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The Best Of 2014 Pt 1: January-June


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It gets harder and harder to cull these lists down to something reasonable. This problem is exacerbated this time around because there were a lot of standalone articles in this period, and not many series.

Which actually placed me on the horns of a dilemma that I had managed to avoid even noticing previously – standards vs a relatively flat population. If I were to include everything that was of a similar standard to the items selected in the past, 2014 would be way too large to be completed in a single article, I would need to split it (and, probably, subsequent years) into two parts. On the other hand, if I were to cull to the same total – trying for 20-25 links, maximum, from the year – an awful lot of good, useful, content would be cut.

I started preparing to go either way, planning to make the decision after I saw the actual magnitude of what would be affected. But by the time I got April done, it was fairly obvious – gone would be the article about generating adventures from everyday assumptions, and the ergonomics of non-humans, and how to use Dreams, and how to construct and implement a unique answer to the question “What Is Magic” – in fact, entirely too much would be lost. So my choice is Option A, and that’s why this article is “Pt 1: January to June”.

2014 was another good year for Campaign Mastery on a great many fronts. Readership stabilized at a nice, steady, reliable number, 1500+ every week. This was 20% down on the 2013 numbers, but those had declined mostly because Johnn was no longer promoting Campaign Mastery in Roleplaying Tips, which made a difference of about 25%.

Over the course of this 6 months, over 25K unique visitors made almost 40K visits to the site, viewing 66K pages in the process. Reader loyalty remained at a magnificent 40%, four times the typical rate. That took the grand combined total to 307K visitors*, 483K visits, and 863K page views – figures that I never expected when we started the Blog!

Part of the reason was that I was really starting to hit my stride as a writer. I turned out a lot of articles that I am very proud of (and still refer to regularly, as do many others to judge from the readership analytics) in the course of 2014. And so, to this listing of the best of them…

* FYI, in the coming week, the number of unique visitors to Campaign Mastery will tick over the 400K mark!

The Best Of 2014 Pt 1: January-June

By my count, 23 of the best. The road into the archives in search of platinum, gold, and silver starts here! As always, this list is very subjective, and you may not agree with my choices.

Scoring 10/10:

The best of the best of 2014 (part 1).

Scoring 9/10:

There’s a whole host of reasons why this article or that falls short of the standard set by those listed above. It could be useful to only a subgroup of the readership, or it might give advice that’s good in theory but takes a little bit of work in practice, or contain ideas or techniques that were tricky to explain clearly. Or maybe it just didn’t ‘grab’ me quite as much when I re-read it! In most of these, I don’t think that I could improve them with my current standard of skill.

Scoring 8/10:

There’s an equally-great variety of reasons for these to score just a touch lower than those listed previously – whether that be practicality, or relevance, or whatever. They are all good articles, just not as universally useful as the ones above. In many cases, the principles or techniques are fine but the explanations don’t seem quite good enough, or there are minor tweaks that could be applied to improve the article; where that’s not the case, they just aren’t quite beneficial or relevant enough to the majority of readers.

Honorable Mentions: Scoring 7/10:

These are all good advice or interesting discussions, but not quite good enough to make the cut (I’ll explain why in most specific cases as I go):

Part 2 of this list may be some time away, or it may be quite close. I have a number of lengthy/intensive-effort-required articles scheduled for the next couple of months; I’ve tried to schedule these on a fortnightly basis, to keep the schedule viable. This was supposed to be one of them (The Google Image Search article was another), but then I made the decision (explained earlier) to cut the workload in half – so the other half is short enough to drop into the schedule in place of an article that won’t be done in time, but too long to work as a substitute for a shorter article. We’ll just have to see how things go…

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Review Roundup: Three products of interest


I get offered more product to review than I possibly have time to read, other than superficially. Sometimes that product is already commercially available, sometimes it’s the center of a fundraising campaign, sometimes it just comes out of the blue. While I would love to give every review it’s own post of prominence, reality dictates that this can’t always happen – and sometimes, I don’t have all that much to say about a product, anyway. The best compromise is to deal with a few different products at once – and so to today’s article…

Book Cover, Royden Poole's Field Guide to the 25th Hour

Click the cover image to buy from Amazon – but read the review first!

“Royden Poole’s Field Guide To The 25th Hour” – Clinton J. Boomer (Broken Eye Books)

I was reading a blog post earlier today in which the author claims to refute the 7 most common reasons not to use swearing in fiction. In fact, he only refuted three, maybe four of them, though he did carve out exceptions to another one or two before overgeneralizing those into whole-of-argument rebuttals.

Sometimes, a character is in such an extreme emotional state that it is unrealistic for them not to scream and swear. And sometimes, a character’s personality is such that they would resort to profanity far more readily than most. Those are the only two valid reasons for ‘colorful language’ in a story, or in a game.

So I was a little dubious when offered this for review. Here’s what the Editor-In-Chief of Broken Eye Books, a small indie press located in Seattle specializing in weird speculative fiction. told me about it:

Royden Poole’s Field Guide to the 25th Hour is over-the-top game designer Clinton J. Boomer’s return to the world of weird urban fantasy he created in The Hole Behind Midnight. It’s a collection of short, foulmouthed, irreverent, darkly humorous tales following the diminutive and foulmouthed private investigator Royden Poole as he dives further into the mysteries of this strange place we call reality. This psychedelic urban fantasy is an intricate mix of pop culture and mythology, literature and history.

The magic in the setting draws its power from “pop culture, mythology, literature, and history” but it’s set in the modern world. The novel The Hole Behind Midnight delves into the magic in more detail. In the novel, the Cthulhu Mythos, the Greek Pantheon, Peter Pan and Wendy, and others all make appearances.

There is a lot of cursing, though.

Available for pre-order (April 1 release) at Broken Eye Books and Amazon.”

A blending of “pop culture, mythology, literature, and history”, and delving into the “mysteries” of “reality,” both sounded quite intriguing, but a number of elements were off-putting – “Weird Urban Fantasy,” a “foul-mouthed,” character, and “humorous” stories made for a trio of red flags, simply because most swearing in fiction and media is totally unnecessary and distracting.

The ‘My Cousin Vinnie’ experience

Quite a long time ago, I was writing something for one of my campaigns, half-watching something on Television (probably Formula 1) at the same time. When whatever the program was ended, I was deep in a train of thought and so left the idiot box to babble in the background. What started playing was a comedy – most of which leave me stone cold – that I would never have watched under normal circumstances, “My Cousin Vinnie”. Much to my surprise, it gradually wrenched my attention away from what I was doing and held me riveted – when I wasn’t laughing out loud.

One of the first movies I bought on DVD was, consequently, “My Cousin Vinnie”. I was a bit surprised that it had an R rating but not excessively so – there were a number of sexual innuendos and references, not to mention Marisa Tomei’s ‘biological clock’ that would have definitely earned it a PG-13 at the very least. It wouldn’t have taken much to nudge it over the line. When I watched it, however, I found that it was so saturated with blue language that had been cut out of the version aired on television that it was hard work trying to work out what the characters were talking about. The characters may have been more realistic (in terms of a New York lawyer and his girlfriend) but the story was being swamped by the delivery system.

I gave away that DVD, and recorded the version that had been edited for television the next time it aired. I still have that videotape. And I leaned a valuable lesson about the value of swearing in media and fiction.

Getting back to ‘Royden Poole’s Field Guide To The 25th Hour’:

You know what? Exactly the same thing happens to me when reading – make that ‘attempting to read’ – this book. The characters are clearly delineated, and there’s enough buried meat in the content to make it interesting – but I found it very hard work to notice any of it because it was all delivered first-person by the ‘foul-mouthed’ Private Investigator.

If anything, I found, it’s even harder work dealing with this issue in written form, because in recorded media, you at least have tone of voice and visual context to guide you as to the meaning. In a literary work, you have to create all that in your own head as you read.

So if non-stop heavy swearing puts you off, give this a miss. If it doesn’t, and the subject matter intrigues you as much as it did me, give this some serious consideration. And always remember the “My Cousin Vinnie” experience.

The book is now available from Amazon in paperback and kindle formats.

Examples from ePic Character Generator

Reduced-size image – click on the thumbnail to see the full-sized version in a new tab

The ePic Character Generator

In March I was contacted by Alex Fehertavi of ePic Generator dot net. I Don’t think I can introduce their product half as well as he did:

“Our program is a realistic character illustration application, which can be a great aid for the fans of role playing games. With ePic you can easily create highly customized avatar portraits and tokens without having to draw them yourself. You can use these images to make your adventures come alive, illustrate your stories or use them as avatars in your games. The app is free to download, there is a number of free character packs, and we’re constantly updating our program with new ones that can be purchased.

Another example from the ePic Character Generator (greatly reduced in size). Click on the image to visit the site and see many more.

Another example from the ePic Character Generator (greatly reduced in size). Click on the image to visit the site and see many more.

I’m always interested in tools to help my players and myself visualize what’s going on, so naturally, I paid attention to this one. Unfortunately, I wasn’t in a position to give it a spin at the time – the laptop I was using as my primary computer runs a non-Windows OS, and the browser predates the whole concept of Apps. In fact, I’m still not in a position to give it a test-spin; while I now have a windows-based PC, it doesn’t have a functional internet connection since it refuses to recognize my modem.

So I can’t say much about ease of use, or anything like that. But I can state that the results I’ve seen range from excellent to fantastic, and they appear to have a small but enthusiastic and active band of supporters, as evidenced by the entries into their monthly competitions and forum.

In particular, the support for characters beyond the mainstream (Elves, Dwarves, Humans) and beyond Fantasy / Superhero games gives this software a utility that other programs often don’t posses. The program is free to use but automatically watermarks images until you buy the Pro version. The creators make their money from sales of additional “character packs”, which vary in price from $4.99 to $8.99, and come bundled in various packages. These are all available from the website or through Steam.

One way in which the ePic Character Generator differs from most others is in the terms of use: “Permission is granted to anyone to use this software for any purpose, including commercial applications, subject to the following restrictions:

  1. The origin of the material generated by this software must not be misrepresented; you must not claim that you created the original artwork.
  2. You can re-use any material generated by this program with or without any modification in your own products, but an acknowledgement of the pictures are generated by the “ePic Character Generator” in the product documentation is required if using the non-pro version.
  3. You may not resell any material in any form without adding custom value.”

If you want to use the image on the cover of a book, you can – or as an interior decoration. Or on a CD cover. Or to announce a birthday party. In fact, you can export the finished image into a PNG file with or without the background and use it anywhere you see fit. The only restriction is that until you buy the Pro version, you have to say where the image was created. You can’t get much fairer than that! If you’re interested in the ePic Character Generator, click on the image to the left.

A cropped excerpt from the Pythòs teaser at Starlit Games, where you can sign up to their newsletter for updates and special previews. Just click on the image and scroll down to sign up.

A cropped excerpt from the Pythòs teaser at Starlit Games, where you can sign up to their newsletter for updates and special previews. Just click on the image and scroll down to sign up.

Pythòs

And so, to my feature review of the day. After I published Use The Force, Fluke: Who’s On First This Time? a few weeks ago, about the Initiative House Rules that have developed in the Star Wars campaign, I was contacted via Twitter by Gareth Johnson (@SGKeep aka Sir Gareth the GM on Twitter), who asked “What if I told you that I’m developing a game system with simultaneous action mechanics, instead of initiative?”

Now, I’ve never claimed to hold any sort of monopoly on good ideas, and just because I hadn’t been able to think of a practical solution to the problem, didn’t mean that no-one else ever had. Nevertheless, my total inability to see such a solution gave me a few qualms. So I replied, “I would be interested but wary of inherent impracticality of the GM fielding half a dozen PC actions & more NPCs at the same time!”

SG then reached out to me privately to give me the chance to review the game in question, “Pythòs”, or at least parts of it as it stands at the moment. Pythòs is currently in alpha-test, fairly early in its development cycle, so it’s unfair to hold it to the same standards as a full game; there will be changes made before full distribution commences.

SG subsequently sent me PDF extracts from the Character Generation and Combat sections of the game rules, and those are the subjects of today’s review.

I’m not going to get too deeply into issues of presentation, because that will almost certainly have evolved considerably by the time of publication. I know from experience that, while you’re thinking about that side of things long before you begin putting the text together, and even acting on those thoughts and plans in terms of commissioning art, no decisions are actually made final until you see how they all play together on the page. As the old saying goes, “no plan survives contact with the enemy”.

Positives

There are a lot of things about Pythòs that I liked, to greater or lesser degree, which I shall now commence gushing fulsomely about:

  • Character Generation is smooth, simple, and yet nuanced and sophisticated.
  • Stats – called abilities in the text, there are four of these, with quite possibly the best descriptions I’ve read in any RPG, ever. With a minimum of verbiage, the text states what the Attribute is, and what it is used for. Bonus points for color-coding each of them consistently throughout the text, (though I think a more fuchsia color might be easier to distinguish from the red than the orange currently in use).
  • Level Progression/XP places equal weight on defeating enemies (in combat or not), success in difficult tasks, and achieving challenging goals. 100 XP gets you another character level, but because what you earn is a function of the challenges that you had to overcome, the size of “1XP” is relative – what might earn you 20 XP at first level earns you nothing, or a trivial amount, 3 or 4 levels later. If characters want to progress further at the same pace, they have to continually seek out fresh challenges; eventually, a point of stability between the level of risks that the players are comfortable embracing and their current capabilities would be achieved, and progress would slow. At that point, which would be different for every group dynamic, the game becomes more about roleplaying these existing characters and less about crunching the system.
  • Damage Conditions are more sophisticated than D&D/Pathfinder and encompass the concept of lasting impacts on the character by means of thresholds of damage that are simple to track but still effective. However, since the actual consequences are “GM’s Discretion”, there exists the potential for ill-will (real or perceived) and interpersonal real-world conflict. Some examples/guidelines would be useful, or better yet, some actual advice on how to adjudicate these decisions – just to take some of the personalities out of the equation.
  • Mana is used to create magical effects using spells or to activate magical artifacts. This naturally caps the amount of magic that can be brought to bear by any character while providing a mechanism that can be manipulated to balance magic-based character types. I very much like the way Mana is handled by the Pythòs system.
  • There is a functional system for Extreme Efforts which permits characters to be more than the sum of their on-paper limits – I’ll get back to this in the “negatives” section to follow.
  • There is a simple but effective Levels Of Failure subsystem that GMs can choose to implement or not. This optional rule is very well done.
  • At first glance, the Skills (called Talents by the game system) appears too short, but this is because many functions are conflated into a single ‘archetypal’ ability. On closer analysis, there are just enough that characters will be forced to pick and choose what they get good at without bogging the mechanics down. There’s not a lot to dislike in this section, but there are a couple of issues that I would like to see addressed, as you’ll see in the negatives column.
  • Combat is sufficiently complex that it will not be mastered and min-maxed tactically quickly, but simple enough that players and GMs can grow in confidence and ability in the system. Easy to learn (especially if you keep a crib sheet handy), hard to master.
  • Description is a defined phase of the combat round, ensuring that everyone is on the same page when deciding what actions to perform.
  • Decisions are indeed made concurrently, so there is truth in SG’s “advertising” of the fact.
  • There is a simple but effective Fatigue system that looks like it would work quite well, limiting characters without constraining them.
  • Attack Resolution follows a standard procedure regardless of the nature of the attack.
  • There are (rudimentary) rules for Improvised Weapons and Shields. I would like to have seen some guidelines/advice on making these decisions.
Negatives

As you can see, there’s a lot of elements of Pythòs that I deemed worth singling out for praise, even though the game system is still a work-in-progress. This is not an unreserved commendation, however. There are a few things – some trivial, some niggling, and some substantial – to discuss. Some of these are oversights; some are mistakes, and some are ideas that may not have occurred to SG.

  • In the Damage and Dying section, when discussing Recovery, there is no mention of natural healing. None.
  • In the same section, Bonuses To Endurance subsection, there is a logical issue that is insufficiently discussed. If a character suffering an Endurance Penalty receives enough accumulated damage to kill or achieve some other character status (just barely), what happens when that Endurance Penalty is lifted or wears off? The implication of the rules as written is that the character comes back to life. Ergo, ‘Penalties to Endurance’ can’t be handled in “exactly the same way” as bonuses to Endurance. Common sense tells me what was intended and how I would handle this, but there are pedants out there…
  • The “Bonuses to Will” section should be followed by a “Penalties To Will” section, even if it only states that there should never be any. I think it more likely that there would be situations in which such a penalty was appropriate, and there should be rules to cover them.
  • In the kudos, I applauded the rules permitting extreme efforts, called “Mortal Efforts” by the rules. That’s a term that sends a mixed message when discussing superior abilities (i.e. above those of typical Mortals). There is also the implication that attempting such an effort risks killing the character, something that is not suggested by the actual rules. The problem is that the term describes a capability that only “mortals” have, but the the term “Mortal Effort” already has a different meaning to the one that is intended in this context. A better term might be “Heroic Effort.”
  • In the Talents section, it is not clear how a character can get Expertise Bonuses.
  • Also in the Talents section, there is the potential for an optional rule that I would consider worthwhile. You should be able to choose (permanently) to be better at one specific application of the Talent (+x) in exchange for being penalized -1 in all other applications of the Talent. This should be coupled with a mandatory +1 improvement in the Talent by whatever the mechanism for skill improvement is, in effect canceling out the penalty and “channeling” the entire improvement in capability into the Specialty. There should also be a cap to how many of these you can have (say, 3 base – by race and/or character class) and +1 to the limit each character level. It’s my feeling that the broadness of definition of the Talents mandates such an option, enabling a character to be better at making speeches than they are at persuading others in a 1-to-1 or ‘haggling’ situation.
  • The logic used to determine the sequence of combat maneuver resolution is confusing. One character can use a Maneuver to close up on an enemy, but before he can attack the target, at the same time, that target can move away, out of melee range? I would have expected a quite different resolution sequence:
    • Free in which any updates, effects, or alterations to the combat situation / environment occur, eg eruptions, water level changes, spells wear off if their duration has expired, etc – anything that is not a direct consequence of a character action or a free action accompanying such an action.
    • Defensive in which characters prepare to be attacked. Bonuses or penalties resulting from Defensive actions last until the Free phase of the next combat round, and may persist at the GM’s discretion. For example, once you have taken cover, you can perform some other action next phase while still being behind cover.
    • Maneuver in which characters who are in motion move. These should not occur simultaneously, but in sequence of slowest to greatest movement speed, with some form of tie-break, permitting faster characters to intercept slower ones.
    • Attack in which all attempts to alter the status of another character are resolved – whether that’s running them through with a blade, chopping off a piece of their anatomy with an axe, beaning them with a shield, casting a spell on them, or shoving a healing potion down their throat.
    • Other for anything else – turning a dial, pulling a switch, whatever.
  • There’s a problem with the Fatigue rules in that humans can go as much as week without food and suffer no substantial ill-effects but die in only a few days without water; yet, starvation is mentioned as resulting from not eating for a day, and water consumption is not mentioned at all.
  • A second problem with the Fatigue section is that the impact of temperature extremes is not mentioned. There needs to be some system for handling this.
  • A third Fatigue problem is the one that kills more swimmers at Bondi Beach than any other: sustained effort. Unless you are specially trained and prepared, and naturally gifted, you can only swim for so long. This is implied to some extent by mention of “Forced Marches”, but the assertion that the causes listed are only examples isn’t strong enough and doesn’t go far enough.
  • Finally, to the great innovation I was looking for, the secret to simultaneous resolution of combat stages: Write it down. This was something of a disappointment, to be honest. A typical fight in the Zenith-3 campaign might involve 4 PCs, 2 NPC allies, 6 NPC enemies of significance, and 20 flunkies of less importance, plus an unknown number of non-combatants. Every 6-second combat round, if run by these rules, would require the GM to write more than a page of notes, making a whole bunch of decisions while keeping the overall situation, as each character understands it, in mind. Compare that workload with ANY form of sequencing in which A acts and the action is resolved, then B acts/reacts and that is resolved, and then C acts/reacts and that is resolved, and so on, and the difference is quite clear. Yet, this is not the end of the world – one simple tool and a couple of tweaks would take this out of the impractical and into the more practical.
    • First, groups should be treated as though they were “one individual” or “two individuals” rather than 20 or 30 individuals – they make decisions and function as a block. The decision as to whether a given bunch of characters should be the GM’s prerogative, but the default should be to function en masse.
    • Second, abandon the writing down, at least in part. Instead, use combat counters made of cardboard of some sort, color coded by the type of action to be undertaken. One side is nothing but the color, the other specifies what the action is but not the target – that still has to be written down. This enables the GM to simply glance around the table to get a sense of what characters are doing, and permits the simultaneous resolution of all actions of a given type by downsizing the scope of the task. This infuses what is standard practice in many board games into a RPG combat.
  • Oh, all right, one more – an afterthought – Aborting An Action. It should say, somewhere in the rules, that you can give up whatever you were planning to do at any moment; that doesn’t give you another action that round, it simply means that you aren’t doing whatever you were going to do. Otherwise, pre-specified attacks would continue to rain down on a character who is surrendering as a free action when their damage total reaches critical levels.
Pythòs – the conclusion

For a product still in Alpha-test, Pythòs is impressive. 14 kudos and 11 brickbats is quite a good score, especially since all 11 of the criticisms are correctable with a little tweaking, if Gareth chooses to do so.

I specifically want to draw his attention to my 2014 article, The Application Of Time and Motion to RPG Game Mechanics, which I think might be tremendously helpful to the ongoing development of Pythòs.

I’m looking forward to hearing that the game has progressed to the point of being ready for a Kickstarter fundraising, and will be very interested in seeing what the finished product looks like. If you are as interested as I am, why not click on the gorgeous image above and subscribe to the newsletter? This is one fundraising campaign that you won’t want to miss!

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The Gilligan Tools for better characterization


sunset behind a tropical island

Photo by zain fianz courtesy Life of Pix. I couldn’t resist a larger version, click on the image.

I was reading an article the other week about a fan theory regarding Gilligan’s Island – well, actually, it’s more like two related theories, one of which is partially contingent on the other. As I was musing (and chuckling, I must admit), the thought occurred to me that with a little tweaking, one of those theories would furnish a couple of great tools for the development of interesting PCs. And you can never have too many of those on tap, right?

Gilligan’s Island

Gilligan’s Island was a half-hour sitcom from the mid-60s. After being shipwrecked on an uncharted tropical island by a storm, 7 castaways seek (a) to survive; (b) to escape; and (c) to better their living conditions. The series was a daytime television staple while I was growing up, and no-one who has ever heard the theme will ever forget it (even if the first version named some but not all the castaways) – you can revive your memories with this youTube clip.

  • Gilligan, the titular character, is the bumbling, accident-prone first mate of the S.S.Minnow, who is also inadvertently responsible for foiling most of the escape attempts – sometimes saving the others from flaws in their plans in the process.
  • Jonas Grumby, almost always simply referred to as “Skipper” or “The Skipper”, is the captain of the S.S.Minnow, a father-figure to Gilligan, for whom he has deep affection after Gilligan saved his life during World War II, and often refers to him as “Little Buddy”. Despite this, The Skipper is frequently exasperated with Gilligan and swats him on the head with his cap. Gilligan and the Skipper share a bamboo hut (constructed by the castaways after they were marooned).
  • Thurston Howell III is a caricature of the multimillionaire – a billionaire until the Great Depression – who attempts to use his money to solve all his problems, or pay others to do it for him. Always referred to by his full name or as “Mr Howell”.
  • Howell’s wife is “Mrs Howell” (full name Eunice Lovelle Wentworth Howell, rarely used) serves as a more passive foil for her husband who is, perhaps, more concerned with social position than with wealth itself. Both Howells turn up their noses at Nouveau-Rich. She appears to have a trunk of endless clothing and accessories, though an iconic necklace of pearls and an umbrella are the most common addition to her very conservative attire. The Howells share a second hut.
  • Ginger Grant is a movie star, Hollywood celebrity, and occasional Diva. According to Wikipedia, “Her character was originally written as a hard nosed, sharp tongued temptress, but [the actress] argued that this portrayal was too harsh and refused to play it as written. A compromise was reached; [she] agreed to play her as a Marilyn Monroe/Jayne Mansfield type. The evening gowns and hairstyle used were designed to re-create the look of Myrna Loy.
  • Mary-Ann Summers (surname rarely mentioned) was a simple farm girl from Kansas, the very exemplar of the-girl-next-door. Although it is rarely stated explicitly, there are hints that she does the bulk of the cooking for the castaways, assisted by Ginger. Mary-Ann and Ginger share a third hut.
  • “The Professor” evolved as the first season progressed; originally a Research Scientist and well known Scoutmaster, he was then redefined as a university lecturer, and then as a high school science teacher. Perhaps the most iconic role, “The professor” has been lampooned in both Bloom County and a Weird Al Yankovic song; in the first, he is able to make a satellite dish from a couple of clam shells but can’t build a boat; in the latter, he is described as “brilliant enough to ‘make a nuclear reactor from a couple of coconuts’ [but] cannot ‘build a lousy raft’.” The actor’s autobiography refutes those acts of creativity as exaggeration and hyperbole but admits that for all his smarts, the professor could not build a boat. He had a hut of his own.

Most of the plots centered around one or more of five themes (paraphrased from Wikipedia):

  • A running gag the castaways’ ability to fashion a vast array of useful objects from bamboo and other local material. Some are simple everyday things, while others are stretches of the imagination including framed huts with thatched grass sides and roofs, bamboo closets strong enough to withstand hurricane-force winds and rain, a communal dining table and chairs, pipes for Gilligan’s hot water, a stethoscope, and a pedal-powered car.
  • A succession of improbable visitors to the island, none of whom ever succeed in helping rescue the castaways, though they always escape/get rescued themselves. Gilligan, Mr Powell, and Ginger each had feature episodes in which look-alikes come to the island . The island itself is also home to an unusual assortment of animal life, some native, some visiting.
  • Dream sequences in which one of the castaways “dreams” he or she is some character related to that week’s storyline. All of the castaways would appear as other characters within the dream. In later interviews and memoirs, almost all of the actors stated that the dream episodes were among their personal favorites.
  • The appearance or arrival of strange objects, like a WWII mine or a “Mars Rover” that the scientists back in the USA think is sending them pictures of Mars, and in one episode a meteorite.
  • A piece of news concerning the castaways arriving from the outside world that causes discord among them, normally followed eventually by a second piece of news that says the first was incorrect (there was one variation in which that did not happen).

The Theory

I came across this theory and its companion at Looper dot com in an article entitled “Fan theories that will make you see TV shows differently“. They claim to have got it in turn from somewhere called “Mental Floss” but didn’t provide a link, stating only that “one fan theory claims that…”

That theory: The S.S. Minnow never made it to the island, all aboard drowned at sea. The island that they perceive is a representation of Hell, and Gilligan is actually Satan.

While this is amusing to contemplate, and no more implausible than a great many events in the show, it has no bearing on today’s subject, so let’s move on.

The Second Theory

The second theory, which is apparently from the same source, suggests that the non-Gilligan characters each represent one or more of the seven deadly sins. To paraphrase slightly: Mr. Howell is greed for worrying about his huge trunk of money that he brought with him — why would you bring that with you on a three-hour-long boat tour? Mrs. Howell is sloth for pretty much doing nothing during most of the show, while The Skipper embodies both anger and gluttony, probably for his temper and constant snacking habits. Ginger, the sultry movie star, is of course lust, and Mary Ann is envy “(no doubt envious of Ginger)”. Lastly, the Professor represents pride, because he’s immensely talented and useful, making all kinds of inventions to help the group survive the island.

This far harder to swallow. It’s plausible at the start, but Mary-Ann never showed any signs of envy of Ginger (or of any of the others, each of whom had some enviable quality, whether it was the Howell’s money or the bond of friendship between the Skipper and Gilligan) and the Professor was one of the most humble characters on the show, often needing a confidence boost from one of the other characters (which turns out to be justified when the Professor duly succeeds – unless the task is repairing the hull of the Minnow, of course).

It’s right up there with the theory that the Skipper and Gilligan were secretly gay because they shared a hut. It smacks of being something you might come up with if you had never watched the show, only read or heard about it.

My verdict on both theories: Pretentious Twaddle that takes the series far more pompously than it deserves. It’s a situation comedy, not a philosophy/theology allegory.

But even if it holds no merit as a theory, or even if the characters evolved from an initial concept mirroring that of the theory, that doesn’t mean that the concept of building a character around one of the seven deadly sins is without merit.

The principle concept

The core of the idea that this represents is that of the flawed hero. Flawed heroes, especially those who overcome or transcend those flaws, or who succeed despite them, are usually a lot more interesting than a vision of some abstract perfection. Not only are we, as an audience, more able to relate to the character by virtue of the flaws, but the flaws enable them to get into more interesting situations.

The First Tool: Weakness

The first tool is simple: the owner of the character being created (or redeveloped, if you are applying these tools to an existing character) simply chooses one of the 7 deadly sins – Greed, Anger, Gluttony, Sloth, Lust, Envy, or Pride – and specifies that the character has a weakness in that area. How that weakness will manifest depends on the character archetype and race.

Working with the tool

To use this information, the player needs to accept the flaw as fundamental to who the character is, and actively look for ways to reflect it in his roleplay – from casual conversation to decisions and even actions. Like casting aside a broadsword and attacking with a dagger instead to try and avoid damaging the fancy armor, or knowing the best place to eat (even if only by reputation) in every village, or engaging passersby on the subject of what wine they had last night and was it any good, or whatever.

The other half of the responsibility belongs to the GM, who must deliberately salt his narratives, encounters, and adventures with opportunities for the player to express this aspect of the character. Some of these may be to his benefit, in terms of plot (or to the character’s detriment, in other words), while others would provide an avenue for the character to enjoy himself. Most should simply be neutral, neither detrimental nor beneficial, of no great significance – they do nothing but add color to the character.

But it’s not without it’s benefits for both parties: the player gets a character that’s more fun to play, and the GM gets a character that can more easily be worked into adventures in different ways.

Delving Deeper

Some GMs and some players may want to delve deeper; some campaigns demand it. This usually involves two things from the character’s past: how they learned to cope with this moral weakness, and what caused it, which is usually a generational issue. Pride: perhaps the character’s parents were so humble and self-depreciating, so lacking in self-confidence, that they were bullied endlessly while the character was growing up (and presumably before he or she was born) – as shown in Back To The Future – so the character made up their mind never to let themselves be overlooked or bullied, to always stand tall and get noticed (Suddenly I’m having flashbacks to the Charles Atlas bodybuilding ads in the comics).

Or greed: the character’s mother was the type that would always donate to the church even if it meant the family went without, and the character resented this, much as he or she loves the church. They are still their mother’s son or daughter, they will still donate to the church – they just want to enjoy their money first.

The Second Tool: Resistance

When initially conceived, that was where this article was going to end (I was very tired). When I was more rested, I immediately saw that there was an optional second tool that could be employed; resistance to a common manifestation of one of the 7 deadly sins or their antithetical virtue.

This is a little trickier: the temptation to which the character is to be resistant should be something to which they are exposed regularly by virtue of their archetype, class, and/or race. They should NOT be especially resistant to other manifestations of that Sin/Virtue, just to the one specific item.

This can have a major influence on character inter-relationships, and so should be the subject of careful consideration and management – one character’s weakness to a vice and another’s resistance to same can either become the cornerstone of their relationship, or can actually cancel out much of the benefit derived from the weakness/flaw in the first place.

As usual, half the responsibility for employing the tool belongs to the player and half to the GM. The great virtue of the second tool is that it gives something else for the character to react to, helping prevent any “one trick pony” personalities. Also, as before, it’s always possible to delve deeper and determine what incident(s) or family history led to the character developing this immunity.

It’s all a matter of personality

It’s very easy to play an RPG, especially if the criterion is simple decision-making intended to derive the maximum gain for the character. The better the player, the more strongly their decisions are colored by, or driven by, a well-defined personality, and the better they are at expressing and manifesting that personality. By definition, these will differ to at least some degree from the optimum choice at least some of the time.

That’s why min-maxing is petty and juvenile and should be regarded in that light; it is making decisions that should be personality-focused on a strictly objective analysis of game mechanics, and that’s close to the very bottom rung of the player-quality ladder. The question should be, “What game-mechanics values more perfectly reflect what this character should be able to do,” or even “What does this game-mechanics capability tell me about the personality of the character?”

When I was starting out, the ideal to aim for as a player was to be able to wear the character like a second skin, and to think like the character would, especially when that was different from the way the player thought, or what a strictly objective / game-mechanics analysis would dictate. GMs were even willing to bend or change the game rules to enable a better expression of character; the rules were a necessarily-incomplete and limited tool for sharpening the imagination into specifics.

Using the Gilligan-derived Personality Tools should help players and GMs recapture some of that old-school flavor in their campaigns – without sacrificing any of the benefits of more modern standards of game system and rationality of design. You won’t find many better bargains than that.

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An Amazing Ancestry


Family Tree

I’m a regular viewer of the TV show “Who Do You Think You Are?”. We in Australia are in the privileged position of seeing not only our own domestic series, but also the US and UK series of this show.

For those who have never watched it, the show traces the ancestry of a celebrity and uses that story as a vector into a slice of history. What makes it work is that it is part detective story, part historical drama, and part celebrity… “expose” seems to be the wrong term. What makes it rewarding for the GM is that it often shines a light on little-known or appreciated aspects even of history that you know fairly well – for example, while Britain increased its intake of Jewish immigrants once the persecutions started, unless a £50 pound bond was put up by someone to certify that the immigrant would be a productive member of British society, the only way to get in was to gain employment as a personal servant in advance, producing column after column of “work wanted” adverts in the newspapers.

This is the sort of color that most histories neglect, and that can really bring an era to life for a writer, or for players.

What’s more, it places a human context on big-event history, showing how it affected real people. That’s not only valuable directly, but invaluable indirectly as examples of how ramifications should derive from in-game events.

As a result, almost any GM can derive material of value from almost every episode.

I was watching an episode this evening, when a thought occurred to me about the bigger picture, the patterns that I have seen recurring on the show time after time. And those patterns are relevant to every campaign that has a PC – or an important NPC. Which doesn’t leave many exclusions…

Pattern 1: The exceptional individual

The first pattern that I identified is the one that manifested in both the episode I was actually watching and to the one that I had watched previously (the subjects were Cynthia Nixon and Nigel Havers, respectively).

In this pattern, looking back in time from one generation to the one that preceded it, and the one that preceded that, one finds one individual after another of relative insignificance/change until someone is in the right place at the right time to make a profound difference to the future opportunities for their family.

The term insignificance/change requires further amplification. It means that a respected legal professional will be preceded by a respected professional, quite possibly within the range of legal professions. And by another, and another, until we reach someone who was the first to have an extraordinary story of how they achieved that status from a social position in which it is normally not possible, or at least, is extraordinarily difficult. That individual will also have some story attached to their circumstances about how they achieved what they did, and another about why they sought out that position in society in the first place.

Similarly, a working class individual, like a laborer, will be preceded by another, and then another, and so on, until some exceptional individual is reached. This could be exceptional in that they are a criminal, or exceptional in that they were a success but their occupation was automated out of existence or went out of style or they otherwise fell from grace. And, whatever their position may have been prior to that fall then becomes the new “family norm”.

Pattern 2: The Self-made family

When I considered the totality of the episodes that I had seen, and excluded Pattern 1, the majority of the remainder also had a pattern in common, which I have labeled “The self-made family”.

In this pattern, looking back in time from generation to generation shows each generation’s peak to be at or below the same level as the one that follows it, chronologically. This is a steady progression of successive generations improving their lot in life and bestowing the benefits of that improvement upon successive generations.

These changes can be profound – from a small retail merchant to owner of an import/export/distribution firm – or they can be small, like transferring from a position that will soon become redundant or in which opportunities will be increasingly limited to one in which there is more potential. Or the job might remain the same, but the family relocates, sometimes for greater opportunities, and sometimes for some other reason – but it turns out that the move is (eventually) the making of them. That was the case with London Mayor Boris Johnson, for example – a daughter who was the illegitimate child of nobility and who eventually received a small amount of state support which was used to move to another country and start a family – a family that eventually included Johnson.

It can take an astonishingly short period of time for people to climb the social ladder from nobodies to people of great importance – if each generation makes a material advance to the cause.

Pattern 3

The third pattern is the logical converse of Pattern 2, in which successive generations squander and dissipate some advantage. This tends to show up relatively infrequently, but I suspect that this may be because the show cherry-picks successful people to appear on it; if more “ordinary people” were the subjects, there might be a greater representation of this pattern. Even taking that into account, however, there are far greater numbers of successful people in the modern world than there were at any prior point in history, and the average living standard has gone up for centuries – so I can’t help but feel that Pattern 2 would be more prevalent than Pattern 3.

Mixing-and-Matching

Although I don’t recall any examples off the top of my head, I can’t believe that these patterns are consistent throughout the history of any given family. Even if there is a recurring theme of wasted opportunities, for example, that still requires the occasional exceptional individual or run of successful individuals to lift the family up to the point at which they begin to fall. Trace back far enough, and fortunes will wax and wane. What’s more, because no-one knows what the future will hold, transition from one point to another could occur at any time.

Why this matters

The title of the show is undeniably confrontational. It communicates a directness that any softer title would not, a implicit statement that this is the truth, warts and all, and that is certainly true of the episodes that I have seen (and there have been many). It challenges the subject to define themselves, though the subject doesn’t always do so; however, they always define or redefine their relationship with their ancestry, and with their personal history, and with the greater history that consists of many such threads intertwining.

A “big event” is one that affects many people. These are rarely positive; at best, they are neutral, but most commonly, they are negative. Wars, Revolutions, Corporate Collapses, Economic Depressions, and so on. In contrast, many of the gains are small, incremental, but cumulative, and – like compound interest or housing prices – they usually attain a higher point in the long run than the previous peak. The overall trend is upwards.

These factors can be applied to any character, providing a personal connection to campaign history. Think of the Great Took from Lord Of The Rings, or Great Aunt Adelle from Star Trek: The Next Generation, as well as the more obvious example of Aragorn’s distant ancestor who enabled him to eventually lay claim to the throne of Gondor.

This can even be done after a character is established, because – like most of the subjects of the show – the characters will generally have no real idea of who their ancestors were, and half of what they DO know may be inaccurate. This is true even of characters whose parentage suggests that the genealogy has been carefully monitored through the ages (nobility, for example) – it’s never too late for some scandal to out that completely redefines the character.

How to use the Ancestral Patterns

For the most part, the “same as before” is pretty irrelevant; but what is not are the notable individuals, and those who crossed some social threshold on behalf of the family.

For example: The PCs arrive at a keep. Some distant threat to the keep begins to materialize – there may be rumors of an army on the march, for example. The PCs consider abandoning the place but then a chance remark leads to the examination of a book of genealogy which reveals that the ancestor of one of them built the keep in the first place, and that it was situated where it is because his father fought a legendary battle there, and legend has it that he will return to assist if the keep is truly threatened. While the PCs may still decide to abandon the keep, suddenly it has a much higher value to at least one of them, and this decision will be that much harder to make.

Or perhaps there was a revolution a long time ago, but for some reason you want this period of campaign history to matter to the players. The discovery that one of them has an ancestor who fought and died in that revolution suddenly elevates it from dry story to personal history.

The same is true of any major NPCs – bringing their ancestry to life in terms of the colorful and important figures that occupy it make them more a part of the world, and offer nuances and shadings to their motivations for whatever they are doing.

A more concrete example

In collaboration, the player and GM come up with the following:

Ebis Falconhorn’s parents, Kerrick and Othelia married for love. Ebis knows this because Kerrick’s grandmother Dame Eloise Falconhorn told Ebis when he was still a child of the grand times that she had enjoyed at the estates of her mother, but that Kerrick had been disinherited for marrying below his station. What’s more, Great-Grandma Nesther had blamed Eloise for Kerrick’s shortcomings, and reduced her inheritance as well. Ebis has always wondered where that family money had come from, and why Nesther was so insistent on a good marriage for Kerrick – but Ebis’ father and mother would never speak of it, or Nesther.

The GM then secretly extends the story (with the player’s blessing), seeking to answer two questions in a way that benefits the campaign: How did the family make its money, and why was Nesther Falconhorn so class-sensitive?

He decides the easier problem first: Nesther was very well aware that her parents and grandparents had sweated and sacrificed (perhaps sacrificed too much) in order for the family to achieve that social status, and she saw Kerrick as ungrateful and disrespectful of them for his choice. And since respect has to be taught, it’s not unreasonable that she would blame Kerrick’s grandmother for failing to raise him properly.

Making a note of this, the GM then waits until he needs a hook that matches the Falconhorn Story, enabling him to fill in the rest.

Some time – Weeks/Months/Years later – such a requirement arises. He has a dungeon but it’s lacking any real significance to anyone, and gets a little tough mid-way through; he’s concerned that when the easy loot runs out, so will the PCs. What he needs is some way to make them more reluctant to abandon the quest.

In play, Ebis has demonstrated both a romantic streak and a strong sense of honor; if the GM can play those qualities against the party, he will achieve exactly what he wants. He quickly makes a few notes, working backwards through the generations from Nesther, and naming them as he goes:

  • Father, Geoffrey: Dealer in precious metals, financier, put the family on the path to the nobility by underwriting the costs of a military campaign by the Throne. Would probably have been made a Minor Noble for that, as others were, if not for some stain on his background. Traded much of the family wealth for position and estates.
  • Grandfather, Alexander: Diversified and expanded the business, securing exclusive contracts with a number of mines in distant realms. Died relatively young while personally negotiating another such contract.
  • Great Grandfather, Timothy: Reasonably-Respected 2nd Generation Silversmith, awarded a minor commission by the local Duke when at the height of his reputation.
  • Great-Great-Grandfather, Durk: Silversmith, the source of the family’s initial wealth, and the architect of the stain on their reputation.
    • First, he was an illegitimate child, who came to be apprenticed to the town smith under dubious circumstances (though no-one knows what they were, any more – just that the smith took in a street urchin and taught him so well that he was able to take over the business, buying his master out, in just 15 years;
    • Second, he had some unsavory business practices, having been suspected on numerous occasions of being a Fence for stolen property, and once having been arrested, convicted, and fined for the practice; and
    • Third, he was responsible for unleashing the monstrous evil at the heart of the dungeon that the PCs are about to explore. Timothy made most of his money by buying recovered loot from adventurers (without asking impertinent questions), redecorating or re-tasking it into something modern, then reselling it. He specialized in defacing religious symbols and legends and rededicating the object – at least superficially – to a new God – one whose followers had more wealth in their pockets. He wasn’t half as good a silversmith as he made himself out to be.
  • Now all the GM has to do is work out how a greedy silversmith could have released the evil in question – perhaps by defacing (and hence removing) the wards that kept him confined in something? Perhaps by sponsoring an expedition into a dungeon despite warnings not to do so? (Those are the two most obvious options) – and work out how he’s going to get the information into the hands of Ebis, who should then feel compelled to undo the harm that his Great-times-five-Grandfather Durk did, about 100 years ago (7 generations at 18 years each, minus a margin for Durk to grow up (6 years) apprentice (15 years), set up his business (included in the 15), and get too greedy (5 years)), and finally write the whole thing up in narrative form ready to hand out to the player. In other words, the usual problems of GMing.

Step one in getting the info to Ebis would be to get the family background to him, perhaps in the form of a couple of letters being forwarded, after their discovery by his Father. One might be a failed petition for nobility, which specifies something of the family history, but which is noticeably very vague about Durk and doesn’t mention prior ancestors at all, but the failure hints at a scandal; the other might be a love letter between Timothy and his wife Heather in which he alludes to his father’s reputation and begs Heather not to hold that against him.

Step two is to add the remains of an adventuring party from about 100 years ago into the dungeon, giving them receipts for past objects traded to Durk, offering a quote on “re-badging” one of the items they recovered on a past expedition, and letting a journal by one of them record his final thoughts condemning Durk for releasing the horror. Other journal entries might explain that Durk was a penny-pincher and wanted to save some time and effort doing his dirty work on the spot where the loot was recovered, leading him to deface the wrong thing in the wrong place.

Add a few more journal entries to round things out without contributing to the overall story being told, and the job is done. The dungeon, right before that sudden ramp-up in danger, is about to get very personal for Ebis…

Limited Application

You would not apply this tool to every character, of course. Save it for when it is useful. Collaborate in creating descriptions of the immediate family ancestry of each of the PCs – back to the grandparents or perhaps to the great-grandparents in some cases, certainly no further – and then wait until you need to extend the family tree, or reveal some hidden chapter in a PCs personal history. What the player then does with the information is up to them.

But you’re making the adventure more personal to the characters, and that is rarely (if ever) a bad thing. So use the three basic patterns to tell the story of the rise and fall of the character’s ancestry, and use that legend to engage them with the world in which they live.

At the very least, you end up with more rounded characters who have better backgrounds.

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Who Owns Your Campaign?


Sold-sign

It’s always traumatic when you discover at the 11th hour that there’s absolutely no way you’re going to finish the article you’ve been working on and have barely enough time to throw together another to fill in. Fortunately, just yesterday, I came across a thought for just such a fill-in article…

I came across an interesting discussion on Reddit sparked by one of my old articles. It contained a pearl of wisdom,

quote start 45

As a player, every time, I get more invested in my character than in the DM’s world. This is natural. I created the character, the GM created the world. The process of playing the game is one that explores how the player’s investments and the DM’s investment interact.

– Dr Peppercorn

And that got me to thinking down a different tangent to that of the conversation.

Revelation 1

The more a GM gives players control of the game world through their actions within a campaign, the more it transforms from his initial vision into something created by all. Giving the players the opportunity to influence and shape and, ultimately, to reinvent the game world creates investment in the shape of that game world by the players.

Revelation 2

At the same time, the more influence the players give the GM over their characters and circumstances, the more investment the GM will have in those characters, and the more any GM bias will be in the player’s favor, and not in opposition.

Implications

This completely inverts the normal and fundamental ownership structure of the campaign and its elements, and is so radical a concept that it took me a while to actually assimilate it. Even now, I’m sure that there are ramifications and possibilities that have escaped me.

Opportunities for the GM to yield control

I get a lot of my adventure ideas from player suggestions – usually separating idea and implementation by enough margin that the source and hence content is not initially clear, and almost always putting my own spin on events. Nevertheless, the basic idea is recognizable after the fact.

Occasionally, when a critical fumble or critical success manifest, I will ask the player what he thinks the results would be.

When the players want to undertake some action, I always let them try it – even if, through an NPC, I have voiced a problem with their logic. I just make sure that they can bail out of the ‘missed approach’ before splattering the campaign all over the tarmac.

And if the players really make a mess of their opportunities, I always let the NPCs win – while making sure there’s a 13th hour solution available to the PCs.

Finally, if there’s a key NPC required by the character’s background who is due to appear in a near-future adventure, I will get the player to generate the character within parameters that I establish. These then become NPCs like any other – occasionally with a little tweak here and there so that the player doesn’t know everything about them – but giving the players greater opportunities to invest in the campaign world. Similarly for bases and vehicles and anything else that the PCs are supposed to create: I’ll help with the mechanics, and may contribute to the concept and design, but the prime movers are the players whose characters are responsible. It’s my feeling that this adds to the sense of the character being the originator of the item, whatever it might be.

It doesn’t always work; attempts to get the players to generate the Zenith-3 charter and by-laws in character, based on the charter and by-laws of their parent organization (which had also been written by players operating in-character), and in turn, modeled on those of the United Nations, floundered when players continually failed to respect the boundaries established. The result was a lot of interesting side conversation and very little progress. At least in part, though, this was an result of attempting to collaborate by email, and not face-to-face.

A lot of the time, traditional GMing reminds me of the Kia Sorento ad with Pierce Brosnan for Superbowl XLIX – which is still playing on Australian TV in edited form (Link is to both the Ad and a transcript). The GM starts describing a scene, and the player (Pierce) jumps in with what he thinks the GM is going to say next, only for the GM to say “No, an [X]” – with the X being something completely different. “A sniper” – “No, an owl. You come around a bend, there’s something blocking your way” – “A missile launcher, right” – “No, a moose”. The style of GMing I try to employ works with the player expectations as much as it confounds them: “A sniper?” – “Yes, in the form of a bird knocking icicles off a tree limb. You come around a bend, there’s something blocking your way” – “A missile launcher, right” – “No, a moose – but it’s charging toward you like a missile, if that’s any consolation.”

In other words, I’m continually looking for ways to give the players input into the process of GMing. I knew it worked; suddenly, I have insight into why, and that will help avoid the occasions and problems when it doesn’t.

Opportunities for the Players to involve the GM

Unless he’s (1) trying to preserve the fun of the game for everyone, or (2) speaking in character, the GM should never lie to the players. He can tell them, “there’s no way for you to get an answer to that question”, he can mislead in his phrasing, but any reasonable question about what a character knows, what a character has experienced in the past, what the character thinks the game world is like, the GM is bound to answer both fully and honestly. Even if that means telling the players “I haven’t figured that out yet”.

GMs should encourage their players to ask such questions before making irrevocable decisions. Once the players realize that the GM is doing his best to be fair to them, they will exploit the opportunity more often, giving the GM greater opportunity to influence their decisions, not by deception, but through nuance, and altering the players’ perception of their situation.

The other big opportunity that a GM has to involve themselves in a character is during construction. Always remember, the GM knows the game world at this point, while the player typically does not; yet this is supposedly a character who integrates perfectly with that world because that is where he comes from. This is the perfect opportunity to educate the player about the game world and customize the design to make the game world part of the character and the character reflective of the game world. Once the character is in play, options of this sort are smaller, more rare, and infrequent.

In fact, they come only when an adventure incorporates a revelation of some sort about the character’s background. It’s always essential to have the player on-board about and contributing to such decisions (and so the player assists in the creation of a key part of the adventure), just as it is essential for the player and GM to confer about what this means for the character and how the PC fits into the game world. Make these moments collaborative and there will be a lot less for players to complain about – and a lot more fun to be had at the game table.

Opportunities for player input into campaigns

Every decision the players make, especially those that are big-picture and strategic and about priorities for their characters, carries a subtext that the GM must observe and decode. Why? Because these decisions will hint at the directions that players want the campaign to head in, in a stylistic and metagame sense. This is doubly- or triply-true of any such decisions not prefabricated into the adventure or campaign plan.

Case in point: When the players in the Zenith-3 campaign encountered “Mortus,” they were supposed to simply find a way to get him to back off, leaving him floating around in the background (to be the central character of a later plotline in which it became possible to “cure” the character by imposing a heightened sense of Medical Ethics within him, though they didn’t know that at the time). Instead, they decided that his other-dimensional analogues posed too great a threat; the one they were faced with was just about the best of the bunch, and a confrontation between those analogues being inevitable, they wanted to shift the odds in “their” favor. They found a way to undertake immediate action, in effect triggering the future adventure immediately – an adventure that went on to consume the next six months, real time,

In the past, when I’ve discussed this situation, I talked about the impact on long-term campaign plotting and how a plan didn’t have to tie you down. This time I want to point out something deeper – the implication that my players would prefer a little more self-containment in the adventures, a little more dealing with one problem at a time instead of letting them all stack up on them. This is something that I took on board at the time, without making a great deal of fuss, and that I immediately incorporated into subsequent adventures. I won’t always be able to do it, but so much as possible, I’ve been able to make the adventures more self-contained, more often.

Some of these results may be more overt than others. The dialogue at Reddit talked about a crisis at Village A, by way of example; if the PCs, upon learning of this crisis, choose to go to village B instead, the GM has any number of options. He can have the threat to Village A show up at Village B; he can have the threat at Village A continue uninterrupted until it is a much bigger problem; or he can can simply accept that the players aren’t interested in the plot he’s dangling and have the problem go away somehow. The suggestion was made that simply having the problem occur at Village B instead was railroading of the plot; whereas, dropping the hint that the same thing was happening at Village B as Village A offers players the choice of continuing to B – accepting the GM’s hint – or turning aside for Village C, making their feelings abundantly clear.

This is all relevant to the discussion at hand when viewed from a slightly different perspective: sometimes you can’t be completely sure of what the players were hinting at (heck, sometimes, they aren’t sure and may not even realize that they are telegraphing their subconscious reactions!) – in which case, the only thing to do is postulate a theory and test that theory.

My normal preference, and certainly what I would advocate (and have in the past), is to go with the “crisis continues at Village A” option, if the PCs choose to do something else instead of, or in advance of, tackling the problem. This is both more plausible (ignoring problems in real life rarely makes them go away, but neither do problems that don’t directly affect you yet come chasing after you) and gives the characters free will. Only if the threat becomes both imminent and dire and the PCs are still reluctant to engage with the plot would I decide that (a), someone else needs to solve the problem, and (b), the players really are not interested in that type of plotline.

It’s also important to remember that everything is subjective, and that includes player reactions. The plotline the GM has in mind might be completely different to the last 3 that he’s run, but if the players can’t see that difference, or don’t perceive it as being sufficiently profound, they are going to react as though this was the fourth adventure in a row that essentially follows the exact same blueprint. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t be all that enthusiastic. Or interested.

In the other guy’s shoes

This all puts a new spin on the old adage about “walking a mile in the other guy’s shoes”. It’s worth doing so not merely to understand “the other guy” better, but to help change the shape of those shoes to something a bit more comfortable to both.

GMs, be alert to opportunities to get the players involved in creating game elements and adventures, and be alert to the nuances and possible implications of player decisions at a stylistic and meta-game level; if necessary, find a way to test your conclusions.

Players, be prepared to create not just the character but his personal life, his family and friends and colleagues, or to at least collaborate on these things with the GM. Try to be clear about your expectations with reference to a character’s domestic situation but not insistent, but remember that not everything will work out to your liking. Also, remember that the GM will never have a monopoly on good ideas, so if you have one, throw it out there; you never know when it will be just what the GM has been needing.

And some final advice to both: actively look, as often as possible, for ways to make the game better. Everyone benefits from such improvement.

And now, it’s back to working on the article that was intended to appear here, today….

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The Incremental Art Of Escalation


digital calipers

(image; FreeImages.com / kilverap)

There are all sorts of situations in which the GM wants a situation to escalate by a measured, finite quantity. There will usually be several such escalations that he intends to occur before the situation reaches its climax and resolution.

It can be quite difficult to actually plan these escalations as a smooth progression, especially in systems that don’t index and quantify significant personality traits the way GURPS and the Hero System do – D&D, for example.

Today, the goal is to describe a system of classification for acts of revenge that uses three key metrics, enabling a more precise level of control over escalating patterns. These are Severity of Act, Response Triggering, and Proximity of Target.

Severity Of Act

The more severe an action is, the greater the escalation it obviously represents. There’s a world of difference between saying nasty things about someone and actually doing something nasty to them. For the purposes of this planning technique, I index the severity of an act on the following scale:

  1. Petty: A petty act is something trivial, of no lasting impact, and is little more than an expression of spite.
  2. Vicious: A Vicious act targets something belonging to the target, whether that be material or ephemeral, such as reputation or credibility. The principle defining characteristic of this type of act is the lack of respect shown toward the target of the attack.
  3. Direct: Direct acts target the subject directly, exactly as you might expect. This type of attack is rarely intended to inflict severe injury, but might do so anyway; the intent is to inflict pain, not lasting incapacity.
  4. Encompassing: There is a clear escalation when this type of attack is inflicted, because this encompasses the concept of secondary pain – i.e. if someone close to the target is hurt or threatened, the target is also injured.
  5. Aggravated: The next stage in escalation can be inflicted on either the target directly or on close associates, and is the intent to permanently inflict some incapacity beyond mere pain but short of death.
  6. Depraved: A depraved act is a vicious, direct, encompassing, or aggravated act that is carried out in such a way that innocent bystanders are placed at risk, directly and intentionally threatened.
  7. Homicidal: There is nowhere else to go but to directly threaten the life or existence of the target.
  8. Irrational: Beyond even Homicidal lies the Irrational, in which some characteristic shared by both the target and a stranger or passerby is sufficient to target the stranger, or in which the attack is aimed to inflict pain or injury on the target by virtue of the association with other victims who share a common characteristic. Serial Killers, Acts of Genocide, Racial Suppression, and some acts of Terrorism fall into this category.
  9. Terrorist: Which leaves only those acts in which the characteristics that made the individual a target are considered to transcend the individual and apply to an entire nationality, race, society, economic class, occupation, gender, or species – which clearly implies that, in the mind of the aggressor, injury to any member of the wider group lessens or injures the individual by virtue of that commonality. The cause transcends the individual, who is nothing more than a representative example of the target group, devoid of individual importance.

Note that the action of starting the list with a “zero” rating is not an accident.

Response Triggering

The second metric which can be used as a measurement of escalation is the response that it triggers in the direct target. Some acts cause nothing more than irritation, while others are sufficient for the target to set aside all morality and social responsibility in the pursuit of revenge.

This is a significant metric because, in many cases, the reason for the escalation by the attacker is because the response triggered in the target does not seem appropriate or sufficient to the attacker.

As a result, while the same Severity Level might apply to a number of acts within a pattern of escalation, each level of response triggering will only occur once in a given progression.

At least, that would be the case if result always mirrored intent. In the real world, such correlations are far from certain, and in an RPG (where PCs are at arm’s-length from the owning Players) they can be exceedingly rare. But I’ll deal with those complications through some adjustments later in the article.

I have rated response levels on an 8-step scale:

  1. None/Minor: Minor triggers don’t cause the target to change or reconsider his routines in any way. In fact, he barely registers that they are happening, at least at the time.
  2. Inconvenience: When the character is inconvenienced in some way, he at least notices – though he may not be sufficiently motivated to do anything about it beyond accommodating that inconvenience and, perhaps, complaining about it. Nevertheless, for the first time, the character has to actually acknowledge that something is happening.
  3. Irritation: The next stage in response is to grow irritated at whatever is happening. This does not challenge any of the character’s personality traits or routines, but may trigger an immediate response toward the source of the irritation, or to any other causes of irritation or frustration that the character might experience. This reaction may be out-of-proportion to the triggering event, especially where this type of transference (“blowing off steam”) takes place.
  4. Trigger Responses: For the first time, a sensitive spot has been targeted by an act, and the character has no choice but to react in the manner dictated by his psychological profile. Responses at this level are typically fairly mild, but they may be abnormal or excessive from any normal perspective. However, they will not require the character to exceed his normal routine more than momentarily – long enough to make a complaining telephone call, for example.
  5. Active Responses: An active response is a further step up the escalation cycle; it reflects an act that forces the target to actually change his routine and go out of his way to deal with the problem or its repercussions. Note that some fairly minor acts can reach this intensity of response – scratching up a door’s car panel with a set of keys (sometimes referred to as “keying” the car) badly enough that it needs to be repainted, forcing the target to rent a replacement for a couple of days, is sufficient to qualify.
  6. Pro-active Responses: More substantial disruptions in routine escalate the situation. This stage requires the targeted character to undertake some action in direct response or mitigation, including altering his routine to an unknown extent for an unknown period of time – the difference is that this is an ongoing impact.
  7. Extreme Responses: An extreme response is a total disruption of routine that will endure until the problem – i.e. the triggering individual or group – is/are dealt with. In other words, the target has to more-or-less put his life on hold until the cause is resolved in some reasonably-permanent fashion. The only restriction on behavior as a response to the trigger is that it will remain within the normal bounds of the character’s psychological profile.
  8. Defining Responses: An more accurate name for this level of response is a “Redefining Response”. The character targeted is pushed to his breaking point, i.e. the point at which his normal psychological responses may break, triggering a response that the character would never normally be capable of. It might be a flash of killing anger, or an act of humiliation, or a disruption of the moral or ethical restraints that normally define the character. However it manifests, the character will be forever changed by the experience and its consequences.

Proximity Of Target

As noted previously, some attacks seek to injure the target indirectly by targeting those around them. More often, they will simply tolerate harm to others as a necessary consequence of escalating the conflict. As with the other metrics that have been discussed, there is a hierarchy to such things – one that is, perhaps, more illogical, but that is accepted human nature.

  1. Pets: The act of harming non-humans is clearly considered less-extreme than attacking humans by most people; there are exceptions.
  2. Danger-Acceptors: The next most-severe attacks target others who willingly accept danger on behalf of society – the military, the police, etc. This is generally considered more severe than attacking the intended target directly, but there is a degree of mitigation relative to other bystanders in that there is a sense that through their choice of occupation, they have in principle accepted that danger. Note that this category is not about these people in general, it is about those who seek to directly protect the primary target.
  3. Self: It’s quite normal to consider attacks against the character with no risk of harm to others to be less extreme than the alternatives, in spite of the impact on other metrics.
  4. Bystanders: Harming the public at large, even as collateral damage, is clearly viewed as an escalation.
  5. Professional Colleagues: Assuming that they are not danger-acceptors themselves, harming professional colleagues in order to harm the primary target for no better reason than that professional relationship is often considered more extreme than a willingness to harm others simply because they are in physical proximity to the primary target.
  6. Friends: More extreme still is harming the friends of the primary target if they are only in danger by virtue of that relationship.
  7. Family: Next come attacks that might also harm the family of the primary target. These could be subdivided into spouses, parents, and other adults in one sub-group, and children in another, more extreme, sub-group. However, I prefer handling children in a different manner, described below.
  8. Complete Strangers: Being willing to harm anyone, anywhere, simply as collateral damage , is rightly considered pretty extreme.
  9. Groups: Finally, harm to any groups by virtue of the members having a common characteristic with the primary target are the most severe of all. This is because such attacks are perceived (usually correctly) as ideological in nature, more severe even than simply harming a total stranger.
The Children Modifiers

As mentioned above, attacks that harm children are generally considered to be more heinous than those that do not. It follows that risking harm to children represents an escalation that needs to be factored in.

  • Any action with a slight risk of harm to children stands as shown above.
  • If there is a reasonable risk of harm to children and measures are taken to mitigate that risk, apply +1 to the Severity Rating of the act.
  • If no such measures are taken, apply +2 to the Severity Rating.
  • If there is a near- or complete- certainty of harm to children, and measures are taken to mitigate that harm, apply +2 to the Severity Rating.
  • Finally, if such a risk exists and no mitigation attempt is made, apply +3 to the Severity Rating.

There’s a frequent mention in the above list of “mitigation” and “attempts to mitigate”. This is a matter of some judgment by the GM; inadequate attempts might not “discounted”, i.e. might be treated as though no attempt had been made. More often, this will be “rewarded” with an additional +1 over an above the “no attempt” rating because it can be argued that this demonstrates an awareness of the risks to children and a deliberate intent to inflict psychological harm on the target through them.

On the other hand, measures that should completely protect children that fail for reasons that are impossible to predict do not attract as much of the outrage. If the Severity Modifier is more than one, and this occurs, the GM may choose to reduce the modifier by 1.

Combined Score

Here’s where the magic happens. There are three scores, all of which range from either 0 or 1 to 8 (the ‘Children Modifier’ notwithstanding). Adding the three scores together gives a rating out of 24.

The Measured Increment

By rating the initial act, and the intended final act within the escalation progression, and counting the number of stages desired within that progression, it’s a simple calculation to get a “measured increment” – a numeric amount by which each successive act will be worse than the one before it.

As a general rule, where this is not an even amount, round later entries within the pattern up, and earlier ones down. If it makes the pattern easier to calculate, you can also specify that the second act is less severe than indicated and the final act a greater escalation in severity. It will still appear completely plausible as a progression.

The formula is I = (Max – Min) / (N – 1).

So, if the final stage that you are building towards has a rating of 18, and the act that triggers the retaliation is rated a 6, and there are to be four acts in total, the interval is (18-6)/(4-1)=12/3=4.

The initial act will be a 6, and will be followed by whatever the PC does in response (if the other party is the instigator). That will be followed by an act with a rating of 10, and then one of 14, and then the final act of 18 – each time with a retaliation by the PC in between.

Here’s the fun part: If the PC’s response rates as higher than the next intended act by the PC, add the difference from the last act committed by the person responding to all the remaining acts within the sequence. If the PC’s response is an act rated less than the last act by the NPC, the NPC’s subsequent acts are reduced by 1; this can occur multiple times within an escalation. If lower than the last two acts, use -2, and so on, AND vice-versa.

For example:

  • NPC commits act of Rating 6.
  • PC reacts with an act of rating 7. This is less than the next stage in the escalation, 10, so it’s fine.
  • NPC responds with an act of Rating 10.
  • PC reacts with an act of Rating 15. This IS higher than the next intended escalation value of 14, by one. It is also five more than the previous action by the NPC, so all subsequent steps in the escalation are increased +5.
  • NPC responds with an act of Rating 14+5=19.
  • PC responds with an act of Rating 18. This is less than the NPC’s last act.
  • NPC responds with the intended final act in this progression, one with a rating of 18+5-1=22.

Using this system, you can map out what the NPC will do and how that will be affected by what the PC does in response.

Correlating Deed With Increment

The final step is to map each of the values determined back to a specific combination of the three metrics plus modifier.

The Children Modifier can only be reduced by 1, and only if successful mitigation occurred in the previous act AND the attacker is sincerely regretful that the mitigation was not more effective.

Response Level can only go up, it cannot fall or stay at the same level.

The same factors that affect Severity may also affect Proximity, or the two can be independent.

In general, then, correcting the “children modifier” should be done first; increasing the response level by one should happen second; increasing the proximity by one should happen third, and be followed by an increase in the severity, fourth; and any leftovers can be dealt with by repeating steps two through four. The final adjustment should ALWAYS be randomly chosen, regardless of what this pattern says.

A similar sequence of corrections makes it simple to adjust a planned response to make it worse or better, either of which can take place as a result of PC actions. The pattern should be Proximity, Severity, Children Modifier, Response Level (in that order, and if permitted under the ‘rules’ stated earlier). However, in this instance only, it IS permitted to end up with an unchanged response level if it is directed at a target of greater proximity.

Expanding the system

This situation has clearly targeted the simulation of historical feuds such as the legendary conflict between the Hatfields and the McCoys. But it doesn’t take a lot of expansion or revision to adapt it to any other sort of escalating conflict, whether it be between two business rivals or two Nations.

The basic principle: Severity, Response Level, and Degree of proximity of those who might suffer collateral damage as a result – with a modifier for heinousness if children are directly targeted – still holds true.

With this system, you can plan a smooth increase in perceived level of hostility and adjust those plans in order to take into consideration deviations from pattern on the part of a PC.

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The Beginnings Of Plot


(Image: FreeImages.com / tijmen van dobbenburgh)

(Image: FreeImages.com / tijmen van dobbenburgh)

So you’ve got this great idea for a plot for your next RPG adventure. How do you go from that undeveloped idea to having a plan for the construction of that Adventure? Where do you begin?

It’s not an easy choice to make, except in hindsight. There are all sorts of options to choose from:

  1. The Beginning
  2. A Key Character
  3. A Key Confrontation
  4. One Problem
  5. The Villain
  6. The Ending
  7. The Fragmented Approach

I’ve used all of these at one time or another, and in today’s article I’ll review each for their advantages, disadvantages, and limitations, and finally, examine how I choose between them.

flowchart showing a linear plot with branches, options, side-plots, and redundancies

Under the beginning-first model, the GM starts writing at “0” and proceeds 0-4-6-8-11-14-16-17-18; he then identifies critical points 3, 7, and 10, and plans alternate paths that the adventure could take at those points (5, 12, and 13); and, finally, schedules some incidental side-plots and encounters to even out the screen time (2, 9, and 15).

The Beginning

The most obvious starting point is at the beginning. All Adventures have one. From this initial beginning, you plan a straight and logical through-line for the primary story to follow, complete with any difficulties and pathways around them; you build in alternative solutions, allocate principle PCs to be the focus of attention in each section, and finally make sure that every character is getting a fair share of the spotlight, that each player is getting the sort of activity that they find entertaining, and that each PC is always doing something. Then you expect to ignore 90% of it because you don’t get to control what the players do, and will need to improv changes in response to the unexpected twists the players put on your neat and simple plotline.

The biggest, most obvious pitfall is that you might not see a logical path for the adventure to follow. The next most common is that the initial idea can morph and transform in uncontrollable ways while you are writing it, until the idea that you are supposed to be developing becomes lost and confused, forcing you to scrap all the development to date – and sometimes, these twists can so pollute your thinking that you never get clear of this flawed development and have to reinvent the whole idea. The third major pitfall is that if there is a logical flaw in the idea itself, this can remain hidden until you actually start play (when the players will point out your error with great relish). And, finally, you can embark down a logical path only to find that it doesn’t lead to the situation you expected it to, requiring characters to behave inconsistently, or be in two places at the same time, or be doing two things at once, in order to resolve the dilemma.

Against this formidable minefield of potential problems is a single great advantage: that you are designing the adventure in the same sequence, the same narrative flow, as the players will experience it. This compartmentalizes each potential choke-point, enabling you to deal with them individually and separately.

Frankly, if you employ the one-line-bullet-point-planning method that I have described a number of time here at Campaign Mastery, those pitfalls are minimized – but so is the potential gain from the advantage, leaving this the simplest but least effective technique.

A Key Character

The second approach is to work out the story from the point-of-view of one key character. This is usually a PC, though sometimes an NPC works better as being the plotting “vehicle”. It’s even possible to divide an adventure up into stages in which each PC gets a turn at being the “key character”, though this can be tricky and can seem contrived.

Some adventures in the Adventurer’s Club campaign are “star vehicles” for a particular PC or pair of PCs. That simply means that the subject matter shows off the PCs abilities or personality or involves the character’s history in some way that dominates the adventure context. That doesn’t mean that the other PCs don’t make significant or even vital contributions within the course of the adventure, it simply means that the adventure is “about” the key PC in some way. When this is the case, it can often make sense to plan the adventure following the story from the point of view of that one character, then dropping in incidental encounters, scenes, and plot sequences to give the other PCs some spotlight time along the way. Since we’re being careful to give each character his own “featured plots” in equal number, spotlight time should even out in the long run.5

If you were to draw a diagram of the plotting process, it would be virtually indistinguishable from the one shown earlier; only the sequence of plot points are likely to be different – “0, 2, 4, 6, 8, 11, 15, 16, 17” for example.

A key aspect of this approach is to view the other PCs as resources that the “star PC” uses to solve his problems. In fact, I would go further and state that they should be viewed as resources that he has to use, because that guarantees that each PC (and hence, each player) has something to do in the course of the adventure.

A Key Confrontation

The third approach is best used when the whole purpose of the plot is to introduce an important NPC into the campaign. You start with the key confrontation that introduces the NPC, and work backwards from that confrontation. Depending on the specifics, this confrontation could come early in the adventure or be its climax.

For example, contemplate a character who is intended to provide information resources and expertise when the PCs need it. The key confrontation is between this NPC and the PCs, and the purpose is to demonstrate this capability. There are two obvious paths: either the NPC discovers a situation needing PC attention, and comes to them, or the PCs encounter a situation in which they need the expertise that the NPC has to offer, and go to, or are directed to, him. Either way, the situation in question is clearly at the heart of the adventure.

Or perhaps the confrontation is to be between a Mastermind’s flunky and the PCs, and the purpose is simply to reveal that there is a mastermind lurking in the shadows. This is a situation in which a small plotline, seemingly complete and isolated, is unexpectedly revealed as a small part of a bigger picture. The connection is usually by way of something that would normally be present or resolved as part of a self-contained plot that is not. It might be that the adventure is about the NPC acquiring some resource on behalf of the Mastermind; the PCs stop the NPC (eventually) but when they go to recover the resource, it has gone. Or it might be that the self-contained adventure is complete, lacking only one thing: a motive for the NPC to do whatever it was that he tried to do in the course of the adventure. Or it could be something more dramatic – the NPC does something, the PCs hunt him down and are about to capture or interrogate him. He says something melodramatic like “You may eventually get the answers you seek, but it will all be too late. I am defeated but another has already taken my place,” and then suddenly shrivels up and wastes away, or he bites on a hollow tooth releasing poison into his system, or whatever. Note that the latter won’t work very well in D&D where clerics frequently have access to spells that neutralize poison!

Either way, you work back from the fact of the central confrontation to the reasons for that confrontation, and then to how the PCs become aware of whatever the cause is, and so on; then work forwards from the point of confrontation to resolution of the adventure. Then you add in any branches and ensure that “all roads lead to Rome” – or, in this case, to the confrontation that is the point of the whole adventure. Everything else that happens exists in the plot only because of that confrontation.

Functionally, the same map of plot developments can be used to represent this flow of construction, because the plot is essentially still a relatively linear construct. In this case, 1, 2, 6, 14, 16, or 17 are all locations that could be the central confrontation, because they are all “funnel points” through which the plot has to move. 1 or 2 only work if the NPC is bringing the cause to the PCs; 6, 14, or 16/17 are far more likely otherwise. 16 or 17 only work if the central confrontation is to be the climax of the adventure, implying that the confrontation is with an enemy or opponent. For all other types of “confrontation”, 6 and/or 14 are the most likely plot points; 6 is early, and leads to a complex situation in which the PCs have several choices about paths within the narrative; 14 is far more straightforward. 6 doesn’t lead directly to the climax, while 14 is far more strongly connected with that climax, and so is likely to be about some revelation concerning whatever has already happened within the adventure.

One Problem

A similar approach is to define one problem that you want the PCs to have to solve. Answering the basic questions – why they have to solve it, how they have to solve it, how they find out about it, what’s their motivation, what effect will solving the problem have on the campaign, and so on – defines what the PCs need to derive from prior plot points within the adventure.

There’s one essential difference between this approach and any others, and that is that this approach marries naturally into the achievement of PCs goals. The logic is simple: The PCs have a goal, the problem stands in their way, and so the problem has to be solved.

This has the advantage of defining the essential nature of plot points 0, 1, 16, 17, and 18 for you. In 0, the PCs begin to pursue their goal, in 1 they discover that there is a problem, in 16 they find the solution to the problem, in 17 they put that solution into effect, and in 18 they achieve whatever it was that they set out to do. Everything else is either incidental or relates to the parameters of the problem, or sometimes, the parameters of the solution.

What do I mean by that? Simply that sometimes problems have simple but unacceptable answers – “Nuke ’em from Orbit, it’s the only way to be sure” – “but that’s EARTH you’re talking about!” – and the problem is about finding ways to deal with the restrictions that prohibit or constrain that obvious solution “Maybe we can use a pheromone of some sort to lure them all to a remote island or remote points on each continent, or something, then nuke just that.” “What about NORAD? We don’t want to start World War III, we’ve got enough problems.”

The Villain

It is often essential to develop the story from the point of view of the Villain. You start by working out how to the story would play out “if everything goes according to plan” and then look at when, where, and how the PCs can force him to deviate from that plan.

For example, in the Adventurer’s Club campaign, the PCs are about to attempt to prevent the biggest, slowest, crime wave in the history of New York City, as one gang attempts to rob the 12 wealthiest targets in the city (okay, 11 plus one target of opportunity).

In developing this plotline, we worked out how the crooks were to pull off the robbery – this required a new super-acid that was especially effective at tunneling through the granite and basalt of NYC’s bedrock – how they got the acid, how they came up with the plan, how they recruited the people they would need, how they were to keep the whole operation secure, and how they planned to get away with it. Then we started looking for ways in which this whole operation could come unstuck, little by little.

It started with a rat plague (NYC has those from time-to-time, like most modern cities); that was followed by a blizzard (which we transplanted from a decade earlier in the campaign historical background, but which also occur in NYC from time-to-time); and then by a few days of unseasonably warm weather, which melted the snow, overloaded the storm-water system, and produced localized flooding in basements, and which killed off most of the rats. Rat bodies then began showing up in unexpected places, showing unusual rates of decomposition and in some cases, ingestion of some sort of poison. That led the PCs to investigate the danger to the citizens (negligible due to dilution) and the sewers that were the source, which in turn led them to the new tunnels being dug with the super-acid, and hence to the discovery of the body of the nefarious scheme. The PCs still don’t know where Substance X comes from, or who the mastermind is, or how they planned to get away afterwards; but they do know the gang’s base of operations, and how close they are to completion of their tunneling efforts, and hence have some idea of when the whole thing is going to go down.

While it would be possible to come up with this sequence of plot events starting from the beginning, the risks of some hole in the logic are heightened, and the risks of some contradiction are far higher; working out the story from the point of view of the villains negated those risks.

The Ending

There are times when the best approach is to start with the outcome that you want, and work backwards from that. This is especially the case where the adventure is part of a larger narrative or plotline.

There’s a big trick to not making these plot trains, and that is ensuring that whatever the outcome of the self-contained adventure, it will always have the effect on the bigger picture that you want to achieve. That means, in terms of that bigger picture, that you don’t care about the outcome of the current adventure.

For example, let’s say that the “bigger picture” is that a magical artifact is to be stolen. Why, and by whom, is for later adventures to reveal. This means that the current adventure’s real sole purpose is to justify the PCs learning of this robbery. So anything that puts the PCs in proximity to the location of the artifact will do; and anything beyond that basic requirement of the adventure is irrelevant to the big picture and can be dedicated to making the current adventure as entertaining as possible. It would probably help to work out how the artifact was taken and applying a second requirement that it not be prevented by anything the PCs were likely to do in the course of the adventure; the simplest answer would be to have the item stolen before the adventure even starts, and a fake left in its place. That can be revealed as part of the climax, when the villain grabs the ‘artifact’ from its display case and attempts to use it to facilitate his escape, only for nothing to happen; it might be that there’s a command word that he doesn’t know, it it might have failed for some other reason. It’s only in the post-climax wash-up that the fact of the substitution, and hence the robbery, are discovered.

Once again, the same basic plot development structure diagram can be considered illustrative. 17 and 18 are defined – the climax and the denouement – and the rest is all a question of how do the PCs get from whatever their situation was at the start of the adventure to participating in that climax.

The Fragmented Approach

The fragmented approach is a blended hybrid of two or more of the methods already listed. For example, you might start with the outcome, as described above; that gives you the basic parameters of the end of the adventure. Because you already know what the PCs status is at the start of the adventure, you might then be able to progress part-way through your plotting by choosing one character as the vehicle by which the adventure hook reaches the PCs as a group, defining 0 through 6. All that remains is the adventure itself, which you might then create by following the villain who is to be confronted in the climax and working out events from his point of view. Where you need to define multiple paths through part of the adventure because the PCs will have choices to make, some of these may be defined by following the villain’s point of view while others are derived from key confrontations – as in, “if the PCs don’t choose to follow line-of-inquiry X and learn Y as a result, how else might they learn Y? Well, who else would have the raw information and necessary mindset to determine Y? Call that person Z…” That defines this vital sub-element of the adventure in terms of a confrontation between the PCs and Z, which may require an insertion early into the plot of the PCs becoming aware of Z.

Because I do a lot of big-picture plotting, I would be entirely likely to have inserted an earlier adventure into the continuity for the express purpose of bringing Z to the PCs attention. Introducing both problem and solution to an adventure can make the whole thing seem to pat and contrived. If you can make part of that introduction in advance of need, the entire campaign becomes more robust and adventures more interconnected. If you can make that introduction a side-benefit of an adventure you were planning anyway, so much the better.

Making the choice

With so many options (and I had one more, but have forgotten the specifics while distracted writing other articles, so have redacted it), it’s important to be able to identify the best choice for any given situation.

There are actually five different methods by which I select the approach that I am going to use for the generation of any given adventure. They are the Deliberate Choice, the Inspired Choice, the Willful Choice, the Personality Choice, and the Arbitrary Choice.

The Deliberate Choice: Outcome Primacy

The Deliberate Choice comes down to purposefully selecting the choice based on how this adventure is to fit into the bigger picture of the campaign. Unless the adventure is a deliberate fill-in standalone situation that I am preparing to keep on standby until I get caught short on my game prep, every adventure I write for a campaign has a bigger-picture element to it, whether that be a plot development, a character development, a character introduction, a consequence or outcome, or some logical middle step. For example, if you introduce villain A who is pursuing one agenda within the bigger picture, and later introduce villain B, who is pursuing a different agenda within the same bigger picture, you need to think about how they will react, and relate, to each other. Villain B might decide that Villain A is a threat, and either attack directly, or attempt to use the PCs as cat’s paws to do it for him; or might decide that he can use Villain B as a distraction; or that they have mutually-harmonious goals (at least in the short-term) and that an alliance was worth exploring.

When you know what the bigger picture need is, you may be able to use that to make your choice. Or that relationship to the bigger picture might be such that almost any adventure will “do the job” and that the best you can derive from that bigger picture is some parameters for what you don’t want. In which case, having defined your needs a little more clearly, you can move on to the next decision-making technique.

The Inspired Choice: In My Little Mind’s Eye

Sometimes, you will have an idea. It might be for a scene, or a setting, or a personality, or a combination of abilities, or a problem that would be fun to inject the PCs into, or to inject into the lives of the PCs. It doesn’t matter what it is, when you are inspired, identify the development method that starts with the subject of your inspiration and follow that technique.

The Willful Choice: On Theme

When no brilliant flashes of inspiration arrive, my next step is to refresh my recollection of the themes of the campaign, and design an adventure around one or more of those themes.

It’s hard to be more specific, because every theme and every mode of expression of that theme, will favor a different development technique. For example, one of your themes might be “you can lose everything and still be a winner”; Assuming that the primary expression of this theme in the campaign is for the PCs to “lose everything” and somehow still emerge as “winners”, you don’t want it to be one of them. That means an NPC, and that means the character-centric approach is probably best; though you could also look on this as an outcome-based development. The key terms are “winner”, “everything”, and “lose” – defining what the NPC has lost, and how, and how that either leads to his ultimate success or how he “wins” in some fashion despite his loss, defines the adventure – then all you need do is figure out how the PCs fit into the story, and rewrite the whole thing from their point of view.

Sometimes, this prompt also fails to produce inspiration, or you are already working your campaign themes hard, or you simply haven’t defined any, or – if you are waiting for these to develop on their own in the course of play – you simply don’t know what they are, yet. In any of these circumstances, the Willful choice gets you nowhere, and it’s time to move on.

The Personality Choice: Selecting A Focus

There are some plot ideas that naturally imply a focus on a particular character (usually a PC). Some characters are constructed or endowed in such a way that they take a featured role in almost every adventure. Between these two phenomena lies the implication that there are other characters who won’t get their share of the spotlight unless you deliberately engineer one for them.

I described how to do so in two recent articles: Character Capabilities, which focuses on what a character can do, and Character Incapabilities, which focuses on what a character can’t do.

Using the techniques described in those articles to develop an idea for a character-driven plot which can then be planned and constructed using the “Key Character” approach described above, is the approach that I usually adopt when Theme lets me down.

It should be noted that it’s not necessary to restrict yourself to retrograde temporal awareness – i.e. characters with spotlight deprivation from recent adventures – you can also preempt the problem occurring by inserting a plotline to feature a character who you know is not going to get another feature for a while to come, according to your big-picture plans.

The Arbitrary Choice: Anyone for Darts?

Finally, we have the arbitrary choice. Having exhausted all the other reasonable methods for choosing an approach to the development of this adventure, it’s time to make a selection at the metagame level. That normally means “what haven’t I done recently, and is there a big-picture campaign-level reason for that?”

It might be that it’s been a while since you had a simple slug-fest without deeper meaning or significance – and that a romp is called for. It might be that you haven’t done a “slice of life” in which the PCs simply live their day-to-day lives with nothing “important” happening. Maybe it’s a while since you’ve done a mystery.

Look for a change of pace – in fact, look for a couple of them, and then see which ones are ruled out by the tone and circumstances that you want to maintain within the bigger picture.

And then, if all else fails, roll some dice.

The Erroneous Choice: Getting It Wrong

Inevitably, it will happen – you will make the wrong choice, or encounter an unusual situation in which the right choice fails to deliver. This usually results in your getting stuck somewhere in the plotting, though it may also reveal itself when reviewing your plans in the form of what is even worse, a predictable or plodding plot. It happens to all of us.

When that happens, you have two choices:

  1. If you can identify exactly where the problem lies, then you can restart the plotting process using the method that most closely associates with producing a solution to the problem, and hope to navigate your way through the roadblock by coming at it from a different angle;
  2. Or, alternatively, you can begin with the developmental framework that best generates material that is as different as possible in every respect to what you’ve already got, and hope to be able to salvage some of what you’ve done already with cut-and-paste into this new framework.

The first is the jigsaw solution, and the second is the rejection solution. And they both lead to The Fragmented Approach.

The Jigsaw Solution

For example, you may reach a point in your plotting where you need to know something that simply hasn’t been defined, and that you can’t choose arbitrarily. Or you might reach a point where something is inconsistent or contradictory, like a smart character who has to do something really stupid – in which case, you need to either establish that the character has a flaw, a “blind spot” if you will, or you need to engineer his circumstances so that the “stupid choice” appears to be the smart thing to do. More than one big plan has failed because of the combination of overconfidence, and solving a short-term problem in such a way that it causes long-term problems. Or, worst of all, you realize that you have created an adventure that takes free will away from the PCs at some critical point.

The result is that you find that you have some pieces of the “puzzle” that is the complete adventure, but not all of them – and the development tool that you are using is not helping you find the missing pieces.

We encountered this problem while working on the Adventurer’s Club adventure that I described earlier, in that while we had our mastermind, based on what capabilities he needed in order to plan and execute the crime, we didn’t have a satisfactory motive and didn’t have an explanation for how he got his hands on a sufficient (i.e. industrial-scale) supply of “Compound X”, the super-acid. We had some ideas as to the origins of “Compound X”, but needed to find a way to connect that origin to the supply.

Well, when you need someone to act out of character, you need to arrange their circumstances so that none of the in-character responses are either available to him, or would seem correct under those circumstances. In other words, we defined a checkpoint in the backstory to the adventure, defined a required outcome at that checkpoint (the NPC acts out of character), and used “The Ending” at that checkpoint as our starting point. By the time we had finished doing that, we had a completely different perspective on who the villain was and why he was doing such terrible things – and the whole adventure was more robust and internally-cohesive as a result. And, we think, it will be more interesting to the players as a result – though they don’t have the key information yet, so we’ll have to wait and see a game session or three on that front!

The Rejection Solution

Sometimes, though, you will find that you have written yourself into a corner, and need to throw away part or even all of what you’ve already done – you don’t know how much, yet.

The best solution is to pick an approach that focuses on the complete opposite of your previous starting point. If you were outcome-focused, or had an idea for the ending, or had a key problem to be solved at the climax, then the place to start is at the beginning. You may be able to salvage part of your previous work by working the plot from the point of view of the antagonist, as you defined him in the course of the previous plotline.

One of two things will happen. Either you will discover how to alter what you had previously done to get around the roadblock, for example by tweaking the personality of the antagonist in some respect, or you will reach a similar position within the adventure’s plot in a partially-or-completely different situation to the one that led back to your previous starting point.

Your choices when that happens are to keep going forwards, incorporating what you can of the old work, and ultimately ending up with something that is internally coherent, or to look for a trigger mechanism of some sort that will change the current situation (second draft) into something resembling the problematic situation (first draft).

There have been times, for example, when I have found that one small change to an NPC that had no direct effect on the situation at the point where I was having plot problems had, instead, a ripple effect from earlier in the adventure that solved the plot problem indirectly – but until I was able to view “the whole adventure” as a set of cause-and-effect chains, some of which had been derived by working backwards from the end and some which had been developed by moving forwards from the beginning, that I could see why I was having the plot problem and could change it. In the end, redefining a secondary priority of an NPC solved the problem. (This may seem a little vague; that’s because I’m trying to simplify a large and complex situation that would take many pages to describe down to a paragraph).

As a general rule of thumb: When you strike trouble, define what you need and what you know, and start at the other end of the adventure using those definitions and one of the other approaches.

The Perfect Choice: Getting It Right

But let us dwell no longer on the potential for trouble, and instead consider the opposite situation. When you get things right, it’s as though everything falls into place of its own accord; no sooner do you ask a plot question than the solution comes to mind.

Since I worked out my five-step technique-selection process, this is what happens, more often than not.

The resulting ease of plotting has made this my standard methodology over the last 18 months or so – in fact, since October 2014. I do it this way ALL THE TIME. That’s got to make it worthwhile for readers to at least consider making it theirs, as well.

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Small Motives and Personal Activities


'Bad Toy' by Crevecoeur Julien

(Image: FreeImages.com / Crevecoeur Julien)

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

Bringing Casual NPCs to Life

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

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

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

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

Compare these two versions of the same scene:

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

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

Consistency and Depth

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

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

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

Transition: Bonus

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

Assigning Small Motives

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

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

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

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

The first d6: Intensity Of Focus

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

The 2nd d6: Desire Of Focus

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

The 3rd d6: Attitude

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

What comes first: the What or the Why?

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

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

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

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

Small Motives yield Big Rewards

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

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

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Finding Your Way: Unlocking the secrets of Google Image Search


Where to find Google Image Search

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

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

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

Google Image Search results for 'old'

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

Search Term

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

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

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

Vague Adjective Root

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

Google Image Search results for 'Cliff'

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

Sidebar: The Sub-search Strip

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

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

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

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

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

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

Google Image Search results for 'old man'

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

Adding a noun

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

Google Image Search results for 'curmedgeon'

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

Sidebar: Getting Too Specific

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Google Image Search Results for 'angry old man'

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

A further descriptive element

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

Multiple Search Terms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does Search-Term Order Matter?

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

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

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

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

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

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

The standard Search Tools in Google Image Search

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

Search Tools

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

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

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

  • Clear.

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

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

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

Size

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

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

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

Google Image Search 'Color' restriction menu

Google Image Search ‘Color’ restriction menu

Color

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

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

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

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

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

Google Image Search 'Type' restriction menu

Google Image Search ‘Type’ restriction menu

Type

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

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

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

Google Image Search 'Time' restriction menu

Google Image Search ‘Time’ restriction menu

Time

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

Google Image Search 'Rights' restruction menu

Google Image Search ‘Rights’ restruction menu

Usage Rights

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

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

Google Image Search 'More Tools' selection menu

Google Image Search ‘More Tools’ selection menu

More Tools

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

Clear

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

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

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

Refining the search: Size

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

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

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

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

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

Refining the search: Usage Rights

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

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

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

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

Image preview and Result Handling Panel

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

Selecting An Image

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

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

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

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

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

function areas of the Result Handling Panel

The function areas of the Result Handling Panel

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

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

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

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

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

The action buttons on the Result Handling Panel

The action buttons on the Result Handling Panel

The Action Buttons

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

It doesn’t always work.

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • http://www.site.com/files/coolstuff/images/coolimage.jpg
  • http://www.site.com/files/coolstuff/images/
  • http://www.site.com/files/coolstuff/
  • http://www.site.com/files/
  • http://www.site.com/

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

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

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

  • http://www.site.com/files/coolstuff/images/index.htm
  • http://www.site.com/files/coolstuff/images/index.html
  • http://www.site.com/files/coolstuff/images/default.htm
  • http://www.site.com/files/coolstuff/images/default.html
  • http://www.site.com/files/coolstuff/images/home.htm
  • http://www.site.com/files/coolstuff/images/home.html
  • …and so on.

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

The 'Related Images' sub-panel

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

The ‘Related Images’ Sub-Panel

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

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

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

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

Results of Selecting the 'View More' option

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

View More

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

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

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

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

Selecting a 'related image'

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

Selecting A Related Image

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

location of the hidden 'other sizes' tool

The hidden ‘other sizes’ tool is located here

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

Results of the hidden 'other uses' tool

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

Search alternate image Sizes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Location of the hidden 'search by image' tool

The hidden ‘search by image’ tool is located here

Search By Image

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

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

Results of the hidden 'search by image' tool

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

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

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

An image result that has been moderately defaced by watermarks

The irritations of watermarks

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

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

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

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

Results of the 'Visually Similar Images' link

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

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

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

The camera icon in the Google Images front page

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

Speaking Of “Search By Image”…

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

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

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

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

Search By Image: Upload

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

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

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

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

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

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

Search By Image: URL

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

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

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

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

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

inspect element - resources - image url

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

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

+1 Google (Image) -Fu Meme

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

Finding The Right Image

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

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

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

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

The Art Of Image Searching

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

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

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


Pressure Sensitive Starting Blocks by Andrew Hecker

“PressureSensitiveStartingBlocks” by Andrew Hecker, Licensed to Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. Text created with Logo54.com Logo Maker.

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

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

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

We had part of this right.

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

The Effect

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

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

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

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

The Problem

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

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

The Initial Solution

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

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

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

The Final Solution

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Consequences

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

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

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

Wider Application

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

D&D / Pathfinder / d20

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

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

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

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

Of course, the other side also gets this ability…

Hero Games

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

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

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

In General

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

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

The Need For Consensus: A Practical Limitation

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

So, Who’s On First?

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

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The Perils Of Players Knowing Too Much


photo of lab work

Image: FreeImages.com / Nina Briski

The Backstory

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

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

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

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

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

A Question Of Catastrophe

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

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

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

The ‘Calamity Solved’ problem

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

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

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

The ‘Focal Skew’ problem

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

The ‘Confidence Issues’ problems

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

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

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

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

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

Google search 'results emperor nasi goreng'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ‘Spotlight Lock’ Problem

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

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

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

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

Problems Galore, how about some solutions?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Quite-manageable Perils Of Knowing Too Much

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

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


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

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

Blank Nametag by blogmonkey (edited)

(Image: FreeImages.com / blogmonkey)

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

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

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

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

That technique consists of six steps:

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

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

1. Nationality – Naming Conventions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Prioritization

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

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

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

Let’s name a Sleazy character as an example.

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

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

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

Attributes/Ability

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

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

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

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

Culture

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

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

Professional/Education status

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nationality

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

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

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

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

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

Social Class within nationality

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

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

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

3. The first attempt

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

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

4. Analysis – plot needs

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

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

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

5. Stepwise Refinement

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

6. Satisfaction? Or Change?

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

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

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

Blank Nametag by blogmonkey (edited)

(Image: FreeImages.com / blogmonkey)

Name-dropping

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When To Name-Drop

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

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

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

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

When Not To Name-Drop

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

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

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

In Fantasy

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

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

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

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

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

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

PC Names

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

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

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

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