march, and for most human armies, that’s pushing close to the limits of physical endurance. With 7-league boots, you can reach that army in 120 strides, which takes about three minutes.

In fact, a reasonable number of hexes across a page at this scale would be about twenty. So that’s basically one map sheet a minute.

With such boots, the commander of an army can leave weeks after his troops and junior officers and join them at the front – then retreat back to the capital to consult intelligence reports – and be back at the front minutes later.

The Cartographic Twist

If you base the position of locations not on geographically-precise measurements (the 20th century standard) but on how long it takes to reach them, you deliberately distort the geography to make the map more functionally useful. In essence, you are following the travels of a cartographer, and employing his measurements of travel time.

Consider the following situation: A Cartographer travels south-east from point A to point B, then north to point C, then west back to point A. These trips take 1.5 days, 2 days, and 1 day, respectively. If you had some sort of counting device, you might map the number of turns of a wagon wheel in order to get a precise distance, but since you don’t, you have two choices: you can accept the exact time measurement as a distance analogue, or you can attempt to arbitrarily correct the travels times to account for the terrain. Either way, your map is going to be inaccurate, but which is the greater inaccuracy? (NB: Even with an accurate measure of distance traveled, roads and paths are rarely straight, introducing distortions – you either take a very great deal of trouble getting exact measurements of directions traveled, so that the construction of a single map is the work of a decade or more, or you tolerate an inherent level of error).

If all available techniques lead to error, you would almost certainly choose the option that delivers the most useful information. Forget about arbitrary adjustments laced with doubt and confusion; draw your maps assuming a constant movement rate and straight lines between landmarks, with occasional corrections relative to some visible surface feature.

So you draw a circle around point A with radius 1.5 days, and assume that point B lies somewhere on that curve. You draw another circle around A with radius 1 day, and assume that point C lies somewhere on that circle. You then look for points on these circles that are 2 days apart in a north-south direction. Because the circles are different sizes, there will be a limited number of these; the closer to the same size, the longer the arcs on which B and C can lie. The more such distances to each point that you can compile, the smaller the error becomes, but it can never be eliminated.

The net result is that anything shown on the map is more-or-less correct, but never exactly so. As a rough guesstimate, my instinct is that the margin of error would probably be 5 or 10%, but could be as high as 20% – so at five hexes away, things could be 1 hex removed from where the map says it is. At 10 hexes, it’s almost certainly one hex removed, and could even be two hexes.

And at 60 hexes, your position would be off by plus-or-minus 6 hexes, and could be off by as much as twelve.

That’s assuming that you don’t make adjustments as you go, and that is a very fair assumption to make, on reflection. You take one stride, the world blurring around you, and you find yourself in wilderness – are you north, south, east, or west of where you want to be, of where the map says you (theoretically) are? How can you tell?

You might get lucky, and have some visible landmark that you can use to orient yourself, or at least reduce the error. But the fact is that 7-league-boots can only get you somewhere in the vicinity of where you want to be, and the rest of the trip would have to be made by conventional means.

In The Gradated Diminishing Of Reality – Travel in FRPG, I suggested that at higher levels, the best approach is to hand-wave the travel in between ‘events of interest’, and that’s exactly what this interpretation of mapping delivers in conjunction with seven-league boots.

Remember that military field commander I was using as an example? There’s a 50-50 chance that he would end up on the wrong side of the front-lines if that’s where he’s going…


Teleport spells are less useful than 7-league boots because they don’t permit even those occasional adjustments. The full scale of the error lies before you. You end up with a greater amount of “traditional” travel at the end. In all other respects, they are effectively the same as the seven-league boots.

Creating The Maps

Here’s the fun part: What’s involved in creating maps in which distance on the map actually corresponds with travel time instead of physical distance? Answer: absolutely nothing extra. It’s all about interpretation of the map you create anyway. But, if you want to at least take the effects into account, you can do in reverse what our hypothetical cartographer was contemplating: consider the terrain and extend the distances between places if the terrain is less than optimal. Things in the mountains are closer together than they appear to be on the map, and mountain ranges are bigger, with this effect reduced where there are mountain passes. The result is that mountain ranges a are more of a series of “bulges” with the narrow necks being where the passes are. Ditto swamps, and deserts. Good roads shrink distances in the direction along the road, and toward the road.

But that’s really all there is to it. Make your difficult terrain bigger and spread things out a bit more within such regions and remember that the error means that you don’t have to be that accurate. Easy!

Errors In Travel Time

The errors that come with the mapping techniques mean that even the “league scale” maps aren’t all that accurate, even assuming that the cartographer did his best to maintain a consistent speed when surveying the map. Again, we’re talking about 5% certainly, 10% probably, and 20% possibly. If the map indicates three days’ travel to from X to Y, that’s about 30 hours travel (10 hours per day) – so certainly plus-or-minus 6 hours, probably plus-or-minus 12 hours, and possibly as much as 18 hours difference, one way or the other.

“Are we there yet?” assumes a whole new significance.

The final step

With all the advantages that a relative scale provides – one measured in travel time, and not in true geographic distance – I can see no good reason for not implementing such a technique everywhere that it is relevant and appropriate. There will be a period of mental adjustment on the part of the GM, but that’s a minor hurdle. The benefits seem well worth that price.

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A Serpentine Slithering To Adventure


Today I get to do something I haven’t done for a while, and that’s review an adventure — in this case, The Snake’s Heart from Wild Games Adventures in collaboration with Moebius Adventures.

First, though, a caveat or two (which I also pointed out to the co-author, Fitz, when he offered me a review copy) – the system uses the Swords & Wizardry game system and I know next-to-nothing about those rules except that they are supposed to be “old-school” fantasy. So I’m in no position to critique the implementation of game mechanics; instead, I’ll be looking at the structure, presentation, and internal logic of the adventure.

Overall Impressions

Overall impressions are that it’s good, with lots of potential, but very incomplete, and uses large fonts to pad the page count unnecessarily. It’s worth the $1.98 US Price Tag that is being asked through RPGNow – but just barely. The sad thing is that it could have been a lot better than that, the seeds and raw potential are all there. A tweak in this place and that, and perhaps another page or two (even at this inflated font size) of content would have made all the difference. The maps are too small and not set up to be printable separately, making them next to useless – each really needs to be on a page on its own so that they can be shown to the PCs (removing markings that give the plot away, of course; those can be retained on the existing small-sized maps so that the GM can mark the larger version appropriately.

First Impressions

These were not as favorable. The cover shows a coiled snake against a toned background – but the area in the center of the coils hasn’t been toned, so it appears to be wrapped around an invisible egg or something. Moreover, the snake is drawn isometrically, ie looking down at an angle – but the ground it is sitting on is drawn as a flat horizon and foreground. As a result, the snake appears to be floating in mid-air with only the near edge touching the ground, and angled at 45° toward the viewer relative to the ground, as though the far end was lifted into the air.

This misrepresents the overall quality of the product, though it does accurately symbolize the flaws in the content. If the flaws that I have signaled were corrected, it would undersell the product. Easily corrected by using additional pseudo horizon lines receding (so that the surface appears as isometric as the snake) and adding tone to the center of the coils.

The “Script” Format

The supplement takes a cue from TV scripts in the way it describes scenes and settings, using a courier-style typewriter font for these sections. Unfortunately, this means that the first piece of content that you see looks clumsy. It’s supposed to be apparently written on an old-style typewriter, but the font is so large and so perfect that the impression that’s supposed to be conveyed is lost.

Content Format

The actual text for the GM to work with is in a more standard font (still over-sized), and is far more robust and legible as a result. But here, too, there is a problem in typography – certain terms are supposed to stand out as referring to something else, and these have been presented in ALL CAPITALS to draw attention to them. The problem is that every reference to these terms has been given the same treatment:

“The HEROES are the adventurous souls of this day and find themselves riding near the village of Elhann, home to shepherds, gardeners, horsemen, and a few aged warriors. One day these HEROES too may retire to a pastoral life on the plains, but not today.”

As this direct quote shows, not only is this effect jarring, but it’s inconsistently applied, and gets in the way of quick reading without being sufficiently prominent to draw the GM’s eye, enabling him to find what he’s looking for quickly and easily. And shouldn’t the village name be similarly in all-caps?

  • The first reference can be in all caps, but subsequent ones should not be.
  • Bolding should be used to further make these references stand out.

The content

So, here’s where the good stuff is, right?

Alas… this is where the potentially good stuff can be found, but time and again the mark is narrowly missed. Take that paragraph quoted above, and insert three words before “may retire” and see what a difference it makes:

“The HEROES are the adventurous souls of this day and find themselves riding near the village of ELHANN, home to shepherds, gardeners, horsemen, and a few aged warriors. One day these heroes too may be forced to retire to a pastoral life on the plains, but not today.”

(The above also incorporates the stylistic adjustments I recommended). That minor addition tells you a lot more about the community and its population and the society in back of it. At the same time, it conveys an attitude of adventure and enjoying life while you can to the players, getting them into the right frame of mind for the adventure to follow.

There are also one or two logic holes. Early on, some raiders attack the PCs because they don’t think the PCs can defend themselves adequately, even though there’s one PC for each raider (or vice-versa if you want to get picky). There’s no indication of why they might think that – seeing armed and armored men and women ride up of obvious physical health would convey the opposite impression. To have the (over-)confidence, the raiders should outnumber the PCs by at least 3, and possibly by 100%.

Missed opportunities and plot holes of this sort abound, and its those, more than anything else, that holds this mini-adventure back. I could offer several more examples, but have chosen not to offer spoilers. Because here’s the thing: all of this is easily fixable.

Achieving the Potential

It only takes a few minutes work for the GM who purchases this work to make these minor corrections. In the process, he will also make the adventure more of his own – I might choose one way to fix the problems, while you choose another. And fixing those problems produces a cracking good little adventure, one that’s easily worth the asking price.

The authors could fix these problems their way – and that would be fine. But I’m not sure that reducing the possibilities to one fixed solution would necessarily be better than the individualized result that obtains from letting GMs fix them for themselves.

The Biggest Hole

The biggest hole in the adventure for me comes at the conclusion. Two paragraphs spell out the rewards for success, but only a single paragraph is employed to paraphrase and generalize a description of events should the PCs fail.

That’s not enough. The GM needs a better description of the ultimate enemy as it progresses (I’m again being careful to avoid spoilers), what [pronoun] can do, and – at the very least – some suggestions for how a 13th hour victory can be snatched from the jaws of defeat. I would make use of the Crazy Cultist, who may turn out not be as crazy as he seems… Right now, if the PCs fail, the campaign ends. And that’s not good enough!


This adventure requires a little work from the GM, but the places where that work is required are so obvious on reading it that it’s easy to do. The results, with those changes in place, more than justify the initial purchase. There’s a reason it has five 5-star reviews!

“The Snake’s Heart” is available from RPGNow with a recommended price of US$1.98. Don’t just take my word that it’s worth it, go and check it (and its other reviews) out for yourself!

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New Beginnings: Phase 6: Mindset & Underpinnings

new beginnings 07

Onto every parade, some rain must fall. You thought we were finished with campaign design? We aren’t.

It’s not easy making a completely fresh start. This series examines in detail the process of creating a new campaign.

What more do you need? You’ve got the basic plot, you’ve got the basic world, you have these organized so as to spread the developmental workload over the life of the campaign, you’re ready to go, right?

Wrong. I hate to rain on your parade, but there are aspects of campaign development that most GMs either ignore or have never even thought about getting into, and these are the little things that can make the difference between a pedestrian-but-well-organized campaign and something exceptional that will set the standard amongst your group for years to come.

This article looks at two of them: The Campaign Philosophies and the Theme (I know, we’ve been working with the Theme for most of the process, but it’s not all there yet!) The next will tackle two more of these “little things”, Archetypes and Races. In some games, these will be central, in others, not so much – and it depends very strongly on the game system and campaign genre. Then comes Infrastructure, and there’s a lot of that still to be talked about. There’s still a lot on our plate before I can wrap this series up – so let’s get into it…

Philosophy & The Game

If it were possible to do so, I would have put this subject far earlier in the process. It’s sufficiently important, and it potentially requires a complete rewriting of both the campaign plan and the game world. Far better, in principle, to decide these things early and incorporate the results into those plans during the development process.

And, if you have a clear idea of the answers that this section will require of you, that’s the very best approach.

That’s one heck of a bit ‘if’ however, and the general principle of problem solving is that if you can’t solve the entire problem at once, you work any part of it that you can solve and then revisit the parts that you can’t. For that reason, in at least 90% of cases, you’re better off getting the basic plot and world building blocks in place and giving the campaign a chance to take shape within your mind before tackling this area, even if it requires subsequent revisions of what you’ve already built. I’m one of the “enlightened” in this respect and I’d estimate that 2/3 of the campaigns that I start don’t have answers to these questions until after the basic plot and game world are figured out – so what chance is there that anyone who doesn’t think long and hard on these issues will be ready to go early on, even with specific prompting and direction from this article?

Two chances, Buckley’s and None, as the old Australian saying goes.

A tale of two Buckleys

There are two competing theories as to the origins of the phrase. The first relates to William Buckley (1780 – 30 January 1856), an English convict who was transported to Australia, escaped, was given up for dead, but improbably survived and lived in an Aboriginal community for many years. “You’ve got Buckley’s [chance]” is a common alternative formulation of the saying.

Some think that the reference is to the name of a Melbourne Department Store chain, Buckley & Nunn, either as a pun or as rhyming slang. My personal opinion is that the original reference is to William, because there is nothing about the store that suggests that it had no hope of success, but that the commonality of names then connected the saying to the store chain, producing the saying as I’ve quoted it. This makes sense, and fits both the Australian vernacular and our sense of humor.

Those are subtle points of distinction, but the cumulative effect of all four makes a compelling circumstantial case, I think. And that’s an important point of relevance to the subject at hand, because the Philosophical Questions that this half-article gets GMs to pose are not usually about big, fundamental, architectural changes, but are rather about subtleties and nuance and reshaping elements of the campaign.

Nevertheless, there is the potential for fundamental changes in plan as a result, and that’s one reason why everything is still in note form, other than summaries that are so concise that they are unlikely to be affected!

The Deliberate ‘Why’

The basic tool is a simple question, but one that gets to the heart of subjects. Imagine that you are describing part of the game environment – be it rules or game world or adventures or the reactions of characters or whatever – to a small child, one of those annoying types whose response to any statement is always the same three-letter question: “Why?”

    “Why is the sky blue?”
    “Light is made of a rainbow of colors, and the red colors are more easily scattered by the air, so we see the sky with what’s left, making it blue.”
    “Ummmm… The red light’s fatter and can’t get around the dust?”

This invented conversation has the respondent in trouble from the very beginning, not least because he’s got his basic answer wrong – it’s the Blue that’s more easily scattered. But the questions got to the heart of the matter very quickly, didn’t they?

Things get more complicated when we’re not talking about the real world, but one that has been invented. Ignorance is no longer a valid answer, and neither is realism, i.e. mimicking the real world. You need better answers.

The fundamental question that surrounds all issues of philosophy within a campaign is “why”. Ask it yourself, and keep doing so until you can answer it.

Central Philosophy – In Game

Why are things the way they are?

“Things” is, unfortunately, fairly imprecise, though at least it manages to be concise.

Apply the question “why is it like that” to everything that you have created, and then to every answer that you give, at least three layers back, or until the only valid answer is metagame in nature. At which point BzZzT! The buzzer sounds for an invalid answer. You need to be able to give an in-game answer even if the correct answer is metagame in nature because the inhabitants of the world can only see the world around them and HAVE to be able to provide an in-game answer.

While “I don’t know” is not a valid response either, “They Don’t Know” is perfectly acceptable – and should immediately trigger an additional entry either in your ideas file, or – if the question is important enough – scheduling into the plot, in the form of “The PCs discover why [x]”.

Of course, as soon as you do either, you have to answer the question yourself, with a prefix or code that tells you this is GM-knowledge only!

Metagame reasons may exist for many of your decisions – the rejection of past campaign elements from way back in “What To Throw Away”, for example – but there needs to be an in-game reason for this. Even if there isn’t, and for some reason doesn’t have to be, the inhabitants of the world will still come up with one – so even if you don’t need one, you need one anyway.

When I’ve offered advice of this sort in the past, a lot of people have thought I was demanding that everything in the game environment be justified, and to a certain extent that’s true, but it’s not the whole story. Yes, you need some sort of justification or rationalization for in-game purposes, but this can be anything from an anecdote to historical incident to a higher conception of the fictional reality.

There are two criteria which determine what you do with your answers, which I have phrased in the form of two supplementary questions: Is this common knowledge? and Is this different from official game content?.

Common Knowledge, Same As Official Game Content

This particular combination is the only one that doesn’t require you to do anything more, unless it takes advantage of an option within the Official Game Content – in which case I consider it “Different To”, anyway.

Not Common Knowledge, Same As Official Game Content

Time to start compiling notes in a new document called “Player Briefing Notes”! In this case, you want to note that the official answer to the question “why” is not the commonly known or accepted – and specify what is known or accepted in its place! “Legend has it” or something similar is the best way of opening such paragraphs.

You also need a new document called “GM Campaign Notes” in which you copy-and-paste everything that’s in the player’s briefing notes – but then make an additional notation that this “legend” is not true.

Common Knowledge, Different to Official Game Content

This result, quite obviously, also ends up in your two Briefing Notes files. You may want or need to expand on the player’s briefing notes within the GM’s file.

Not Common Common Knowledge, Different to Official Game Content

The final alternative, this should either be revealed in an already-planned adventure or be part of a new adventure that is inserted into the campaign plan! How early and how prominent the change should be made are your only decisions, and those choices should be made on the basis of how fundamental a change this is, and how great the repercussions will be.

Of course, you don’t yet know exactly what the PCs will get up to, and so can’t say with certainty how important the change is – just use your best judgment.


Another assessment that should be made of any Uncommon Knowledge is who needs to know about it (if anyone). It’s not uncommon to have additional world information that’s available only to clerics, or to barbarians, or to druids, or to mages, or to Elves, or whatever. More notes in the GM’s file!

Central Philosophy – Players

Before you go too far – does the change conflict with anything you know the players want to do in the new campaign (play a particular character race or class or whatever, or impact on a plan to avoid past mistakes)? If so, you need to think about the consequences. You can either change your mind, or be prepared for complaints – so you’re probably better off taking the first of these options! Sometimes you can permit an exception to be made for PCs, but that can be dangerous too – you’re giving certain individuals within the game world an ability that none of their NPC peers possesses, so think carefully!

But that’s not the only thing you need to think about within this context in the case of many games. How are players to generate their stats? Roll 4 dice and select the best 3? Points-buy? Something else? What’s the policy on critical hits and fumbles? What’s the policy on Saving Throws? What stacks and what doesn’t? Are there any character classes that you need to ban from the campaign, either temporarily or permanently – and why? (this is one decision that you WILL have to justify!)

How are you going to treat the players, during play? What rules of etiquette will be in place? Are players going to be required to contribute for Pizza at each game? Is there a fee that has to be paid for the use of facilities? There are lots of BIG questions that need answering!

Many of these answers should also make their way into the Briefing Notes files, if not all of them!

Central Philosophy – Behind Screen

Take the GM briefing notes and appraise the official rules anywhere that seems relevant. If the rules don’t accommodate “the truth,” you will need a House Rule. And that, in turn, demands notes in a “House Rules” file.

On top of that, there are other decisions that should me made and documented. What rules need to be clarified? Are any of the old house rules worth perpetuating, and does that interfere with anything that you have planned (it shouldn’t, because these were known before plot assembly and world creation began, but now is the time to double-check).

If the extras in “Players” are all about how the GM and the rules are expected to interface with the players and their demands and choices, then this is the other side of the coin – how the GM expects to interface his creativity and creations with the rules. Because of the overlap between PC and NPC, expect 90% or more of this to be done already.

Central Philosophy – Secrets & Surprises

Use your GM briefing notes to appraise the plotlines and game world notes that you have in your Campaign Plan. Does anything in that plan have to change? If so, use the cross-references and common links to track the ripples throughout the Campaign Plan.

For example (generic): Concept of Race X alters character Y which alters the nature or content of adventures Z1, Z2, and so on through every appearance of Character Y. Adventures which depend on one of these preliminary adventures might also be affected as they may now have different outcomes.

This might seem like throwing away the spine of the campaign that you spent so much time crafting, but in reality, such changes are a series of opportunities. First, you have the opportunity to demonstrate the relevance of the rules/standard content changes; you make them matter in an adventure. Second, because these changes are only present for a reason, they bring depth to the game world that you can’t easily achieve in any other way. And thirdly, each time these make a difference, you have two options: alter the adventure planned in order to accommodate them, or arrange “local circumstances” to produce the original outcome despite the changes. Either way, you can build an additional surprise or plot twist into your adventure by having it seem to be heading toward one solution only to change course at the last possible moment because of these campaign concepts.

In the Shards Of Divinity campaign, I had a different idea for how magic worked within the game environment. At a metagame level, this difference manifested in a chance for arcane spells to fail when cast, a chance that (a) did not affect the central PC of the campaign to the same degree as anyone else, and (b) would change over time, generally for the worse. Magic was failing, and it was the PCs task to discover why and do something about it. The answer to that particular “why?” would unlock all the secrets of creation and eventually lead to the destruction of the universe at the hands of that PC – and then its re-creation with him as the new creator of the universe! At which point it would have been revealed that the entire purpose of the universe was to create a companion for the creator of the universe in which the PC grew up – the answer to the ultimate “Why?”. Quite obviously, all this would have major repercussions for the campaign plan – in fact it was going to be the central fact of the last 20% or so of the campaign!

Central Philosophy – Briefings

What else needs to be explained? You’ve been working at a very detail-focused level; if you take a step back, can you generalize into some guiding principles that will enable you to choose between alternative game rulings when there is a conflict, or when something happens that is not covered by the rules? These both need to be incorporated into your briefings, and it is necessary to examine everything else in light of each of the general principles. Change the philosophy behind one rule, and you may well discover that many other rules need to change in order to be consistent.

Again, in the Shards Of Divinity campaign, one of the key consequences of the conception of magic that I built the campaign on was that illusions functioned as reality provided that the perceiver did not realize they were illusions – and that if they did anything different to anyone else because they perceived something as an illusion, that could also break the illusion for others. This is very useful if you’re the target of an illusion, but is unwelcome when you need to cross a chasm or ravine using an illusionary bridge! These illusion rules had major consequences for Elves (who naturally see through illusions) and Fey, requiring a substantial re-invention of both races. Several magic items were also affected, for example “Hat Of Disguise”. Combat was also substantially affected – you could heal as much damage as you wanted to, using an illusion – but if someone saw through the disguise, all the damage came back at once! One consequence that was never discovered was that Warlock Abilities were all illusions. This shifted the most important stat for that class to Charisma instead of Intelligence, essentially reinventing the class!

The Attitude to Game

The final philosophical underpinning of the campaign is perhaps the hardest to pin down. What is the underlying philosophy of the universe from a metagame perspective? What is the existential reality that you are trying to simulate, when boiled down to a few simple statements?

The key to the answer lies in your chosen theme or themes. How does it or do they express itself/themselves in a statement of the principles that the campaign is to be founded upon? How do the theme or themes express themselves in game mechanics? Do any mechanics need to change to produce a game environment in which those expressions are central?

This is a process of devising specifics, generalizing them into broad principles, then employing those principles to identify other specifics that derive from the broad statements. It’s not an easy task, involving a lot of thinking, a lot of perspiration, and a lot of creativity. The theme or themes should be the glue that binds the entire campaign together – this process is how that binding is achieved. It involves fundamentally altering the game structure and mechanics and concepts to reflect and incorporate the themes.

Once again, there is a recursive process involved. All the notes that have been made within the scope of this discussion of philosophy help in formulating the general principles when you reach this point – but as soon as you have those general principles, you need to go back over everything else you’ve done, including the other sections on philosophy, looking for conflicts and ramifications that derive from the general principles. Adventures, Characters, Player-GM interface, Player-Rules interface, GM-Rules interface, Game World – they are all in the firing line.

But the benefits are huge. Instead of the game world being a location where all sorts of campaigns can take place, it becomes customized to accommodate this particular specific campaign, while the campaign itself evolves to draw upon and articulate that uniqueness in the form of adventures that can’t be run as well any other way. The campaign goes from a generic expression of some ideas into being unique and original, different from every other campaign that you’ve run in the past, or will run in the future.


As you can see, we still aren’t done with the Theme or themes of the campaign. It still hasn’t fully seeped into the bedrock of the campaign, and we are still engaged in a process of stepwise refinement to get it there.

Stepwise Refinement is the process of taking a general answer or task and dividing it into more specific elements, often called modules, each of which is then further designed. It’s how major computer systems are designed a lot of the time, at least in principle. Practicality and not reinventing the wheel means that pre-existing “common modules” are often incorporated at a fundamental level.

We started with a very general idea for a campaign, and from that built up various modular elements, which were then recombined to form a more specific interpretation of that general idea. We then applied various tools to further define each of those elements, in the process breaking them down into still more specific details.

Some sculptors function by visualizing the finished work and removing the surplus material that surrounds it. This is especially true of wood carvers, where the texture and pattern of the grain are integral elements of the finished work. Stonemasons have the same attitude. The shape and appearance of the finished product, they are prone to say, is implicit in the original piece of wood or stone; they simple saw that pattern and removed everything that didn’t belong.

Having been working in this top-down manner so far, the campaign design has now reached the point where we need to integrate the “common modules” and customize the way they relate to the main design when incorporated into this particular campaign. The “common modules” of D&D and Pathfinder are PC Races and Classes; for Sci-Fi games, Races are usually all that’s relevant. In Pulp, there are a number of archetypes, and so on. So these are Rules System specific; change the rules system, and you change the building blocks that then have to be integrated into the campaign.

Another way to look at it is this: you’ve been customizing various aspects of the game system to better accommodate the campaign that’s coming together. Now it’s time to assess all the basic building blocks of the game to see what else has to change to accommodate that customization.

The Pigeonholes

Each fundamental building block in the campaign needs its own pigeonhole, and each pigeonhole should really have something stuffed into it. It might be some minor piece of information that no-one else gets, or house rules, or a legend that may or may not be true. These are specific little bits of player briefing that only specific individuals get; they usually aren’t vital to the campaign (all players get the real essentials) but they are a little bit of custom color that helps tie that particular character to the campaign. Sometimes these can be minimal, sometimes they are extensive, taking up multiple pages.

There are three types of Pigeonholes that are present in most fantasy RPGs and two that exist in most sci-fi, though sometimes all three will be found there as well. The first “row” is for archetypes and character classes. In Pathfinder terms, there’s a pigeonhole for clerics, and one for druids, and one for fighters, and so on. The second “row” is for the key races – Elves, Humans, Vulcans, Drazi, whatever. The third “row” is for the GM’s use; not all of the content in the pigeonholes will generate adventures, and of those that do, some will be adventures already in place within the campaign plan. But between 25 and 40% of the pigeonholes can form the foundations of additional adventures, and these are like crossbeams in the structure – while nominally independent, they tie and hold the rest of the campaign together.


Every archetype – character class in D&D & Pathfinder – needs something. Some of these are easy – with clerics, you write about the theology of the world, who the Gods are, and how the faith integrates with society, for example. With thieves, you talk about the dark underside of society (and they all have one), organized crime (if any), and so on. I’ll often throw in information about the legal system and a myth/legend/truth? about a legendary thief’s exploits.

For some archetypes you need to think outside the box. Fighters for example – there’s not much to say about them in most cultures that don’t have gladiatorial combats. But you can talk about the military, and the conflicts over the last century or so; or about the social system in general; or about politics (though I’ll often save that for Paladins/Knights, because they are more intimately connected to the social structure).

In a sci-fi campaign, there’s a lot of additional social and technological infrastructure to talk about. Engineers might get the basic principles of warp drive, and a list of the top three engineering schools in the campaign, for example. With scientists, the hardest part is knowing where to stop; I would generalize an awful lot and rely on providing specific information in any specialty subject via “library computer” (i.e. me) at the time. You could talk about the history of scientific discovery post-now but that tends to be fairly boring; instead I’ll tend to go into more detail on some of the major discoveries since.

In every campaign briefing there are the things that everyone needs to know, but everyone should get something beyond that. This is information that their specialty would expose them to, and things that may eventually (or even immediately) come out in gameplay, but not in the same level of detail that you provide to the players whose characters come from that sub-world. While you have to be wary of overload, everyone needs something – it not only makes the characters more special within the campaign, but it makes the characters in question feel like an immediate part of the campaign.

One of the key items to be incorporated is how the theme or themes have and/or will express themselves within the architecture and concept of the archetypes. This is where the list of manifestations of the themes that I had people create in a preceding step becomes most useful, enabling multiple choices right when you need them! It should be noted that in some cases it’s better to save that connection for the GM to use as a plot element, rather than priming the players on the subject of the theme from the very beginning. I prefer to employ more subtle interpretations of the theme here; making it a fundamental part of the campaign without drawing too much attention to it right away.

Key Races

The other thing that most campaigns will have in the way of pigeonholes are key races or cultures. Even in an all-human pulp campaign, there are different societies, and each should have something to be said about it for members of that society. This is primarily to help the player of these races get into character, but quite often there will be a secondary function of defining racial perspectives and natures that can be a basis of adventures.

Such facts can be the direct basis of an adventure by virtue of a consequence, implication or revelation; they can be used to complicate otherwise straightforward plots, or simply as an entry ramp or hook to deliver the players to the adventure in question.

Not everything in a racial profile needs to be accurate, or complete – filling in the blanks can be quite rewarding in terms of adventure pay-offs. But the implication of that is the need to have a GM’s version with “the rest of the story” or “the truth” – and that brings me to the third type of pigeonhole to be filled.

Once again, expressing the theme or themes as a constituent or highlight of each racial concept is a major component of the description of the races. However, even more than with archetypes, this can be a fertile ground for the generation of adventures. Refer to the comments made under Archetypes, above.

I wanted to throw an example into the mix at this point. So let’s assume that “Survival” and “Sacrifice” are two of the key themes of the campaigns, and in particular the self-sacrifice concept – “some must be sacrificed for the whole to survive”, which raises lots of thorny moral questions like “who chooses the sacrifice”?

Elves have very long lives. Why? Perhaps, once a generation, one elf must be sacrificed to the needs of society, becoming a conduit to the positive energy plane and a fountain of life from which all elves “drink” (metaphorically) for the next hundred or thousand years. In recompense for this sacrifice, the family are elevated to the nobility within Elven Society, or – if noble already – they assume the throne.

Think about all that for a minute. The politics. The capacity for manipulation in order to gain power. The emotion, the morality of the situation? A willing sacrifice? An unwilling sacrifice? A child born and reared for no other purpose than to be sacrificed? That one paragraph not only links the themes to the race, it radically reshapes the internal workings of the society, making it quite a bit darker. And, it must be said, quite a bit more interesting!

I can think of more adventures based on this one idea than I could ever hope to run in a campaign; they are mutually exclusive. The PCs rescue an Elven Child who has been kidnapped so that he can’t become the Sacrifice. A royal family attempts to substitute a counterfeit sacrifice for their beloved daughter. An unwilling sacrifice (a PC with player cooperation or an NPC if you trust the player to roleplay the revelation of the source of his long life) flees, hides amongst the PCs. There’s a racial guilt option too – every elf who enjoys long life does so at the expense of the sacrifice – they all have blood on their hands, though most of them might not know it. What if the sacrifice was a shameful secret? What lengths will the Elvish inner circle go to in order to protect it? How does the secret tie in with Elvish theology? Does this secret connect with how the Elves were originally created? And how do the Drow figure into this? Perhaps the worship of Lolth prevents the need for such sacrifices? Or perhaps they only think it does? Do they still partake of the largess that results, or do they need a completely separate sacrifice? Just how estranged are the two branches of Elfdom?

Unfortunately, the cat can only be let out of the box once. The surprise element is what makes these different adventures so fantastic; if you can run one of them without revealing the secret, you might be able to use two adventure ideas, but eventually the moment of revelation will come, and from that point on, it becomes just part of the game world; it will never have the same impact on the players a second time around.

Plot Pigeonholes

Almost everything that you populate these pigeonholes with can and should be used in conjunction with one or more adventures within the campaign. It should make a difference. In some cases, those adventures will be the ones you’ve already put into the campaign outline; in others, these plots will be new ones. It might be remembered that earlier in the campaign outline process I recommended adding some plot spaces to be used for character-generated plots; you can fill some of those with these plotlines, or can make a new insertion into the campaign structure.

In terms of using those blank slots, I can only offer some general advice. Because these plots are fundamentally connected with who the PCs are, they should be relatively early in the campaign; but at the same time, the general picture of who the race or archetype are should not overwhelm the distinctiveness of the individual, so they should not be the first such empty slot, which should derive from the personality with which the player endows the character. If necessary, I would create additional empty slots either earlier (to replace the one used now) or later (to contain this adventure). The first inflates the early campaign phases, the second does the same for the middle. Every campaign will be different, so this is something you’ll have to judge for yourself.

Of course, there’s one big caveat to doing so – at this point you probably don’t know what classes and races the PCs are going to be, so you can’t actually schedule these adventures right now! All you can do is some basic prep (and not in too much detail because it could be wasted effort) and plan to fill out the final details of the campaign plan once you have that information.

The Philosophy Of Choice

This also brings up a couple of key decisions that you will need to make. When do you make these exclusive briefing materials available to a player? Do you make them all available from before character generation (not recommended)? Or wait until the player decides on a race and class (recommended)? And if they then change their minds, possibly as a result of the additional briefing material, how are you going to handle that? In the latter case, I would recommend mandating that their new character’s background include an opportunity to get to know the details of the race or class not chosen, thereby justifying the character having access the additional briefing material within the game.

The Philosophies Of The Campaign

Designing a campaign is, fundamentally, about choices. The philosophies of a campaign define the reasons for those choices. Every campaign has a central philosophic core, whether the GM knows it or not; the better the GM is, the more capacity he has for taking control of that philosophic core and bending it to his campaign’s needs, even if he doesn’t realize that this is what he is doing. How much better could he do so if he knew what he was doing – and was able to perform his manipulations with intent, forethought, and in advance of the commencement of play, instead of waiting for the campaign to develop its own unique flavor?

Well, I made deadline for this article, though it was a close-run thing! Next time, I look at more of these subtle nuances that really bring a campaign to life: Archetypes and Races.

Say what? Didn’t we just do those things? My friend, we’re just getting started…

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Rat On A Stick – In remembrance of Terry Pratchett

Model of Unseen University

‘Pyrkon 2013 Niewidoczny Uniwersytet’ (Unseen University) by Klapi (Own work). Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – click image to view license.

Terry Pratchett OBE
(28 Apr 1948 – 12 Mar 2015)

The world lost a giant of the fantasy genre on March 12th. Terry Pratchett brought farce to the elements of his novels while spinning straightforward fantasy stories out of those elements that built and built until reaching the point of melodramatic farce in their own right while never forgetting the first law of writing: Entertain the readers. No matter what, entertain the readers.

I and two of my friends had the pleasure of sitting with Terry at an event during Noreascon 3, the 46th World Science Fiction Convention, held in 1989 in the city of Boston. We wanted to talk Discworld, he wanted to talk about Australia, about the cliches and many misunderstandings that foreigners often posess about our country and culture, about the Australian sense of humor and perspective, and about the pranks that Australians would often pull on tourists. Nine years later, The Lost Continent was published. I don’t know that the chatter at the table that night had anything to do with the novel, which (amongst other things) parodies Australia and aspects of our culture, many of them dating from the subsequent years. Certainly, there’s no direct correlation between the anecdotes that I remember being shared at the table that night and anything in the novel. Nevertheless, I will always believe that we provided the seed of the idea that night. And Terry was a perfect British Gentleman, and great company.

It would be easy to implant a superficial commemoration to Terry and Robert and the many other comedic writers named in the course of this article simply by placing a deliberately farcicle game element. An Inn that is nothing but a storeroom surrounded by beds and tables in the open air, for example – an Inn that is an Out. But I think there’s a better approach.

It is illuminating to compare his style with that of another comedic fantasy author I greatly enjoyed, Robert Asprin. Asprin subverted the cliches of the fantasy genre in his Mythadventures series of novels with a whimsical nature and sense of fun, which usually translated into a twisting of over-used plotlines into something not-quite silly.

Terry’s style fused the manic irreverance of Monty Python with straightforward Fantasy. He was by no means the first to fuse fantasy and humor, but he gradually became the standard by which all others would be judged. Terry’s humor was different. The characters took their world and situation seriously, no matter how strange or farcical things became. If Pratchett’s writing embodies Python, Asprin captured much of the spirit of classic Warner Brother’s cartoons like Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. His characters could be serious at times, but were just as likely to make a joke of their current plight – for the benefit of the reader, not for the consumption of the other characters.

Back in December 2013, I wrote Lessons from the Discworld of Terry Pratchett which quickly became one of the most popular articles ever published at Campaign Mastery. I introduced it by stating, “There are a number of valuable lessons for any RPG that can be observed in the looking at how Terry Pratchett achieved the success of the Discworld series of novels.”

Today, in honor and rememberance of Terry, I’m going to point out the broadest and most general lesson of all, one that goes to the very heart of Roleplaying Games (which was another subject discussed that night in Boston). And that is the similarity between the Discworld Novels and a roleplaying game – any roleplaying game.

But first, I’m going to interrupt myself to talk briefly about another way that some people have come up with to commemorate Terry: The Clacks Code. If you don’t know what that is, I suggest you start by reading this article which will give you the basics.

I don’t like or approve of this memorial to Terry and I don’t think he would have, either. The problem is that it won’t stop with just Terry. Sooner or later, someone else will pass away and be added to the commemorations because it seems appropriate. And then people will add others who have already left us, such as Steve Jobs or Isaac Asimov. And then someone’s favorite TV show will be canceled and they’ll add the show and the names of the characters. And then their friends, and their pets. And then someone will realize that a picture is just a string of 1’s and 0’s and can be added as “text”.

And it’s all overhead added to web traffic, bloating web pages, and slowing the internet. It’s not hard to imagine a situation in which a ten-line blog post has 100 lines of headers, or a thousand, plus the code to hide and retransmit them.

And then, someone will find a way to embed executable code in the headers — or, more properly, will modify this way of embedding executable code — and Terry Pratchett’s memorial will become just another vector for viruses and malware.

While the farcical aspects of all this might appeal to Terry’s sense of humor (my forecasts are ever-so-slightly tongue-in-cheek), I don’t think that’s how he would want to be remembered.

Just like the inhabitants of Discworld, PCs and NPCs are expected to take the world around them reasonably seriously, even if they are a deranged lunatic like The Joker. To them, this is the world, this is reality, and if you fail to take its rules seriously, they can and will kill you for being a party-pooper. It doesn’t matter how farfetched and unlikely, or how big a pun the world element might be, you take it seriously. This is not unlike the most popular works of science-fiction writer Douglas Adams, the The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and the behaviour of the characters within. These characters may joke around, but they still take the world around them as real, even if that reality is ridiculous even to them. Likewise, the characters in a Monty Python movie or sketch treat the world they inhabit as real, no matter how ridiculous. Robert Asprin’s writings are more akin to a roleplaying game from a metagame perspective. The humor is that of players and GM joking around the gaming table as they have fun.

Think about that for a moment. Between them, the fictional worlds and characters these authors created with the ultimate purpose of entertainment exemplify what has come to be the ideal of how to roleplay, of the spirit of gaming. Every time we pick up the dice, we strive to honor their memories and their creations without even knowing it. And our purpose in doing so is exactly the same as theirs was – entertainment. Fun. I can’t think of a much better legacy to leave, a much better way to commemorate the lives and riches that these writers bestowed upon us – can you? So let’s pick up a die, and resolve to strive to be better players and GMs, but never to forget to enjoy what we’re doing. And that’s a remembrance that I think Terry would be proud of.

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New Beginnings: Phase 5: Surroundings & Environment

new beginnings 06

Has anyone noticed that these images are actually larger than shown? Or that the sun has been dipping lower in each one?

It’s not easy making a completely fresh start. This series examines the process of creating a new campaign in detail.

Last time, I went through the development process of taking ideas and some indications of direction and welding them together into a campaign plan. Now it’s time to think about the game world…

I am a big believer in the game setting being a platform for the execution of adventures, rather than adventures being compromised to fit into a game setting. In the past I’ve run adventures whose sole purpose was to change the game world – temporarily or semi-permanently – into whatever it was that I needed for another adventure somewhere downstream of that watershed. This not only makes your adventures better – more interesting, more fun – but it helps to keep the game environment dynamic and more static. For that reason, campaign creation for me starts with the adventures and then builds the right world around the requirements for those adventures.

The campaign planning approach that’s been taken has involved a cross-indexing of common elements, and some may have thought that this was a rather work-heavy approach to take. If all that were to come out of it were the campaign plan, I would agree – there are easier ways to create that – but this is where I reap the benefits of that investment in time and organization.

The Onion

Actually, I’m not so much building a game world at this point as I am building a game world development plan to partner the campaign plan. Game world development is like an onion, each layer inward more detailed and developed that the one that wraps around it, with the location of the initial adventure at the very heart of the onion.

So I build up an initial picture of the innermost layer, build a layer outside of that to contain the immediate context, build another layer outside of that, and so on.

The innermost layer or layers are defined by the requirements of the first adventure, the second layer or group of layers are defined by the requirements of the innermost layer and of the second adventure, and so on.

The Eleven Questions

Each layer consists of the answers to eleven questions during the development process, with the eleventh being shucked off in the course of that process.

I’m going to start by looking at each of the categories so that we’re all on the same page.

1. Where?

What sort of place is it? What’s the tone? How does the location have to fit into the adventure? What sort of location will contribute to the adventure? What sort of place will the antagonist for that first adventure come from, and is that going to be the same sort of place that the PCs are going to come from? How close are the various Primary Races – Elves, Dwarves, etc – homelands going to be to the place of the first adventure? These are the sort of questions that run through my head when first thinking about the initial setting for a campaign, and they all boil down to “Where do I want the adventures to start”?

2. When?

Historical accuracy is usually the first thing to go by the board when designing an RPG Campaign, but in many ways that’s cutting off your nose to spite your face. If you can model your campaign setting on a historical basis, you get massive amounts of background material free of charge. Even if it is my expectation to distort the historical foundations to include non-period weapons and armor and the pseudo-medievalism built into both D&D and Pathfinder, it can still save hundreds of hours of development work (current and future) to at least start from a historical model. And that means pinning the foundations to a historical time and place, and usually a set of events.

The other part of the question applies to the game setting. What’s going on? What’s just happened? How long ago? What’s everyone expecting to happen next? Obviously, this is second because the first answer can provide at least the foundations of a lot of this information.

3. Who?

Who are the notables, and why are they notable? What to the main NPCs for the first adventure have to say about the game setting in which the adventure is to begin? Who’s at home, and who’s a visiting out-of-towner? Who are the PCs, and what are their relationships with the setting of the initial adventure (if known)?

Nobody exists in isolation. We are all shaped by our environment, and even more by the environments of our youth. At the same time, there are environments in which we feel at home. Getting information on these aspects of the PCs can make integrating them into the campaign much easier and more robust, and can also help develop the setting by telling you what you need to integrate into the game world.

4. Distinctiveness

Everywhere has something that makes it distinct. It might be a Wonder, or a Monument, or a Festival, but it will have something. And just as characters can have signature moves, and are cheated if they don’t get to wheel them out from time to time, so the adventure location will feel plastic and cheap if that essential bit of color doesn’t make an appearance “on stage” in the first adventure.

But this is the first adventure that we’re talking about, a situation that’s automatically overloaded already, and simply can’t tolerate anything that doesn’t add to the quality and fun of that starting point. Setting aside arguments based on the “local color” automatically adding depth and credibility to the campaign as a whole – they do, especially if this specific setting within the game world is to be the platform for more than one adventure, but never mind that – there is an argument in favor of using that oddity, eccentricity, or distinctiveness to further the main plot, or bring in an element symbolic of the theme, or some such. To make it do a little more of the heavy lifting that ties background and adventure together, in other words.

Equally, others might suggest that this is excessive and dilutes the overt relevance of what the defining feature of this particular community is already bringing to the table. Furthermore, ramming a theme down the player’s throats rarely goes over all that well, smacking of a GM who is overly consumed with his own cleverness. Subtlety is far better than overt cleverness.

This is a subtle debate that isn’t going to get resolved anytime soon, but I can clue people in regarding the rule of thumb that I always employ in considering issues like this.

“The relevance of a symbol should equal or exceed the anticipated presence of the symbol by the smallest amount possible.”

i.e. If this setting is only to be used for this particular adventure, then go ahead and make it’s self-designated claim-to-fame relevant to the plot. If it is not, then don’t shortchange its long-term value as a reference point and touchstone for the locality just to make life easier in the short-term unless you have no other choice. Making it emblematic of the entire campaign theme can easily be too heavy-handed an approach, so unless the setting is going to be relevant for pretty much the whole campaign and not just one part of it, don’t overburden it, either. Instead, focus on using it to define the community first, and leave the symbolism to one side.

This isn’t a universal rule; there can be exceptions. But unless you have a darned good reason for doing something else, it’s a better starting point. Choose the defining elements of your initial setting accordingly.

5. Neighbors

You can’t choose your neighbors any more than you can choose your family. The same is true of communities. And yet, who the neighbors are says something more general about who you are; the mere fact that you have both chosen to exist in this particular time and place makes a statement about both that arises from the commonalities when viewed in context.

It might be a statement about lifestyle, or about economics, or about geography, or history. The larger the scale, the more the latter two influences matter. The smaller the scale, the more significant the first two will be.

Some neighbors will be friends, or friendly rivals, capable of setting aside the rivalry for mutual benefit; others will be subordinate to the community that is centrally in question, or vice versa; and a few may be enemies and serious rivals, often because they are more alike than they like to admit and because there is only room enough for one of them to prosper under the current society or its assumptions. Some examples:

  • To an outsider like myself, New York City and New Jersey are practically joined at the hip. I’m sure locals within both would be very quick to point at the differences that I’m sure exist, but for all intents and purposes from this distance, you can think of them as being elements of one larger city.
  • My home state of New South Wales has a similar relationship with Queensland, though we are slightly more strongly inclined towards friendly rivalry, economically and especially in the arena of sports. Australia shares a similar relationship with New Zealand.
  • Neither of those examples will mean very much to my American Readers, though; so a closer example for them might be two of the New England states, like Massachusetts and New Hampshire. While they have their differences, I’m sure, their commonalities largely overwhelm the differences when viewed from any distance.
  • Economic rivalries color the relationship between New South Wales and Victoria, our southern neighbor. Again, there are a whole host of similarities – enough that we can step around that rivalry to consider us all collectively “Australians” – but the rivalry is a bit less friendly and a bit more hard-nosed, because we each contain one of Australia’s two biggest cities. Even the philosophies of traffic signals are markedly different. We Sydney-siders view the Melbournian approach to pedestrian traffic signals, for example, as anarchic, a little dangerous, and slightly bumpkin in flavor; they probably see our approach as overly-regimented and authoritarian, differences that extend back as far as the founding of the two cities and Sydney being the first seat of Government when the nation was a colony of England. The truth is that people from NSW react to the over-regimentation by breaking the laws whenever it seems convenient and safe to do so by crossing somewhere other than in the designated pedestrian crossings, and that’s not a huge problem because drivers are half-expecting it; but it becomes dangerous when applied in a Melbourne context because it violates what the Melbourne drivers are conditioned to expect. The Melbourne system works perfectly well for them, because that’s what everyone there is used to – but it’s very hair-raising for those of us who aren’t!
  • Canada and the US are more widely separated again; they might come into contact through Ice Hockey, as a consequence of Geography, and through the occasional mutual interest that results, but despite the affability of the relationship, they are too different, divided by the Revolutionary War, to be that close. The mindset is different, for all the similarities between the populations and cultures themselves.
  • For me, the ultimate example of neighbors who are enemies and serious rivals are Springfield and Shelbyville from The Simpsons. The rivalry between them for economic and social dominance obscures the overwhelming similarities between the two that we, as viewers, are permitted to observe. It’s like two ski resorts competing for customers!

In deciding who the neighboring communities should be and what they should be like, I always focus on the question of what that relationship says about the community that I’m actually trying to define, then explicitly define one or two subordinate communities (no matter how small those have to be), a rival, and – depending on the community – a population center which dominates this community in some fashion.

6. Authority

In many ways, choosing an authority model is a lot easier than choosing the neighbors for a community! That’s because I always focus the decision on the question of how I want the authorities to react to what the PCs are likely to be doing, and how I want the two to interact. Will the community leadership view the PCs as disruptive? As undermining their authority? As enemies? As a resource to be controlled and exploited? As public benefactors? Decide that, and – by knowing what the first adventure will require the PCs to do, publicly – you define a huge amount of the nature of the government, at least locally.

Some GMs like to start PCs in the capital city of the Kingdom in which PCs take place because the sheer variety within an urban environment makes it more plausible that various individuals would encounter each other and find reasons to band together. With occasional exceptions, I prefer not to do so, because that gives me the later option of having the central authority react differently to however the local authorities will respond to events within the first adventure.

Besides, the smaller the community, the less the overhead in prep work. A word of warning, though – if you are going to have to create a capital city eventually, this can be a false economy!

7. History & Geography

While it’s certainly possible, and some GMs advocate doing so, I very rarely create the history and geography as my starting points for a game setting, or even the local region of a game setting. The line of thinking runs, “Geography dictates settlement and trade, settlement and trade dictate history, and trade and history define community.” That’s certainly how it works in the real world.

All too often, the cart ends up leading the horse from an adventure point of view when this is the approach employed.

Instead, I focus on the elements that I have already listed as items one through six and use them to define my requirements of the geography and history that has resulted in the local community being exactly what I need for the campaign. Then I fill in the blanks.

This sounds like a lot of work, but it’s often some of the greatest fun to be had. You need a river to support the community in the early days, but the presence of the trade route that it creates interferes with later history turning out the way you want it to? Remove the river! Create an incident that shapes the attitudes of the locals. It might be an Earthquake. It might be a community upstream that pollutes the watercourse. It might be a mad wizard who reshapes the landscape, or a dominant political force that decides to dam and redirect the river, and whatever consequences there might be for this community are just too bad. If the benefits of doing so are perceived to outweigh the harm, it doesn’t even have to be an evil government!

Decide what you need, then write in the circumstances that create it.

The biggest problem with this approach is that we are all prone to the occasional failure of logic or memory, and these can be catastrophic when pivotal choices make no sense in later hindsight, simply because you overlooked a more sensible answer. When the Lemon hits the fan, all you can do is pick it up and make lemonade! Or Lemon Meringue pie, or… you get the point.

If, no, When you discover a hole in your logic, assume that there is something more to the story that makes that “more sensible answer” an invalid choice from the point of view of the people making that historical decision at the time. This “something more” can either be something that was contemporary to the period and has no bearing on future events, or it can be some hidden influence that extends to this very day in the game world – which is great if your campaign plan already includes, somewhere down the track, just such a covert element!

I find that Drow are my go-to resource for “patching history” in D&D / Pathfinder campaigns. They are an endless resource in this respect; it doesn’t even have to be all of them, there are plenty of times when one faction might try to gain an advantage by meddling in the affairs of others! This even gives a way to write the “meddling influence” out, if necessary – another House uncovers the activities and feels threatened by the growing power of their rivals, so they do something about it. The needed correction to game history thus becomes just a side-effect of the interminable internal war for dominance amongst the Drow.

Occasionally, there will be a more suitable alternative, but by-and-large, half my problems at least are solved using Drow as my unwitting agents, the other half by everything else put together!

In the Zenith-3 campaign, the go-to solution is often the war between Chaos and Order, whose operatives stalk history trying to bring about conditions amenable to subsequent advantage in that conflict, and messing with the lives of bystanders. I also have Time Travelers like Warcry and a couple of villainous agencies like Demon, and a couple of meddling interstellar Empires, and range of other resources up my sleeve if I need them.

8. Society

Creating a game setting, at any scale, is a bit like building a wall from uneven stones. Do it poorly, and it will collapse; do it right, and each stone dictates the shape of the next. Everything you’ve put together to date gives you a serious head-start on the society that inhabits the local region. Most of the decisions in this area will already have been made by the time you reach this point, it’s often just a matter of putting it into writing.

One of the easiest mistakes to make is to try and force the society into a particular mold. This never works out well, and always seems to produce something that’s ill-fitting and uncomfortable. The secret to success in doing so is to have the idea of that mold to start with and build all the other ingredients – from step one onwards – into something that supports and fits the appropriate overall shape. And that’s all about how the society will fit into the first adventure and the broader campaign to follow.

9. Economy

By now you know the people, the geography, the social and political infrastructure, and the history that have brought this population to this point in time. Once again, this all makes the economy relatively easy to put together.

But there’s a problem, one that will probably trigger your first rewrite/expansion of that history, as described above – it makes no sense for a population to ignore a resource if they know it’s there. They won’t wait until it’s convenient for you to start exploiting it, they’ll be in there with chainsaws as soon as your back is turned – or they should be.

It follows that you may need to amend history to reshape the economy from what would naturally have resulted to what you need it to be, Now.

On top of that, money is power – well, influence. An excess of wealth can be a poisonous problem to deal with, and one that can require substantial historical amendment – because the easiest solution is to prevent that excess from accumulating in the first place. Few other approaches, such as Cultural preference (“Maple went out of fashion as a timber”) can last for long enough.

I encountered this problem toward the end of the Orcs and Elves series, detailing additional background for my Fumanor campaign. Whole populations ended up not quite being where I needed them to be, and not quite as dominant or desperate as I had established them to be. They were not in position to put the right economic, military, and social pressure on the Kingdom that came before the Kingdom that came before the current political situation. Some problems were too overt (but had been ignored), some problems were too minor or non-existent. Whole populations were forced to migrate as a result, in the “Decades Of Blood”.

Again, you may need to amend history to reshape the economy from what would naturally have resulted to what you need it to be, Now. In my case, I needed to create – and justify – an “Empire” of Bugbears who would provide the first in a series of dominoes that reshaped the politics and populations of the “wilderness” – just to put the right pieces in place to affect the Human Kingdom in modern times.

10. Oddities?

There’s always a danger in making everything conform and fit together, because reality isn’t like that. An overly-homogenized game world where everything fits neatly into place leaves no room to move. For exactly the same reason that I built some extra flexibility into the campaign plan, I always like to throw an oddity into each of the “significant” communities as something that can assume greater significance later on if needed. An oddity is a person, group, structure, or feature that simply doesn’t fit the neat picture that you’ve created thus far.

It’s important to place these deliberately, cautiously, and with forethought, just to avoid the problems that were discussed under the heading of “Economy” above. You need to be able to contain the influence of the oddity.

  • People can make decisive differences at key moments in history.
  • Groups can reshape a community over time.
  • Structures can alter the way a community is perceived by strangers and invaders, and can reflect deeper influences within a community – whether they are there or not.
  • Features can generate trade or be exploited, monkeying directly with the economy.

It doesn’t matter what the oddity is – it can bring you unstuck if you aren’t careful. But you need something.

11. Connections

The final element of defining a layer of the onion is what that layer demands from the layer surrounding it. Nothing exists in isolation. Each of the above categories gets placed into context not only by the other elements, but by the layers both bigger and smaller that surround it. Build a town, and you’re half-way to building a region. Build a region and you’re half-way to building a city. Build a city and you’re halfway to building a nation. Build a nation, and you’re half-way to building a world.

The Development Process

The development process is quite simple. Actually, it’s a lot simpler than it sounds:

  1. Make notes for a layer.
  2. Make notes for the next layer out. Make sure to incorporate/satisfy any requirements for locations within this layer as dictated by the first adventure.
  3. Repeat step 2 until you have gone as far out as needed for adventure number 1, plus at least one layer more.
  4. Starting with the innermost layer, add notes to incorporate/satisfy any requirements for locations from the second adventure.
  5. Repeat step 4 until you have done all the layers you already have notes on.
  6. Make notes for any additional layers needed for adventure number 2.
  7. Repeat steps 4-6 for each subsequent adventure in your campaign plan.
  8. Each adventure’s prep should include the notes for the location needed for the NEXT adventure. That gives time to get the prep done with some margin for error. If you anticipate an unusually lengthy prep, place the notes two or even three adventures in advance. The idea isn’t that you need to complete transforming these notes for the adventure where they appear, it’s that you need to START then. That means that you should also add relevant “deadline” information to the notes – Start: with Adventure 11, Deadline: for Adventure 13 tells you exactly where you’re at.
  9. I make notes from local out, then do write-ups from the outermost in. That’s why the dividing lines in steps 3 and 7 are where they are. This approach organizes the material in the way that’s easiest for assimilation in pre-campaign briefing notes and later reference. However, any information that is not intended to be part of the pre-campaign briefing should be done in the same order as the notes, because that’s the order in which things will most logically come to light in most adventures – facts, then context.

That’s all there is to it. All that work done earlier in the process starts paying off big-time when you reach this stage.

What Has Been, What Is, and What Will Be

As something of a verification/validation stage, I like to synopsize all my work VERY succinctly into three paragraphs, each addressing one of the points in the title of this section.

  • “What has been” covers a very very general overview of the history, geography, politics and trade.
  • “What is” deals with society, infrastructure, where things are, more politics, and economics.
  • “What Will Be” is a little trickier – it doesn’t deal with what actually ‘will be’ because the GM doesn’t want to give away the adventure; instead, it deals with how the locals see the future unfolding. What’s the next big social event for them? What’s the next political event expected to be? What’s their overall opinion of the way things are going? And what will the repercussions be of all of these things?

Final Thoughts

In a D&D / Pathfinder game, there are certain iconic races that have to be dealt with as part of the design of the surrounds. Where are the Elves and what are they like? Where are Dwarves to be found? and so on.

There are also “professions” whose status needs to be considered by the GM. Where do Druids hang out? What’s the religious power structure like? Is it one town, one temple, one God – or one town, one temple, many gods – or one town, no temple, and many, many gods? Or something else? Where are Paladins based? Where’s the center of arcane learning?

I try to build these questions into adventures, and in such a way that they form part of the briefing notes and background for those adventures, so that I’m not giving too much away by briefing a player on them.

At the very least, I will write one paragraph on each of the races available for PCs, and one for each of the major NPC races like Orcs and Dragons, and one for each of the Core Classes, and perhaps one each for selected Prestige Classes. Throw in a paragraph each for most of the major Deities and at least one for their major opposition like Devils and Demons. That gives me a set of briefing/reference papers that I can distribute to the players – so I make sure that there’s nothing in their that isn’t common knowledge, and that there are at least a few things in there that are (at best) only partially correct!

As each player informs me what their PC is going to be in race, class, and general background, I will produce additional notes covering what they know beyond this common foundation. I may correct one or two of the errors, and introduce one or two new ones. I want there to be some contradictions between these when players compare notes! I will also keep a GM’s copy of all of this material, with the degree of falsehood indicated by color coding or some similar mechanism.

And Some Final Food For Thought

To leave you with some food for thought: there are usually 7 or 8 PC races. There are usually another 4 or 5 significant races in a campaign world of immediate relevance. There are about 10 core classes and prestige classes that are worth documenting to the players. There’s at least one religion, and at least one society. Devils, Demons, and Dragons come to three more subjects. If you can get one adventure focusing on each of these, that’s 26-28 adventures before you even really get started! But don’t front-load the entire campaign with a travelogue – it will get dull after a while.

If the players respond favorably to say 1/4 of these, and you can get another three adventures out of each of them, that’s another 21 adventures, bringing the tally up towards the 50 mark! That’s a whole lot of adventuring right then and there – and you STILL haven’t really gotten into the adventure plan!

Let’s say you have 25 adventures in your adventure plan on top of those, and you intend to play once a fortnight – that’s 3 years adventuring even if each adventure requires only a single session of play! If you average two game sessions to an adventure, that’s 6 years worth of play! If you average three – and that’s what I consider a more realistic number, minimum – that’s 9 years worth of fortnightly play!! But four is a still more plausible number, giving twelve years of fortnightly play, or six years of weekly play – or 24 years of once-a-month play!!!!

Determine roughly how many adventures you expect to have in a campaign, multiply by the average number of game sessions, and divide by the number of game sessions you expect to play during a year. That’s how long you have, in years, to develop your next campaign… start compiling ideas now (start with anything you’ve rejected from this campaign), and you’ll never be caught short when the time comes!

With a campaign plan, a game setting that’s been carefully sandboxed and scheduled for just-in-time delivery, you might think that you’re ready to start writing your first adventure and phoning potential players. You aren’t. There are still four big steps to go – this gets you just over the half-way mark. It deals with the essentials – now it’s time to think about all those things that aren’t essential per se, but that have to be there to make the whole world believable, and vital, and interesting!

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Ask The GMs: Some Arcane Assembly Required – Pt 4: Cut At The Dotted Line

Ask the gamemasters

I’m in the process of answering a question from GM Roy, who wrote:

“I need some inspiration to create cool names for spell components.

I have 5 [scales of rarity = Mike]:

  • Common (flesh, breath, water, dust)
  • Uncommon (earth from a cemetery, humanoid blood)
  • Rare (head of a Medusa, Minotaur’s horn, black dragon blood)
  • very Rare (Essence of the ghost of a mass murderer, Adamantium armor forged in hell by a celestial), and
  • Unique (The Tear of the ancient God of death, Essence of the Terrasque).

I need a lot of these, Where can I find some?”

Series Logo ATGMs 32 Some Assembly Required

In fact, I rather hope that I have answered it already. I discovered the reasons why GMs should care about Material Components for spells and how to make them practical from a game-play standpoint. In part two, I used the lessons learned to derive a process for generating more entries in each category. In part three I listed five exotic substances that I created using that process, which can also serve as MacGuffins even if you don’t employ arcane components in your campaign. It was supposed to be ten, but through time lost to medical issues, didn’t get them all done in time. This concluding part will deal with the remaining strange materials.


IanG Avatar In writing these articles, I have relied heavily on past discussions regarding D&D/PFRPG with Ian Gray; D&D and the Zenith-3 campaign with Nick Deane; and in general with Graham McDonald, many years ago. Ian’s contributions were a major element of Part 1 of this series, and Nick and Graham (unknowingly at the time) contributed to a number of elements of part 2. I have drawn on inspiration from all three in this part, though these three made indirect contributions. Nick-Avatar


Format Reminder

The following details are provided for each of the exotic substances:

  • Illustration – click on the thumbnail for a larger version that can be reduced to get a high-resolution image for printing.
  • Description – What does it look like? What are its physical properties? What can be added the description that you can’t see in the illustration?
  • Found – If the material exists naturally, this is where you’ll find it. If it doesn’t, this will be blank. There may be multiple potential locations for some of the materials.
  • Created – If the material doesn’t exist naturally, this is where you have to go in order to create it. If it does, this will be blank, unless there is some form of refinement required before the material is actually available that can or must be performed in a location other than the “created” location (ie a two-step process, finding and refining).
  • Qualities – What does the material symbolize? This will be an incomplete list but will give some idea of the sort of spells that the material is suitable for.
  • Process – What do you have to do to get/create it? How is it created – according to best knowledge?
  • Dangers – What are the dangers involved in getting/creating it? What are the dangers (if any) of having it around? What precautions can a character take against these dangers?
  • Rating – The suggested rating on the rarity scale. Subject to revision by the GM, even mid-campaign if the circumstances are right.
  • Comments – Anything else about the material.
  • Other Uses – What else can be done with it? Why else might someone want it?

Permanice Frost Illustration

Permanice Frost

  • Description: Permanice is indistinguishable to the eye from any other ice. And it’s cold to the touch, and made up mostly of water, just like any other ice.
        That’s where the similarities end. Permanice itself would qualify as an exotic material, but is utterly impossible to work with, as explained below. Fortunately, the qualities that make Permanice of interest can be accessed in diluted form through the principle of contagion, by scraping off some of the frost that forms whenever Permanice falls into shadow. This is, therefore, a cold, wet, semi-transparent white powder with slight hints of gray and blue.
  • Found: The Plane Of Water
  • Created: -
  • Qualities: Cold, Water, Strength, Brittleness, Darkness.
  • Process: While nothing needs to be done to create it, collectors of this unusual material need to make special efforts to preserve it, as it is destroyed by sunlight, and subjects anything subjected to its chilly temperatures to extremely cold temperatures. An adamantium flask with metal stopper solves problem number one (any lesser metal becomes too fragile) and multiple layers of fur wrapping from a creature adapted to the cold, bound by leather straps made from a similar creature, solves the second. Note that the furs must be thoroughly treated by an expert to prevent mould forming.
  • Dangers: Permanice is an anomaly within the plane of water, where everything is fluid and shifting (by definition), and as such it is worshiped as divine by some sentient Water Elementals. They will fight to the death to preserve and protect it from violation by “unbelievers” and “solids”. These have to be overcome unless you are lucky enough to find an undiscovered pocket of the material, which happens exceptionally infrequently.
        Part of the reason for this infrequency is that Water Elementals can sense the thermal differences between different currents, and worshipers of the Permanice will follow any distinctly colder thermals in case they lead to an undiscovered pocket of Permanice.
        The task is, however, made easier by the effect of such cold temperatures on the Water Elementals themselves, who behave as though subjected to a “Slow” spell, halving their movement rates and reducing both their ability to attack and react.
        The second difficulty to be overcome is scraping off some of the Permanice Frost. The act of collection must be performed in a completely dark environment; any form of light will destroy what the collector aims to obtain. As noted, only Adamantium is strong enough to use, and it will lose any edge and become useless as a weapon/tool afterwards, needing to be reforged. Furthermore, sufficient cold is conducted by the metal that unprotected hands are subject to extreme frostbite – unless some form of healing is provided within 3 rounds of extracting the Permanice Frost, the hands of the collector will need immediate amputation.
        The act of collection effectively subjects the collector to a Cone Of Cold (12th level caster) per round, which may kill the collector outright; using an adamantium collection tool to obtain the Frost constitutes a second exposure to this effect, also per round. Each layer of fur-lined gloves reduces this combined attack – 1 layer, -1d6, 2 layers -3d6, 3 layers -6d6, 4 layers -10d6, 5 layers -15d6, 6 layers -21d6, 7 layers -27d6, and so on – but each layer after the first reduces the DEX of the collector by 3. Each stage of the collection process (as described below) requires a DC20 DEX check, or it will fail and the entire process may have to be restarted from scratch. Also note that saving throws may prevent half this cold damage at best (GM’s discretion, depending on the justification for the save), because far from trying to dodge a “ray”, you are immersed in, and working in, an environment; the “Cone Of Cold” is simply being used to simulate that environment with as little in the way of additional game mechanics as possible.
        One round to scrape off enough Permanice Frost*, one round to fill the container*, one round to save your hands, one round to stopper the container**, one to wrap the container in furs. Rounds marked with an asterisk subject the collector to a second cold attack as noted previously. The double asterisk indicates that if you can forgo taking action to “save your hands” (by having someone else casting Healing spells on you, for example) no extra attacks take place in the round. That’s eight, possibly nine 12th-level “cone of cold” attacks – if you succeed at every check despite the clumsiness created by the heavy layers of fur.
        “Aha!” think the overly-clever. “There are spells that protect from the elements! I can just use one of those and go without all those heavy layers of fur. Easy!” Alas, no. This cold is far beyond the capacity of such spells. If the GM is feeling generous, he may count this as being “one additional layer of fur with no DEX penalties” – that’s as good as it is going to get.
        Whole expeditions of high-level characters have been lost attempting to obtain Permanice Frost.
  • Rating: Exotic.
  • Comments: Because the focus of attention above has been on obtaining the Frost from Permanice, I skipped lightly over the natural process that creates Permanice in the first place. It is possible that sufficiently well-prepared mages may be able to replicate this process by magic, thereby possibly substituting one difficulty (the Elemental Worshipers) for another (the Permanice Creation) – but remember the notes on Elemental thermal sensitivity! – so I need to now describe that process.
        The Elemental Planes of Heat and Water are generally viewed as antagonistic – heat turns water into steam, water puts out fires.
    Standard D&D Cosmology (Inner Planes)

    This illustrates the traditionally accepted Cosmology of the inner planes (not shown are the Positive and Negative planes), showing the Ethereal and Astral planes as co-existent. Note that the trio of planes running top-left to bottom-right appear to separate the Water and Fire planes. Click on the image for a larger version.

    This is not actually the case; The Plane of Fire warms all planes equally, both inner and outer, and the Plane of Water experiences internal currents and circulation as a result.
        It is implied by the premise of dimensional boundary fluctuations and the presumption that the energy within a plane of existence is constant that there are times when they expand and times when they contract, concentrating their unique properties. Most of the time, this would be a phenomenon observable only in the abstract, so minute that it is noticeable only at the boundary by the shifts and changes within that transition from one reality to another. But no matter how small the variability, there remains a finite chance of exceeding the normal degree of transformation by a considerable margin, and it possible for one of the other planes to interpose itself between the two for a brief time, occluding the flow of heat to the plane of water. The result is a slight contraction of the liquid that “is” the Plane without a corresponding alteration in the boundary.
        If this occurs when the Plane of Water is in an compressing state, the compression simply continues, and – aside from a slight pressure increase – there is no noticeable impact on the Plane. If, however, the Plane is in an expansionist state, it leaves a gap of diminishing pressure around the edge. This low-pressure “wrapper” around the entire plane grows more and more intense until it exceeds the cohesion of the Water that constitutes the plane, which rushes out to fill the near-vacuum. This generates a booming shockwave that can be heard throughout the plane. If it happens suddenly enough, there will be a rebounding effect that will put the exact center of the plane at that precise instant under immense pressure. At the same time, the plane is beginning to freeze up from the lack of heat, a phenomenon that also proceeds from the center out (simply because it’s farthest from the heat source); the plane’s own constituency blocks the heat from getting that far.
        Permanice is an approximately spherical ball of ice of unusual characteristics. When water gets cold enough, it freezes, becoming ice. Ice formed under unusual temperatures and pressures can have unusual properties. And of these unusual ice variants, the most unusual is Permanice. Permanice only forms within a narrow range of pressures, temperatures, and the exact right freezing rate – stronger than steel, unable to melt (if exposed to too much heat it sublimates directly into steam), cold enough that if it ever drifts into a region without strong currents, it freezes the water instantly (once back in the currents, this ice-coating will slowly erode away – that’s how it comes about that there are Permanice deposits out there still to be found, even if it has been centuries since the last Permanice creation period.
  • Other Uses: If Permanice Frost was more easily accessed, it would enable perpetual refrigeration throughout the game world, because while sealed away from light, it remains perpetually very cold and will not melt. As things stand, it is so difficult to obtain that only the very richest, or most powerful mages, are likely to have it.
        In addition, there are many alchemists who believe that the cooling of alchemic ingredients and compounds holds the key to any number of useful reactions, including, perhaps, lead to gold.
        Permanice Frost is an offensive weapon. The Adamantium bottles are as breakable (due to the extreme cold) as any other glass potion bottle. Throw one to the ground or against an armored foe and it will shatter and splash intense cold the equal of one of the “Cones Of Cold” in a 10′ radius, lasting for 12 rounds, losing one dice (highest first) from the damage total rolled per round after the first. If that weren’t enough, the brittleness of the adamantium bottles has any number of people interested in creating a spell of similarity that would transfer the effect to an enemy’s suit of adamantium armor. Of course, an equal number of people are equally interested in making sure this doesn’t happen. Any mage known to be in possession of Permanice Frost will be closely watched, and at the first sign of commencing spell research – on any spell – is liable to come under concerted attack, masterminded by both some very direct and violent people and other very sneaky and subtle people.

Nightmare Spinner illustration

Nightmare Spinner

  • Description: This appears to glossy black spiderweb – though that’s a little like describing Niagara Falls as a small watercourse, or the Himalayas as a group of small hills. Small flecks of “web” an inch or two long at best drift here and there through the Negative Energy Plane until they meet another of their own kind, and bond together. Two then become four, and four eight, through the same process. That’s when strange things begin to happen from time to time (see below). Eventually, the eight become sixteen and then thirty-two, and so on, until a vast net of sticky black webbing drifts through a completely black environment, lurking, waiting for its next victim.
  • Found: Native to the Negative Energy Plane, but occasionally escapes to other planes. Which is a much bigger problem than you might imagine at this point.
  • Created: Don’t even think about it.
  • Qualities: Night, Darkness, Stickiness, Lightness, Evil, Death, Webbing, Spiders.
  • Process: As soon as it is removed from the Negative Energy Plane, Nightmare Spinner ceases to have material substance unless it is wrapped around something, it is in its alternate form (refer below), or it wants to stay with you. That makes it harder to keep than it is to obtain. However, uncorking an empty silver jar or bottle in the Negative Energy Plane and then resealing it seems to trap a small portion of “Negative Space”; put your piece of Nightmare Spinner inside and all will be well – unless it doesn’t want to stay. In which case, you have bigger problems.
  • Dangers: There is a type of malevolent spirit that is native to the Negative Energy Plane and lusts greedily for life and freedom from the realm it inhabits, because that native environment confines and restricts it, preventing it from indulging its thirst for destruction and evil. However, they are an insubstantial phantasm most of the time, incapable of doing more than imparting nightmares and bad dreams to the occasional passerby when the boundaries between planes weaken a little, such as at night.
        There is only one way for these malevolent spirits, sometimes referred to as Dreameaters, and sometimes as Antihopes, to exert their full capacities for evil, and that is by possessing a sufficiently large mass of Nightmare Spinner. The black cobwebs themselves animate into a physical semblance of a spider under the control of a Dreameater. Any sufficiently large mass of Nightmare Spinner can be inhabited by a Dreameater regardless of the plane of existence the Nightmare Spinner happens to occupy.
        Dreameaters, when possessing Nightmare Spinner, are incredibly resilient because the “physical form” remains in the Negative Energy Plane, mostly removed from harm’s way, while their “bodies” consist of insubstantial nothingness that radiates a form of Negative Energy that destroys hopes and aspirations, replacing them with hopelessness, depression, and the vague sense that someone else is responsible. Further, their touch is life-sapping (1 negative level); being wrapped in Nightmare Spinner is the equivalent, in terms of effects on the victim, of being within the Negative Energy Plane.
        While Nightmare Spinners are so inhabited, they have a limited capacity to spin more Nightmare Spinner on their own, but each energy Level that they consume enables them to spin enough Nightmare Spinner for another Dreameater to occupy. One becomes two, two become four, four become eight… Any level so converted (which takes three rounds per level) is permanently lost, consumed by the Nightmare Spinner.
        Nevertheless, only a small fraction of Nightmare Spinner ever escapes from its native realm, usually attached to the clothes of travelers as an unnoticed passenger. As soon as it leaves its native plane of existence, it becomes insubstantial and begins to drift through whatever Plane the traveler has journeyed to, seeking to bond with more of its kind, until finally enough is present to create a “host” for a Dreameater. Since there is so much less of the substance within the plane in question, this is relatively unlikely to occur. The greater the frequency of travel to the Negative Plane, the greater the risk of Dreameater infestation.
        Even without consuming character levels, Nightmare Spinner will slowly grow of its own accord, feeding on the nightmares and depression that it imparts upon vulnerable minds. A growth rate of 1 inch per year is normal; in a heavily-populated urban environment, this might rise to as much as 1″ per month, but the likelihood of detection is much greater.
        Dreameaters are not unintelligent, and are not only capable of coordinated tactics without communications that are perceptible outside of the Negative Plane, they are capable of reaching accords with potential victims when this furthers the Dreameater’s objectives. They are quite prepared to bide their time until the right opportunity presents itself. It is sometimes speculated that all Dreameaters are in fact part of a larger sentience of still greater malevolence. They even have the capacity to selectively spare individuals from the emotional impact that they radiate.
        Possession of Nightmare Spinner is usually considered a hostile act by many beings, including the avatars and servants of Deities, who can sense its presence whenever it is host to a Dreameater. All attempts to imbue lesser servants of same with this sense, or with a spell that replicates this awareness, have failed miserably. The reasons for this failure have so far eluded understanding.
    The smaller the quantity of Nightmare Spinner, the smaller the “Spider”:

    • 8-16″ length = v. small = 9-12HD + size modifiers.
    • 16-64″ length= small = 13-16HD + size modifiers.
    • 64-250″ length = medium = 17-20HD.
    • 250-1000″ = large = 21-24HD + size modifiers.
    • 1k-4k = huge = 25-28HD + size modifiers.
    • 4k-8k = gargantuan = 29-32HD + size modifiers.
    • 8k+ = colossal = 33-44HD, +size modifiers.

        Note however that sizes greater than small are rare, and greater lengths have a tendency to become a greater number of small “Spiders” rather than one larger creature. Negative Levels per round and other properties increase with each size step. It takes Nightmare Spinner of one size smaller to fully wrap around a humanoid of any given size – so a “Small” Nightmare Spinner is just enough to wrap itself around a medium humanoid to create the pseudo-“Negative Plane” effect.
        Fortunately, a sufficient concentration of positive energy will destroy Nightmare Spinner, as will enough physical damage. Healing spells inflict double-effect in damage to it. This is just enough to keep it in check and preventing it from overrunning every other plane of existence.

  • Rating: Exotic, for rarity outside the Negative Energy Plane and Danger if found and removed from that plane.
  • Comments: This stuff is scary, intentionally so. GMs may wish to tone it down. There are three easy ways of doing so:
    • Enabling clerics to learn the “Detect” spell implied above.
    • Halving the number of HD.
    • The observant will note that I have very carefully not stated how common the material is, even within the Negative Energy Plane; though there are several indications that it is “relatively” common, i.e. Uncommonly encountered, this could easily be reduced to “rare”.
  • Other Uses: Necromancers, high-level undead, and the like, love Nightmare Spinner because it provides a permanent conduit for Negative Energy which they can employ to cancel out or reduce the penalty for applying metamagics to their spells, adds an extra dice of damage to any supernatural attack by them provided they are harmed by positive energy, and gives them 1d6/round of regeneration (same proviso), Per segment length of Nightmare Spinner (i.e. 1-2″ = x1, 4″=x2, and so on, to a maximum of x5). If the Nightmare Spinner is of sufficient quantity to be possessed by a Dreameater, these “gifts” are within the ability to grant or refuse of the possessing spirit, but this is all or nothing.
        It is rumored that Drow have a means to render Nightmare Spinner solid, enabling it to be woven like any other spider-silk, and will often incorporate it into “gifts” of clothing, pillows, and the like, especially as compensation for failed hostile actions against the surface. Hence the popular saying, “Beware the Drow that surrenders” – if it did not further their agenda, such fanatics (it is believed) would fight on unto the death. Others view such acts of “recompense” as a way of salvaging face, and future advantage, from what would otherwise be a failed campaign against the surface.

Oil of Cholic Illustration

Oil Of Cholic

  • Description: This appears to be an aromatic bright blue oil that darkens toward black as it gets thinner. Its surface shimmers with all colors of the rainbow when illuminated, and if the light source is held motionless, the patches of rainbow coloring will shift and migrate internally. A faint glow may also be noticeable. It has a very high internal cohesion – cut or divide it, and it will flow back together rather than forming separate pools. The odor is similar to that of a Rose, but is known to have side-effects that make this inadvisable in most cases.
  • Found: Plane Of Earth.
  • Created: Must be refined before use, refer below.
  • Qualities: Anger, Slipperiness, Heat, Love, Passion, Escape, Resistance to Planar Movement
  • Process: Oil Of Cholic occurs as a thick sludge in isolated pockets within the Plane of Earth. Before it can be used, it must be purified of impurities. While it is well known that filtering the sludge through a filter of charcoal after heating it to the point where it almost bubbles is the first step in processing the material, and that there are four steps to the refinement process in total, the other steps are not common knowledge even amongst expert alchemists.
  • Dangers: Oil of Cholic has been known to induce fits of homicidal rage (Will Save vs DC 10, +1 to DC per teaspoon of oil). These effects last for d6+4 hours. Contact with the skin increases the dangers (Save DC required doubles). At body temperatures, Oil Of Cholic is almost as slippery as Oil Of Slipperiness, and is able to slowly escape any container, no matter how well sealed. It resists absorption by cotton or rags of any sort.
        Earth Elementals are particularly sensitive to the odor of Oil Of Cholic, being able to smell it through a sealed container from 500′ away. It functions as alcohol to them, inducing drunken behavior and loss of inhibitions. The larger the Elemental, the less resistance to this effect.
        It does not need to be ingested to have its intoxicating effects on such elementals, contact is sufficient. While on the Plane Of Earth, any Elemental within 100′ will be aware of the Oil, even in its raw, unprocessed form, and will fight to the death to posses it; this makes it extremely dangerous to retrieve.
        It is nevertheless a popularly-smuggled substance by cross-planar smugglers even though it is illegal everywhere (refer Other Uses) because it is quite valuable in the right markets.
  • Rating: Exotic.
  • Comments: -
  • Other Uses: Swallowing a teaspoon’s worth of Oil Of Cholic guarantees the homicidal anger described above, with a chance of lasting insanity. But it also adds 2d6 STR to the imbiber for 1d6 rounds, in the course of which the imbiber will self-inflict damage each round through muscle sprains and tears – 1d6 in the first round, 2d6 in the second, 3d6 in the third, 4d6 in the fourth, 6d6 in the fifth, and 10d6 in the sixth and final round. The base DC for the check against permanent insanity is 10 plus the strength gain rolled. It takes 6 weeks to recover fully from such effects even with the aid of a healing spell that repairs all the physical damage; each dose previously imbibed within that time-span adds 2d6 to each of these self-harm rolls and 4 to the DC check against lasting insanity.
        Used in conjunction with a contained release for the anger, Oil Of Cholic is highly cathartic, and wealthy individuals have been known to employ it as a drug for that benefit.
        The Oil is highly-prized for the lubrication of complex mechanical devices and is safe to so use provided that the proper precautions are taken (especially keeping it a long way away from Earth Elementals). This is because it resists dripping, continually coating and lubricating the moving parts, unlike most other lubricants which need periodic replenishment.
        Barbarians and others who can Rage are immune to the homicidal anger effect, and mix the oil with bright pigments to form a war-paint, which must be used within 24 hours of mixing/application. (Some suggest that there was once an analogous substance on the Prime Material Plane which is the origin of the warpaint practice). This mixture is sometimes known as Rouge Of Cholic (even though it’s not necessarily red in color). At will, the Barbarian so marked can activate the Oil’s Strength bonus, which also extends his ability to Rage by a number of rounds equal to the added Strength, and extends that additional strength for the duration of the Rage. The price to be paid for doing so is even more severe, however; when the Rage ends, the Barbarian’s STR and CON are reduced by the amount by which the STR was temporarily increased, and the self-harm rolls continue for longer: after 10d6, the total increases 2d6 per round. Furthermore, this “enhanced Rage” cannot be ended early, it must continue until the maximum duration is reached, unless the Barbarian dies in the meantime. The temporary stat loss is restored at the rate of 1 point every 2 hours, alternating between STR and CON. This recovery cannot be hastened by any magic or healing drought short of a Miracle or Wish. Such a Rage consumes the oil in the warpaint; to employ the effect again, it must be reapplied (and note that the re-use penalties still apply if it is reapplied within a six-week time period).
        These effects make the oil especially valuable to any military command which does not mind throwing lives away to achieve its goals. And that is why it is illegal, and highly lucrative for those willing to smuggle it.
        Such individuals rarely accept potential rival distributors and aren’t the type to take chances on good intentions, so possession of Oil Of Cholic is likely to attract the wrong sort of attention even if law-enforcement don’t discover its presence. In general, Oil Of Cholic is difficult and dangerous to obtain, and far more dangerous to keep in your possession.
Razorleaf Illustration

Based on “Ilex aquifolium fluy 80 05052007 3″ by Olivier Pichard, Licensed under Creative Commons BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons


  • Description: Razorleaf is one of the most exotic plant species ever to exist. Also known as the Janus Plant as the Yin-Yang, it features pure white flowers with a green center, bright red berries, and leaves that are white on the outside becoming black and purple towards the stem. The veins of the plant are bright white in color when the plant is mature. The leaves feature sharp spinal points and the stem is covered in thorns.
  • Found: Razorleaf exists in both the positive and energy planes simultaneously, bridging the divide between these two mutually-contradictory states of nature. It can only be removed if retrieved from both planes simultaneously. It is not possible to harvest just the leaves, or the berries, or the flowers, or the stems; all four elements must be removed intact from a single plant in order for the plant not to wither away within 24 hours.
  • Created: -
  • Qualities: Life, Growth, Sharpness, Duality, Death, Purification, Poison, Resistance To Poison, Balance.
  • Process: -
  • Dangers: There are those who believe that the plant binds the two planes together, preventing them from flying apart out of mutual revulsion or annihilation, and making possible the Prime Material Plane. Usually high-level Monks and Druids, with support from philosophically-inclined individuals of other class, the Keepers Of The Balance build great fortresses in both Positive and Negative planes to guard the plants zealously whenever they are discovered. Lawfully-aligned creatures of both Good and Evil co-operate in this endeavor, even if they can agree on very little else. Should someone penetrate these fortresses and steal a piece of the plant, both members of the Keepers Of The Balance (direct action) and hired assassins (indirect action) will be undertaken to recover it. A sub-order of this group believe that the plants are natural purifiers, maintaining the integrity of both positive and energy planes despite the occasional leakage between the two.
        Razorleaf is also inherently dangerous. The leaves are razor sharp and equivalent to a +2 Axiomatic Dagger per spine. Attempting to harvest the plant inflicts an attack by these “weapons” (2 per leaf, 3-5 leaves per plant segment), each with the same attack bonus as the creature attempting the harvest. Should three of these successfully hit the target, he will also suffer a Negative Level which cannot be restored so long as the plant segment exists. Note that the plant segment can be wielded as a weapon, but this will break the delicate bonds between stems and leaves, starting the 24-hour countdown to plant worthlessness. A more cautious attack using the plant (no extra attacks, only the primary) can restrict the damage to one leaf; provided that at least three leaves survive unused afterwards, the plant as a whole will survive this usage.
        The Thorns are poisonous to the touch, causing 1-3 rounds of Confusion, 7-12 days of Blindness, and 2d6 damage per day, cumulative, for the duration of the Blindness. Note that while the Blindness can be Cured, the damage will continue to accumulate and cannot be healed by any spell until the plant is destroyed. Rumor holds that anyone killed by the barbs of the thorns will have a new Razorleaf vine grow from their heart. For this reason, the bodies if those killed by Razorleaf are assiduously collected by the Keepers Of The Balance.
        The flowers bloom once every six months, approximately, releasing a burst of seed pollen. When this pollen falls upon a living body, they are absorbed into the skin and make their way through the blood to both heart and brain, causing both heart attacks and strokes. When the body dies, the spirit component that is normally taken to the afterlife is sucked into the Negative Energy Plane instead, while the Physical remains are drawn into the realm of Positive Energy simultaneously. The body is semi-reanimated by the environment of the Positive Plane, re-establishing the connection between body and spirit, and forming a “bed” from which a new Razorleaf will grow.
        The berries are explosive reservoirs of positive energy, including any life force extracted by the leaves. Should one be crushed, accidentally or deliberately, they will inflict 6d6 explosive damage on any creature within a 60′ radius (no save) followed by 12d6 of healing effect within a 30′ radius on anything that survived the explosion. The initial explosion will also trigger the explosive properties of any other berries on this particular length of stem (3-5 of them in total), each of which will have a like effect. These explosions will also release a blast of the Seed Pollen from the flowers, and begin the countdown to the death of the original plant. It is relatively easy to do this, as the berries are quite fragile (DC 15 DEX check to avoid crushing one each time the plant is handled).
        Finally, the plant’s cuttings are very popular with the wealthy and politically-powerful for the many positive properties they possess (see “other uses” below). Some will obtain cuttings unscrupulously or with violence if no other solution presents itself.
  • Rating: Exotic.
  • Comments: -
  • Other Uses: Despite it’s strange nature and inherent danger, Razorleaf remains a plant with many uses. Druids who are not members of the Keepers Of The Balance like it because they can plant it in the heart of a hedge of holly surrounding a garden or private location and the Holly leaves will become less powerful (+1 not +2) versions of the leaves, enhancing the protection they can provide to the interiors. It is also inordinately useful in that such Holly Barriers can survive and thrive in any climate, drawing on the positive energy exuded by the flowers of the Razorleaf.
        Carefully stripped of its thorns and other accouterments, the stalk of the Razorleaf is capable of removing curses when eaten, while the sap when swallowed without eating the stem will cure most known poisons.
        Each petal of a flower is equivalent to a 5d6 Healing Potion, while a whole flower is the equivalent of a Heal, and provides sufficient nourishment for 24 hours. If baked into a cake using Elven techniques, this nourishment property can be extended to 48 hours provided that the effect is not diluted with other foodstuffs; it is best to fast first.
        The berries have the explosive-healing capabilities already mentioned, which can be a significant advantage when dealing with wounded foes or enemies in combat, especially undead. “Nibble the flowers before tossing the Berries” is a common folk saying that is bad advice when dealing with most other plants – so it is possible that Razorleaf was far more common on the prime material plane at one point.
        The Pollen, if collected by bees and transformed into Honey, provides an effective barrier against poison when eaten prior to a meal, though none know exactly how effective of for how long it lasts.
        There are those who suggest that cuts made using the leaves are often cleaner and less prone to infection and scarring than those made using other implements, enabling limbs to be saved that would otherwise be lost to gangrene and frostbite.
        Finally, it is rumored that both positive and negative plane inhabitants can use the plant as a doorway into other realms when the plant is removed, and will bring good luck to those who own the plants they use as passage, either by steering “misfortune” away from them and onto others (the Evil version), or by minor acts of charity, goodwill, and kindness (the Good version). These rumors have not been verified.


Sometimes, creativity doesn’t know when to stop! I have an eleventh material illustrated but beyond the name and a vague connection to Chaos in the back of my head, no clues as to what it is and where it might be found, etc. I only came up with Razorleaf because I was struggling with this particular idea, that simply wouldn’t cooperate!

So here, as a bonus for you creative GMs out there, is that unfinished idea, ready to become your own!

Mists Of Confusion Illustration

Mists Of Confusion

  • Description: A ball of gas circled continuously by a moving beam of light.
  • Found: ?
  • Created: ?
  • Qualities: Chaos.
  • Process: ?
  • Dangers: ?
  • Rating: Exotic.
  • Comments: -
  • Other Uses: ?

Factory Assembly Complete

There were times when I doubted whether or not I would make deadline with this article, but in the end I got there with hours to spare! This brings to an end this series. I may or may not have changed people’s minds about Material Components, but even if not, it is reasonable to hope that the third and fourth parts will serve to enrich game worlds and GMs evil imaginations for many years to come! So it’s over to you, the readers…

About the contributors:

Mike is the owner, editor, and principle author at Campaign Mastery, responsible for most of the words of wisdom (or lack thereof) that you can read here. You can find him on Twitter as gamewriterMike, and find out more about him from the “About” page above.

IanG Avatar
Ian Gray:
Ian Gray resides in Sydney Australia. He has been roleplaying for more than 25 years, usually on a weekly basis, and often in Mike Bourke’s campaigns. From time to time he GMs but is that rarest of breeds, a person who can GM but is a player at heart. He has played many systems over the years including Tales Of The Floating Vagabond, Legend Of The Five Rings, Star Wars, D&D, Hero System, Gurps, Traveller, Werewolf, Vampire, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, and many, many more. Over the last couple of years he has been dirtying his hands with game design. He was a contributor to Assassin’s Amulet, the first time his name appeared in the credits of a real, live, RPG supplement. Recently he has taken to GMing more frequently, with more initial success than he was probably expecting, based on his prior experiences.

Nick Deane:
Nick also lives in Sydney. He started roleplaying in the mid-1980s in high school with a couple of friends who got him into D&D. That group broke up a year later, but he was hooked. In late ’88 he found a few shops that specialized in RPGs, and a notice board advertising groups of gamers led him to his first long-term group. They started with AD&D, transferred that campaign to 2nd Ed when it came out, tinkered with various Palladium roleplaying games (Heroes Unlimited met Nick’s long-term fascination with Marvel’s X-Men, sparking his initial interest in superhero roleplaying), and eventually the Star Wars RPG by West End Games and Marvel Super Heroes Advanced Set. This also led to his first experiences with GMing – the less said about that first AD&D 2nd Ed campaign, the better (“so much railroading I should have sold tickets”). His second time around, things went better, and his Marvel campaign turned out “halfway decent”. That group broke up in 1995 when a number of members moved interstate. Three years later, Nick heard about what is now his regular group while at a science-fiction bookstore. He showed up at one of their regular gaming Saturdays, asked around and found himself signed up for an AD&D campaign due to start the next week. A couple of weeks later, He met Mike, and hasn’t looked back since. From ’98 he’s been a regular player in most of Mike’s campaigns. There’s also been some Traveller and the Adventurer’s Club (Pulp) campaign, amongst others. Lately he’s been dipping a tentative toe back into the GMing pool, and so far things have been going well.

Nick is unique amongst the GMs that Mike knows in that he has done some PbP (Play-by-post) gaming, something Mike neglected to include in an article on the evolution of RPGs and was quite rightly taken to task over (the article was updated within 24 hours to correct the omission).

“I’ve played spellcasters in a number of games and systems. In Mike’s original Fumanor campaign I played a cleric-monk hybrid and later a druid, while in the spin-off, Seeds of Empire, I have run a lawful good Orcish War-priest throughout the campaign. I’ve also played spellcasters in a couple of superhero games – a couple of Marvel campaigns from 1988-1995, and my modern-Norse spellcaster Runeweaver in Mike’s current Zenith-3 campaign for getting on for a decade. I mention this at Mike’s request because it, more than my GMing experience, is how I have been able to contribute to this topic.”

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New Beginnings: Phase 4: Development


The symbolism should now be getting clearer.

There are times when we all have to make a fresh start. This series examines the process in detail.

So you’ve got some general ideas, and you’ve vetted the legacies of the past to see what to keep and what to throw away (with a few ‘wait and see’ items that will only stay if the fit the new campaign after it is developed, you’ve recharged your batteries and your enthusiasm as necessary, and then eased into the campaign development process…

The ingredients at hand

As a reminder, from the work done in previous parts of this series, you have at your disposal a number of campaign ingredients to use in creating the new campaign.

Specifically, you have:

  1. A whole bunch of vague ideas from Phase 1: Inspiration
  2. A list of things that you want to keep from past campaigns, including campaign elements, from the Baggage Dump phase;
  3. Another list of things that you definitely don’t want to do, either because they didn’t work or would make the new campaign too much like the last, also from the Baggage Dump Phase;
  4. A third list of undecided elements, also from the Baggage Dump Phase;
  5. The main theme that you will be building the new campaign around;
  6. Three Moods that you want the new campaign to touch on regularly;
  7. Three surprises that you want to incorporate into the new campaign;
  8. Three Things The PCs will hate but the players will love;
  9. Three Things that the Players will want to do, especially slanted towards the early part of the campaign; and,
  10. An overall structure for your adventures or game sessions.

Between them, these items account for about 25% of the Campaign Design – and it’s already done! What happens next is a series of steps that connect this disparate stack into a campaign, combining and cross-linking campaign elements into a cohesive whole.

Plot before Setting

I’m a great believer in having your overall plotlines and concepts in place and then creating a setting in which they can take place, instead of the other way around. The need to place interesting plotlines in front of the players takes absolute precedence over everything else. Whether they choose to investigate and involve themselves in these plotlines is up to them, though in some campaigns the genre can dictate that they will take just about every piece of bait offered to them.

Any sort of law-enforcement or crime-fighting aspect to the campaign, for example. It doesn’t matter whether the campaign is Superheros or Pulp or Secret Agents or if the PCs are all to be members of the Fantasy City’s night watch or simply stopping the Netherworld Creepies from invading – ignoring a plotline, any plotline, in these genres is ultimately self-defeating; you have to deal with the menace that the GM puts before you. Strongly-Militaristic campaigns can also fall into this category. These are essentially “Reactive” campaigns, where the NPCs controlled by the GM are the driving forces, instigating plotlines, making mistakes, and so on, and the PCs React to these evolving circumstances, dealing with the menace of the week. In these campaigns, the number-one priority is avoiding the Plot Train.

The alternative type of campaign could be given a number of titles. You could label them “Passive” because the GM doesn’t instigate the plotlines, only a series of evolving circumstances that the Players choose whether or not to involve themselves in. You could label them “Active” because the plotlines are essentially generated by Player Choice, and if they don’t choose to get involved in anything, the whole campaign can grind to a halt. You could label them “Rudderless” because the GM has limited options in choosing the direction the plots will evolve in. Plot trains are not the major problem with this type of campaign, Unity is; it is very easy for each PC to go off in his own little direction. The best approach to this type of campaign is to infuse a Reactive “backbone” that doesn’t dominate the campaign but which keeps the PCs together, providing that unity. This can be as simple as an enemy strong enough to destroy them singly, but against whom they have a fighting chance if they stick together, or it can be as complex as each having a goal that can only be achieved with the help of one or more of the others. Lots of Fantasy and some Sci-Fi falls into this category. Cyberpunk is split about 50/50.

Some campaigns wander from one side of the street to another, with no grand plot but lots of little plots. The best campaigns are usually Fusions of these two styles. It doesn’t matter which style dominates such a fusion, if either does; the presence of some element of the alternative gives a freedom to both players and GMs that helps avoid the worst problems of both.

Setting-based plotlines

Of course, some plotlines will be inspired by the setting that is eventually developed (in Phase 5); that’s fine. Your entire campaign plan might get tossed aside in the course of your first session of play. The plots that you generate in this phase, and integrate into a campaign plan, are a tool, nothing more. The genre-related patterns described above still apply.

I see a Campaign as a stage for the gestalt of players-and-GM to tell the story of the lives of the principle characters – that is, the PCs and one or more major NPCs. The GM’s job is to provide the foundations and setting, to keep the players happy and participating, to keep the story interesting and entertaining, and to ensure that everyone gets his or her share of the spotlight. He also serves as a referee, managing the Rules vs Players, Players vs Players, and Players vs NPCs interfaces. It’s not the GMs job to create the story, just to create the circumstances that enable the players to create the story in collaboration with the GM.

All this results in a development loop – Campaign to Plots to Setting to More Plots to Campaign, repeat.

I am discussing this now so that readers can have a clear understanding of the design objectives in this phase; this article is all about campaign to plots. Next time, we do setting to more plots to campaign, which might seem like the bigger task; in reality, many of the techniques will be the same as those described in today’s article, so the split might well be the other way around.

Basic Research

What do you need to know more about? There should always be something, and most of the time, there should be many things. Some of these will derive from the indeterminate items on the baggage dump list, but most will derive from the inspiration phase. Don’t interrupt the campaign prep with actual research at this point; what you want to begin with is simply a list of subjects to research. This should include “[x] in writing” and “creating [x]” where “[x]” are the three moods. Basic research will be an ongoing task; this is just the beginning. In each subsequent step, more subjects are likely to suggest themselves; simply add them to the list.

Why not do the research now, or as you go? Because so far you don’t have a context in which to view the results. You can only tentatively identify what might be relevant in a general way at this point, you can’t extract the actually-relevant from the noise of irrelevance that will surround any topic.

Theme Development

Campaign development begins by expanding on the theme by generating a list of as many ways as you can think of applying it. Search for phrases relating to the theme, list as many different types of group or individual that could be affected by the theme and all the shapes that this theme could have, free associate around the theme, look into anything that is considered symbolic of the theme, and so on. Don’t neglect to list the conditions and situations that can lead to the theme, and the many different forms that the aftermath of experiencing the theme could take. In essence: brainstorm, with internet support, the theme, and list the results for later reference.

The Sets Of Threes

Once you have the theme-related list, go through each item and look for associations and/or connections to each item in your “sets of threes” – the three moods, three surprises, etc. Add these theme-related notes to your notes on the item in the lists of threes. Don’t stop at one, you want as many as possible to provide later flexibility.

Still More Ideas

The next step is to generate even more ideas. This part of the process comes in two parts; ideally they should be conducted separately, but the fact is that as you work on one, you will get ideas about the other, so the actual processing is not so clear-cut.

Reinterpret the list of discards

The first of the two is to go through everything that you decided to discard and reinterpret those findings into something constructive, rather than retaining their current (negative) form.

Possible Alternatives

For each item, think for a moment about possible alternatives to “what you don’t want”. If the idea is inherently interesting, list it on some scratch paper under a title that reflects the “Replace this” entry. If the idea is not inherently interesting, keep thinking. This is where the long list of resources that I named earlier begins to have value, as does the research that you have done; these are all sources of ideas, so if you find yourself getting stuck, don’t stare at an empty list, skim through the collected resources looking for inspiration.

That’s a fundamental element with this entire process that I will try not to repeat again and again – every time you proceed with a step, you add to the collected resources relating to the new campaign, and every time you need inspiration, go back to the continually-expanding list of resources. We do this sort of thing in the back of our minds all the time, anyway; this simply formalizes the process so that we are not hampered by uncooperative memories.

Don’t list every possibility, either; pick the two-to-four that are most interesting and move on to the sub-step below, which is concerned with selection of the best of those interesting alternatives.

Links to theme

Of the 2-to-4 options available, which has, or can have, the strongest connection to the theme in one or more of the many possible aspects that you listed earlier? Rank it #1. Which has the second-strongest connection to the theme? Rank it #2, and so on. This should take only a few seconds, depending on how long it’s been since you generated that list of theme permutations; ideally, you would get to this point, and beyond, in a single sitting, but that might not always be possible.

Links to the sets of threes

Next, get out your lists of threes. Which of the alternatives has connections to one or more of these? Are some links more of a stretch than others? Which has the greatest number of connections to items on the lists of threes? These are rather more subjective, but that’s OK; these won’t be the only subjective decisions that you make. Rate the best-connected alternative as #1, the next best as #2, and so on.

Then add the two ratings together. The lowest total (and you may get a tie) is the preferred replacement for whatever you are getting rid of, the next lowest is the #2 choice, and so on.

Work your way through the entire list of Rejected carry-overs in this fashion. It should only take a few seconds per rejected item. Some items may have no relevance to any of these resources, for example changing a rule, or dumping a house rule that has proven more trouble than it is worth. In that case, don’t bother listing alternatives, you aren’t up to that stage yet – ignore it and move on. The same is true of anything relating to the campaign setting. All told, 1/3 to 1/2 of the items on your rejected list will not be relevant to this stage of campaign development, speeding the process considerably.

Reinterpret the list of undecided items

This entire process is designed to be one of gathering momentum, in which each step builds on what’s already been done to the greatest possible extent. I’m varying from that maxim only when I absolutely have to. Using your theme as a core, you’ve started sending out feelers in various directions, connecting various bits and pieces into the beginnings of what will become your new campaign.

This sub-step continues that process. On paper, it’s quite straightforward; in practice, it will be a bit messier, and so this is not the end of this particular process; like research, there will be more to do as development proceeds.

Right now, you have a list of deferred decisions, but they aren’t phrased in a way that leads naturally to making decisions; the form itself is getting in the way because it has to be interpreted into a suitable structure every time the subject comes up for consideration. Each of your “undecided” items from the baggage dump needs to be rephrased into one or more key, decisive questions, and the fewer there are of these, the better. That means defining the alternatives and highlighting the relevant differences in as few leading questions as possible.

For example, you might be undecided about the base of operations opportunities that you are going to provide for the PCs. You have three choices: A mobile operation (no base of operations), a stronghold, and a city. We need some context to make the example complete; let’s assume that your last campaign started off in a city and got bogged down with the sheer variety of options open to the PCs before they knew the game world that well, and that’s the problem that you want to avoid this time around.

The way I would analyze this problem is as follows:

  • The big difference between the city choice and the other two options is the breadth of social interaction that is possible. A city brings everything into one space, and that is both its benefit and the vulnerability to which the last campaign fell victim. Both a stronghold and mobile base of operations take a lot of that variety off the table, giving the players a chance to grow acquainted with key game-world concepts (whatever they might be, that hasn’t been decided yet, and won’t be until Phase 5) before they have to deal with the relatively unlimited opportunities presented by a city.
  • The big differences between the mobile option and the stronghold option are (1) static vs dynamic environments, and (2) defense vs exploration. With a stronghold, the PCs are relatively fixed in place, and there is a heavy emphasis on the military situation that led to the construction of that stronghold in the first place. The threat that resulted in that construction might still be valid or it may have faded long ago. It also has the advantage of further simplifying the perspective on the game world that the players have to initially absorb. The downside is that it restricts opportunities for discovery by virtue of that static location. Finally, there is the Chekhov’s Gun argument – if you start your campaign inside a defensive structure, you want that structure to come under threat in some fashion.
  • Compare that with the mobile beginning. It gives access to a range of environments, from small towns to wilderness in various terrain forms; traveling companions furnish a restricted but illuminating range of social interactions, if well-chosen, and these can be used to provide initial briefings to the players in the form of campfire chats, exchanges along the trail, etc. It has most of the virtues of the city beginning without the liabilities.
  • Rephrasing these options into simple questions is now relatively straightforward:
    • 1. Is the social openness of an urban environment critical to player understanding of the world? (Yes = City, No = Not-City).
    • 2. If Not-City: Are defensive/military considerations critical to the overall campaign, or even just the early parts of it? (Yes = Fortified Structure eg Stronghold, No = mobile base of operations, at least initially).

Two simple, straightforward questions with profound implications for the campaign.

(It’s worth noting that I employed the “Mobile Beginning” option quite successfully in the initial Fumanor campaign, giving the PCs a slightly cynical very world-wise introduction to the game world through the garrulous remembrances and unwanted advice of “Old Carl”, the guard on the “wagon” the PCs were traveling in. He gave them just enough information – colored by his opinions and prejudices – to give them a solid foundation to build understanding on when they reached the city, and then got killed in what would eventually be revealed as the first hints of one of the main plotlines, a growing Orcish threat to the entire Kingdom instigated by Dark Elves, who in turn were pawns in an even deeper plot to resurrect their dead “Goddess” Lolth and make her a true Goddess at the same time. Only the inner circle “knew” that she was even dead, they had been using trickery to disguise the true situation for a century. The death of “Old Carl” from an Orcish Arrow was the tip of a very large iceberg!)

Questions Answered

Given the work that has already been done prior to reaching this point, it would not be at all unsurprising if the reformulation of an undecided point into one or more questions didn’t make the decision self-evident in some cases. Knowing the theme and all the ways that it can express itself, can interact with characters in the course of the campaign, you should be able to rule on the example offered above pretty much right away. You will already know how critical putting the PCs into a completely open social mixture is, and will also have a fair idea as to how central militaristic aspects of the game world will be to the theme. Simply formulating the decision as one or more questions will enable you to answer a lot of them right away.

Each one that you answer will add to your list of ideas and campaign elements, may add to your list of research items, and will reduce the unknowns in your campaign plans.

Furthermore, there is a domino effect: answering one question will function to reduce the options open in others, further narrowing the focus onto the campaign as it will eventually be. For that reason, the final step after completing the translation of unknowns into answered and unanswered questions is to go back over the list, looking for other questions that you couldn’t answer at the time, but can answer now.

Questions to be answered

What you are left with is a series of questions to be answered. The solutions to those questions come from three sources: Research, Campaign Planning, and Personal Preference when all else is equal. So the next step is to add anything needed to answer those questions to your list of subjects to research, if they aren’t already.

At the same time, you can take the opportunity to make campaign development easier further down the track. Number these still-unanswered questions (Q1, Q2, and so on) and then cross-reference each question with entries on the list of research subjects with the questions that you expect the research to have a bearing on. Nothing fancy, just something like:

     R3: Mongolian Society c. 1600s AD – Q5, 8, 23

will do the job just fine. What this is telling you is that after you research Mongolian Society (the third subject on your list), you expect to be able to make progress on questions 5, 8, and 23, and so should re-examine those questions before and after the research.

Does it seem like “Mongolian Society” is an unusually specific term to be on a research list? It isn’t. The reasoning might have gone something like this: “Goblin Hordes to resemble Mongol Hordes. Therefore Goblin Society to be based on Mongol Society contemporary with the Hordes.” Simple, yes? The key idea is connecting Goblins and historic Mongols, instead of using a rather-contaminated view of Germanic Barbarian Societies the way most D&D does for Orcs and Goblins. And if you retain the traditional view of Orcs, or even use a different idea again, you would end up with very interesting dynamics and relations between the two populations :)


The subject has segued nicely into the topic of research once again, which is timely, because that’s the next step.

One technique that I’ve had to learn the hard way is to properly breadcrumb where my research takes me, and I had better explain that before any actual study begins.

Studying one website inevitably in most cases leads to another. These days, I always create a folder within my bookmarks for the research (called “[campaign] research”, naturally enough). Every web site that I visit in the name of research for that campaign gets bookmarked before I start reading. I then rename the website bookmark to insert a number at the start of it – the first site is 001, the second is 002, and so on. Most browsers either show these in alphabetical order or in order they were added; the renaming not only provides an abbreviated reference number, it ensures that they are presented in order.

After each research topic on my list, I note the websites that were relevant to that subject by number, and – If I notice relevance to another of my topics – I list the website there, too. This makes it much easier to refer back to a site, and to build up pages to be read as relevant to one of your research topics. When my research is complete, I export the list as a HTML page or use a bookmark aggregator to turn them into one.

The purpose isn’t just to gather information for now, it’s to index and cross-reference information for use months or years later. Right now, you only want to do enough research to know where to find the information that you need when you need it, and to give you the information that you need, Right Now. Think of this as “campaign design sandboxing”.

It divides information into three levels: Vague Information, Broad Overviews, and Specific Inputs. Vague information contains just what you need to paint the “big picture” in your head, and to find Broad Overviews when you need it. Broad Overviews are more comprehensive, enabling you to construct a detailed picture of the game elements that are related to that research; if Vague Information enables the “big picture”, broad overviews enable a “regional closeup” or “cultural closeup”. It also gives you a starting point when you need to get into Specific Inputs, which are what you need to take a detailed look at the game element. Each stage is the gateway to the next, but contains only what you need at the current moment.

Another way to look at it is that Vague Information tells you what Broad Overviews you need to integrate into your campaign and how they relate to the whole; Broad Overviews give a context for more detailed information and enable that research to fill in the details in your creations.

Rulebook Reference Reading

One element of research that can’t be handled in this way – well, it can, but the broad overviews (and sometimes Specifics) are needed right away – is checking the rules for conflicts with the material that you are making central to the campaign.

For example, if you were to go with the “Goblins – Mongols” equivalence suggested earlier as an example, you would need to review the Write-ups on Goblins and the rules for Barbarians, at the very least. You might also might need to look at Clerics.

You’re looking for two things: Rules Conflicts, and House Rules to resolve them or extend the official material to cover the new directions your game is going in.

Rules Conflicts

The official rules can be very confining, especially when it comes to D&D / Pathfinder, because so much of the game world is integrated within those rules. You can get some idea of the scope of what I’m talking about by looking at the subset of the House Rules for the Fumanor campaign that I published as part of the Inventing and Reinventing Races in DnD series, itself part of the larger Orcs & Elves series, specifically in Parts Two and Three.

Now, you might be lucky, and nothing you’re contemplating or will contemplate will ever conflict with the published rules, but the more creative you get, the more likely it is that such a conflict will arise. Given that, the question needs to be asked: when is the best time to identify and resolve these conflicts – during campaign development, so that players can be told anything they need to know before play begins, and when you have plenty of time to work out a solution; or in the middle of play, when you have to retroactively introduce changes to the rules that have been constructed in haste, disrupting the current adventure in the process? And, where there’s one conflict, there can be several – so this can occur repeatedly, something else to take into account.

When it’s put that way, the answer to the rhetorical question seems pretty self-evident, doesn’t it?

Rules Extensions

Of course, there doesn’t have to be a direct conflict for a house rule to be needed. Seventy-five percent or more of House Rules are usually Rules Extensions, covering something that the existing rules don’t even mention. A new character class, A new Feat, New Spells, New Skills – you name it. And that’s the other thing that you’re looking at.

Preliminary Notes: House Rules

It should be emphasized that you aren’t writing these House Rules at this point. Describing what’s needed, and why, and perhaps offering some rough ideas as to what form the new rules will take, is all that’s required at this point.

That’s because a lot of this planning is preliminary, and may not survive into the final campaign – and I don’t want to be wasting time on rules that are never actually needed, and I’m sure you don’t want to be, either. At this stage, you simply are identifying needs based on the campaign concept in an early state and proposing a general basis of resolving those needs. The detail work of translating those preliminary notes into actual rules comes much later in the process.

Other reference sources

The other thing that’s worth doing at this stage is to list any outside resources that might be useful/necessary in terms of rules and resources.

In terms of the rules: Does TORG have a really good spell design system that you want to try and incorporate? (it does, especially if you convert it into software the way I did for the C-128. I even built a custom word-processor into it, and fed everything into a custom-built database and DBMS. So complex that it took two floppy disks just to hold all the program, more than 100K lines of code!) Do you want dogfighting rules from a WWI aerial-combat board-game for use with flying creatures? (I did that for the Zenith-3 campaign). Or perhaps the damage-handling rules from Empire Of The Petal Throne, or the Sanity rules from Call Of Cthulhu? One of the easiest ways to change the look-and-feel of a D&D / Pathfinder campaign is to make some other monster source your primary one instead of the established, standard, sources. Now is the time to identify and justify these rules imports, simply because of the profound effects that they will have. And it’s not a bad idea at this point to make sure that you have access to them, as well. While you’re at it: Which “official” game supplements will you be using, and which are off-the-table? They don’t all play nice with each other – Deities & Demigods and The Epic Level Handbook are particularly incompatible unless you want the PCs to face threats that eat the Gods for breakfast, for example.

Outside Resources: Again, this is the time to identify and source these, whether it be a reference book on the tribes of New Guinea, the mines of the Aztec Empire, or a Fantasy Trilogy that you want to mine for ideas. Select these, gather them, and start to read them (or re-read them), taking notes.

The Sea Of Ideas

By the time you’ve done your preliminary research, you have amassed a sea of ideas. It’s now time to wring some coherence from them, building up an organized campaign concept. I’ve explained this process before, on a number of occasions, each time seeking a slightly different way of approaching the process in the hopes that one of the variations will work for a particular GM where the others didn’t ‘click’. This time, I’m going back to the basics, and as straightforward an approach as I can offer.


Organization and structuring of your ideas starts with numbering them – putting each on a separate line in a text document or spreadsheet and giving each a number that can be used to point to that item.

Each idea will usually have one or more blank spots that need to be filled before that idea will be complete and ready to integrate into an adventure. Central details like who, what, where, why, how, beginning, and outcome/purpose.

  • Who: Nothing happens without a cause, without someone doing something. “Who” is not necessarily about identifying an actual individual, it can be defining an ambition, or a motive, or a general “type” of person. Obviously, you always have two choices: an already “identified” individual, or someone new. Having two ideas with an individual in common clearly connects them, and that’s often desirable, but every individual has a first appearance in the campaign – they were all “someone new” once. And, of course, that “someone” can be a group.
  • What: The least-often blank, this is what the “who” is doing, or the situation that results and that impacts the PCs.
  • Where: Again, not so much specifics as a definition of the location. “An Inn” or “A lost Temple” or even “a sad place” is good enough of a definition. “Home Base” or “Wilderness” or “Village” are also good enough. Some ideas, on the other hand, can be so tightly connected to the location that “Where” is explicitly stated – “Tomb Of the Dwarven Kings”, for example. Some ideas are so broad that no one location stands out; in which case, “Where” may refer to the location where events first impact on the PCs, or where the perpetrator’s base of operations is, or even a central nexus from which events unfold. It’s even possible for “Where” to be a relative location – “location of the Thalinstone”.
  • Why: Quite often, “Why” is dependent on “Who”, which is why a motive can be the defining attribute of the perpetrator. At other times, “Why” is more about circumstances that offer an opportunity than any overt motive.
  • How: Usually fairly vaguely defined, but some indication of “How” the Who is going to bring about the situation that confronts the PCs is needed. Despite the vagueness, this is one of the most rarely blank items.
  • Beginning: This usually isn’t about where the plot begins as it where the PCs first experience the effects of the situation, ie where they potentially first become aware of the plot. This is one of the more frequently blank entries.
  • Outcome/Purpose: Finally, what does the GM hope to achieve with the plot? What consequences and long-term implications for the campaign will this plotline produce? Quite often, this is what the plotline is really all about. It could be something like “establishes a new long-term villain” or “strips the PCs of their privileged position” or “overthrows the local government, replacing it with one hostile to the PCs” or “Disrupts magic throughout the Kingdom” or “Stirs the Orcs into war preparations”… there’s a long list of possibilities.

The goal is to fill in as many of those blank spots with the numbers representing other ideas, but not to choose at random; rather, guided by the theme development that was done earlier, and your preliminary research, and the sets of threes, the goal is to identify thematic matches, things that look like they fit together.

It’s probably worth reminding readers that “ideas” that this point include everything from plot concepts (“A city is brought to life as a huge immobile golem”) to iconic setting concepts (“a flat mountaintop with a gleaming white temple above and a Gothic cathedral carved into the mountain underneath”) or a character idea (“a vampire who sucks magic as well as blood”). Some might be more developed than these, others may even be less, but this is pretty close to the standard of most of them.

This task is often made easier with a preliminary sort performed using copy-and-past, separating your ideas into those that feel like they are part of the early campaign, those that feel like they are part of the middle-campaign, and those that have the drama and gravitas needed for the end-of-the-campaign.

You can even go further – once you have divided the ideas into these three groups, you can further divide each into beginning-of-campaign-phase, middle-of-campaign-phase, and end-of-campaign-phase.

I usually go one step beyond even this, creating a “phase 0″ for anything that introduces key concepts into the campaign, anything that sets the stage for the campaign proper, anything that can be considered foundation for the campaign. That gives me ten “stages” to the campaign. I also look for anything that I would consider foundation to the middle part of the campaign, and consider advancing it into one of the prior stages, and then do the same thing for the ending phase of the campaign. The result is that those discrete “bands” get slightly broken up, and there is a smoother transition between the phases.

Not all your ideas will be amenable to such organization. It is usual to have a large number left over that can go anywhere. These are the “pool” that you draw from to fill the empty spaces in the items that have been allocated a position. I usually extract those at the very beginning of this process because it makes numbering easier.

Repeat the process of allocating connections between ideas until you are sure that every idea that can be grouped together, has been grouped together.

I tried very hard to devise a means of illustrating all this. I soon discovered that I had three choices: Make it impossibly large and complicated, or a series of 7 or 8 separate illustrations (but I didn’t have time to do that); Make it something approaching a full page and try to shrink it down cleverly to fit the limited space available on the web-page (but I wasn’t clever enough to do that in the time available); or accept that it simply wasn’t going to be possible.

Option three being the only practical solution, the trick was finding a way to do it anyway. So here it is: the example (without explanations) is available as a small PDF. Click on the image above, which is a severely-shrunken excerpt, to download it. Then read the above section again, referring to the example, and all should be clear.


Representation of the Saridegib molecule by Fuse809 (Own work) [Public domain, GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to view terms of use.

What you end up with is a series of numbers that thread plots and micro-details about settings and participants into little bundles, many of which serve to connect one plot with another by virtue of common elements. If you were to picture each of those bundles of information as a dot you could even visualize the results as something resembling an organic molecule, as shown below! (It doesn’t mean anything but it does reveal how extensive a structure you can end up with at this point, if all has gone as expected).

These bundles encode in a snapshot of either a complete adventure or a significant portion of one.

Each is a long way from being ready to play, and of course there’s no real information about which order they will take place in, but since a campaign consists of one adventure following and building on events in another, the new campaign is quite literally beginning to take shape.

Incorporate the Three Moods

Once you’ve finished tying as many bits and pieces together with metaphoric string, it’s time to start building on the structure that results.

This construction is achieved incrementally, adding little bits here and there. By the nature of these additions, some of them add a new layer of interconnection between the elements already allocated.

That’s particularly true of the first of these additional layers to be added – the three moods. For each bundle, considering what has already been allocated, which of the three moods is most appropriate, if any.

In theory, the breakdown should be something like:

  • 25% mood 1;
  • 25% mood 2;
  • 25% mood 3; and
  • 25% none of the three moods.

…but I’ve devised campaigns which were 50% no mood, and others in which there were massive imbalances between the three moods. I’ve even run campaigns in which one of the three moods only existed as an undercurrent underneath more overt emotional content. So take that guideline with a rather large grain of salt, and decide what is important for your proposed campaign based on the content.

Another point to take into account is relative emotional intensity of the three moods. The more intense an emotion, the less frequently it has to show up in order to balance in “campaign presence” with something less intense.

Take, for example, revenge vs obsession vs friendship – obsession by far the most intense when it comes to a head, but the rest of the time, revenge would rate as more severe. It follows that there should be fewer adventures in which obsession is the driving force than there are those in which revenge is amongst the dominant elements. However, there should be even more adventures in which obsession is a background element that does not drive the adventure, but in which it plays a part nevertheless. Finally, Friendship is by far the least intense tone of the three; there should therefore be as many adventures with that as an element as you can think of different ways to highlight it, even if that is as many or more than the rest put together.

Incorporate the Three Surprises

The three surprises can be considered, by definition, plot twists. It is therefore important to match them as twists with the appropriate plot – or, if necessary, to add another one to the collection already created.

It should be noted that sometimes one of these surprises can thread through multiple adventures by having the actual “twist” take place off-camera, generating many repercussions and consequences that are not obviously related and which may occur in many adventures before the twist itself is revealed.

In this circumstance, you need to designate one adventure as being the initial incident, another (which may need to be created for this sole purpose if necessary) in which the revelation is to take place, and determine the appropriate number of directly-connected adventures in between by means of identifying and counting the number of repercussions and consequences and establishing a logical timeline. The whole thing will fall apart if the timespan between these two is in excess of what logic and common sense can justify, and that in turn usually limits both the number and length of adventures in between.

Incorporate the Three Things The Players Will Love To Hate

Like the recurring element of the three moods, these can form a new layer of connection between otherwise disparate plot events, because when you provide something the players will love to hate, you have to give them the opportunity to vent those feelings repeatedly. But remember, never the same way twice! As a result, you are limited in the number of adventures that can incorporate a love-to-hate element by the number of variations that your creativity can wrest from the idea.

My first priority when incorporating these is to try and use them to link many or most of those adventures that aren’t linked already by the three tones, binding the whole campaign together all the more solidly. However, it always has to make sense that this campaign element plays a role in the adventures in question.

My second priority is to link with the ideas where the love-to-hate element is a natural fit. These form the mounting points of the love-to-hate elements.

Finally, I try not to have these three love-to-hate elements overlap too much. For that reason, my preference is to have one that is most relevant in the early part of the campaign, one that is dominant amongst the three in the middle part of the campaign, and one that is dominant in the final part of the campaign. That doesn’t mean that an element can’t have an impact in parts of the campaign that aren’t their designated “territory”, just that these will be exceptions.

Choose Three Nexii

What the campaign’s overall plots actually are, and what the players will think they are, can often be two entirely different things, and this can be very good news for the GM because it means the players are watching the wrong things, and zigging from time to time when they would be better off zagging.

But it’s not all good news. This can also make the players unpredictable, because you don’t know what they are going to focus on. The best solution is to build-in something that will occupy their attention at the critical moments and provide forward impetus from time to time. I have called these Nexii (the plural of Nexus), as in “the center of attention”.

There is a bit of an art form to getting these right. If they are too blatant, they will be immediately suspected of being red herrings or distractions, too obvious to be taken seriously – especially if you have any sort of reputation for subtlety. If they are too subtle, the players may miss them, or decide (correctly) that they aren’t all that important in the scheme of things. Both problems are exacerbated if the nexii are obviously being fed to the players by the GM – you really want it to seem to them that the nexii are their own ideas, or at least that the decision to focus on them is their own idea.

You achieve this with a careful balance between significance and insignificance, a hint of reluctance, and a whisper of understatement. Subtle touches like focusing your attention on each player NOT looking into the nexus, implying that handling the nexus is something of an afterthought, almost forgotten, then apologizing for that (and in the process drawing everyone else’s attention to it), and making it a priority the next time around (while their attention is still on it) and revealing a prepared handout or prop of some kind, which tells the players that the nexus is far more important than you are trying suggest. Impressed with their cleverness at catching you out, they will take the bait and swallow it whole.

Of course, it would be all too easy to give the game away if you can’t keep yourself from smiling. So if you have to smile when the Players fall for your deception, make sure that you have practiced a somewhat sheepish version in advance!

The Primary Plot Nexus

This is the first Nexus that players will encounter within the campaign, usually within the first adventures or two. It represents what the players think is going on when the campaign gets underway, gives it the kick-start that it needs to get moving, and as such, is the most important of the three, by quite a long stretch.

It’s also usually the shortest-lived of the deceptive nexii. There are more important things that you want to establish in the campaign (like the central theme and other campaign foundations) and don’t want this myth getting in the way. The best way to think about the Primary Plot Nexus is as an energizing delivery system for those fundamentals; it works in the same way as a James Bond teaser, which not only establishes the action-packed format, and the central character, and the nature of his profession, while (usually) having little or no relevance to the main plot.

The Secondary Plot Nexus

There’s an almost-inevitable lull in the middle of anything. Participants, both PC and NPC, are making chess moves, reacting to each other, and dancing around the ultimate confrontation between them. If ever there was a period that needs extra impetus, this is it. And the best way to achieve it is by incorporating a plotline that will capture everyone’s attention and look like it’s absolutely vital to the campaign – until it gets resolved just as the real endgame begins to emerge from the shadows.

The Secondary Plot Nexus is frequently longer, and often interrupted by other plots; it’s like a campaign-within-a-campaign. It is actually rather more relevant than the Primary Nexis, and its purpose is to build on the momentum of the early beginnings and sustain the campaign through this mid-campaign slump in the action.

Different requirements mean a different type of plotline. Where the primary plot nexus can have quite a wide range of plot types, from mystery to action and everything in between, the secondary plot nexus has to be far more action-oriented. That being the case, it is perhaps no surprise that the biggest danger posed by this campaign element is repetitiveness; it’s too easy to fall back on a “monster of the week” approach (or its equivalent). The action has to take many different forms, and that is often trickier than it sounds to achieve.

The Tertiary Plot Nexus

The tertiary plot nexus is almost as important as the secondary, though its length is considerably shorter. With this plotting method, its normal to end up with the end of the campaign being full of, well, endings to event sequences that have been building pretty much from word one of the campaign. That necessarily involves a lot of nostalgia and a lot of looking forward at the same time, without a lot of focus on the present. To counterbalance that, and keep the “now” as more than a bridge between yesterday and what you’re going to do about it tomorrow, you need something that is all about “now”.

Again, the rest of what is going on in the campaign must shape the style of this plot nexus. There is a tendency for events in this phase of the campaign to be heavy, full of importance and gravitas, and too much of that can get wearing. So this needs to be lighter, to serve as both a relief and a contrast with everything else that’s going on.

The PC Focus

At this point in time, you may or may not know who the PCs are that will be taking part in the campaign. If you do, then you should build in at least one adventure that focuses on each individual. If you don’t, list all the archetypes that you might be presented with, and incorporate an optional adventure focusing on each character archetype.

Always remember that the PCs are going to be the stars of the show. No matter how clever your plotting and planning, without them, the campaign will go nowhere.

Incorporate The Three Things The Players Will Want To Do

Since you have decided what these goals will be well in advance of actually having a campaign ready-to-run, it’s fairly likely that these objectives will be relevant fairly early on in the campaign, but in some cases, you might know in advance that a given objective is on the cards for later on. Of course, as with anything that the players might decide to do, you can either let it happen without too much difficulty, or you can throw all sorts of obstacles in their way, or anything in between. Bearing in mind that you don’t know exactly what the future holds, and so your expectations might be way off-base, now is the time for you to make these decisions. This can form an entirely new “tree” of subplots (i.e. ideas) that you add to existing adventures or each can be an adventure in its own right.

This is all made a little trickier because you still don’t know what order the adventures will occur in. The best solution to this problem is a quick three-step process:

  1. List each of the complications that you are going to include.
  2. Prefix each with an idea number (the same as all of your other ideas) and precede that with an alphabetic code that identifies this particular plotline to you. The use of the alphabetic code means that you can number from 1.
  3. Counting up the number of complications tells you how many other adventures, maximum, that you can have in-between. If you want to have one adventure set aside to be nothing but the end of this particular road, you can do that at this point just by subtracting one or maybe two from that initial total.
  4. It’s getting slightly ahead of ourselves because I haven’t gotten to the organization and sequencing aspects of the campaign design yet, but you can prep for that at this stage simply by adding “alphabetic code – #” to the adventure bundles in the right part of the campaign, where “alphabetic code” is the designation that you chose in step 2, and # simply indicates that you don’t know which part of this plotline will go in that slot yet. It quite literally means “next”.
Character Arcs

If campaign events are going to have any significance, it must be presumed that no character will experience them and emerge quite the same as they were going in (ignoring purely game-mechanics things like character levels). Something about each character’s personal “world” should be fundamentally and irrevocably changed by events in what I (and Hollywood) refer to as the character’s “Arc”.

Without knowing who the characters are going to be, at this point, this is difficult to build into the campaign plan, but it is also obvious that if you wait, your campaign plan will be incomplete, and these changes will feel far more superficial and tacked on instead of being an integral part of the campaign.

Never fear, there is a simple solution to this conundrum.

  1. Count up the number of adventures that you have. Divide by the number of PCs and round down. This gives you a target number of “personal events” for each character’s transition. It’s almost certainly going to be a higher number than you actually use.
  2. Multiply the result by the number of PCs and subtract from the number of adventures. That tells you how many adventures won’t have “personal events”.
  3. Cherry-pick that many adventures that seem unsuited to incorporating a “personal event” – these will tend to be toward the tail-end of the campaign outline that you’ve been constructing, where such a “personal event” would be a distraction. Add to the list of codes for each of these chosen adventures – remember, it’s pretty much just a series of numbers, indexing ideas, at this point – the code “PC NO” (That’s “no” as in “the opposite of yes,” not as in “number”). The implication is that any adventure which does not have the “PC NO” code will have a “personal event” to be incorporated.
  4. Make it a requirement of character construction that each player includes one major change that he wants to occur in the character’s life in the course of the campaign. And don’t be afraid to reject proposals that don’t seem significant enough to match everything else you have planned for the campaign, or that seem too extreme.

    A useful alternative: Instead of one, have the player designate three, of different levels of drama. You can then choose from amongst them – that way, the player himself won’t know his character’s destiny. And you can even incorporate elements hinting at the other two, or even include one or both of them as part of your real choice. It would not be the first time that one change in a person’s life led to another – either in fiction or in real life, for that matter.

  5. When you receive the character sheets for approval – and make sure that you get them! – break down the proposed Character Arc into logical pieces. These then become the items that you will introduce, one per adventure (maybe more), into your campaign plan.

Of course, every adventure should have something in it for each character. The only difference is that most of these are going to be “undirected”, stuff that just happens, while those relating to a character’s arc are building toward something.

It’s even cooler, and better for the campaign, if you can arrange these “personal elements” so that they are relevant to the main action – so keep that in mind whenever you are working with the Character Arcs.

I could have offered a quick example at this point, but I’ve already offered a far more extensive one in The Echo Of Events To Come: foreshadowing in a campaign structure.

Compile, Cross-link, Cross-reference

Right now, your “campaign plan” is just a series of numbers that you can decipher if you have to, and a general indication of where it is probably best placed within ten phases of the campaign. It will look something like “12 57 23 83 178″ (the numbers will be different, of course, and there may be more or less of them). Some of these numbers may appear in multiple adventures, others will be unique. This part of the process deals with the problem of sequencing these into an actual campaign plan, which has been a growing thorn in the side of campaign planning.

1. Compile

I always like to do this sort of work on a copy of my source file(s) so that the unchanged original is available for future reference. I wanted to mention that up-front.

In the order that they are listed in your planning document – the one that’s divided into phases and which I illustrated with the graphic to the right – take your “adventure profile” (“12 57 23 83 178″) and rearrange it so each number is on a separate line. Hint: The first number is the plot idea, so that becomes the master identification of the whole adventure. The others refer to antagonists, locations, etc, and I often find it reads more easily if I indent these. Then copy-and paste from the ideas list the actual substance of each idea onto the same line as its corresponding number.

When you’ve finished doing this, every adventure you currently plan to make part of the campaign has been converted into a bullet-point paragraph listing the key elements that it contains!

2. Cross-link

Now for the hard part. Find every number that recurs on the list.

The easiest way is to use your word processor’s “find” function, but you need to keep where you are in the document firmly in mind. You might also be able to replace each space in your numbers list with a tab or comma and then sort the lists by field number to make it easier – but note that the sort completely destroys the sequence information in the document.

Let’s say that idea 57 appears in adventures 12, 23, 15, 43, and 17 (in their order in the list). To adventure 12 you would add the line, “Leads to 23, 15, 43, 17″. To adventure 23, you add a line that reads “sequel to 12 leads to 15, 43, 17″, and so on.

At least, that would be what you would do if you intend to actually run them in the order they were initially listed. You might very well have a choice of several. It’s time to make those decisions, which are conveniently simplified by this process. 23 before 15? 43 before both of them?

I usually find it simpler to make a copy of the file that results in step one, NAMING IT SOMETHING ELSE TO PREVENT ACCIDENTAL OVERWRITING, and deleting all but the relevant adventures. Rather than looking for specific fish in the sea of ideas, this collects them all in one place and removes the irrelevancies from view.

It’s always possible that you might miss one or two – it often happens to me. Don’t sweat it, so long as the majority are there, all will be well.

3. Cross-reference

As you proceed, you are quite likely to notice adventures that either have a logical dependence on other adventures having taken place already, or that would be enhanced by following another adventure. These adventures should also be tagged with “Must follow [#]” or “[#] Follows”. You may also notice adventures that seem like a good one-two punch; consider the pros and cons carefully, and if you still think that, make the appropriate notations – I simply insert the word “immediately” into those notations.

4. Tonal Similarity

It is possible too soon to be able to spot most of these, but it’s always preferable to avoid two successive adventures having too great a tonal similarity. Where it becomes immediately relevant is in all those cross-links and cross-reference links that you’ve just created. Because – at the time – you are concentrating on plot, it’s best to assess the tone of the adventures separately.

If there seems to be too much similarity between A and B, add a note requiring a contrasting adventure in between. That means that the standard format of some of these links will become:

  • Leads to #, (#, …) Contrasting Insert Required
  • Sequel to #, Contrasting Insert Required
  • Must follow #, (#, …), Contrasting Insert Required
  • # follows, Contrasting Insert Required
  • Must Immediately follow #, (#, …), Contrasting Insert Required
  • # Immediately follows, Contrasting Insert Required

This immediately brings a problem to the campaign planning, in the form of those last two link variations, which contain conflicting information. You should resolve these conflicts immediately if you can. There are two simple solutions, either of which will work: a contrasting epilogue/ending to the earlier of the two adventures, or a contrasting opening sequence to the later one.

You may have only one option open to you in any particular case, however, so consider you choices carefully. The decision should be made on the basis of two criteria: (1) will the additional requirement harm the adventure? (2) will the additional requirement get in the way of the reasons the two adventures are linked?

Question one determines which solutions are not viable in this particular case. It might be that an ending with a tone that contrasts with the intended tone of a particular adventure sacrifices poignancy or makes no sense – the more mournful, sad, or tragic the adventure, the more likely it is that this will be the case. You don’t cut directly from a heartfelt funeral sequence to a light-hearted comedy moment! In general, tonal dissonance is more likely to occur with contrasting end-tones, while it’s easy to get away with a contrasting opening sequence – and, done right, it can even serve to emphasize the primary tone of the adventure through contrast.

Because it’s easier to rule out, and because it’s more unusual when you can operate that way, I generally consider the contrasting epilogue/ending first. Once that option is either selected (tentatively) or ruled out, the whole question is simplified – but just because the adventure-end option is available right now, make sure that you assess the alternative, anyway; you still have to navigate question two, and that might change things!

It’s also possible that neither will work because you think it desirable to start the new adventure at the precise moment the earlier one wraps up – that’s what “Immediately” usually means! – and the contrast would therefore not make sense. In this case, either change the word immediately to “closely” and live with the need to insert a contrasting adventure, or note that you will have to fight tonal fatigue in the second adventure!

Tonal Fatigue?
When you have too much of something, you stop noticing it after a while, or at the very least it becomes muted, the senses dulled. To combat this, you need to intersperse moments of contrast, but after a while these lose their effect and you need to employ stronger medicine. Tonal Flow – highs and lows – is something that doesn’t happen by accident; you need to actively work at achieving it.

It will more often be the case that one or both solutions are available. In which case, move on to Question 2, which is harder to assess because you might not even be sure why it seems like the two adventures should immediately follow one another; its often an instinctive reaction. If you can pinpoint the reason for the connection, then you can make a specific assessment of the options open to you; if you can’t, the only thing you have to go on is the same instinct that’s connecting the two plotlines in your head. Look at each plotline and imagine them with the tonal addition, then choose the option that seems to work best: modified ending to the first, modified beginning to the second, both, or neither, with a note to actively combat tonal fatigue in the second.

And if you are still left with two or more choices and no clear winner? Add short notes to each of the connected adventures about the alternatives, and defer the final decision until you actually start prepping to run the first adventure.

5. Tonal Contrast

I mentioned Tonal Flow in the preceding section. The other half of achieving that is to avoid having tonal contrasts that are too sharp, as implied by the questions that were used to select the best approach to handling too-similar tones above. As soon as I have finished assessing tones that are too similar – or (more often) at the same time – I deal with tones that are too contrasting, too dissonant. Again, the best approach is to insert a more neutrally-toned adventure in between, but if that’s not an option, the ending of the first adventure or the beginning of the second are what you have to work with. The process of choosing between these options is also virtually identical, so I won’t go through it again.

6. What you throw away

Not all ideas work out. If one doesn’t seem to make sense when you come across it in the process of all this linking and cross-linking, cut it, and throw any unique element numbers (the ones that follow the plot #) back into the idea pool. Most important, try to analyze why you initially thought it would work and why you now think differently, as it offers clues to other potential problems in your campaign design process.

The Campaign Plan

It’s time to start putting the campaign plan together into its final form.

That means cutting and pasting the adventure outlines that you’ve been compiling into their sequence in the overall campaign (in a copy of the source document, of course!)


I personally find this much easier if I’m cutting-and-pasting a single line, so I start by reformatting the adventure notes in such a way that it looks like paragraphs when word wrap is turned on but becomes one line when it is turned off. That’s a trick that doesn’t work with your more sophisticated word-processing software but one that is very handy if you have a plain-text editor that supports it, like Wordpad, or the software I’m using on my laptop to write this article, Kate. The graphic below illustrates the effect.

When I’m using Wordpad, which has a tab bar, I will then usually drop in extra tab markers only one or two characters apart, that I can later take back out, so that I can see most or all of the text on the one line, such as:

76 plot idea>>>> 98 element >>> 48 element >>> 28 element >>> 07 element >>> note>>>> note

Finally, I’ll take out the empty line separating the two adventures so that the whole text tightens up, visually.


The second block of text in the document looks exactly the same as the first one except that it uses tabs (note the tab marks) to pad out the line instead of a line-break at the end of the text. But when you turn off word-wrap (as shown in the second image) the difference becomes obvious. Each adventure can now be handled as a single line of text.


Using the notes that have been made (# follows #) etc as a guideline, assemble your plot ideas into a coherent sequence. This is when the earlier work, dividing the ideas into the ten phases – “phase 0 (preliminaries),” “early (subdivided into three),” “middle (also subdivided),” and “late (subdivided)” pays off; instead of having to work with the whole campaign, you are working on roughly 1/10th of it or so.

That also gives you a lot of flexibility – none of your earlier decisions are set in stone; you can change when in the campaign an adventure is to take place if that results in a better “flow” within the campaign.

Another tip is to assemble “blocks” of adventures first, then maneuver the whole block into position. The “common elements” can be extremely useful in that respect – for example, if you have three adventures in one location, you can consider running all three back-to-back or can have this be a recurring location by spreading them apart.

Fill any empty slots

One of the reasons for getting rid of the empty lines when Re-formating is so that you can use a blank line to indicate that you need an adventure idea to “happen here” – I say “an” adventure, though you could happily fill an empty slot in your campaign plan with a pair or trio of adventures or even a mini-campaign, moving an entire block of adventures into that empty space in your campaign plan.

Create and tag additional slots

It’s a mistake to plot too tightly. New ideas are sure to occur to you once play is underway, and you will want to leave spaces for character-driven adventures. Finally, you may need the occasional low-prep “filler” to give you some breathing room – this is the perfect opportunity to build a few such into your plans.

Don’t be afraid to list these as “Undesigned Character-based Adventure No #” or whatever. I do suggest adding a note two or three adventures prior that this is the cut-off point for designing the forthcoming adventure, however – just so that you get a reminder to do so in plenty of time!

Foreshadowing Reminders

You don’t necessarily have to perform this step, but I find it a useful mnemonic.

Adventures can be divided into 4 categories, in theory:

  • Adventures with no forewarning
  • Adventures with minimal foreshadowing
  • Adventures with depth of foreshadowing
  • Adventures with great depth of foreshadowing.

No forewarning means no foreshadowing, obviously.

Minimal means that you might drop a hint somewhere in the preceding adventure, but that there will be little- or no- scope for the characters to do anything about it before the adventure is upon them.

Depth of foreshadowing means that you will be giving forewarnings of what will be come for some time to come – within two-to-four adventures prior – and that there will be time for the characters to not only react but to make active preparations or investigations. It might even be that those investigations will ultimately be the trigger for the adventure being foreshadowed.

Finally, there are adventures/plots that have a LOT of foreshadowing, such as the major example provided in The Echo Of Events To Come: foreshadowing in a campaign structure, which I have already referred to above. In this case, the foreshadowing involves: 1) Introducing the feature NPC; 2) Overcoming the PC’s reluctance to trust a member of the media; 3) Establishing a relationship between the two; 4) The NPC earning the (probably reluctant) trust of the other PCs; 5) Dealing with personality issues the PC has with his personal relationships (note that this plotline was written in cooperation with the player); and 6) deepening the relationship. Several of these take the form of minor subplots within adventures, in a couple of cases the NPC plays a minor role within an adventure (and in one case, a more substantial but not central role). All of that is establishment and foreshadowing for the main plot in which the NPC will be involved, which is the publication of an “inside story” on the PCs that dishes dirt, spin, and sensationalizes everything about them. All told, there are about 25 parts to this particular plotline, though more than one might take place within the one adventure, provided the other PCs get their share of “screen time”.

Now that you have the adventures in a rough sequence, this is an ideal opportunity to go through and decide for each adventure which category it falls into, and then to annotate the relevant adventures with a reminder to foreshadow the coming plotline. If such foreshadowing doesn’t seem to fit the mood of an adventure, you can skip it and move backwards one further.


Once you have finished, it’s time for final editing of the planned sequence of events. This is achieved in two steps. The first is to ensure that you have everything as well-sandboxed as it can be, given that none of these adventures exist as anything more than notes about content and a general plot outline. If a minor tweak to the adventure running order serves to greatly enhance the sandboxing, then you are probably well-served by making that change unless it really messes up the internal logic of what you’ve put together.

Sandboxing, to my mind, can be summarized in this context as no more than one major new location and no more than one major new NPC per adventure. If you have more than that, I try to insert a prior adventure that introduces part or all of the overflow, possibly two. Again, there’s nothing wrong with an adventure or sub-adventure having no other reason for existence than the introduction of one of these elements!


The second step is to read it, from start to finish, as though it were the proposed chapter breakdown of a novel or TV mini-series. Does it make sense? Does it flow? Does it build to a peak at the right time? Does it have good times and bad times and times in-between? Does it become repetitious at any point? Does it take too long to get to the point? Are the themes clearly represented and articulated by the end of the story?

If there are any problems – be they with pacing or content or characters or settings or tone or theme – now is the time to fix them. If something doesn’t make sense, one way or another, where it is, you have three choices:

  • Cut it out;
  • Move it;
  • Fix it.

After your first read-through, in which you do nothing but indicate where there are problems and what they are (in general terms), go through a second time and – using one of the techniques listed – fix the problem.

Note that if you move a plotline, you need to leave any foreshadowing where it is. This is then subject to one of three fates:

  • Absorbed into the preceding plotline;
  • Absorbed into the following plotline;
  • Becoming part of a new adventure that has no other purpose than delivery of that foreshadowing element.

It’s also important to keep an eye on any sandboxing violations that result from these rearrangements, and fix those as necessary.,

Collate & Compact

The final step in the development process is to write up a synopsis of the whole – a single paragraph that outlines the major overall story. This is absolutely critical, because even if individual adventures go off the rails or out the window, even if you end up improvising most of the campaign, so long as whatever you run is covered by this blanket synopsis, the overall campaign is still in good shape, and not meandering and floundering.

According to some people, I’ve been blessed with the ability to keep one eye on the shape of the forest while using the other to examine and shape a single tree, up close and personal. Whether that’s true or not, having this guideline to help remind you of the intended shape of the forest should help steer you in the right direction even when you get lost in the pruning of individual trees.

With the overall plotline mapped out like a paint-by-numbers illustration, it is then time to move on to putting the broad swathes of color onto the campaign canvas – and that’ something that I’ll deal with in part 5 of this series, Surrounds.

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Ask The GMs: Some Arcane Assembly Required – Pt 3: Tab A into Slot B

Ask the gamemasters

This question comes from GM Roy, who wrote:

“I need some inspiration to create cool names for spell components.

I have 5 [scales of rarity = Mike]:

  • Common (flesh, breath, water, dust)
  • Uncommon (earth from a cemetery, humanoid blood)
  • Rare (head of a Medusa, Minotaur’s horn, black dragon blood)
  • very Rare (Essence of the ghost of a mass murderer, Adamantium armor forged in hell by a celestial), and
  • Unique (The Tear of the ancient God of death, Essence of the Terrasque).

I need a lot of these, Where can I find some?”

Series Logo ATGMs 32 Some Assembly Required

Despite my best efforts to keep these ATGMs small enough to be self-contained, it was inevitable that sooner or later there would be one that was simply too big for a single post.

Part one of the answer looked at the question “Why Bother?”, and discovered that once the negative associations were minimized, Arcane Components could provide a wealth of content for a campaign, along the way constructing a more rigorous classification system for such components. In part two, I took the lessons learned in Part 1 and used them to derive a process for generating more entries in each category. In this concluding part, I am going to list some exotic examples that I have created using that process. As an extra bonus, these also have utility as exotic substances even if you don’t use arcane components in your campaigns!

I have ten such substances to offer, but (as many of you will know), medical circumstances have been playing hob with my ability to meet deadlines lately. This will certainly continue to be the case for a while to come – I’m already behind schedule this week despite using a pre-prepared filler article on Monday. As a result, it may be necessary to split this final part in two, turning the three parts into four. I am trying hard to avoid this, but time is against me. If there are only five substances described below, there will be another five to follow!


IanG Avatar I’ve relied heavily on past discussions regarding D&D/PFRPG with Ian Gray, in D&D and the Zenith-3 campaign with Nick Deane, and in general with Graham McDonald many years ago, for these articles. Ian’s contributions were a major element of Part 1 of this series, and Nick and Graham (unknowingly at the time) contributed to a number of elements of part 2. I have drawn on inspiration from all three in this final part, though their contributions are more indirect. Nick-Avatar


The Exotic Components

Originally, there was only going to be one of these, present to illustrate the process described in the previous part of this series. There were two flaws in that plan: I kept thinking up more of them, and the process ended up being clear enough that no example was needed. And yet, I felt that my answer to GM Roy would be incomplete without at least giving him some material components, even though the question was asked quite a while ago and was no doubt resolved within his campaign long ago.

The first two that I thought of were Perfect Octarine and Ethereal Alloy, and they established a pattern. I wanted one example from each of the inner planes of existence, but didn’t quite get there. Some are more completely-realized than others, which are a bit on the sketchy side. But they will all hopefully be a lot of fun to introduce to your campaigns!


I should start by going through the format that I’m going to be using to describe these Exotic Materials, even though they should be fairly self-evident.


Each element has an illustration. In fact, it has two – if you click on one of the thumbnails, you will get, in a new tab or window, what is supposed to be a high-resolution image for printing but which my photo editor insists on saving as a larger, screen-resolution image. So you will have some work to do in order to use the image as intended, but by offering a big image, in a way, you are actually getting the best of both worlds. Most of the images aren’t that large in file size, so feel free to download and use however you see fit!


What does it look like (for those who may be visually-impaired)? What are its physical properties? What can be added the description that you can’t see in the illustration?


If the material exists naturally, this is where you’ll find it. If it doesn’t, this will be blank. There may be multiple potential locations for some of the materials.


If the material doesn’t exist naturally, this is where you have to go in order to create it. If it does, this will be blank, unless there is some form of refinement required before the material is actually available that can or must be performed in a location other than the “created” location (ie a two-step process, finding and refining).


What does the material symbolize? This will be an incomplete list but will give some idea of the sort of spells that the material is suitable for.


What do you have to do to get/create it? How is it created – according to best knowledge?


What are the dangers involved in getting/creating it? What are the dangers (if any) of having it around? What precautions can a character take against these dangers?


The suggested rating on the rarity scale. Subject to revision by the GM, even mid-campaign if the circumstances are right.


Anything else that I have to say about the material.

Other Uses

What else can be done with it? Why else might someone want it?
perfect octarine

Perfect Octarine

  • Description: An opal-like gem, naturally smoothed and polished, that reveals perfectly ordered and symmetric internal facets when it is angled under a light source. Closer inspection reveals complex patterns within the colors and a deeper symmetric ordering, and yet there is an almost random, haphazard quality to the internal facets. The more closely the gems are studied, the greater the internal complexity that can be discerned. Normally elliptical in shape, it remains cool to the touch no matter what heat it is subjected to. Physically it is no tougher than spun glass, making it extremely fragile. The name derives from the 8-fold symmetry and the perfection of form within each gem.
  • Found: Astral Plane, Plane of Water, Plane of Fire, (very rarely) Plane of Earth – refer below. When found anywhere but on the plane of Earth they can usually be identified by the melee that surrounds them (see below).
  • Created: Astral Plane if the natural process is replicated, and this is usually the safest way of obtaining one. Each such act of creation inherently and explicitly warns the inhabitants of the other planes involved that an Octarine has been created, (see below for the consequences).
  • Qualities: Order, Condensation, Freezing, Fire Suppression, Law, Chaos, Interdimensional Portals.
  • Process: On extremely rare occasions, the boundaries between the inner planes can weaken and fluctuate unpredictably. On even more rare occasions, multiple breakdowns can occur in the same region of the Astral Plane. And on still more infrequent occasions, these can occur between exactly the right outer planes, in just the right order, for just the right length of time, to produce a matched quartet of Perfect Octarines.
        First, the elemental plane of Earth must leak a cubic foot of Fundamental Earth into the Astral Plane. At the very instant it is about to emerge, a Pure Flame from the Elemental Plane of Fire must melt it instantaneously. Because liquid cannot withstand the interplanar compression as the portal from the Plane Of Earth closes, the molten rock is condenses and compressed, in turn compressing the small amount of Astral Plane that is mixed with the molten Earth. The instant before the portal from the plane of earth closes, a portal from the Elemental Plane of water opens and rapidly cools the compressed Fundamental-earth-and-Astral Plane mixture. All three portals must then close at the same instant. Understandably, this is a very rare phenomenon.
        The bubbles of Astral Plane within are extremely turbulent and chaotic but the surface is reduced to perfect order, trapping the chaos and imposing structure upon it, while the whole is coated in a very thin layer of glass, forming a set of Perfect Octarine at the point where the portals close. One Perfect Octarine is drawn into each of the three planes whose properties created the Gems, leaving a fourth to float through the Astral Plane.
  • Dangers: Perfect Octarines are prized by beings of Law because they add an instant character level / HD to such beings, sometimes more (the most common add three, the largest ever discovered adds 5). The levels so “earned” are stored within the gem including all skill adds, hit points, to-hit bonuses, etc, and these may be bequeathed to another character simply by handing over the Perfect Octarine. However, those levels do not exist when the being of Law confronts a being of Chaotic disposition.
        Perfect Octarines are also highly prized by beings of Chaos because they not only confer Character Levels / HD to such beings, they confer a threshold of harm (blows must do more damage than the added character levels before they have any effect) against all attacks by creatures of Law.
        Perfect Octarines are hated by beings of Water because they freeze such beings solid, usually killing them, and any other such beings in contact with them at the time, instantly (destroying the Perfect Octarine simultaneously). They are hated by beings of Fire because they explode on contact with such creatures, evaporating / dissipating all such creatures within a 250′ radius, usually killing them instantly (and destroying the Perfect Octarine at the same time). As such, they are a constant threat to such beings, and mere possession of a Perfect Octarine, or potential possession of one, is deemed an act of violence against such creatures.
        Beings of Earth cannot sense Perfect Octarine within their realm, and are subject to no known effects from encountering them. However, they dislike intruders of Fire or Water and will usually destroy Octarines whenever they encounter one. It is rumored that when in the possession of a non-Earth being, that being is also immune to Earth Elemental’s tremorsenses (etc).
        What’s more, the gems issue an almost-irresistible siren call to all four such types of beings who pass within 1km of the Perfect Octarine. This siren-call is even strong enough to overwhelm the control of summoned creatures. The only thing that can distract from this siren call is the presence of a rival possessor of the Octarine. It follows that Perfect Octarines are always surrounded by representatives of all four planes of existence fighting an all-out war with each other for possession of the Octarine.
        Mortals are not subject to the siren call (though the siren call of greed may form an acceptable substitute – they are so rare they are worth 100,000gp/level conferred), but (depending on their alignment) may be affected as either a creature of order or chaos. Only creatures of Neutrality upon the Law-Chaos axis are unaffected by the Octarines and usually regard them as a universal menace to be destroyed immediately – along with the possessor of the Octarine, if necessary.
        Not only does anyone seeking possession of the Octarine have to fight off everyone else who wants it (or wants to destroy it) but they will regularly be under threat of attack by Lawful, Chaotic, Water, or Fire-based creatures. Worse still, for some unknown reason, possessors of Perfect Octarine earn no experience for vanquishing other would-be possessors or destroyers of the Octarine.
  • Rating: Exotic.
  • Comments: The fact that these are usually seen as being more trouble than they are worth only makes them more appealing to collectors. It is also rumored that an Assassin’s Guild somewhere has mastered the art of manufacturing faux-Octarine (no benefits but otherwise indistinguishable from the real thing) and uses these to “persuade” extra-planar creatures to do their dirty work for them.
        It is worth noting that the process of manufacturing Perfect Octarines from scratch costs more than the value of the gems.
  • Other Uses: refer above. In addition, Perfect Octarine can be used to create permanent passages between planes of existence, in the process nullifying their other properties and effects. Such passages can only be closed by first destroying the Octarine – but very few people, even amongst the learned on the subject, know this (DC 40 Planar Knowledge check, cannot take 20 or 10, cannot retry if the character fails without GM permission resulting from the acquisition of a new source of knowledge).

ethereal alloy

This material is based on ideas contained within the Mongoose Publishing game supplement,
Classic Play – Book of The Planes
which I heartily recommend. There are still a few copies available on Amazon for those that don’t have it. Recommended for all Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Horror, & Cthulhu GMs!

Ethereal Alloy

  • Description: This looks like slag that has been reheated just enough to work into a shape by a blacksmith, metal plates or armor made from leftovers. On closer inspection, the “impurities” that give the metal its somewhat mottled appearance seem to move at random intervals, especially when exposed to light, heat, electricity, or physical force. Cannot be worked once forged, so usually includes a superstructure that rivets the pieces into shape.
  • Found: -
  • Created: Ethereal Plane
  • Qualities: Protection, Defense, Warding, Permanence, Etherealness, Immutability, Obscurity, Concealment, Resistance to Planar Travel, Lightness, Healing, Regeneration
  • Process: It’s very hard to smelt and forge metal in the Ethereal Plane. It’s cool and clammy, and there is no gravity, and while the plane is morphic insofar as its shape mimics the structures that are/were in the adjacent plane, heat and work tend to dissipate those structures back into Ectoplasm in hours or less. The ectoplasmic mirroring of material plane structures thus tends to break down in forges, bakeries, and the like when any attempt to use these is made. On top of that, there is no gravity and nothing really solid to brace yourself against – even seemingly-solid structures like floors and walls can be penetrated with a strength of 7.
        It is possible to “seed” the ectoplasmic mirroring of a new structure in an adjacent plane by shaping the mist into a shape resembling the whole or part of the structure. The more such seeds, the faster the structure is mirrored.
        Ectoplasmic objects often vary considerably in mass relative to the original, sometimes lighter, sometimes heavier. This property is also morphic in some way, changing from time to time, though the mechanism and behavior of this change is not understood. As a general rule of thumb, Ectoplasmic objects mass only about 5-20% of their real-world counterparts.
        On rare occasions, for reasons that are still unknown, small regions of the Ethereal Plane spontaneously coagulate, preceded by 2d4 rounds (ave 5) of a wild and mournful violin-like sound as the stiffening ectoplasmic fibers rub against each other. In rarer cases (apr. 1%), this warning sound lasts for 2d4 days instead. The sound has also been likened to 10,000 fingernails scraping on a blackboard. Coagulation typically affects a radius of 6d6 x 10′ (ave 210′) beginning at the center of the affected volume and expanding at a radius of 1d8 x 10′ per round (ave 45’/round). The Coagulation lasts for 7+3d10 hours half the time and 7+3d10 days the other half (averages 23.5 hrs and 23.5 days, respectively). Once coagulation takes place, any empty spaces within that are not sealed against this are filled with uncoagulated Ectoplasm, i.e. the normal “atmosphere” of the Ethereal Plane.
        This is normally described as a hazard to travelers within the Ethereal Plane, because Coagulated Ectoplasm blocks interplanar travel to anyone who is caught in it, but it is actually a natural phenomenon that can be taken advantage of; Coagulated Ectoplasm is resistant enough to survive being worked and heated.
        Creation of Ethereal Alloy requires extensive preparations. When preparations are complete, the would-be metalsmith must locate a point within the Ethereal Plane that is about to experience coagulation, and, before coagulation takes place, build a forge in the co-locational position within the adjacent plane of existence. 99% of the time, this must be complete within rounds, but 1% of the time, a (slightly) more leisurely approach is possible. He must then reenter the Ethereal Plane at that location and “seed” the formation of an Ethereal Reflection of the forge by creating brick-shaped pieces of Ether and placing them in walls etc.
        The smith must also bring in unforged metal, fuel, food, and water for the maximum duration of the Coagulation event into the phantom Forge, and any assistants required. Mirroring of the forge and stockpiling of supplies must be complete before Coagulation occurs, trapping those participating in the Forging.
    2-to-the-x showing critical point    The metal can then be forged “as usual” until the Coagulation ends, but that alone is not enough to create Ethereal Alloy, which requires the melting of a congealed ectoplasm into the metal being forged. The ectoplasm must be mirroring something which would melt at the temperatures being achieved within the forge, which will be only about 70% of the normal temperatures. The heat of the furnace breaks down the mirrored structure formed by the “normal” Ectoplasm, but not before it is transformed (melted) by virtue of the properties of the object being mimicked. In this way, the ectoplasm is infused into the metal, “alloying” itself to form Ethereal Alloy.
        The amount of Ethereal Material infused is critical. If insufficient ectoplasm is infused, it will leak out again; if too much, the alloy will crumble like wet biscuit. Nor is the process a linear one; it is exponential in nature, because every piece of ectoplasm not only adds to the ectoplasmic content, it reinforces the alloy’s ability to hold more Ectoplasm. The critical point is a little under 4% by mass. But that’s tricky to assess in a no-gravity environment, especially since objects masses are morphic. You can’t judge by eye, you need to work the metal until it “feels” right, using experience built up over many attempts, or using trial-and-error and luck.
        And, of course, there’s a deadline (the Ectoplasm de-coagulates eventually, reverting to normal Ectoplasm, which cannot maintain its mirrored structure within the intense heat), but you don’t know when that will be. It could be hours or it could be days, you can’t tell. This is the reason small parts and components are what are usually constructed from Ethereal Alloy which can then be riveted together at a later time and in the normal way. Creating Ethereal Alloy is a DC35 blacksmithing check under ideal circumstances. Once the alloy has been forged and cooled, it is unworkable beyond simple joining; any attempt to do so will release the alloyed ectoplasm leaving you with a pile of metal trash. This includes “shape metal” spells of any kind.
  • Dangers: Ethereal Alloys are so useful that some entities monitor attempts to create it in hopes of being able to usurp the construction or steal the finished product while the smiths are still in the Ethereal Plane and (relatively) vulnerable. Others have been known to set up ambushes with similar intent. At the moment the Congealment ends and the ‘mirror forge’ reverts to normal Ectoplasm, it is no longer able to contain the heat that was generated within, which erupts into the surrounding space – it’s as though the smith was placed in the middle of his own forge. This can be instantly lethal or can inflict devastating burns. There are a few creatures that inhabit the Ethereal Plane and many passing travelers; these may take “an interest” at any time, especially if there’s the prospect of some Ethereal Alloy in return. Because extra-planar travel is impossible from within the Congealed Ectoplasmic Forge, if supplies are inadequate, characters may starve. It is speculated that in 1% of 1% of cases, the congealment may last months or years instead of hours or days, but this has never been proven. Aside from these, there are no inherent dangers in the creation of Ethereal Alloy.
  • Rating: Exotic.
  • Comments: The metal within the alloy is partially in a quasi-ethereal state at all times, greatly lightening it (approx 40% reduction). This gives Ethereal Alloy its scaly “slag-like” appearance; to some extent, you can actually see into the metal, rather than just seeing the surface. This is also why these scales migrate from time-to-time when exposed to a hostile force or energy.
  • Other Uses: Ethereal Alloys have four attributes that yield a wealth of other uses, making the material very desirable.
        First, as already noted, it weighs only about 60% of what it should, by volume, so it’s popular in arms and armor. Second, the qualities of the original metal are enhanced and improved. Copper becomes even more bendable and malleable, and an even better conductor of heat. Brass becomes even more fragile (not so helpful). Steel becomes tougher. Third, anything made from Ethereal Alloy automatically has the “Ghost Touch” characteristic, ie it is solid to otherwise insubstantial creatures. And fourth, it regenerates. A sword bent out of shape will resume that shape over a 24-hour period. Armor will lose its dents, and close rents and tears, in a similar time-frame (it is common for Armor forged from Ethereal Alloy to be enchanted to also regenerate the wearer).
        Weapons often have barbs and hooks designed to break off and cause additional damage or blood loss to those impaled or struck; should the owner of the weapon win the fight, he needs only to extricate these additions from the corpses of his enemies and reattach them to the weapon using some temporary means (wax or honey are popular) and they will knit back together in less than an hour.
        Smaller objects resume their shapes even more quickly. This makes it especially valued for mechanisms of all sorts. A clock-spring made from Ethereal Alloy is effectively self-winding – as the clock runs down, it distorts the Ethereal Alloy, which then restores itself to the fully-wound position if that is the shape in which it was created. Trap mechanisms can be self-rearming, even if disabled; the Ethereal Alloy is capable of exerting STR100 in this way, more then enough to twist and tear even a dagger in the workings apart. Self-repairing wheel hubs, self-repairing tools and implements, the list of applications is endless. Some clever artisans have even found ways to harness that incredible Strength for spring-powered weaponry like crossbows. These applications also suit the potentially-short time-frame for manufacture of the Alloy.



Firespheres are based on some incomplete original ideas for the environment within the elemental plane of Fire. These ideas were intended to be supplemented with analogous treatments for the other elemental planes, but I never got around to it. For that reason, the notes have been rewritten to imply that these attributes are unique to the Plane Of Fire. If any GMs want to finish the work by extrapolating out to the other Elemental Planes, feel free to do so; you can even keep the text as written by postulating that the Plane Of Fire version was the only one known at the time the “text” which is being quoted was written.

  • Description: In appearance, this is a ball of red-and-gold fire that is always backed by black shadows no matter from which angle it is viewed. Multiple people can look at the same Firesphere at the same time from different directions and all will see it against a black background which appears to fray into tattered non-existence at the edges. Any stand or pedestal also appears in front of this black shadow as though it were behind whatever is supporting the ball. After a few minutes close inspection, stars can be observed twinkling in the blackness, though these are never present to casual inspection. Sizes range from 1 inch to about three feet (40 inches) in diameter. Firespheres are actually cool and solid to the touch, more akin to a glass sculpture. Gazing into one gives the impression that the fiery interior is actually some unfathomable distance away and much bigger than the firesphere can contain. When so studied, genuine Firespheres (there have been some attempts to produce fakes over the years) grow inexplicably warm to the touch.
  • Found: Plane Of Fire
  • Created: -
  • Qualities: Fire, Duplication, Reproduction, Growth, Universality
  • Process: -
  • Dangers: Firespheres are typically protected by 2-6 Fire Elementals of size Large or bigger. Refer “Other Uses” below.
  • Rating: Exotic.
  • Comments: As noted above, planar boundaries occasionally fluctuate and permit a leakage of material from one plane to another. Within the Elemental Plane of Air are streamers and bubbles of various gases, drifting in isolation, sometimes intersecting and coming together in strange alchemies. Some of these are highly flammable. When planar flux permits the release of a portion of the Elemental Plane Of Fire into such an environment, the Gas ignites, momentarily creating a flame that is hotter than that of the Plane Of Fire itself.
        The Elemental Plane Of Fire is unique amongst the Elemental Planes in that any fire more intense than that of the plane, and that borders it, is immediately drawn into the Plane. The emission is thus reabsorbed into the Fire Plane just as it consumes itself, becoming a pocket of Quasi-non-flame within the Plane which immediately condenses to a much smaller size. The interface between this Quasi-non-flame and the Plane around it is a Firesphere.
        Some fire elementals believe that the entire Elemental Plane of Fire is the interior of an inverted Firesphere – the “outside” being inherently not Planar Fire. Others complain that this is a meaningless extrapolation of physical principles beyond their point of applicability, and therefore nonsensical.
  • Other Uses: Firespheres are nesting environments for “baby” Fire Elementals. Initially populated by one such infant per square inch of surface area (4 pi r squared), these young are “cannibalistic” and fight for access to the surface, growing by consuming the other contenders until it completely “owns” the surface area. It then grows by absorbing the energy that drifts through the plane until the infant is large enough to survive on it’s own (4′ long, wrapped around the sphere), at which point it separates itself from the surface and leaves the “nest”, leaving it available for habitation by the next generation.
        Fire Elementals are mono-gendered. One mechanism by which Adult+ Fire Elementals reproduce is by separating off a portion of their own mass sufficient to inhabit the Firesphere (there are also other methods, including internal incubation). While the infants inhabit the firesphere, the parent will guard the firesphere. For some reason that is yet unexplained, once an Elemental has used a Firesphere, they will not use that particular Firesphere to reproduce again; it is thought but unverified that differences within spheres contribute to individuality within the Elemental population.
        In addition to the Guardian protecting its young, there will be other Fire Elementals inclined to reproduce waiting to claim the vacated space, and who will fight to protect the Firesphere itself.



  • Description: Ghostwood appears to be a somewhat-spherical piece of hollow driftwood which has holes eroded in it through which sparkling blue-white energy is visible. It is very soft and slightly wet to the touch (think of wet cork) except in the “gaps” which are solid nothingness – most objects inserted are Disintegrated to the point of contact with the invisible “surface”, including fingers, daggers, etc. Magical objects inserted into a gap are not Disintegrated and are instead transported to the Ethereal Plane, losing one magical plus, one minor ability, or 20% of their remaining charges (round up) in the process. Such objects are somehow still “bound” to the Ghostwood, and if the Ghostwood is kept in one place for long enough, will “follow” it through the Ethereal Plane until they come to rest within 2d20x10 feet of the “Ethereal Shadow” of the Ghostwood (see also “Other Uses,” below). The period of time required for such migration of objects is 1 week per year since the Ghostwood swallowed the object, plus d4 weeks for each time the Ghostwood has been teleported since. Only by removing the object from the Ethereal Plane can this link be broken. This does not restore the lost magic in the item, which has been permanently diminished.
  • Found: Negative Energy Plane, Ethereal Plane.
  • Created: -
  • Qualities: Death, Life, Planar Travel, Disintegration, Destruction, Healing, Immunity to Negative Energy, Positive Energy
  • Process: -
  • Dangers: Aside from treasure-hunters (refer below), creatures of negative energy hate and fear Ghostwood. If a piece comes within 20 miles of them, they have an uncomfortable feeling which more experienced sentients may be able to identify. Within 10 miles, they have a definite awareness that something that is anathema to their kind is moving out there. Within 5 miles, they can get a vague direction. Within 1 mile, they get a clearer direction. Within 500′, they are aware of exactly where it is, relative to them. It is also possible that Ghostwood influences the mental state of the Wielder (refer below).
  • Rating: Exotic.
  • Comments: Ghostwood is the ghost of a tree which has been eroded by exposure to the Negative Energy Plane, having been sucked through during planar flux.
        Not just any tree becomes a Ghost when it is destroyed; it must somehow be elevated to sentience, one step beyond the awareness that some say the Elves rouse in them. The tree must then die in a manner that makes it appropriate that it reform as a ghost of itself. This usually involves strong motivation, something trees are not often associated with – they tend to be fairly fatalistic. Before it can gather enough Ectoplasmic Energy to manifest itself on the Prime Material Plane, something only a few Ghosts ever manage, it must either be attacked by intense Negative Energy or be drawn into the Negative Energy Plane.
        Both methods are likely to result from Planar Flux; the only difference is the direction of travel through the planar barriers. If Negative Energy is released into the Ethereal Plane, the Ghostwood can subsequently be found there; if the Ghost is thrust into the Negative Energy Plane, that is where the Ghostwood will exist.
        The Negative Energy destroys the residuum of life that gives the ghost form, sentience, and purpose, but cannot occupy the “spiritual space” left behind the way it does with other ghostly forms to create some forms of undead, who will eventually make their way to the Prime Material Plane. The “Negative Energy Vacuum” that results continually draws Positive Energy into itself, eventually reaching the point of equilibrium where the Negative Energy can no longer affect the Ghostwood. The Negative Energy that is neutralized by the Positive Energy combines with the Ectoplasm of the wood that remains to restore it to solidity. In this form, it drifts through the Ethereal Plane until found by someone who knows what it is and who returns it to the Prime Material Plane for their own purposes.
        Some philosophers suggest that the motivation of the original tree lingers at an instinctive level and manifests as a personal goal of the wielder each time Ghostwood is used, but there is no evidence to support this.
  • Other Uses: In ages past, the Ethereal fate of magic items “consumed” by Ghostwood was not appreciated, and many dangerous magic items were “destroyed” by dumping them into the gaps in the timber of larger pieces of Ghostwood. Whenever such Ghostwood is found, Medium-level treasure hunters flock around it, making regular excursions into the Ethereal Plane to see what they can find. More expert (and dangerous) Treasure Hunters (including Vampires, Liches, Arch-Liches, Demons, Devils, Dark Gods, etc) will reason that it’s easier to win the race if you are the only one in the running. Other, more positive forces recognize the dangers that this poses, and will seek to oppose them. They will all recognize that the whole task becomes easier if they are the being in possession of the Ghostwood. The Ghostwood thus becomes a very dangerous MacGuffin to possess.
        Some employ the Ethereal Passage of magic items in pursuit of the Ghostwood to which they have become linked to leave a trail that can be followed, either by secreting the Ghostwood somewhere about the person of the individual to be tracked and then following the trail through the Ethereal Plane, or as a means of enabling reinforcements to follow after the possessor when he sets out on a dangerous mission.
        The final usage of note for Ghostwood is the destruction of Undead. Upon contact with Ghostwood, the Negative Energies that suffuse an undead are disrupted (if not destroyed). This also disrupts/destroys the Positive energy within the Ghostwood at the rate of 8 cubic inches per HD of disrupted creature. If this does not exhaust the Positive energy (Volume is equal to 4/3rds pi r cubed), destroying the Ghostwood, the Positive energy will regenerate at the rate of 1HD per hour. Ghostwood can also be used to disrupt magic weapons and armor that has a Negative Energy component or effect; each +1 is the equivalent of 4HD, each charge is the equivalent of 1/4th of a HD. Minor abilities are 4HD equivalent, Medium abilities are 8HD, and Greater abilities are 16HD.
        The combination of these abilities is such that Ghostwood is very highly prized by beings who will stop at nothing to take it from whoever possesses it.

Heavenly Airs

I’m really proud of this piece of completely original digital art. Even at full size (click the thumbnail) you can’t tell that it isn’t a photograph!

Heavenly Airs

  • Description: A perfect sunset in a bottle.
  • Found: This is nothing more complicated than a vial of Air from Elysium.
  • Created: -
  • Qualities: Air, Heaven, Rest, Wind, Clouds, Life, Light, Purity, Good.
  • Process: Go to Elysium, unstopper a bottle or vial, reseal the bottle or vial. Survive the experience.
  • Dangers: Normal dangers of Planar Travel, plus (see below).
  • Rating: Very Rare.
  • Comments: There is a common belief that taking the Air from Elysium reduces its capacity for housing the Worthy Dead, raising the bar of admission that little bit higher. People uncertain of their chances tend to resent this, and at least some of them are going to take it personally. In addition, good people with more wayward children can become extraordinarily hostile under these circumstances.
  • Other Uses: When held by an individual, the air glows to reflect the intensity of the purity of their beliefs. It is thus a perfect lie detector. It reacts to the presence of strong evil by dimming. It maximizes half the random damage component of any spell cast by a Good spellcaster, while minimizing half the random damage component of any spell cast upon the bearer by an Evil spellcaster. It prevents the “acquisition” of negative character levels, once per day, and finally, if breathed in, functions as a Heal spell (consuming the Heavenly Airs).

Well, I’m half-way through, and – as I feared – running late. It’s probably worth mentioning that I expected all the entries to be about the size of “Heavenly Airs”, above! So I’ll wrap this up next week with the other five exotic materials!

About the contributors:

Mike is the owner, editor, and principle author at Campaign Mastery, responsible for most of the words of wisdom (or lack thereof) that you can read here. You can find him on Twitter as gamewriterMike, and find out more about him from the “About” page above.

IanG Avatar
Ian Gray:
Ian Gray resides in Sydney Australia. He has been roleplaying for more than 25 years, usually on a weekly basis, and often in Mike Bourke’s campaigns. From time to time he GMs but is that rarest of breeds, a person who can GM but is a player at heart. He has played many systems over the years including Tales Of The Floating Vagabond, Legend Of The Five Rings, Star Wars, D&D, Hero System, Gurps, Traveller, Werewolf, Vampire, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, and many, many more. Over the last couple of years he has been dirtying his hands with game design. He was a contributor to Assassin’s Amulet, the first time his name appeared in the credits of a real, live, RPG supplement. Recently he has taken to GMing more frequently, with more initial success than he was probably expecting, based on his prior experiences.

Nick Deane:
Nick also lives in Sydney. He started roleplaying in the mid-1980s in high school with a couple of friends who got him into D&D. That group broke up a year later, but he was hooked. In late ’88 he found a few shops that specialized in RPGs, and a notice board advertising groups of gamers led him to his first long-term group. They started with AD&D, transferred that campaign to 2nd Ed when it came out, tinkered with various Palladium roleplaying games (Heroes Unlimited met Nick’s long-term fascination with Marvel’s X-Men, sparking his initial interest in superhero roleplaying), and eventually the Star Wars RPG by West End Games and Marvel Super Heroes Advanced Set. This also led to his first experiences with GMing – the less said about that first AD&D 2nd Ed campaign, the better (“so much railroading I should have sold tickets”). His second time around, things went better, and his Marvel campaign turned out “halfway decent”. That group broke up in 1995 when a number of members moved interstate. Three years later, Nick heard about what is now his regular group while at a science-fiction bookstore. He showed up at one of their regular gaming Saturdays, asked around and found himself signed up for an AD&D campaign due to start the next week. A couple of weeks later, He met Mike, and hasn’t looked back since. From ’98 he’s been a regular player in most of Mike’s campaigns. There’s also been some Traveller and the Adventurer’s Club (Pulp) campaign, amongst others. Lately he’s been dipping a tentative toe back into the GMing pool, and so far things have been going well.

Nick is unique amongst the GMs that Mike knows in that he has done some PbP (Play-by-post) gaming, something Mike neglected to include in an article on the evolution of RPGs and was quite rightly taken to task over (the article was updated within 24 hours to correct the omission).

“I’ve played spellcasters in a number of games and systems. In Mike’s original Fumanor campaign I played a cleric-monk hybrid and later a druid, while in the spin-off, Seeds of Empire, I have run a lawful good Orcish War-priest throughout the campaign. I’ve also played spellcasters in a couple of superhero games – a couple of Marvel campaigns from 1988-1995, and my modern-Norse spellcaster Runeweaver in Mike’s current Zenith-3 campaign for getting on for a decade. I mention this at Mike’s request because it, more than my GMing experience, is how I have been able to contribute to this topic.”

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The Gradated Diminishing Of Reality – Travel in FRPG

Giraffes in Africa

Photo by Krzysztof Szkurlatowski; Click the image to visit his website.

Another filler article, I’m afraid. I’ve made quite a lot of progress but – due to external factors – simply ran out of time. I’ve been saving this one for just such an eventuality…

For the purposes of this article, “FRPG” is considered restricted to D&D / Pathfinder and similar systems. I know that’s unrealistic, and unfair to all the other game systems out there, but the title was just too long otherwise!

I am writing the first draft of this article (longhand!) while sitting in a train carriage on the way to a belated Christmas with part of my family who I didn’t get to see back in December. This is not a long trip – about three hours by train and bus, if you take the express – but it is travel beyond the city nevertheless, and that has inspired today’s topic of conversation.


The skyline of this landscape is almost identical to that of the Africa picture above – but they are definitely NOT the same place despite that similarity.

How Much Travel Do You Roleplay?

It would be my preference to roleplay every step – well, almost. I want to describe the changing terrain, the evolving weather, the bird-songs and wildlife both recognizable and exotic. I want the PCs to feel what the world around them is like, to immerse them in its colors and textures, and to make the players feel like their characters are part of that world and not simply passing through.

My players, on the other hand, would prefer I mention none of this, unless it is absolutely necessary because something potentially significant is going to occur – and even the “potentially” is a concession. They don’t want me to mention the buildings on the street, or the cobbles beneath their feet – they just want to know where the one building that they are looking for can be found, and is anyone watching?

An Evolved Compromise

Over time, between complaints from both sides of the table, we have evolved a compromise, a gradated diminishing of reality, or – more precisely – a graduated diminishing of the intrusion of reality. The purpose of today’s article is to explain that compromise, and reveal a secret implication or two that my players may not have been previously aware of.

Beginner’s Levels

At very low levels, when the PCs are (mostly) traveling on foot, they get – and are required to give – full detail. They establish protocols and routines with the understanding that they won’t vary these unless presented with compelling reason to do so on, and then only for this one occasion. These include setting up camp at night, breaking camp in the morning, and the “daily routine” of life as an adventurer.

Low Levels

Sometime around 3rd or 4th level, the PCs usually acquire horses, or some other means of conveyance appropriate to the game world. As soon as they do so, the protocols and routines that are not affected by the change of conveyance or the need to care for such mounts as may be involved, are considered fixed and complete. The players can only alter the routines or add a new one if they tell me explicitly that they are doing something different from now on and roleplay the variation a time or two, and I will take it as read that they are performing their routines in the manner established.

At the same time, I begin cutting back on the level of narrative detail – instead of describing every change in surroundings or landscape, I will break each major time period – morning/afternoon/evening – into two (or, more usefully, three) parts of a couple of hours duration each. Given that the PCs travel speed has increased enormously at the same time, descriptions retreat into generalities and summaries.

Of course, exceptions are always made for significant encounters.

Lower Mid-Levels

As the PCs continue to go up in levels, so the time covered by each narrative passage increases – without extending the amount of game time that I am expending on these descriptions. By about 7th or 8th level, I no longer give place names unless these are expected to matter to the PCs (or I am asked explicitly by a player), and the miles are beginning to get seriously compressed. By this point, a single block of narrative covers the entire morning or afternoon, and – if there is not much to distinguish the two – it might even be the entire day.

By this point, there is very little that a CR 1 or 2 encounter with a non-sentient can do to make the PCs even break stride, and the XP- and Treasure rewards from these are also pretty minimal, so most of these get hand-waved as well – but note the narrowness of definition. Every 2 PC levels thereafter, this “Threshold of notification” will increase by 1.

It’s not that the PCs are traveling any faster (though they might be) – it’s just that there is so much less that is relevant to them.


By around character level 11 or 12 – approaching upper mid-level – I am starting to approach the levels of compression that the players want. A whole day’s travel is described in a single paragraph, and unless it is exceptional, weather never even gets mentioned. The same is true of most terrain, though swamp, desert, and mountains usually still rate at least a passing mention.

Most casual encounters don’t rate an acknowledgement, either. Unless it’s a sentient being (who can impart useful information no matter what CR it might be), anything less than CR 4 or 5 is trivially simple for the PCs to deal with, and that takes in an awful lot of ground – and even some sentients aren’t worth mentioning.

This also marks the point at which I can begin to take advantage of the players’ desire to skip over the trivial, because what they are really asking for (without necessarily realizing it) is that they want to ignore context and clues unless these are obviously important or potentially dangerous in a combat sense. The alternative is for me to bury the “important” encounters amongst ones that aren’t important, because of a simple but very important principle:

  • If the PCs can’t tell that an encounter is important, the players should not know it either.

i.e. If there is nothing that would make the encounter stand out as significant to the PCs at the time, the GM should not do anything to make it stand out to the players – though it should get mentioned when the significance becomes clear: “You didn’t think anything of it at the time, but…” If I’m feeling generous, I might even permit a PC an INT check – eventually – to put two and zero together and come up with a speculative “four”.

From this point on, then, the players are increasingly diving into things without knowing what they are getting themselves into, a situation that can only work to the GM’s advantage.

High Levels

This situation can only grow more overt when characters gain Flight, or the ability to Teleport, or the capability of jumping from one Plane of existence to another. The use of such means may save the players from all that arduous, boring travel – but it is also a direct challenge to the GM: “Come on, do your worst – we’re ready for anything.”

The PCs now stride the game world in 7-League Boots (or the equivalent thereof) – Arrogant, Cocksure, and Defiant. What better time to dole out some Humble Pie?

Speaking of 7-league boots, there are some fascinating conclusions and conundrums that arise from the concept of a league when it is applied to RPG mapping – a definite subject for another article sometime!


If it were just a little flatter, this would be exactly the same as the landscapes I grew up with. Photo by “leagun”.

A little context

It would be unfair not to mention that at least part of the motivation behind the players desire to skip through to “the interesting stuff” is that we can’t play any given campaign as much as we would like. There would be more time to waste, and more time wasted on detail, if we played every week, for example. With an average of 11 games sessions per year, maximum, for most campaigns, time is always at a premium. Nevertheless, I am sure that every group, no matter how often they gather, would agitate against encounters that are trivial, meaningless, and/or irrelevant. They always want to get to the adventure, and are only marginally tolerant of the intrusion of realism in the form of “the slow bits” in between.

While most groups won’t have the same pressures that mine do, therefore, the same arguments and compromises still apply.

How much travel do you roleplay – and is it more, or less, than is desirable?

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Ask The GMs: Some Arcane Assembly Required – Pt 2: Sourcing Parts

Ask the gamemasters

This question comes from GM Roy, who wrote:

“I need some inspiration to create cool names for spell components.

I have 5 [scales of rarity = Mike]:

  • Common (flesh, breath, water, dust)
  • Uncommon (earth from a cemetery, humanoid blood)
  • Rare (head of a Medusa, Minotaur’s horn, black dragon blood)
  • very Rare (Essence of the ghost of a mass murderer, Adamantium armor forged in hell by a celestial), and
  • Unique (The Tear of the ancient God of death, Essence of the Terrasque).

I need a lot of these, Where can I find some?”

Series Logo ATGMs 32 Some Assembly Required

I guess it was inevitable that sooner or later there would be an Ask-the-GMs question that was simply too big for a single blog post in response.

The short answer to GM Roy’s question, is to create them yourself. But, like a lot of readers, the first question that had to be answered was “Why Bother?” The popular perception of Material Components is that they are nothing but unnecessary paperwork, after all. Before I could take a solid swing at answering the question, I needed to find an answer to that first question that satisfied me, AND that did away with that popular perception, hopefully by doing away with the majority of the paperwork.

I tackled that task in Part One, “The Sales Pitch”, in which I tried to “sell” the value of Material Components to both myself and my readers at the same time. The consensus seems to be that I hit the mark in that respect.

Along the way, I had to revise the categories offered by GM Roy in such a way that they were logically defined. That proved a little more controversial, largely because, instead of reducing the number of categories, I increased them. That was a direct result of the need to accommodate a spell-design process that I had come up with, based on the Material Component rarity. Because I’m really happy with that system, I’m sticking with the 6-step scale of rarity that I came up with.

Now, it’s time to look at ways of populating those categories, and that’s the subject of today’s article. The obvious place to start is by recapitulating the categories and the examples that I’ve already created for them…


IanG Avatar I’ve relied heavily on past discussions regarding D&D/PFRPG with Ian Gray and in D&D and the Zenith-3 campaign with Nick Deane for these articles. Ian’s contributions were a major element of Part 1 of this series, Nick’s are part of what’s below – possibly morphed beyond his recognition! I also have to acknowledge discussions on the subject with Graham McDonald before he passed away several years ago. Graham was the first to suggest to me a more systematic approach to Material Components in spell design, while echoing the complaints about “Unnecessary Paperwork” that Ian would later make. Nick-Avatar


The Scale Of Rarity (with examples)

My revised scale of rarity is based on the principle of each level being the previous one plus one of four things:

  • Inherently Greater Rarity;
  • Inherently Greater Danger in procurement;
  • An additional process of conversion which is inherently difficult and may be unknown;
  • Greater journeys to procure, even extending into other planes at higher rarity levels;
  • Qualities with a metaphysical significance relevant to the arcane purpose to which the material is to be put.

For most purposes relating to known spells, the first three levels are all you need, and most of those are reasonably readily available. Spellcasters can derive some additional benefits by using material components of one step greater rarity than those which are normally associated with the standard spells, or can have some minor variations on the basic spell results by using variations on components of similar rarity.

It’s in developing new variations on existing spells and standardizing them, or developing entirely new spells and standardizing them, or creating Epic spells, that the higher levels of rarity become important. With those in mind, here are the categories that I have defined and examples of the sort of Material Component that occupies that level of the rarity scale.

  • Common:
    • Flesh, Breath, Water, Dust, Candles, Salt, Leather, Copper, Silver, Gold [D&D / Pathfinder only], Wood, Nails, Hide, Humanoid Blood, Meat,
      i.e. Anything you could routinely obtain from a country fair or marketplace, costing an SP or less. Readily replenished for the Spell Components Pouch.
  • Uncommon:
    • Earth from a cemetery, Inhaled Breath, Spring Water, Swamp Water, Emerald Dust, Ruby Dust or shards, the flesh or blood of an Uncommon creature, Platinum, Spices, possibly tropical plants (tomatoes, banana skins, bamboo), Bat Guano, Amber Sticks, colored candles, candles that burn with a specific color of flame, inks of a specific color,
      i.e. items that are generally available in larger towns and small cities, possibly with a short wait, but that are not going to be routinely available in a small country town. In general, think of Common materials with an extra qualifier.
  • Rare:
    • Body parts of a Rare creature, Gemstones of at least 5gp value, diamond dust, possibly Adamantium, Ethereal Vapor, Breath of a Djinn, Water from one of the Waterfalls of Elysium,
      i.e. anything that is inherently valuable and that aren’t waste products (that’s why ruby and emerald dust don’t fit this category) – (Diamonds are rare enough that even the dust falls into this category), and anything that is inherently dangerous to obtain, or that involves travel to other realms of existence, but is reasonably freely available in the right place.
  • Very Rare:
    • Essence Of A Ghost, Adamantium forged in Hell, Adamantium Forged by a Celestial, Blood of a Celestial, Eyes Of A Demon, anything with an inherent worth of more than about 50gp (larger gemstones, gemstones carved with a particular scene or symbol), shrunken heads, a cursed monkey’s paw, the Blood Of A Tree, the Heart of a Mountain, Bottled Lightning, Essence Of The Terrasque,
      i.e. body parts of a rare creature, or body parts of a creature which is uncommon and only found in an extra-planar location, anything that is inherently dangerous AND only found in an extra-planar location, anything worth more than about 50gp, and anything that is metaphysical and not so rare that it qualifies for the “Exotic” category. The common pattern is either an elevated risk in obtaining the item, or travel that is inherently dangerous and which leads to an opportunity that is itself dangerous. Also anything Rare that requires some form of processing before it is ready to use, the specifics of which are not commonly known.
  • Exotic:
    • Essence Of The Ghost Of A Mass Murderer,
      i.e. Anything very rare with an additional qualification or a third source of danger involved, or that have multiple unknowns that have to be resolved in separate adventures, the personal property or a body part of a specific individual of immense power whose precise location is unknown.
  • Unique:
    • The Tear Of The Ancient God Of Death (with caveats – refer to the discussion in the comments to part 1), Excalibur, a branch of Yggdrasil, the Skin of the Midgard Serpent, the Horn Of Cornucopia,
      i.e Unique items have to be one-of-a-kind or improbably dangerous AND difficult to obtain.

So, now that we’re all caught up, let’s look at general principles of populating the different categories.

Industrialized Adventuring

The first consideration, and most dominant at the low end of the rarity scale, is this question: How Industrialized Is Adventuring In Your Game World?

This is a question that GMs generally don’t consider nearly often enough or deeply enough. I have seen games in which a GM has plunked an “Adventurer’s Store” into every village and hamlet in which anything (including Material Components) that the adventurer might need can be obtained, whether it is a suit of +4 Chain Mail or a spare Wand Of Orcus (I kid you not!) No thought of the chains of suppliers and required infrastructure necessary to make this happen, they are just there.

As GMs grow in experience, they tend to swing the other way, making anything and everything hard to obtain and modeling their game worlds far more strongly on real-world models – usually without enough research into how things worked back then.

Most then settle down into a happy medium – still never having given the real question any thought.

The Fumanor Example

When I was first developing the Fumanor background, this was one of main creative focuses of the game world. I devised a situation in which “Adventuring” was a state-sponsored industry, with training, examinations, incentives, and rewards for successful advancement (which just happened to match those that the “rule book” says characters should receive.

What I didn’t tell the players (leaving the characters to discover it the hard way) was that this was economically unsustainable, but I made it clear that the Kingdom had grown entirely dependent on the adventuring industry. Defensive and Military spending had been undermined, resources diverted to continue funneling money into the Adventuring Programme, for example. Villages had, as their primary economic activity, farming; and a close second was preparing their populace for the life of an adventurer.

Every child was tested for potential, and the top 5% received subsidized further education. From these, at the age of adulthood (15 or equivalent for non-human species), they were tested again, and the top 1% were adopted by the state, gathered at training academies, and given the training needed to achieve first level as an adventurer. The state then outfitted each with the minimum equipment needed, gave each a small starting fund, and tried to get existing adventuring parties to take them on as apprentices – with cash incentives. If no adventuring party wanted the individual, they were encouraged (more cash incentives and group resources) to form their own party with their fellow novices. From that point until they reached 5th level, there was further training, involving state-sponsored dungeon explorations (artificial ones, with salted treasures), mentoring, and so on. From 5th level to 8th level, the mentoring continued, though the adventurers were free to strike out on their own (and soon discovered the difference between a manicured and controlled dungeon “simulation” and the real thing). Beyond 8th level, the mentor became an advisor, but no longer received subsidies from the government.

That’s a huge outlay by the society, and even with the semi-sheltering of simulated dungeons etc, only about 5% of novice adventurers survived to reach independence, so a lot of the outlay was lost. But it was in recovering lost treasures (taxes) and subsequent public service that the Kingdom recouped its expenses (in theory); by the time the PCs entered the picture, this approach was already starting to break down. So long as the Kingdom had continued to expand at breakneck speed, new income sources (ie dungeons to loot) could stave off disaster, but the Kingdom did not exist in isolation, and it was rubbing shoulders with neighbors (who had their own problems) or with impassable physical boundaries. Growth had slowed and was all but stopped. On top of that, other social problems were coming to the surface, such as the loss of revenue-providing resources to the Church, which was wealthy and increasingly corrupt. In such an environment, Adventurers were an elite force, and nowhere near as cost-effective as a large number of relatively untrained conscripts (the more traditional medieval model). The lesson in all this?

I had looked at how the Society would have evolved to accommodate adventurers in the post-apocalyptic environment that I had created, and then projected forward. I had integrated “Adventurers” into the game world as a social and economic factor, looked at what was required to support them, and extrapolated.

(It’s worth noting that this all emerged from the need to explain the existence of traditional dungeons to be looted. That led to the apocalypse a century prior to game-start, and that led to the impacts on society of Adventurers at an economic, social, and political level.)

The Relevance

The more Adventurers are integrated into society, the more society will adapt and evolve to service their needs (and relieve them of their cash). Those needs include Material Components. And the government will want its share. If you have a society in which Adventurers have to fill out income-tax forms and get taxed on the treasure they loot, that’s one thing, but it doesn’t really fit the pseudo-medieval setting, does it? A goods-and-services tax on the merchandise bought and sold by adventurers is a far more logical and easily-administered approach, because it turns every merchant into an internal revenue officer.

All this affects the availability (and price) of common, uncommon, and “rare” material components. Merchants exist to make a profit, so they need to sell regularly to Adventurers, and that means there have to be enough adventurers stopping by to make it worth their while to stock the things that Adventurers are likely to want to buy.

These general principles were already taken into account to some extent in the category definitions provided; I mention it here because changes to the way these principles are embodied within the game world will also affect the contents of those categories, ie what is available, where.

Controlled Substances

Here’s another thought. Bat Guano and Amber Rods. These enable mages to cast Fireball and Lightning Bolt, respectively, spells that can be quite harmful in the wrong hands. Is it unreasonable that a society might seek to restrict the availability of these Spell Components, say by whacking a huge tax on them, controlling their import and trade, and generally pricing them out of the market? Of course, if the proposals regarding alternative spell components are implemented, this won’t work – there are too many things that burn. But if you don’t adopt that flexibility, government control of the Material Components is a practical certainty – for everyone but an elite force maintained by the government, of course. The inevitable result is a Black Market, which will happily supply them to anyone willing to break the law – so you end up in a situation where everyone except the PCs have access to these spells’ components.

Or perhaps, in a half-way point between these extremes, the “ideal” components are restricted, leaving “independent civilian” spellcasters a choice of less-effective Material Component Alternatives?

In Summary:

While the list of material component examples offered above is all well and good in theory, it does not take into account social and economic restrictions that might apply, shifting specific components up or down the rarity scale. Or, to put it another way, the list offered is a theoretical one based on availability in the natural world; Social, economic, political and military factors – which will differ from game to game – will alter the availability within the humanoid world.

Spell- ie Purpose- Driven

There are two possible approaches to populating the categories. The first is to list every possible Material Component you can think of, then look at what spells they might be appropriate for. The alternative is to work from a list of spells available to spellcasters that require material components and think of possible alternatives as and when necessary.

The first is so much work that I definitely and emphatically don’t recommend it. The second is far more practical; for a start, you only have to worry about the spells that the spellcaster can actually cast. Don’t worry about 2nd level spells, and up, until you are dealing with a mage who can cast such spells.

Furthermore, you can decide not to worry about those spells until the mage actually decides to cast one. That’s when you need to know what variation is in the spell component pouch, and what impact (if any) the substitution will have on the spell. Decide that, tell the player, and let him decide whether or not to continue with that proposed action in light of the information.

Anything Goes?

Another approach – at least for the low-level spells that will get cast relatively frequently – is to make this a question for the player. Instead of telling them what they have available for material components, you can ask “What are you using for material component? You need something that…”

If the spell is fire-based, you might conclude that sentence with “…burns or is symbolic of fire”. This permits the choice of component to become part of the personality of the character, especially once the player gets used to the ground rules we’ve discussed. All that is necessary is for him to choose something that plausibly belongs in the rarity category required.

Let’s consider the possible justifications for an item to be the Material Component of a spell.

1. A metaphor or symbol for the spell

I’ve mentioned this one above. Consider, for example, the first level spell, Alarm (Pathfinder version). The spell description lists a small silver bell and piece of silver wire as a focus for the spell. What if you don’t have those? Well, the GM (under these rules) should be willing to permit the substitution of lesser-rarity components that will be consumed by the spell (Silver is a “common” material, available in coins, but requiring it to worked into the specified forms raises the focus into the “uncommon” category. Step 7 on the creating/importing spells process (in Part One) states that a focus raises the rarity level by one, so the non-focus version should revert back to the “common” category. So, what common materials would be metaphoric or symbolic of the spell? Answer: anything that makes a noise. If you wanted to be a little more representative, a nail tied to a horseshoe by a bit of string or fishing line would do. If you’re more generously-inclined, a tin whistle, or a trumpet, or a reed flute, or anything along those lines would qualify, together with a piece of string or fishing line in place of the silver wire.

However, the fact that none of these would be noisemakers if it weren’t for their shape might lift them back up a level, meaning that the GM can either let them be limited-reuse Material Components or even let these substitute directly for the spell focus AS a spell focus.

2. Iconic Representation of the target or target quality

Another approach that has a long history of use in some circles (wax figures, etc), when generalized a little, offers another set of appropriate Material Components.

Consider the Pathfinder 1st level spell, Protection from Evil/Good/Chaos/Law. According to the spell description, the arcane version of this spell uses a material component, but fails to specify what it should be. As a 1st-level spell, barring any other considerations, this should be something common. My first thought, of course, is to use an iconic representation of the spell – a small piece of armor or shell – but that’s not illustrative of the type of component we’re considering. But a piece of paper bearing a symbol of Evil would work for a Protection From Evil, because it is representative of what the caster is being protected against. A coin with the face of an evil (past) Ruler might also qualify. An inverted symbol of good is often considered representative of evil.

Or you could take the position that it’s the caster who is being affected, and not the thing being warded against, so you would need something symbolic of the caster – a uniquely personal item, a depiction of a humanoid, a mirror (contains a reflection of the caster)… lots of choices, but – given that the Material Component is destroyed in the process of casting the spell, a depiction of a humanoid (even a crude stick figure) would be perfect. Put it on a piece of paper an inch or two square, and bob’s your uncle.

But this type of focus is best when considering components for spells whose effect is hard to symbolize, because it gives you something else to symbolize that may be easier.

3. Traditional Reasonings

There are a couple of traditional “rules of magic” that the GM might permit to be used as justification for Material Components.

3a. Contagion

The rule of Contagion holds that any object that was once part of something can be a focus/material component for spells affecting that something. If it was taken unwillingly, the danger level presumably increases, so it is raised one rarity level. It is often an unwritten rule that the caster was the person who took the item, but there are any number of examples of a third party bringing such an item to a witch, so that’s up to the GM to decide.

Personally, I feel that if the caster does their own dirty work, it’s more in keeping with the “increased danger” basis of elevation of rarity, so if the item is to be provided by a third party, such as the Fighter in the party, it must be elevated a rarity level in some other way – something more valuable, for example. The implication is that for a common creature, the mage has to do his own dirty work; if the creature is uncommon, the mage can use the fighter’s leavings for spells that need only common material components, and so on. But I can’t speak for everyone on this issue.

3b. Similarity

It might seem that categories 1 and 2 have “similarity” nailed. I can’t think of any examples that would not fall into those categories, off-hand. But I’m including it here for the sake of completeness; I’ll probably think of an example as soon as I hit “publish,” that’s the way these things usually work!

3c. Traditional Symbolism

Gemstones have long been held to be symbolic of various “supernatural qualities” – this Google Search is full of pages for researching the subject. The same holds true for all sorts of other objects and substances. Flowers, for example – see this Google Search. Even if you only accept a sub-set of these offerings, for example Birthstones as symbolic of a person of particular birth-date, these are too useful to ignore.

4. Iconic Representation of the effect

A perennial favorite of mine (though not necessarily for D&D / Pathfinder). If you want to symbolize an earthquake affecting a castle wall, do a quick sketch of the wall (some crenelations and quick-and-dirty bricks), cast the spell and tear the paper. Maybe, in order to qualify on the rarity scale, it would have to be expensive paper (which is harder to tear).

5. Iconic Representation of the source

Where the effect is coming from somewhere or something, you may be able to get away with symbolizing the source. For an Ice Storm, a piece of steel shaped like a cloud, for example.

Sidebar: Can You Make Your Own Ad-Hoc Divine Focus?

A related question comes to mind: If you are a cleric who has been taken prisoner, and your Holy Symbol taken from you, can you create your own temporary replacement? Ingredients would be something symbolic of the deity and a Bless Spell. Normally, the latter requires a divine focus to cast, but I would – under these general principles – the Bless to bootstrap itself into existence, transforming the symbolic item into a Divine Focus for the duration of the Bless – and consuming it when the Bless runs out. At least, this would give you an opportunity to retrieve your real focus in an adventurous manner!

1001 uses for a piece of string

It used to be that if you stripped a mage, you greatly restricted their effectiveness. The “component substitution” concept makes capturing a mage far more dangerous, by making the mage far more dangerous. To some extent, they can seize anything that’s handy and – depending on their cleverness – use that as the component requirement for all manner of spells.

Regardless of whether or not you allow Spell Pouches for Material Components, there would be a natural trend towards items that can be the Material Components for more than one spell to become part of the standard “kit” of a mage. A polished stone has the qualities of stone, of smoothness, of reflectivity, and so on. String can be tied around the finger (reminders/memory), tied into knots, laid out in a pattern (symbols), burned, producing smoke, used to bind something, unraveled – and that’s all before we start thinking about its color, the material it’s made of, and so on.

No doubt, there will be some shonky operators out there who would try to promote something as “the wonder of the ages, material component for 1,001 different spells” – when it’s actually just cheap junk. Component substitution opens the door for con-men even wider than it was before (ever sell a mage a “diamond” for use in a spell only for it to turn out to be some lesser crystal)?

Compound Components

Common-level components, then, are very easily filled. The world is full of them. The requirements get a little stiffer with “Uncommon” and “Rare” but not onerously so.

Things get more tricky when you start looking to populate the higher end of the rarity scale, and this, I suspect, was the real point of GM Roy’s question. if you have to do something to it (even if you can do that in advance) then you can climb a step on the rarity table. These are what I think of as “Compound Components”.

A Compound Component is a material or substance that has to be processed before it becomes the Component required. This extends to metaphysical components, too – “essence of a Ghost” requires not only that you somehow trap a Ghost, but that you then distill its metaphysical form into an essence somehow. Neither of these are tasks that any given character knows how to do – though it might also be metaphysical language for something more prosaic, reducing the rarity.

Ectoplasm, frequently described as coating something that the ghost passes through, like a wall, might be “Essence of A Ghost”, for example. Still not easy to obtain, but not as difficult as actually reducing a ghost to its essence – and that’s entirely ignoring the moral issues of doing so, which go away if you choose the “Ectoplasm” option.

Another interpretation is suggested by alchemy and early chemistry, where “essence” could refer to whatever is left after a substance is burned – the ash – implying that the burning is driving off impurities, or to the vapor produced by burning when trapped in water or sometimes oil.

In general, taking a (potential) material component and adding a more specific requirement that excludes most examples of the material in question, or adding a preparatory process of some sort, or adding a substantial additional element of danger, produces a compound component. Subsequent iterations or combinations of these additional requirements further carry you up the rarity scale.

Innately Magical Components

Some materials may be considered innately magical, either because it is one property of the material in question, or because it has previously been enchanted in some fashion. These materials may be considered a rarer form of the substance, or may have a restricted use. These usually require some thought on the part of the GM before they can be allocated onto the rarity scale.

In Fumanor, for example, Mithril is not an inherently superior material – in fact, it is brittle and rather difficult to work – but, if treated gently, it is more easily enchanted by Elven Magics (Fumanor Elves practice a different form of magic to that of Humans). The impurities cannot simply be beaten out of it the way you can with steel. If not treated properly, its qualities are those of brass. When correctly prepared, it has the strength of a piece of steel four times as thick, and the weight per volume of silver. This means that you can construct a lighter version of armor that is nevertheless tougher than the equivalent volume in steel. But, the thicker you make it, the less of these qualities that it retains – if you were to make mithril mail as thick as normal steel, it is no stronger than steel, because the magic placed within it by the Elves becomes too diffuse.

Adamantium, on the other hand, is too tough for humans to work; their furnaces don’t get hot enough, for one thing, and they lack the stamina to work it continuously for the length of time required. Dwarves are tailor-made for forging this material, which inherently resists being enchanted – but which is inherently much harder than steel, and can accept a limited amount of enchantment while it is white-hot but in its’ final form.

I have no problem with the Material Component of a prototype 9th-level or Epic-Level Superior Fireball spell being a fully-charged Wand Of Fireballs – price alone makes this a spell to be cast infrequently.

Magical Institutions as Components

Another idea worth contemplating is that Membership in a particular Magical Institution might constitute either a “virtual material component” or might provide a standard component that is upgraded in rarity due to something the Institution does to it.

The result is that mages with such membership, once schooled by the institution, find spells of a nature appropriate to the Institution easier to cast in terms of the material components.

An Institution dedicated to fire magic, for example, might allow for the casting of first level fire-related spells without a material component at all, the Institution Membership being the equivalent of an Arcane Focus of the particular type. They might be able to substitute common components (normally for spell levels 0 to 2 or 3) in spells of 4th level. How much more effective might a fire-mage be if he can use a piece of coal in place of bat guano, especially if the bat guano is a “controlled substance”?

Know your game Cosmology

Some “naturally occurring” materials might also be inherently magical – water from an exotic location (on another plane of existence, for example) might qualify, especially if that location is dangerous or guarded.

Exotic Qualities

Finally, imbuing objects or materials with qualities that they don’t normally posses can create Material Components with greatly increased rankings on the rarity scale. Whether these objects and/or materials qualify for the “Very Rare”, “Exotic” or “Unique” categories is up to the GM and the proposed material in question.

Of course, you can’t simply put two words together to create an exotic material. You can’t blindly add a process to a material that isn’t subject to that process.

Things have to make sense of some sort. There has to be some logical way of connecting the two parts of the idea.

Using these principles, you can fill the middle- and upper- ranks on the rarity scale without too much difficulty.

This epic answer is winding its way to a close! Next Time, in “Tab A into Slot B”, I offer ten exotic materials, all dreamed up by the processes described above in just a few minutes, and available for GMs to use as “exotic substances” even if they don’t adopt any of the proposals in this series. As a bonus, I have high-resolution images for GMs to use in illustrating these components – something that I’ve been putting together for months, now. Originally, there was only going to be one, but then I thought of a second, and then a third, and then, well, you get the picture.

I have to thank my fellow GMs for their time and their insights. While I’ve done most of the talking (hopefully without misrepresenting their views) I could not have done it without their past comments and contributions. Much appreciated!

About the contributors:

Mike is the owner, editor, and principle author at Campaign Mastery, responsible for most of the words of wisdom (or lack thereof) that you can read here. You can find him on Twitter as gamewriterMike, and find out more about him from the “About” page above.

IanG Avatar
Ian Gray:
Ian Gray resides in Sydney Australia. He has been roleplaying for more than 25 years, usually on a weekly basis, and often in Mike Bourke’s campaigns. From time to time he GMs but is that rarest of breeds, a person who can GM but is a player at heart. He has played many systems over the years including Tales Of The Floating Vagabond, Legend Of The Five Rings, Star Wars, D&D, Hero System, Gurps, Traveller, Werewolf, Vampire, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, and many, many more. Over the last couple of years he has been dirtying his hands with game design. He was a contributor to Assassin’s Amulet, the first time his name appeared in the credits of a real, live, RPG supplement. Recently he has taken to GMing more frequently, with more initial success than he was probably expecting, based on his prior experiences.

Nick Deane:
Nick also lives in Sydney. He started roleplaying in the mid-1980s in high school with a couple of friends who got him into D&D. That group broke up a year later, but he was hooked. In late ’88 he found a few shops that specialized in RPGs, and a notice board advertising groups of gamers led him to his first long-term group. They started with AD&D, transferred that campaign to 2nd Ed when it came out, tinkered with various Palladium roleplaying games (Heroes Unlimited met Nick’s long-term fascination with Marvel’s X-Men, sparking his initial interest in superhero roleplaying), and eventually the Star Wars RPG by West End Games and Marvel Super Heroes Advanced Set. This also led to his first experiences with GMing – the less said about that first AD&D 2nd Ed campaign, the better (“so much railroading I should have sold tickets”). His second time around, things went better, and his Marvel campaign turned out “halfway decent”. That group broke up in 1995 when a number of members moved interstate. Three years later, Nick heard about what is now his regular group while at a science-fiction bookstore. He showed up at one of their regular gaming Saturdays, asked around and found himself signed up for an AD&D campaign due to start the next week. A couple of weeks later, He met Mike, and hasn’t looked back since. From ’98 he’s been a regular player in most of Mike’s campaigns. There’s also been some Traveller and the Adventurer’s Club (Pulp) campaign, amongst others. Lately he’s been dipping a tentative toe back into the GMing pool, and so far things have been going well.

Nick is unique amongst the GMs that Mike knows in that he has done some PbP (Play-by-post) gaming, something Mike neglected to include in an article on the evolution of RPGs and was quite rightly taken to task over (the article was updated within 24 hours to correct the omission).

“I’ve played spellcasters in a number of games and systems. In Mike’s original Fumanor campaign I played a cleric-monk hybrid and later a druid, while in the spin-off, Seeds of Empire, I have run a lawful good Orcish War-priest throughout the campaign. I’ve also played spellcasters in a couple of superhero games – a couple of Marvel campaigns from 1988-1995, and my modern-Norse spellcaster Runeweaver in Mike’s current Zenith-3 campaign for getting on for a decade. I mention this at Mike’s request because it, more than my GMing experience, is how I have been able to contribute to this topic.”

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