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Touchstones Of Unification Pt 2 – Concepts


This trilogy of articles looks at Theme and Concept, how they interrelate, and how these elements and their relationship affect RPG campaigns.

In part one, I looked at Theme, what it means, and how it manifests within a campaign in the form of repeated motifs within individual adventures, and argued that Themes would manifest in an uncontrolled manner if not specified in advance, and would – or at least, should – evolve in response to actual play. I also offered a set of dictionary definitions for Theme and Concept to serve as road-maps to the discussion. In the case of Concept, the definitions found were:

1. something formed in the mind, a thought or general idea; 2. An abstract idea, notion, or principle, esp. when used to unify disparate representations or interpretations of such abstractions; 3. A plan, internal narrative, intention, or philosophical principle or direction common to disparate works by a collective, group, organization, or individual; 4. An idea or invention used to help sell or publicize a commodity or service e.g. ‘a new concept in corporate hospitality’.

While the fourth seems hyperbole, and not really all that relevant to the subject, the other three are – at first glance – bang on the money. So let’s look at the role of Concept in RPGs in detail…


For my money, when applied to RPGs, none of these definitions quite hits the mark. I think of a concept as firstly, and undeveloped idea or principle, whose ramifications have not been developed, or two, a central thematic connection point between the in-game expressions of those ramifications when they are developed and incorporated into the game.

Every RPG is a collection of concepts and ideas. The game mechanics give them structure, and the interaction with the player characters defines the game itself.

That means that concepts come in all shapes and sizes.

Overarching Campaign Concepts

The biggest concepts are those that affect and shape the entire campaign. These cover everything from races to societies to types of adventure to the structure of reality. Any idea that can directly or indirectly shape events and interactions within the game is a concept, and most games start with a central concept or idea. Why not a Kingdom under siege from the afterworld? Why not link clerical magic to a network of shrines and cathedrals? Why not have a legendary and much-prophesied ruler who doesn’t deserve the prominence accorded him by destiny – but who is desperate to keep up appearances? Why not have Dwarves and Elves be (secretly) interstellar refugees from some dreadful conflict who have resettled on Earth – with that conflict about to follow them? Why not make healing different?

Big concepts that will undoubtedly influence the campaign throughout.

Internal Campaign-level Concepts

Slightly smaller in scale, these ideas affect the campaign for only part of it’s existence, but may still span considerable sections of it. For example, my Fumanor: Seeds Of Empire Campaign has multiple phases:

  • In the first phase, the characters were exploring the Golden Empire – and then fleeing from it.
  • In the second, they were discovering some of the elements of the campaign cosmology and getting drawn into the conflict between Gods and Chaos Powers.
  • In the third, they are actively seeking a weapon to use against the Golden Empire before it’s too late, while becoming enmeshed in the latest scheme of Lolth – they are very close to the end of this phase at the moment.
  • In the phase to come, they will devastate the Golden Empire, and,
  • in the phase to follow that, they will confront Lolth and begin a war of liberation for the Elves.
  • In the final phase of the campaign, all these plot elements will come together for a big finale.

A good way to think of these is to use a series of novels as an analogy for the entire campaign, while each internal campaign-level concept unifies the contents, escapades, and adventures that lie within a single volume of the series. Each volume will have some attributes in common with the one before it, but can also have a substantial change from that preceding work.

Adventure-linking Concepts

Smaller in scale once again, these are what Johnn used to call Plot Loops and what I refer to as Plot Arcs or Ongoing Subplots. A mini-plotline that gets told over multiple adventures, or may be spread over the course of an entire campaign in sporadic intervals. For example, an adventure-linking concept may relate to the entry into politics of an NPC, his rise and rise to the ultimate political office of his nation, his greatest triumph, his fall from grace, the fallout from his greatest mistake, and his personal redemption. While this character may not figure into every adventure, each time he does appear, he will advance, or will have just advanced, his personal narrative. Sometimes his presence will assist the PCs, sometimes it will hinder, and most often, it will simply be there.

Or perhaps the nature of magic is changing from one thing to another through the course of a series of adventures – first the phenomenon is observed, then a theory as to the nature of the change emerges, then that theory is shown to be incomplete or inadequate, and it is replaced with a successor that manages to explain whatever the previous one did not, then the theory is confirmed, then the cause is identified, and then the PCs have a choice between letting the change take its course or trying to stop it. But this synopsis places more emphasis on this connecting concept than is warranted; early on, the concept would be a footnote, a minor incident that is not understood. It might not even be noticed for adventure after adventure. Only when the cause is discovered and the PCs are propelled into a position of decision does this connecting subplot really have to take center stage within the plotline.

Or perhaps its as simple as an idea for a recurring NPC – one who will change little if at all in the course of the adventure, but who will be prominent within the adventures in which he does appear. Or a magic item that is central to a series of adventures or encounters. Or just about anything else that can connect one adventure to another in terms of continuity.

Adventure Concepts
  • A ghost haunts an abbey searching for the name of the man who killed his wife.
  • A villain invades the PCs nightmares to discover what they fear.
  • A researcher, driven insane by his research, knows too much; held captive by his former employer, he manages to escape and seeks help from the PCs, only for his former employer to attempt an assassination at the last minute.
  • The headstones in a small Scottish town are found to all be written backwards one morning – why?
  • Why is a crop circle in Laughtonshire suddenly appearing on Heathrow’s air traffic control radar?
  • Who is the Green Menace, and why is he stalking the PCs?
  • An elf offers a priceless magic item for sale in the Thraxton Central Marketplace for the first person to sell him their sister.

These are all examples of adventure concepts. Each is (probably) self-contained, forming a single adventure, no matter how many game sessions may be required to complete that adventure. Since I made most of them up off the top of my head, they aren’t necessarily very goof ideas, by the way!

Although they may appear to be bigger at times than smaller adventure-linking concepts, in reality they are smaller by virtue of that self-containment – which does not preclude future adventures involving repercussions or consequences, by the way.

Sub-adventure Concepts

And the smallest concepts are those that aren’t even big enough to be a complete adventure. These might be an idea for an interesting location (Stonehenge? cool!), or an idea for an interesting NPC (Thanos as an Eco-terrorist? Cool!!), or an idea for an interesting encounter (A Lava Kraken!? Way Cool!!!). But at best they may form a central component of an adventure.

The connections between Themes and Concepts

A theme has to manifest as multiple concepts, many of them variations on each other. In addition, that theme has to relate to many other concepts within a campaign, even if only indirectly.

You can think of a theme as a general statement or principle, while concepts describe all the ways that principle manifests within the campaign. Alternatively, you can think of a concept as an idea that has to fit within one of the themes of the campaign. These are alternative ways of describing the same relationship between the two. At the same time, your themes all start as ideas, upper-level concepts that hold the potential to glue a campaign together. Put those two elements of the relationship between Theme and Concept together, and you start to glimpse the full picture.

Central concepts are used to generate and select themes, which are then explored through subordinate, secondary, concepts. Other, tertiary, concepts that don’t connect directly to the central concepts are then used to explore the ramifications of those subordinate concepts. Those tertiary concepts combine with the central concepts via the themes and secondary concepts to create a web of ideas that, in their totality, define the campaign. Every other important idea has to connect with one or more piece of this web. The less significant the concept, the greater the distance possible between the ‘web’ and that concept.

You can have characters that don’t connect to this central web. You can have encounters that don’t relate to it. Not all the adventures will connect with it, but most will have at least a tangential relationship to one part or another. All the adventure-linking concepts should relate to the web, and most of them should relate in some way to the central part of that web, the themes and central concepts. Your internal campaign-level concepts should all relate to the web, if they aren’t already an integral component of its structure.

It all seems so simple and straightforward, doesn’t it?

Exploring The Theme

Central to this snapshot of the relationship between Theme and Concept is the idea of exploring the Theme(s). How exactly do you do that?

Well, let’s start with a fundamental truth: the bigger the concept, the more central to the campaign it should be, and the more exploration will be required to manifest all its consequences and ramifications, and the more often it will interact with smaller campaign elements like adventures, characters, encounters, and available choices in affected circumstances. Those consequences and ramifications are one of the defining features of this particular campaign. And that in turn means that for a theme to be big enough to be central to the campaign, it’s going to have to manifest in a fairly major or fundamental concept.

A Theme is explored by looking at all the ways it can be expressed or can manifest. How many sides to a story are there? How many ways can that theme complicate situations? Is the theme recognized as valid by society at large? How does it impact social institutions and accepted social practices? How can someone take advantage of the theme – because these types of behaviors will be more prone to become accepted practice. How does the theme interact with religious doctrines? What becomes possible because of the theme that wasn’t possible before? What becomes impossible that would otherwise have been possible? What has a higher price, and what has a lower price (and not just in terms of material values)? …and so on. The more questions you can ask about how [X] is affected by the theme, or accommodates the theme, where “X” is something very specific, the more ways that theme is going to connect with the campaign.

Not all themes are of the sort that they affect the world; there are themes that purely affect the sort of adventures that are going to take place. However, every example that I can think of, on closer inspection, should be reflected in a larger way on the campaign environment in general.

A small example
For example, “Victory always comes at a price” might start out as a theme that you initially intend to apply only to the adventures of the PCs, but this restriction raises more questions than it answers. Why do the PCs have this “privileged” position? It makes more sense for this to be a general principle within the game world, and one that will therefore have impacted on the history of the campaign world, or on the way that this history is perceived by the inhabitants.

Exploring this theme means:

  • Every PC victory should exact a price, either obviously, inobviously, or collaterally.
  • The nature of the “price” may vary.
  • There will be greater emphasis on celebrations of past victories by society, with a more mournful aspect. Think Veteran’s Day in the US, or ANZAC day in Australia. I’m not sure what the English equivalent is, but you get the idea.
  • There will be a more brutal assessment of the prices of projects in general. I forget the name of the story, but I’m reminded of a piece of fiction in which a project is quoted as costing so many billions of dollars and three-point-five lives, or something like that. (I think it’s in an EE “Doc” Smith novel, possibly one of the Skylark Of Space series). The manager baulks, saying that the board would never approve of a project with a cost like that, to which the reply comes that industrial accidents are a statistical certainty, no matter what one does to prevent them, and that in a project of this scale, it is statistically certain that this number of lives will be lost in such accidents. In a world in which it is commonly held that “Victory always comes at a price”, there would be no reaction at such a bottom line – that’s the sort of thing that would be expected, forewarning of the scale of the insurance payouts that would need to be accommodated, and an accepted part of risk management.
  • What are synonyms for “Victory” and how true is this theme in relation to such synonyms? “Success always comes at a price” – sounds fair enough, doesn’t it? Longer working hours, greater responsibility, greater accountability. Certainly sounds plausible. But there would be an implicit recognition that those who seek success are willing to pay the price, whatever it may be. This alters the perceptions of those in senior positions in a subtle but profound manner. Consider a politician – there would be a far more pragmatic appraisal of his entitlement to respect, and recompense. At the same time, a politician is implicitly recognized as one willing to pay the price, and any attempts to deflect or avoid doing so would arouse even more public ire and vehemence. The result is a far more 1950s attitude towards CEOs and leaders.
  • There would be an implicit sense of entitlement that comes from paying the price of success. If such success does not result in the expected manner, society would implicitly seek to confer a different form of success on those that have earned it. That might be public recognition, social authority, moral leadership, or public recompense outside normal channels.
  • Laws, and the way society relates to them, would also be subtly transformed. Some behaviors would cause more severe approbation than in our world. For example, admissions of guilt, surrender to the authorities, etc, would result in even greater leniency than we are used to, while fleeing a crime scene would be perceived as attempting to avoid paying the price for committing the crime, and would result in a much harsher sentence. Falsely accusing another would be a heinous crime in its own right. Libel laws would be far more ruthless and black and white in their interpretation. White collar crime would be considered just as serious as street crime, and prosecuted and sentenced accordingly. That means that there would be a greater need for low-security prisons, and more of the population would have a criminal record – but there would also be a far greater respect for someone having a “clean slate” after “paying their debt to society”.

Each of these effects needs a stage and a spotlight to shine upon them – in other words, they need to be integral to a smaller concept. Some are obvious – meeting and interacting with authority figures, meeting and interacting with former criminals, and so on. Others may require greater effort. In the case of the very first item, the GM should determine what the price will be of every victory or success that the PCs enjoy as part of the process of creating the adventure. They might make a new enemy – or a new friend to whom they will become beholden – or suffer personal harm – or any of a myriad of alternatives. But these “prices” should be prominently mentioned in synopses and often made obvious in advance.

Developing A Concept

The more central a concept is, the more exploration it needs, as I’ve already said, and the more important to the campaign it needs to be. Small concepts have a limited scope, and need to be connected to something larger to be central to a campaign.

The basic process is still the same – a matter of looking at as many details of the world around you and asking how each item within it would be altered or affected by the concept.

A small example
There is a city which is shared between the living and the undead. At sunset, the living quit the streets and lock their doors and windows behind them, and the undead begin to emerge from their crypts and tombs. The undead rule the streets overnight, only to return to their sleeping places at the dawn. Despite appearances, the town is at peace, civil order is maintained, and anyone seeking to attack will find it defended by whoever is in charge at the time. There are complete hand-overs of authority every dawn and sunset, each population has its own ruling council, and there are regular dusk and dawn meetings between the two sets of administrators to deal with any issues that might affect both populations.

This is a relatively small concept, for all that there can be a number of interesting encounters and adventures in such a setting. Interactions with the authorities. Crimes committed by a member of one group against a member of the other. Unified defenses. Trade deals done with competing interests. A Romeo-and-Juliet story with a twist.

There is also a larger theme buried in the assumptions: that undead and the living don’t have to be at war, that the undead are something more than ravening savages (even the lower-order undead like zombies and ghouls). And that means that the “normal” behavior of undead is something external that doesn’t have to be part of the package. An integrated society is possible.

That means that there should be adventures exploring the nature of undeath, and why the undead in this city are different, or perhaps why the undead everywhere else are so hostile. You have the space to look at stories of religious and social intolerance, and racial prejudice. Necromantic creation of undead becomes something more akin to slavery, another big subject that you can build adventures around.

Then we get to an unspoken assumption: that most if not all undead are human or partially human. You can either explain this, or broaden the range of undead to include Elves and Dwarves and so on.

Nevertheless, it is only by virtue of connecting the initial concept to those larger themes that this can become a central pillar of the whole campaign. Without doing so, the location is simply an interesting anomaly, the setting for one or two adventures before the PCs move on.

A larger example
For comparison, let’s look briefly at a much bigger concept: “Karmic Justice is a real force within the world; Karmic Debts can be bought and sold, and Good and Bad Karma can be bottled and traded like wine”.

Wow. Where do you start with an idea that big? It’s so broad that it will affect every being within the campaign. That makes it a central concept by definition. A campaign with any concept this big built into it can’t help but make it a central element. It will have an impact on every adventure, either directly or indirectly.

  • First, you need some house rules to describe the basic tenets of Karma and Karmic Debt. Because these are going to be so ubiquitous in their application, they will need to be very quick and easy to implement in-game – no long tables, no complex math, no die rolls.
  • Secondly, you may need more house rules to simply other aspects of the game mechanics to make room for them – especially since Karma is almost certain to have an impact on combat.
  • Next you need to think about the social impact. If Karma can be bought and sold, how is it extracted? Is the intent enough? Or is Karmic Manipulation a new form of Magic? How will social conventions change? What is the market value of Karma?
  • What happens to Karma at death? Does this have anything to do with mid-level Undeath like Ghosts? Or high-level like Vampires? Is Karma inherited (“The sins of the father”)? Do wills explicitly have to distribute Karma from the wealthy? Can those with high Karma gift some of it to the poor and downtrodden, thereby generating still more Karma?
  • Crime, Laws, Law-enforcement and Justice. Can Karma be stolen? Can criminals pay their debt to society by going into Karmic Debt? What’s the economic impact of no longer needing to build prisons? Are more policemen needed, or less? Do they need to be better equipped, differently equipped, or less well equipped?
  • Politics. Is buying Karma the same as rigging an election? Is it better to vote for someone with Good Karma – or with Bad Karma that needs to be expiated with public service? Or do you need a balance?
  • Social Status. Is having a high Karma the same thing as being wealthy, or renowned for your charity, or does society demand that it be synonymous with noble rank?
  • Theology and Religious Practices. Is there a God of Karma? Or are there several – an entire Divine Karmic Industry?
  • War and Conflict. Can an army ensure victory by building a bigger refugee camp than their enemies, thereby accruing more Good Karma? How would people in the game world attempt to “game” the system?
  • Trade. How does Karma factor into merchant agreements? Is bartering illegal because one side gets a Karmic advantage, or is it encouraged? Are there minimum prices to protect the merchant from those with excess Karma?
  • Economics. How does Karma influence crop failures and bumper crops? Is there a net Karmic imbalance between one part of the economy and another, what are the consequences, and what social institutions and practices have evolved to attempt to redress the balance? Is there a Karmic Boom-and-Bust cycle, and how to the authorities attempt to manage it if there is?

By the time you’ve finished dealing with all these issues – and others that I haven’t even mentioned, like Insurance, and Shipping/Transport, and Medicine, and the occasional oddball question such as “Can Karma be weaponized?”, you will have a very different campaign world, and a central concept that will impact on virtually every character and adventure.

What of the Concept when the Theme evolves?

An evolution in Theme generally amounts to a deemphasis of an existing theme to make room for another theme that has manifested from the interaction of Players and Campaign. It’s incredibly useful to actually have the intended central concepts and themes written down somewhere so that you can assess the impact on the campaign. Ultimately, it means building more adventures around the PCs and fewer around the game world, and that’s a good thing.

But you can go further. Themes and Central Concepts can be defined as Dynamic – changing in emphasis as the campaign proceeds. You can start with one set being dominant and gradually de-emphasize them, elevating other themes from such obscurity that they might not even have been noticed at the start – and leaving room for newly-evolved themes. This manifests as adventures that slowly evolve in the course of the campaign in tone, style, and even content.

While the “five-year plan” of Babylon-5 is quite often, and quite rightly, lauded by fans and those looking to take inspiration from J. Michael Straczynski’s science-fiction epic, the way some of the themes and central concepts evolved in the course of the series, while others remained fixed to serve as unifying touchstones, is too-often overlooked.

An evolving theme generally means simply that the Adventures change to accommodate the new emphasis. The stories that the collaboration between players and GM are telling change, evolving in response to the stories that have already resulted from that collaboration. The concepts on which the collaboration were founded remain, but some are diminished in frequency and intensity.

But some evolution is more profound. A campaign theme can be completely inverted in the course of a campaign, or can even experience a full cycle. A good example might be an optimism-pessimism-optimism cycle built into the campaign – at first, the stories are positive ones, and the future looks rosy; then a gathering shadow begins to loom, eventually reaching the point where prospects look grim no matter how successful the PCs are, but there is still a single slender sliver of hope; and then, as the campaign rushes toward a crescendo, the darkness is beaten back, inch by inch, until there is an ultimate confrontation with the architect of the darkness, and the prospect of a lasting victory and a newly-rosy future in prospect.

Or perhaps the transition is going to be from soft low-fantasy to gritty and grim, and then to epic high fantasy. The only limits are your imagination, the length of the campaign, and what your players are willing to accept and tolerate.

The Suitability of Concepts & Themes

Not all concepts will fit every campaign. A concept might find itself in direct conflict with one of the themes. That’s why you should start with one or two central concepts, then determine your central themes from those concepts, and then generate the rest of the campaign-level concepts – so that you can filter out the things that just don’t work.

Hint: Don’t throw these ideas away! Using them as a central focus for your next campaign automatically means that it will contrast strongly with the one you are creating now – which elevates both of them by clarifying the unique flavors of each.

Rejected ideas from my Fumanor campaign formed the basis of my ad-hoc Rings Of Time campaign (intended to be a one-off adventure, but so compelling to the players that they insisted on continuing it); rejected ideas from the Rings Of Time campaign then formed the basis of the Shards Of Divinity campaign.

Every time you think of two explanations for something that is going to happen, or has happened, and reject one in favor of the other, record the rejected one – you can never tell when it will come in handy!

The most common reasons for rejection of a concept, other than direct thematic conflict, is that the concept does not fit the genre or style of the planned campaign. And that’s a whole new ball of wax – one that I’ll peel away in Part Three of this mini-series!

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Writing The Game: Using RPGs to Create Fiction


Today’s article started with a tweet from Alan Spartan (@SpartanAlan), who asked, “What do any fantasy authors out there think about RPG resources for fantasy writing rather than gaming? Good/bad/misleading?”

My answer was “Good question. I’ll have to write a proper response next week. Until then – all of the above.”

That last statement is an answer that needs some amplification, and that’s what this article is intended to provide.

The Benefits

Turning RPG game-play into fiction brings a lot of benefits. I’ve identified five below that I think cover all the bases, but there could easily be more.


The most obvious one comes from identifying your fiction with the game product used to generate it. This creates a cross-marketing synergy in which every player of the game system is encouraged to at least check out your fiction (if not to buy it outright, thinking they are supporting the game system that they like), and every outsider who likes the fiction is encouraged to look into the game system.

The bigger and more popular the game system, the bigger the benefits to the work of fiction; the smaller and more obscure the game system, the bigger the proportional benefits to the makers and publishers of the game system from any level of success of the fiction. The middle ground is where things get interesting.

It could be that there is a sweet-spot where maximum benefits are achieved by both parties. It could also be that the disadvantages persist after the benefits run out, and that the middle ground benefits no-one particularly. It could be that both statements are true, according to minor factors that have not been identified – how well game elements translate to the fictional page, how recognizable the game elements are within the work of fiction, etc.

I suspect that canonality would have a major role to play – if the fiction is considered to be canonical game material, it will get a bigger boost from the game system market, and vice versa.

Pregenerated Elements

Lots of people have contributed their imaginations to the game. Just look at the sheer number and variety of creatures that can be encountered in a game of D&D, for example. All this is material that the author doesn’t have to think of himself, leaving him free to focus on other elements of the work of fiction.

Of course, this does leave the work of fiction hostage to the quality of the imaginings of the game. Some game ideas are flawed, short-sighted, or just plain silly. And the author may have to work harder than usual to bring those spoon-fed creative elements to life within the story. And finally, there is a danger that cohesion will be lost in the narrative, that different encounters will feel randomly thrown together simply because they were.

There was certainly an element of this within the original D&D movie – at times it felt like the plot was being interrupted for a random encounter, before resuming once again. Part of that stems from these creatures just popping into the plot without their existence being established within the framework of the story.

Involving pregenerated inspiration introduces new skills into the mix – the ability to select the right encounters to make a good story as opposed to a good game, for example.

In a nutshell, basing your fiction upon a game can make it quicker and easier to knock out the work of fiction – but it can also make that work of fiction feel like it was knocked out too quickly and cheaply, without the necessary investment in plausibility.

Metaphysical Framework

One of the areas a lot of people seem to suffer from is the metaphysical framework surrounding their story, especially if it is not integral to the plot. Creating an internally-consistent universe takes a LOT of work and deep thought. Being able to import an established metaphysics and cosmology and theology and all the implications and cross-connections between these subjects can save the author a LOT of work, especially if these are not to be central elements within the plot.

Combat Realism and Balance

Here’s one of the biggies, when it comes to benefits: Quite often, when reading a B-grade work of fiction (or worse), you get the sense that the central character’s capabilities change randomly from scene to scene. In one scene, he struggles to tote a sack of potatoes and in another he knocks down castle doors – well, that might be exaggerating a bit. This comes from trying to evoke the same level of suspense and danger in all the combat/drama sequences throughout the story – the protagonist’s abilities vary according to the needs of the plot.

A lot of that can be solved by conducting the combat with a consistent set of PC stats and game mechanics, taking detailed notes, and then turning every roll into narrative of the course of the battle. By establishing a set standard for the abilities of the central character(s), you can then define how tough the opposition need to be according to how much trouble the protagonists have in emerging victorious – then handle your battle scenes accordingly.

But, as always, there is a caveat: it’s easy for battle sequences to go on for too long, and overload the narrative, and for the individuality of the participants to be lost. Take a look at the Helm”s Deep sequence in the Lord Of The Rings (the novel) – Tolkien periodically punctuates the battle with brief character sequences to keep that identification alive, and furthermore, has the individuality of the combatants influence their style of battle (though I think the movie actually does a better job of the latter).

Condensing a battle sequence to the right length – and knowing what the “right length” needs to be – is a whole new problem that adapters need to face, a new skill that they need to acquire.

Out-of-combat Balance & Structure

Of course, similar problems can exist and be overcome using game mechanics outside of combat. It’s all too easy for a below-par writer to have his characters unable to see what’s going on two inches in front of his nose in one part of the story and able to detect nuanced subtleties a hundred miles away from the merest whisper of a rumor at another time. My players describe this sort of thing generally as “moving with the speed of plot”.

Having consistency in what the character can and can’t do is another of the big benefits that can come from synergizing game-play and fiction-writing.

As you may have come to expect, however, this is not an unalloyed benefit. It constrains what the character can do, and that can force the writer to artificially enhance the circumstances in order to move the plot forward. We expect characters to learn from their mistakes and progress in capabilities – but not too fast – and the pace of character development in the game may not match that demanded by the plotline. There are only two solutions to this problem: pad out the story with lots of inconsequential story to give the characters the time they need in game mechanics to evolve sufficiently, or throw in a lot of unexpected ramp-ups to that potential to get the characters where they need to be. For all his good points as a writer, EE “Doc” Smith was extremely prone to the latter solution (and he wasn’t working with a game system). The problem that results is the “superman syndrome” – each time you ramp up what the character can do, you need to come up with a reason why those heightened abilities don’t make the next encounter a breeze. To keep the drama going, you need to continually up the ante in terms of the opposition’s capabilities, too, and after a while, that all seems to become too artificial.

Breakthroughs don’t generally happen just when you need them.

The Pitfalls

Having damned the benefits with faint praise and a lot of caveats, it’s time to look at the pitfalls.

The Copyright Problem

The first problem that comes to mind is that most of the text from which you will be working is subject to someone else’s copyright and/or trademark. Take the 3.5 Monster Manual. The stats are OGL, the description and flavor text are not. That means that you either have to completely reinvent the descriptive wheel or get permission from the game company to use their content.

Neither is a completely satisfactory solution. Needing to reinvent the wheel each time to make it uniquely your own undoes a lot of the benefit derived from being able to import game elements into the fiction. Alternatively, being able to copy-and-paste tracts of descriptive text (then tweak, of course) runs the risk of contrary styles of delivery. Deriving your text from another writer’s work risks losing your own descriptive voice – the result sounds like a patchwork because it IS a patchwork.

A different shade of green

It gets worse. Let’s say you need to describe Elves. A common element of fantasy gaming, this is something that you are almost certainly going to have to deal with. You can’t copy Tolkien and you can’t copy D&D, and even if you could the results could feel ‘tacked on’. You not only need to make this ubiquitous race your own original creation, but you need to be able to capture their uniqueness and transfer it to the page without page after page of exposition. It can actually end up being more work than simply creating a new race with the qualities that you need/want them to have rather than trying to describe a different shade of green.

What’s more, it’s easy to get lazy when importing elements from another source. You change one or two elements of the description to make the race your own and never dig deeply enough into the rest of the source material to identify the ramifications and consequences.

Take a look at the article I wrote on The Ergonomics Of Elves. Making the elves a little different from humans was easy. It was the ramifications and consequences that made it interesting (and the processes of simulation to discover those consequences). Everything from social structure to social activities to weapons design to furniture to diplomatic relations got impacted.

The elves that resulted were very different from Elves in basic D&D for all their superficial similarities (resulting from convergent design), which were also different to those in the LOTR movies, which were different from those in my Fumanor campaign (detailed in the Orcs & Elves series). There were certain elements in common, superficial similarities abounded, but the more you dug into the race and what made it tick, the more different they became from all these other exemplars. They were “different shades of green”.

It would have been a lot less work to make an overt change and never explore those ramifications – but superficial efforts always produce superficial fiction. And that’s a whole separate problem to overcome.

Roleplay vs Narrative

There are things that will work well, even to the point of near-necessity, in an RPG that simply don’t translate into a work of fiction. Wandering Monsters are an obvious example. They can serve an essential function in a game setting that simply doesn’t translate well into a more connected narrative. They are too isolated, and make the resulting fiction feel compartmentalized and disconnected, as though someone wrote part of a novel, dropped in a short story featuring the same characters, then resumed the novel.

The two types of work are structured differently, if they are to be any good.

Similarly, there are structural elements needed by fiction that simply aren’t present in the typical RPG game session, and that require extensive translation. Combat sequences come to mind as an example.

Rendering each blow and by-blow into a narrative form always sounds good on paper, but it’s horribly inefficient.

Ten participants in combat, five rounds of combat, an average of two blows per participant per round, and let’s say 10 seconds per blow (absolute minimum) to render the narrative – 10 x 5 x 2 x 10 = 1000 extra seconds, almost an extra 17 minutes, to conduct the battle. Taking the time to be a little more artistic about the narrative can easily triple this, and suddenly a single battle takes close to an extra hour to play through, in the RPG context, on top of the actual simulation of the battle. If the combat itself takes an hour, that’s 50% inefficiency. If it takes two, that’s 33% inefficiency. (Check out my article on time-and-motion in RPGs for more of this sort of analysis).

Blow-by-blow narrative is the first thing to go when you try to streamline combat for gameplay purposes. But that’s the chief utility for the fiction writer using an RPG to give a little structure to his writings; if anything, he will want to go in the other direction.

Good game design is therefore at odds with using games as a fiction generator.

System Flaws

But there’s one aspect of game design that tends to flow into any fiction based on it all too easily. Any flaws or shortcomings or shortcuts in the way the game simulates reality – and these are essential to practical game-play – will tend to translate directly into the pages of the fictionalized narrative, often without even being noticed.

The fiction is hostage to the limitations of the source material.

The opportunities available to characters are constrained and confined by what the game system allows. The effects of what characters do are generally confined and constrained (for the most part) to the impacts on the participants, and it’s up to the GM to extrapolate those effects into alterations to the environment. This focus is – to some extent – essential for practical game-play – but the fiction writer has to fill in those gaps or his work will feel shallow and superficial. And that can be even harder than crafting the narrative action-by-action, especially when an environmental impact that should have been felt in the gameplay isn’t, because from that point on, you have to throw away your simulation results and wing it anyway.

“The fireball detonates, Kendrick throws himself flat in the nick of time. Baldron stands his ground against the arcane flames, and emerges smoking and singed. Baldron takes advantage of the Wizard’s surprise at seeing him still standing there to deliver a killing blow against his foe.” Sounds reasonable? Okay, now try inserting “The stone floor melts and runs like taffy” in between Kendrick throwing himself flat and Baldron standing his ground. Or “The overheated limestone floor explodes.” Or “The wooden walls and floor are reduced to ash.” Standing your ground suddenly seems a whole lot more improbable, and as for being in a position to strike the final blow…

Credit where Credit Is Due

Finally, I want to pose the question: if you are using an RPG as the foundation of one or more fictional works, how much credit (and how big a share of any proceeds) are the players entitled to? Do the players hold copyright over the characters that they create? Can the author be sued?

When I was creating my Champions Campaign, I was very careful to get each of my players to sign releases that specified the manner of attribution, the copyright on the characters, permission to use them, etc. Any fictional product deriving from that campaign that is sold beyond the circle of historical or contemporary players of the campaign and that earns more than a nominal threshold value entitles them to a minor share of the proceeds.

I was fortunate; my players were very accommodating, and the fact that I had deliberately tried to be better than fair about their contributions helped persuade them to sign those releases. If any of them had wanted to kick up a fuss, however, negotiations would have been long and difficult, with no certainty of success.

The first volume of campaign background was solely my creation, leaving only the headache of rewriting anything derived from copyrighted Hero Games source material, like UNTIL, and reinventing characters that were too obviously derivative of Marvel or DC comics, like the main villain “Mandarin”. The second volume is largely fictionalized and I have releases for the key characters. The third volume has also been largely rewritten from the original gameplay and I have more detailed released from all the players. The fourth, fifth, and sixth volumes exist only in an abridged format and are more faithful to the game-play material, and are still covered by the original player releases. The seventh volume contains the abridged versions of 4, 5, and 6, plus a completely fictionalized version of subsequent events. Volumes 8 onwards tell the story of the original Zenith campaign and subsequent gameplay (Volume 7 was written as the campaign background and copies sold at cost to the players in the Zenith campaign). A little planning a long time ago has me covered.

You might not be so lucky.

The Right Balance

There are aspects of RPG gaming that can be usefully translated into fiction, and benefits to doing so. But, in order to achieve those benefits, the game needs to be optimized and purposely designed for that application, because so many of the things that go into making a roleplaying game Good To Play are at odds with the things that make fiction Good To Read.

Special attention needs to be paid to each of the drawbacks that I have identified. The game should be a starting point, nothing more.

It might seem, on first glance, that using an RPG as a tool for generating fiction is a great shortcut. I think I have shown that it can and should be even more work than just writing the story. The question to be asked is how to ensure that the extra effort required yields sufficient benefits to justify that extra effort.

Used effectively, an RPG can be a great tool for the fantasy writer. The trick is to achieve the part of that sentence that comes before the comma.

It’s Not Just Fantasy

Although the original question was about Fantasy writing, I’ve touched on Superhero and Sci-Fi along the way, and that’s because the same analysis applies to all genres of fiction that have an RPG. Some genres can benefit more than others – and I’ve already written an article on how Mystery Writers can achieve particular benefit from using RPGs as a foundation for their stories (An Air Of Mystery – Using an RPG to write mystery fiction).

A Superheroic Example from the Zenith-3 Archives

The reason I have leaned so heavily on the Zenith-3 campaign is because I have actual experience of translating those adventures into a fictionalized synopsis; before Campaign Mastery started, I used to do so regularly for the benefit of the players of the game. So I thought I would close this article with an example from those writings that dates back to late 2001 and spans three game sessions. It’s been stripped of game mechanics, but still betrays its origins from time to time. It could certainly serve as the outline of a fictionalized account of the events.

“Whispers In The Dark” Part I

In the wake of Johnny Luca’s flight to Zenith-3′s protective custody, the mobster turned over documents proving that the Director of the FBI had been in the Mafia’s back pocket for a number of years. He then astounded the heroes by offering to give them information to prosecute even more government officials in the pay of the mob, in return for immunity from prosecution and protection from an assassin known only as Mr Whisper. The members of Zenith-3 made the decision to follow up on Luca’s information, and Glory contacted an old friend within the FBI. After flying to Washington and presenting Luca’s information to Glory’s contact, the FBI agent swore in the team as FBI deputies and promptly contacted Judge Bartholomew Schumacher, a Justice of the Supreme Court, for a warrant to search the Director of the FBI’s office. The search revealed over a million dollars in bribe money and enough evidence to incriminate a number of senators and congressmen.

Upon returning to the Dam, where they had left Luca, the team discovered that Karma’s wards and guards had been torn to shreds by an unknown attacker. Finding Luca huddled in a corner almost catatonic from terror, Karma conducted a telepathic probe on the former capo and found one phrase running through his mind: “Please don’t hurt me, I’ll tell you everything!” Guessing that the mysterious attacker now knew everything about Zenith-3 that Luca did, the team returned to their base just in time to receive a distress call from Scarab in Mrs Mayberry’s boarding house. Teleporting to the house, the team found Mandarin, Mrs Mayberry and Scarab all unconscious but no sign of the attacker. Upon awakening, Mandarin accused Glory of being in league with the mysterious entity which had attacked the house. When Glory protested that she knew nothing of the attack, Mandarin merely laughed mockingly and proclaimed “You are just like the one who attacked us”, before teleporting away.

As Team Zenith-3 stood in the wreckage of what had been Mrs Mayberry’s home they had a decision to make. Normal humans (namely the UNTIL personnel serving in the base beneath Mrs Mayberry’s house) were living at the Champions base and were at risk in any battle, but they had chosen to take those risks. As Scarab pointed out, there was another person living with them who hadn’t been given the option to choose – Mrs Mayberry. The discussion was abruptly halted as Mrs Mayberry began waking up, and Blackwing changed to his human form to help the elderly landlady up to her room. The discussion continued downstairs in the base, and one thought clearly emerged – Zenith-3 had no real option but to reveal their true identities to Mrs Mayberry. Also discussed were various alterations to the house such as the additions of alarm systems and a couple of reinforced safe-rooms where Mrs Mayberry could hide in the case of attack. The team meeting then turned to a matter long overdue – team elections. After the votes were tallied it was found that they had chosen their most introverted member as chairman and their newest recruit as field commander.

The next day Zenith-3 spoke to Mrs Mayberry in her living room and revealed their identities to her. After a few minutes they were able to convince her of the truth of their claims, but it was difficult to tell who was more surprised – Mrs Mayberry at the team’s open admission, or the team at just how much she had already figured out. Ravenscroft, after all, hadn’t even bothered wearing a mask as a member of Zenith-3, and his statement on Helloween that “A vote for McCarthy is a vote for Chthon!” was televised around the country. In the end Mrs Mayberry was convinced of who the team really were and agreed to some security precautions, including the installation of alarm systems.

Meanwhile, at the Dam, Karma was coping with a white glove inspection of the repairs following the attack by Mr Whisper on the facility. During the additional work demanded by the inspector, she discovered that many of the instruments the control systems relied on were glorified simulations – a puzzle that she intends to solve as soon as possible.

Shortly after the discussion with Mrs Mayberry, St Barbara received a phone call from Shaun Davies, a student she’d met in her civilian identity, asking her out on a date. Blackwing, who had received the initial call, took a great deal of glee in using his shape-shifting powers to assume Shaun’s shape and trying to make St Barbara burst out laughing while still on the phone. That call was interrupted by a message from Captain Thompson for the team to investigate a disturbance at the Boston Library. When the team arrived they found that a massive explosion had blown out the front of the Library. Upon investigating, the team determined that the explosion had centered around a grimoire which had been teleported into the Library specifically for Mist. They also determined that the explosion had made the Library structurally unsound. After a series of jury-rigged repairs, a few mishaps, a pratfall or two, and even more property damage, Zenith-3 was finally able to recover the book and take it back to their base for study.

The book was from Mist’s brother in Avalon (who had a bad habit of putting too much power into his spells). It included a personal message to Mist and contained a divination spell known as ‘The Terrain of Wisdom’, which would let someone step into the memories of the spell’s subject. While Mist studied the spell, the team had an appointment to keep – escorting Johnny Luca to the FBI to finalize the deal for his information. Karma opened a gateway for the team into a janitor’s closet at the Boston FBI office in an attempt to avoid being ambushed by Mr Whisper.

The first hint that this attempt had failed came when Whisper fired a pistol round into Karma’s skull from behind as soon as she stepped through her portal. St Barbara immediately followed through the portal, using her light powers to keep Whisper off-balance while Luca and the rest of the team made transit. After a nervous negotiation session with the FBI, the now-recovered Karma brought the team home. To retrieve the evidence Luca was offering, Luca had to present the key to the vault containing a map to the hidden evidence at a bank in Zürich. The evidence was Luca’s ace-in-the-hole, and he had gone to great lengths to keep it safe. The vault key was hidden in Luca’s mansion, which Dragon’s Claw and Glory infiltrated with near-contemptuous ease. Retrieving the key, they returned to Zenith-3′s base. In the meantime the rest of the team planned their strategy. Whisper had been one jump ahead of them from the get-go, and now was the time to use that to turn the tables on him.

Karma opened a portal to a park in Zürich near the bank and Luca stepped through it. A rifle bullet smashed into his skull and he fell to the ground, with Whisper teleporting in to attach a limpet mine to his back to finish the job. However the assassin was doubtless surprised to learn that ‘Luca’ was in fact Blackwing even as Mist cast the Terrain of Wisdom spell, sending Glory, Karma and Oracle into Whisper’s memories. Meanwhile Blackwing, Dragon’s Claw and St Barbara protected Mist, who was busy maintaining her spell, from Whisper’s physical attacks. After a short but intense battle, Whisper vanished. With the threat over for the moment Karma brought the real Johnny Luca through to the bank where, after verifying his identity, the group proceeded to the vault holding the papers.

Without warning, Whisper suddenly materialized, snatching the papers from Luca’s hands and vanishing before anyone could react, and the team realized that Whisper had not been fooled by Blackwing’s deception; his primary objective all along was the recovery of the evidence. Glory, Karma and Oracle soon returned from their spirit quest through Mr Whisper’s memories with startling news – critical information about the assassin. The rest of Zenith-3 were stunned to learn that Whisper was, in fact, the Mandarin of Dimension-Halo. Only Mist took the discovery in stride – she had always felt that there was something very wrong with the kindly priest and his New Jersey Cult….

“Whispers In The Dark” Part II

It was a sombre Team Zenith-3 which gathered in their base after their return from Zürich. It seemed that all their work to get hold of Luca’s files had been for nothing. As they compared notes and Oracle began assembling their impressions into a cohesive pattern, options began to emerge.

The journey through Mr Whisper’s memories had made it clear that his immortality, like that of Mandarin-Prime, had been caused by accidental exposure to a mixture of magical potions. However in Dimension-Halo it was more similar to vampirism than the true immortality of Mandarin-Prime. His need for blood had been the driving factor behind his actions down through the centuries, inspiring legends of such bloodthirsty leaders as Genghis Khan and Vlad Tepes. It had led to his becoming one of the leading haematologists in Dimension-Halo in an attempt to cure himself. And it gave Zenith-3 a crucial lever of negotiation – as Oracle pointed out, the team had to deal with Whisper to recover the documents, they didn’t necessarily have to fight him. Glory’s blood was saturated with life energy and was constantly regenerating itself, and based on the team’s knowledge a transfusion should permanently satisfy his need for blood. With this in mind and the knowledge of his location (a small church in New Jersey which had been discovered in a previous investigation) the team began discussing plans to get a small group into the church without being torn to shreds by Whisper.

While a series of plans were tossed around the briefing room, Karma grew frustrated with the endless debating, grabbed a pouch of Glory’s blood and teleported to the New Jersey cathedral. There she gave the blood to Whisper and quickly explained its properties. The sorcerer told Karma that he would check her claims – of which he was understandably skeptical – and that she should return the next day. Karma did so to find that Whisper was prepared to cancel his contract on Luca and to turn over the documents he’d stolen from the Zürich vault in repayment for the cure. With the documents back in the team’s possession, they were quickly forwarded to the FBI, who were able to get the appropriate warrants drawn up by Judge Schumacher, the only Justice of the Supreme Court known not to be in the Mob’s pocket. As deputized FBI agents, Zenith-3 was called upon to serve some of these warrants. When they were ordered to arrest Governor Alphonse Capone of Illinois, Blackwing’s grin was big enough to decorate a truck’s front grille.

Once the warrants were served and Scarab gave the team a hearty well-done, their mentor ordered them to take some time off to unwind. To help them let off steam Scarab had procured tickets to “Le Amore”, a recently-released Italian movie about perceptions. As the team left the theater after the film they noticed a selective blackout had hit Boston. Their curiosity piqued, the team took a look from the air only to discover the still-illuminated areas spelled out words: “When is a bird like a gift?” The answer of course was, “When it’s free,” and it could only mean one thing – Jamison Riddle, aka the Riddler, was back!

“Riddle Me This”

The team traveled to the Boston power station, where they found that the workers on duty had been killed by small arms fire – very small arms fire. The culprits appeared to be toy plastic soldiers, a number of which lay melted where they had tripped circuit breakers. The only thing out of the ordinary (!) was that each plastic soldier had a rubber band around his ankle – there was no sign of circuitry or any other animating force. In the team’s last encounter with him, Riddle had shown no evidence of superhuman powers which raised the question of a super-powered copycat. The team asked Captain Thompson, their police contact, to have Riddle’s cell checked; that inspection showed all to be normal. At the same time, Captain Thompson reported that the Scepter Of O’Brien had been stolen from a museum where it had been displayed. The assault and massacre by the toys had been nothing but a very effective distraction. The team were unsatisfied with the eyes-only examination of Riddle, and decided to check things out for themselves. To their amazement, this check revealed even worse news than the team had anticipated – not only was Riddle missing, but an animated dummy made of a mop, blanket and several pieces of string had taken his place!

The next day Zenith-3 was advised that a hijacked light plane was skywriting a riddle. St Barbara approached the plane, piloted by a ventriloquist’s dummy, as it completed its message, only to have it dive towards the busiest intersection in Boston with a cargo of high explosives. Some hurried teamwork managed to shift the plane out over Boston harbor before it detonated, and there were no civilian casualties. After decoding the riddle in the sky the team determined that the Riddler’s next target would be a diamond-encrusted piano and they rang the manufacturer to provide warning. The person who answered the phone was higher than a kite and the team hurried to the factory. On their arrival they were greeted by the sight of an intoxicating gas being pumped into the factory’s ventilation system while a toy fire engine sucked up the diamonds with a miniature vacuum cleaner. Upon seeing the members of Zenith-3 the fire engine bolted for the nearest exit. Dragon’s Claw was able to stop the fire engine with the diamonds from losing itself among dozens of others which were standing by in the alley by the simple expedient of hurling several shuriken into it, but the team could do nothing to save the thirty people in the factory who died from the gas.

The construction of the dummy in his cell clearly linked Riddle to the power station attack. The prison dummy, the animated toys and the light plane’s pilot all bore a startling resemblance to the type of ascientiffic devices built by Widget, a former member of Zenith-3 who had retired back to Dimension Prime. St Barbara decided to check up on Widget, taking Glory and Karma with her for backup. Upon arrival at Widget’s home town in New Zealand, St Barbara quickly confirmed that Widget had been missing for two weeks. A search of her bedroom triggered a trap which Glory determined was based on necromantic magic, and a search of the local area turned up a talisman of Chthon. Clearly some deal had been struck between Chthon and the Riddler.

Meanwhile, the day after the attack on the piano makers, the supertanker Liquida (largest oil carrier in the world) arrived in Boston harbor on it’s maiden voyage. It was a major media event and Jamison Riddle decided to add his own inimitable touch in the form of several dozen toy boats and submarines, which fired a volley of torpedoes into the Liquida’s hull. Although in no immediate danger of sinking the tanker had sustained a major hull breach and was leaking massive amounts of crude oil into the harbor. Mist managed to repair the damage to the tanker while her teammates distracted and destroyed the toy boats, discovering the hard way that the torpedoes had enough explosive power to punch through even Blackwing’s armor. By now the team was getting rather irate at Mr Riddle’s pranks! At the same time, there had been another robbery, staged in such a way as to cause maximum embarrassment to the team. The Riddler’s new MO was becoming pretty clear.

With the discovery that Widget was missing from her home St Barbara decided to conduct a last quick overflight of the area. In the process she spotted a local pervert who, when confronted, admitted that he had a film showing Widget being abducted – amongst many others of the local girls disrobing. After receiving the film somewhat forcefully, St Barbara gathered Karma and Glory and returned to Dimension-Halo with their news. A check of the footage revealed one interesting fact, namely that Widget had been abducted by Chthon herself rather than Jamison Riddle. This led Oracle to speculate that perhaps Chthon herself was the mastermind behind the crimes, letting Riddle plan and commit them in order to vex Zenith-3 as revenge for thwarting her Helloween plot.

The team assumed that Riddle’s crimes were linked to the four elements. The power station raid and theft of the scepter corresponded to earth (plastic soldiers (ground forces) and the Highland ties to the scepter), the exploding plane corresponded to air and the sabotage of the Poseidon club coupled with the attack on el Liquida were linked to water. This left fire unaccounted for and the notion of a fire-related incident in Boston, especially in light of Riddle’s past crimes, left the team very worried indeed.

The night after St Barbara returned from Dimension Prime, Zenith-3 received a call from the staff at Logan International Airport. Their radars reported jamming and this was deemed high enough on the weirdness scale that they had been advised to contact the team. Blackwing took the Bright Cutter, the team’s captured starship and AI, to the airport to check on the disturbance, while the rest of the team gathered at the transporter, ready to respond should hey be required. Blackwing quickly determined that help was definitely necessary – the jamming was only a side-effect of the presence of hundreds of tiny zeppelins, each bearing the name ‘Hindenburg’. The gargoyle detective’s suspicions were confirmed when he bumped one with the Bright Cutter’s forcefield, causing it to explode in a fireball. The zeppelins were filled with explosive hydrogen, they were cruising towards the landing pattern of the busiest airport in the Boston area, with an eventual destination of the Boston Gardens Stadium, where twenty thousand spectators were watching the Boston Patriots play. The effect of several hundred explosions in a structure filled with civilians would be catastrophic.

The team split up to deal with the separate threats. Blackwing repeatedly piloted the Bright Cutter through the zeppelin formation, exploding many of the flammable vehicles, while St Barbara and Glory tried to land as many of the airliners heading for Logan as possible (the tower couldn’t provide much assistance due to the radar jamming). Karma headed to the Boston Gardens to coordinate with the administrators should an evacuation be necessary. Upon arriving, she promptly found that the Garden’s control room had been firebombed with white phosphorous and the Hershey blimp recording the game was acting in an unusual manner. Flying up to check on the blimp she immediately discovered that it was empty except for an animated sock puppet at the controls, slowly venting the blimp’s fuel tanks over the stadium – in effect turning the stadium into a gigantic fuel-air bomb. And the Zeppelin “triggers” were only seconds away!! At the last minute, Karma managed to prevent the puppet from setting off the explosive mixture before setting the blimp on a course towards Boston harbor, watching as the little zeppelins followed, still homing in on the beacon within the larger blimp. The resulting explosion, while spectacular, caused no civilian casualties.

Meanwhile back at Logan Airport the partnership of St Barbara and Glory was proving extremely effective. St Barbara’s light powers were able to guide the airliners to a safe landing while Glory proved invaluable for replenishing St Barbara’s flagging endurance – using her powers nonstop for so long was proving extremely tiring for the former team leader. The only real problem was when an airliner landed a bit short on the runway, its outermost propeller almost severing Glory’s arm at the shoulder. It was difficult to tell what shocked St Barbara more, Glory’s injury or her calm instruction to ‘hold it steady, cauterize it and it’ll heal on its own in no time.”

Having averted a possible catastrophe, but failed to prevent the robbery that had accompanied it, the team returned home for a well-earned rest. The next morning Oracle was in the midst of his usual ritual of completing the Boston Globe’s crossword when he noticed that the answers formed a pattern. After a brainstorming session with the rest of the team, he was able to determine that Riddle (the author of the crossword) would strike at the Ed Sullivan Show being filmed in New York that day. Using their contacts in the FBI the team was quickly able to secure tickets to the audience. Once inside the theater the problem changed from finding Riddle to determining which Riddle was the real one! The wily psychopath had created several duplicates of himself including a three day dead corpse. Unable to find the correct Jamison Riddle, the team had to wait in the audience for something to happen.

It didn’t take long. With the introduction of the American swim team a mass of cotton threads descended from the ceiling and a horde of plastic soldiers began rappelling to the stage. Several members of the team swarmed onto the stage to protect the audience from the soldiers while Karma and Mist began searching for Riddle with senses other than the mundane five. They quickly located Riddle in a chandelier above the audience and discovered that he was linked to Widget by more than her powers – the two were physically and magically merged. A precisely coordinated telepathic and mystical strike was sufficient to sever the links between the two and separate their bodies. Both were disoriented but Riddle still had enough presence of mind to flee. The innocents he had killed weighed heavily on the team’s collective mind – even Blackwing, who had sworn a vow never to kill, was ready to tear Riddle limb from limb and Mist was a great deal less restrained. Riddle leaped from the chandelier, using a glider to break his fall and pressed the button on a remote control. A dimensional portal opened and the aging criminal swooped through it, evading the team once again. However the team had their friend back, and Riddle was no longer in the city. Karma pointed out that he had, in effect, made a blind interdimensional jump. They couldn’t track him but the odds of him ever returning to Dimension-Halo were extremely low.

“Riddle Me This”: Epilogue

Zenith-3 was finally able to take a well-deserved rest. After Widget had taken a couple of days to recover from her ordeal, the New Zealander chose to return home, despite her joy at seeing her teammates again. The team had several days to recover from their injuries and stress, and things settled back to normal. Naturally it couldn’t last.

One morning Dragon’s Claw, possessed by a feverish urgency, called a meeting and demanded that they travel to Japan immediately. Several times in the meeting he slipped into formal Japanese, a habit which only manifested when he was under extreme stress. The team quickly loaded their gear onto the Bright Cutter and headed for Japan, eager to see what had set their teammate off. Soon after entering Japanese airspace they picked up a news broadcast showing a village which had been taken hostage by a familiar team of Japanese metahumans – now led by Torquemada, an old nemesis of Zenith-3. When Torquemada demanded that Dragon’s Claw surrender himself to prevent the massacre of the villagers, the odds of the siege not being linked to Dragon’s Claw’s sudden need to return home went right out the window…

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Touchstones Of Unification Pt 1 – Themes

Don't get the connection between this illustration and the subject? Take another look after reading the article...

Don’t get the connection between this illustration and the subject under discussion? Take another look after reading the article, and it should make a lot more sense…

I was watching an interview with Jim Keays from 1975 the other day, discussing what was then his latest album. He was explaining that he had started with three or four songs that all had similar subject matter, and realized that he could build the entire album around that subject. The interviewer, as part of a follow-up question, then described the result as a concept album, a classification that Keays rejected; in his mind, it was a collection of music that had a similar theme running through each separate piece of music, not one central concept or narrative.

I found the distinction interesting, taken completely out of that context & applied to RPGs. What is the difference between a theme and a concept and how does that difference manifest in terms of the stories, characters, and adventures within a game?


From the outset, the two terms appear to have very similar meanings.

According to my Collins Concise English Dictionary, Theme is 1. an idea or topic expanded in a discourse, discussion, etc; 2. (in literature, music, art, etc) a unifying idea, image, or motif, repeated or developed throughout a work; 3. (in music) a group of notes forming a recognizable melodic unit, often used as the basis of the musical material in a composition; 4. a short essay, esp. one set as an exercise for a student; 5. (in Grammar) another word for root or stem.

A Concept is defined, according to the same source, as 1. something formed in the mind; a thought or general idea. Unlike the definition of Theme, this seemed inadequate; it certainly did not incorporate all the modern usages and implications of the term as I use it. So I looked further, and found: 2. An abstract idea, notion, or principle, esp. when used to unify disparate representations or interpretations of such abstractions; 3. A plan, internal narrative, intention, or philosophical principle or direction common to disparate works by a collective, group, organization, or individual; 4. An idea or invention used to help sell or publicize a commodity or service e.g. ‘a new concept in corporate hospitality’.

Clearly, some of those meanings aren’t especially relevant to RPGs. In terms of “Theme”, I can see relevance in both meanings 1 and 2, so there’s room for some more discussion there. And as for “Concept”, any of the first 3 interpretations could apply, so there’s more analysis needed in that department as well. Finally, there are two terms that aren’t even mentioned in the definitions given above, but that have pronounced relevance to the prospective subject matter: genre and style.


“Theme” to me seems to be about either a repeated pattern / motif, or to a single subject or small group of single subjects that are explored from multiple perspectives within a work. For example, a theme might be “alcoholism”, and the work might explore all aspects of the subject – social acceptability, the public mask, the phases of the disease’s progression, the cost to others, and the recovery process. Or the theme might be heroism, or civic responsibility, or any of a million other things.

Scope Of A Whole

A number of the definitions refer to a “single work” (or use other terms to that effect) and I think that’s a key aspect to unlocking aspects of the similarities and differences. Theme definition #1 refers to “a” discourse, discussion, etc, definition #2 refers to “a” work. “Concept” seems to refer to something broader, at least in the definitions listed, talking about “disparate” representations or works – so, collective, rather than individual works.

And yet, a theme can be so grand that it can be perceived as the connecting thread between many separate works, potentially the only thing they have in common. John W. Campbell sometimes used to give three or four of his authors a single thought, quotation, or idea and then let each discover his own story connecting to that theme.

On closer examination, though, these prove to be examples of separate works that individually cam be said to share the same theme. And that gives the first element of insight: “Theme” reduces to the smallest possible component of the whole which displays it, without any reduction in relevance to that individual component. Or, to put it another way, a theme is a motif that any work capable of being broken up into smaller units returns to repeatedly.

When the theme is re-used in the same way time after time, it can become dull and repetitive, like any storytelling element. Used differently, to show different aspects or impacts of the theme, it can unite a group of separate elements to produce a whole that is more than the sum of its parts. A theme might be something like “power corrupts”, which would have two separate axes of variation – all the different forms of power that can be imagined forming one axis and all the paths into corruption and the different ways it can manifest being the other.

Many Themes In One Body Of Work

When a collection of works that is bound together by some other commonality, many themes may be exhibited, recurring in any given component of the body of work, sometimes singly and sometimes in combination with other themes. But this implies a certain minimum size to the collection; a small group of works may have only a single theme, adequately explored. The alternative, a small group of works which have multiple themes inadequately explored, essentially amounts to no theme at all, because no one theme is dominant to a sufficient extent to recur sufficiently often to be considered a uniting element of the components.

Impact On Campaigns

That means that small, short campaigns will either have one theme, perhaps two at the outside, or none at all, while longer campaigns can have multiple themes that get touched on.

My current superhero campaign has at least 15 themes and it’s designed to last for a decade, as I revealed in Been There, Done That, Doing It Again – The Sequel Campaign Part Two of Two: Sprouts and Saplings, which listed 14 of them.

The 14 themes, quoted from that article, are:

  1. In order to be a hero, one must do heroic things. Even if no-one is watching.
  2. A Villain is someone who does villainous things. No matter what their reputation or intent.
  3. Black & White morality can be fuzzy around the edges.
  4. For part to be saved, sometimes part must be lost. But who decides which part is which?
  5. Everything you thought you knew is wrong – except the parts that aren’t. Twists and turns await.
  6. Perspective or Insight can be more valuable than expertise.
  7. Technology can be useful or user-friendly; it’s rarely both at the same time.
  8. There’s more than one way to skin a cat.
  9. Nothing is forever, and the more permanent it seems the more suddenly it can be swept away.
  10. We are all flawed. Sometimes those flaws can destroy us.
  11. Inevitability says nothing about Duration.
  12. There are more things in heaven and earth than exist in ANYone’s philosophy.
  13. All victories have a price.
  14. A team is more than the sum of its parts and no stronger than its weakest link.

    A fifteenth had earlier been revealed, in an article that I’ve discussed below:

  15. How far should heroes go when confronting the ultimate evil?

As I wrote at the time, “Virtually every adventure of significance in the campaign will play into one or more of those themes. The planned big finish to the campaign will involve almost all of them.” The current adventure, the 7th of the campaign, touches on five of them – I’m not saying which ones, though my players can probably pick them out. (That article goes on to identify and analyze 7 types of theme – worth checking out for more on the subject).

Impact On Adventures

In Theme vs Style vs Genre: Crafting Anniversary Special Adventures, in the section “The Theme Layer”, I listed the major themes of other campaigns that I have run or am running, and the relationship that themes should have to special adventures. To do so, I had to at least touch on the impact that themes had on “ordinary” adventures:

Many adventures that a GM runs may have nothing to do with the theme, included just because they are a good story or an interesting idea or because the GM ran out of time to think of a more appropriate adventure! This can only go on for so long before it becomes necessary to re-establish the theme, and that’s where Return-to-theme adventures come in.

Oh, and for those who really want to know:

  • The Rings Of Time Campaign – “The converse of responsibility is authority” and “Morality is relative – but the Gods are absolute.”
  • Fumanor: The Original Campaign – A post-apocalyptic fantasy as society struggles to recover from an almost-successful attempt to destroy it. I could now add: The Price Of Ambition. The Price of Overconfidence. Intelligence is not Wisdom, and Wisdom is not Intelligence.
  • Fumanor: One Faith – The struggles of a newly-unified Faith comprising members of multiple pantheons against the political, social, theological, and economic ramifications of that unification.
  • Fumanor: Seeds Of Empire – The growing pains of a society that has grown too large and complex NOT to become an Empire.
  • Shards Of Divinity – The indulgence of individual liberty and the quest for unlimited freedom.
  • The Adventurer’s Club – “The whole is stronger than the parts” in a larger-than-life Pulp World.
  • Warcry – Destiny collides with Free Will in this time-and-space spanning Space Opera superhero campaign.
  • My Original Champions Campaign – Evil believes that the end justifies the means; How far will the forces of Good go to thwart evil?
  • Zenith-3: The D-Halo Campaign – If the multiverse needs pseudo-divine beings to order it, can they be trusted? Is it better to destroy the universe than be subject to the decisions of cosmic authority? What is the true cost of “Liberty Or Death?”
Impact On Characters

In The Anatomy Of Evil: What Makes a Good Villain?, I offered the example of “Ullar-Omega”, and talked about how the campaign’s themes (including one not listed above, “Obsession”, played into the character of the ultimate Villain of that campaign:

…At the heart of that scenario was a revelation concerning the nature of the villain around which the entire campaign had been centered (even when it didn’t seem to be). This character started off as a Superman ripoff – the last member of his race, whose home galaxy had been destroyed by his father to prevent his people being corrupted and destroyed (elements of Sauron here) by a race of Moral Invaders who had a weapon that induced depression in others. This was all known by the players (and their characters) from the beginning of the campaign; they also knew that in their native timeline, the character had become a self-sacrificing and idealistic, humanistic, hero; while in this alternate timeline, he had arrived on Earth a decade later and had become an obsessed, ruthless, subversive, villain. Along the way, they discovered his motives and worldview; there were occasions when he was the villain of the piece, and occasions on which he was a (semi-)trusted ally. He even became the Godfather of the daughter of one of the PCs, a child which he helped deliver.

In the course of the final scenario, the players learned that neither incarnation of the character had been left untouched by the Depression Ray of his race’s enemies, and were driven by Survivor’s Guilt as a result – people who searched for a cause important enough for them to sacrifice their life in achieving, and then achieving it (if necessary at the cost of that life). This unified the two characters into different sides of the coin and put the entire campaign – which had the submerged theme throughout of “Obsession” – into context. And it suddenly revealed to the players the X-factor that had made the character Cool – the fact that (in his own mind) he was behaving heroically, sacrificing himself in a vain effort of achieving an ideal that could never exist in the real world. It was this Pathos of Superman-Gone-Wrong that had lain at the heart of the character concept from his very first appearance, and which had made the character Cool enough to be the central figure around which the entire campaign had been woven. Everything that the character had done – both good and bad – was consistent with this new perception of the character – it explained everything.

Several other characters had, along the way, displayed obsessive behaviors. Some overcame them, to become greater characters than they were before; others were destroyed by them, or ruined by them. Even an obsession for doing what the character thinks is right, or an obsessive faith in a particular ideology, can be destructive.

This shows an important point: the central NPCs should reflect and embody the themes, if any, of the campaign, for good or evil, as should their circumstances and ultimate destinies. To whatever extent it is possible, these themes should also be central to the stories of the PCs, the problems that confront them, the decisions that they make, and the outcomes and consequences of those decisions.

Dynamic Themes

Because the GM is not in command of the characters, and will often respond to the players by giving them more of what they want, whatever themes he initially envisages for the campaign can and should evolve as the campaign proceeds. Already, some of the campaign themes in the current Zenith-3 campaign have become more emphasized, some have changed somewhat, some have been deemphasized, and some have manifested even thought they weren’t on the original list. As the campaign proceeds, some will run their course and fade from the list, and others may “go underground” only to manifest themselves again. About half the list haven’t even featured yet.

Ideally, I like to connect a character’s ultimate goals with one of the campaign themes. By ensuring that difficulties and roadblocks that have to be overcome along the way make it impossible for the character to achieve that goal until the big finish of the campaign, but makes progress towards that goal an ongoing element of the campaign, I ensure that the theme is represented in that concluding adventure.

That suggests that a campaign should have as many themes as it has PCs, but such an analysis is incorrect. More than one PC can embody the same theme in different ways, and some characters may be required to function as foils to a PC who is linked to a theme.

There is also a danger in this linking – if the character leaves the game, or gives up on the goal, it can bring all the GMs planning undone, if these linkages are too strong. Characters are – and should be – people, evolving and growing as the campaign proceeds, and goals will and should evolve as a consequence. The implication is that themes must also evolve. Predicting this evolution is exceptionally and exceedingly difficult, and requires knowing the players in fine detail as well as the characters, and even then, fraught with danger of error. The GM is generally better off only committing himself to exploring a theme in the course of satisfying the player’s ambitions, rather than counting on that ambition to carry the theme to the end.

Impact On Game Elements

It doesn’t happen often, but some themes can have an impact on other game elements. Locations can manifest a philosophy in an abstract manner. So can certain magic items or high tech devices. Certain magic spells can reflect a theme either through scarcity or availability and frequency of use.

More frequently, some game elements might serve to manifest and reinforce the theme with a little small alteration. This also poses dangers; it’s easy to go too far. But when it works, it can recast the entire foundation of the game subtly in favor of the campaign. When developing a new campaign, I skim through the rules explicitly looking for game elements that can be emphasized or that may need to be de-emphasized in order to reinforce a theme.

And then I look at the impact on efficiency of the mechanics and ask whether or not I really need that House Rule.

The two-way street

In fact, every theme is a two-way street, regardless of what it is tied to by the GM. Themes may influence campaigns, themes may be embodied by individual adventures, themes may influence NPCs and the situations that PCs find themselves in, and themes may subtly reshape the game mechanics here and there – but all of those effects can also travel in the other direction.

A campaign may have no overt theme when it begins, but (as I have argued in the past) it will usually develop one or two as the unique combination of PC personalities, game mechanics, and game setting begin to interact in recurring motifs. Once it does, the GM will find himself incorporating it into his adventures deliberately rather than as a passing plot point.

When something works – be it a type of encounter, or an NPC personality, or whatever- the GM is likely to use it again – that’s human nature, and is part of the process of meeting player expectations and providing satisfaction. And if it works again, it’s well on its way to becoming a Theme.

Whew! I’m right out of time (yes, this article took longer than usual to research and plan), and we haven’t even gotten to the arguably bigger question of Concept – let alone the role of Genre, and how Themes, Concepts, and Genre interplay at the different strata of a campaign. At this rate, I’m going to need another two posts to finish this article…

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One Spot 3 and the shift to Pre-Product Marketing


Fitz, the owner/operator of Moebius Adventures was kind enough to send me a review copy of the latest in the one spot series, Dolothar’s Shrine, which builds upon the feedback I gave to the first three products in the series. I’ll get to that review in a little bit. But first:

This was the first actual ready-to-go product that I’d been offered for review for a while, and that realization made me aware of a trend that had been occurring under my nose, one that has the potential to change the way we, as consumers of roleplaying game products, interact with those products, and specifically the way they are marketed to us, and I thought that something worth exploring.

The Crowdfunding Consequence

Crowdfunding has become an accepted part of the landscape, and it has brought with it a subtle but profound shift in the way RPG products are marketed. Specifically, old-school reviews of the actual product being delivered seem to have fallen somewhat out of favor as a marketing tactic.

The impact of Crowdfunding, and especially Kickstarter, is that producers need to market their product before the product actually exists. Earlier this year there was a lengthy discussion in an industry group to which I occasionally have time to contribute about whether or not subscribing to a Crowdfunding project should be considered a pre-order in the legal sense, or an investment in seeing the product completed.

It makes a big difference in terms of what producers are obligated to do following a successful campaign. It doesn’t make any difference if a fundraising campaign is unsuccessful, because you are pledging support for a product; no money actually changes hands unless the campaign succeeds. But when the campaign succeeds, what are the legal obligations on the part of the product producer? What happens if they take the money and run (it’s happened) or simply underestimate the costs involved (it’s happened) or if one of the suppliers that they relied on simply can’t deliver at the quoted price, which was used to determine the price per unit and hence the crowdsourcing pledge levels (that’s happened, too)?

I know what we all feel the producer has an ethical obligation to do, and to the industry’s credit, every KS campaign I’ve actually invested in has been run by people that far and away exceeded that ethical minimum – even if they lost money in the process. It might seem that the least they could do was refund their investors money, but what happens if some or all of that has already been spent in the attempt to create the product? Is it reasonable for an individual or small company to drive themselves bankrupt refunding people for events beyond their control?

As you can see, the issues are far less clear-cut even taking an idealistic position, never mind from the legal obligation standpoint.

But, if all goes well, and the campaign is successful and the funding adequate, there is a product at the end of the day.

The Dangers In Pre-Product Marketing

Crowdfunding markets products on the basis of promises of what a product will be. Without traditional marketing follow-up, especially in the form of traditional reviews, there isn’t an avenue to actually look at how well the product lives up to those promises. Again, for the most part, Game Product producers are an honest and honorable bunch; if something is promised, we tend to do our darnedest to execute that promise to the very best of our abilities.

But the reduction in support for post-product reviews seems to be an open invitation for shonky operators to promise the earth and deliver gravel.

Of course, it’s not that easy. Successful marketing of a fundraising program means getting that project mentioned in as many places as possible. Some site operators may be reluctant to support the same project a second time through an actual review of the delivered product; they’ve already used their best material and might not have a whole lot to say (in the absence of a total failure of the product to deliver on its promises, of course). They’ve already reviewed the product once, in their minds – and its a position that’s hard to argue with.

And what if the product is delivered, but never goes on general sale, the producer moving on to their next project – in effect treating the fundraising project as pre-orders for the product? If this is the case, there is obviously even less impetus on the part of a reviewer to look at, and judge, the delivered product; it’s not as though sales will be helped or hindered, either way.

Granted, a lot of the above is pessimistic, worst-case stuff – does that mean that we should not guard against these dangers?


There are three solutions to this problem. The first is that if a fundraising program delivers a substandard product that falls short of the promises, there will be a lot of grousing on social media – probably in direct proportion to the funding levels achieved for the product. It can be hoped that any shonky operators will quickly acquire a reputation that will protect the industry from future malpractices by that particular producer. But memories are short, and this smacks of hoping someone else will clean up the mess. And I’ve also seen at least one instance where a producer was vehemently (and, in my opinion, unfairly) criticized even though the failure to deliver completely stemmed from causes well beyond his control. Of course, it’s easy to see why someone looking forward to receiving a product that they thought was on the way might be bitter. So this is a blunted and not completely effective solution.

The second is legal. In Australia, we have consumer protections that cannot be signed away no matter what legalese is in a contract, and one of the key ones is that the product has to be reasonably fit for the purpose for which it is intended, as described by the producer. It’s not reasonable that your goldfish bowl doubles as a TV set (unless that’s exactly what it is supposed to be, of course), so buying a goldfish bowl for that purpose is not protected legally – but if you specifically ask the store or the merchant “will it do X”, they are bound by the response, and if it subsequently does not do X then you are entitled to a refund.

That means that, in theory, anyone making promises that they fail to deliver on can be taken to civil court for that failure, or even to criminal court if it is adjudged by the authorities to be a significant case of intentionally fraudulent behavior. That’s the door that all that discussion about legal obligations came in by.

But a legal solution may take years, might be expensive, and comes with no guarantees of success. Throw in the likelihood that the producer is in a different country to that of the purchaser, and it is also likely to be hideously complicated. Only the lawyers win. And (playing devil’s advocate) I would be constantly concerned with honest failures being targeted with the same brush as deliberate attempts to defraud – the same phenomenon that I alluded to a moment ago. In other words, the same flaws, plus some new ones on top, also limit the effectiveness of this solution. It’s simply too broad and simplistic a brush.

And that leaves only the third solution: the return of old-school product reviews, regardless of whether or not a product is going to be offered commercially, post-fundraiser. The gaming industry needs to foster an ethical attitude that mandates the assumed obligation of a subsequent review of the actual product delivered if a site has reviewed the fundraising program. Though it might be enough to only perform such a follow-up if the product falls seriously short of the promises.

And so to Dolothar’s Shrine

Moebius didn’t use crowdfunding to produce Dolothar’s Shrine. But having followed the above chain of logic to the conclusion stated, and based on the statement that much of the feedback provided in the earlier reviews went into shaping the new product, I consider myself ethically bound to review the new product, especially in reference to the problems perceived with the earlier products, even though Fitz sent me the sample as an FYI, specifically stating that I didn’t have to write a review if I didn’t want to.

Production & Layout

My biggest criticism of the first three products in the one spot series, discounting the problem I have with the in-principle logic of a Magic Shop, was with the production and layout, which seemed cramped and overflowing, to the point where it was difficult to find what you were looking for. I also disliked that one page had both player information and GM-only information on it, requiring more work on the part of the GM before he could actually use the product, and that one of the maps was so small to fit that it was hard to read.

I am very pleased to be able to say that these problems have all been resolved in the latest product. The five-page layout is clear and logical, the map is clear and legible, and the typeface is large enough to be quickly legible. There are no longer any barriers to the GM accessing the content. Ten out of ten in this respect, and kudos to the producers.


Dolothar’s Shrine is an iceberg. Nine-tenths of its potential don’t show, and is not even visible on a literal reading. That’s because it’s full of little bits that are not explained within the text. Dolothar is a priest and healer who appears to have lived for a VERY long time without changing. He is never seen without his turban. He serves anyone who is sick or hungry, and sometimes seems capable of greater healing than anyone else. There are old men in the city who claim that Dolothar was an old man when they were children. And, at times, he seems capable of strange feats that no-one can explain, such as the (possibly-rumored) conversion of a group of thugs who tried to rob the shrine.

GMs can use the location as written, or can assume that all the goodness and light, all the generosity and civic-mindedness, are a cover for something much darker. Perhaps Dolothar steals a little of the lifespan of those he heals, and that is the secret of his longevity? There are suggestions that he conceals elvenness beneath his headdresses (normally the turban mentioned earlier) – but why would he need to hide that? If elves are not the subject of open discrimination – always possible – he must be concealing something else. Either way, explaining this circumstance will add greatly to the depth of any campaign using this supplement.

I kept having visions of a dark cult hiding behind a publicly-acceptable face, coupled with flashbacks to the revelation of the secret hiding place of Kuato, the leader of the Martian Resistance in the original Total Recall (I haven’t seen the 2012 remake, and reviews have left me unexcited about the prospect of doing so). But this is just one of many possible explanations for what is going on. Perhaps there is good reason for the subterfuge, and what looms as a hidden evil is actually a hidden force for good which has insinuated itself into a city secretly dominated by another hidden evil?

Playing the content as it reads gives the PCs access to low-cost healing superior to that available at most of temples and shrines, though perhaps more limited in scope – there may be things that Dolothar can’t or won’t heal, like supernatural injuries. This is a factor that the GM will want to take into account when integrating Dolothar’s Shrine into their campaigns. Not a bad thing, just something to be mindful of.


In summary, like the previous One Spot products, this one is bursting at the seams with potential, and is well worth the price asked for it. You can read some more about it at the product’s announcement page, and buy it (currently US$2.95) from DriveThruRPG.

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Vampire’s Creep and other stories: Working With Places

An example of an evocative image - so pretty that I had to share a larger version (click the thumbnail).

An example of an evocative image – so pretty that I had to share a larger version (click the thumbnail).

What’s the first thing you think about when considering a location in an RPG?

There’s no one right answer to that question. A lot depends on why I’m thinking about that location at all.

Location: a place for things to happen

A location is not a simple thing to pin down. Let’s say that we’re talking about a Fantasy Game and the PCs are traveling from point A to point C. All sorts of potential locations lie in between; and that’s the conundrum: how and why should one of those potential locations be chosen over another?

I have nine reasons for choosing a location, and the nature of the location chosen will vary with that reason. IN ORDER:

  1. Plot needs a place to happen
  2. Information: the stuff of legend
  3. The sound of credibility
  4. There’s something interesting, somewhere
  5. Over Hill, Over Dale
  6. Pretty as a picture
  7. Where’s The Walrus?
  8. Thereby Hangs A Tale
  9. Timing is everything

Why in order? Because this is the sequence of yes-no decisions to be made. “Do I need somewhere for the next piece of plot to happen? IF NOT, is there a location convenient to relaying important information – background or otherwise – to the PCs? IF NOT…” and so on down the line.

The verbiage used to describe the reasons might seem excessively colorful, but that helps to make them memorable.

1. Plot needs a place to happen

Plots are like sharks; they need to keep moving or they will drown, or in this case, stagnate. So I’m always on the lookout for a location where the next piece of plot will fit, and can happen. The nature of that piece of plot will usually dictate what is required in a location, and it’s then a question of whether or not the next leg of whatever journey the PCs are on contains such a location.

For example, if the PCs current activities have made them an enemy that they don’t know about, and it seems time to alert them to that fact, am ambush seems like a reasonable choice. Or perhaps they are searching for something – is there somewhere suitable for it to be found? Or, if they have a valuable cargo and others know it, a different sort of ambush comes to mind. Or perhaps they need to overhear a couple of mysterious conspirators, or stumble over a criminal operation, or discover that something strange is going on in the High Reaches, or whatever.

Location choice can also alter the context of an encounter or a piece of plot. The right location can enhance a threat, or render it comedic due to the impropriety of the location. Tracking a conspiracy against the throne to an undertaker’s workshop results in a very different experience than tracking one to a cheese-maker’s workshop, especially if there are hints that Necromancy is involved – or perhaps the setting is the hint that Necromancy is involved. The wheezy complaints and idle speculations of a couple of old blow-hards is a very different thing to a plot being hatched by a wealthy landowner. You expect to find your evil wizards in a tower somewhere, or perhaps in a place of political influence somewhere, not waiting tables at an up-market diner.

2. Information: the stuff of legend

If the next piece of the plot is to occur at the PC’s destination, and there are no plot bricks to be introduced en route for future use, the next consideration is that some locations may offer the GM an opportunity to highlight or educate the players about the world or the society that they are traveling within.

Don’t just tell the PCs that the farmers are in economic distress because of a drought, let them see barren farms and dead animals. Don’t just tell them that too much wealth is concentrating in the hands of the Church because of an out-of-date tax code, take them past a resplendent cathedral decorated with gold and rich fabrics while the worshipers wear sackcloth and tattered remnants of old clothing. Don’t just tell them that there’s a lot of resentment over the latest peace treaty with their neighbors, take them into a tavern where they can hear the locals bellyaching.

Whenever I design a realm or society (and I’ve done a few here at Campaign Mastery), I always try to look for the impact of each idea on the lives of ordinary citizens or subsections of the populace. Stuffed-and-mounted Goblin Heads on the bar wall convey a lot more social information than a dry statement about the relations between the races, and do so in a far more compelling manner. There is never enough encounter space to convey everything in this respect, so no opportunity can or should be wasted.

3. The sound of credibility

What if the PCs aren’t going to be stopping anywhere thats already inhabited, and there is no opportunity to give them information of value? The next thing I look for is a location that offers a chance to bring the world to life that little bit more. Mutant Horrors in the radioactive swamp? Show them. Strange, exotic creatures in the wilderness? Show them. Do the farmers employ a three-crop rotation to improve yield? Let the PCs pass some fields and casually add that information to the description as though the characters already know it (if they would). If this would be news to them, add a casual encounter with a farmer working his field and use a conversation to work the information in. If you’re past the boundaries of civilized behavior and into a wild west dog-eat-dog environment, look for ways to show the logical consequences of that in passing.

4. There’s something interesting, somewhere

Any world should abound with natural wonders and interesting places. Almost every community in existence tries to distinguish itself in some way. Maybe there’s a natural lookout, or an interesting mountain that looks like it is made of gold, or a creek that runs blood-red every spring. This sort of thing comes in two different flavors; the first is the picturesque, exotic, or wondrous, and that is dealt with a couple of items from now. The second is that you have an idea for something interesting to happen that is suited to (or requires) a particular type of terrain. It’s hard to have a lost city turn up in a farm (though it has happened historically); it’s far more likely to occur in a desert or a jungle, because you always have to implicitly answer the question of why no-one has found it before.

You might have an idea for a fire-breathing Naga, or a blind Beholder, or a geriatric Dragon. It doesn’t matter what it is, it’s something interesting with absolutely no connection to the main plot – just a splash of color – and it needs someplace to happen. Whenever you think of an interesting idea, always think about suitable locations for it to happen.

5. Over Hill, Over Dale

Every consideration so far has been, in some measure, plot-driven – whether directly, through enhancing verisimilitude, or simply to keep things interesting. This is the last word in such locations – the place that has no function other than being a logical marker on the journey.

Unless the PCs are well-and-truly off the beaten track, there will be others who follow the same route. Who? How many? How often? If there is any level of regular traffic, establishments or whole settlements will spring up at the logical break points in the journey, and these pose opportunities to reflect that regular traffic, because the catering will always take into account the predominant clientèle.

The regularity with which these way points will be encountered bears some thought.

travel distance

This is a very useful graph. I created the original version nearly 20 years ago, and I still use it to this day. The vertical axis measures how many days travel apart stops and settlements will be, on foot, at a reasonably casual pace – the sort of pace you might maintain if you were pushing a hand-cart or leading a horse with a wagon. The horizontal axis measures how far away from the Capital or largest city you are, in days, multiplied by N which is is a jigger factor that combines an overall population density rating multiplied by another factor representing the frequency of use of this particular route. I never tried to pin that population density factor to real-world numbers, lacking the demographic data to do so in any meaningful way.

The usual scale that I use for the N assessment is the number of categories of route that I want to define. inter-village path, minor trade route, major trade route, military highway, pilgrimage – that gives six, which is my usual scale. Sometimes I might want more subtle gradations, sometimes I’ll drop some of the categories and work on Tracks, Roads, Highways, and Major Arteries. As a general rule, the higher the overall population density, the more variations I’ll want to use. But I will also use a little instinct about it; this is just a guideline.

On a typical road, in a typical population, this means that the first couple of days out from the Capital there will be inns and hostelries every half-day’s travel, then spaced one day apart, then two days, then three days, and so on. On a less-used route, the drop-off will be faster, quickly reaching the limit of 7 days travel apart. In that distance, there will usually be some other reason for a community to be established, so this simply means there are no intervening stops aside from camping alongside the road. On a more heavily-trafficked road, the drop-off is a lot slower; you might easily have three or four days of inns every half-day’s travel, then another three or four days of inns one day apart, then three or four days of two-day separations, and so on.

The shape of the curve is roughly that of part of a circle until you get to the 7 day plateau. Note that this says nothing about the establishments within a large population; most large towns will have at least one inn, most cities will have half a dozen at dead minimum, probably many more. I figure at least one for each major socio-economic demographic or major race with a presence – if Elves regularly visit a city in a fantasy setting, sooner or later an innkeeper will realize that there’s money to be made catering more specifically for them as a clientèle. Maybe even two or three; you wouldn’t expect a wealthy Dwarven merchant to stay in the same establishment as a Dwarven mason or soldier.

As a side-note, if there was a royal visit at some point in the past, I will quite often have an establishment that was constructed especially for the purpose of housing the retinue, which afterwards became a more generic inn that slowly loses some of that unique character, but which retains at least a little of it.

The chief parameter dictating these locations is distance, but no-one establishing such a commercial operation would refuse to trade a little distance for a more suitable location – which means well supplied, sheltered, defensible, etc. Crossroads and natural springs or close approaches by rivers or other waterways are also vital characteristics. Again, a little commonsense goes a long way – if the average interval is half a day, a good location an hour or two to either side of that is acceptable. If the average interval is a day or two, a good location that is closer would be acceptable, but a good location that is too far away will go broke, or change in nature – there would be a lot less demand for accommodations and more demand for supplies and a well-cooked meal, since people would have camped a couple of hours short of reaching their destinations. And so on.

Another side-note for something I think I may have mentioned once or twice before – I never scale fantasy maps in absolute distances, I always use “days of travel”. One day’s march = 2 days travel, One day’s ride is three or four days travel, double that if you change mounts every few hours. It just makes life much more convenient!

6. Pretty as a picture

I’m an irredeemable collector of clip art. If I find an evocative image on the net while browsing, I’ll save it for later use or reference. On top of that, I’m fairly good at photo editing – for example, the image that I used to illustrate last week’s article on incomplete characters? The left-hand side of the photo as I found it cut off the tree branches. Expand the canvas (transparent), do a little copy-and-paste (with rotations and transparency effects) and a little spot paint here and there, then copy the whole image, then a little blue paint to match the various shades of blue in the sky and some blending and smudging to blend the blue in, and finally, paste the original back in over the top – so that I didn’t have to worry about keeping the blue out of the tree – and hey presto! Sky on all sides, and if I weren’t telling you, you would never know. A second example was shown about a month ago in my article on Image-based Narrative (this very subject) where I turned a Paris street into a Martian City.

I’m always very careful to respect the provenance of the images used to illustrate articles here at Campaign Mastery, using only images released to the Public Domain or available through the Creative Commons license, and respecting requests for attribution etc. Heck, when I used screenshots of a couple of Google searches, I was very careful to blur any faces beyond recognition out of respect for the privacy of the individuals and because I couldn’t assume model releases were available, even though the use was definitely covered under “fair use” copyright provisions. That’s also why I deliberately blurred the images not being chosen.

Of course, the larger the collection, the more reliant you are on a good method of organization, and mine is… poor, to be charitable. And grows faster than I can keep up with it. And, mostly, locked away on the drives in my still-non-functional main PC – something I hope to resolve very shortly (progress has been made!)

Nevertheless, I will quite frequently come across some picture that is so good that I will deliberately “tag” it for use in some specific way. It’s another way of manipulating the pacing of emotion in my games.

This category also contains any natural or artificial wonders, such as those I offered as part of the last Blog Carnival hosted by Campaign Mastery. This page lists the amazing array of contributions (including the ones I’m referring to here, under the heading “Specific Locations”).

7. Where’s The Walrus?

Some place names survive long after the original reason for the name has vanished. That’s something that a clever GM can occasionally play on for entertainment value. The absence of something that you expect to be there can be enough in itself to make a place notable – like a “Seal Beach” without a seal in sight, or a “Walrus Bay” without walruses.

Want to see it in action? Have your PCs stop over in an absolutely ordinary little town called “Vampire’s Creep” and watch the fun and paranoia! (You will need to come up with some legend for the origin of the name).

8. Thereby Hangs A Tale

The only notable feature in an otherwise unremittingly similar landscape is notable by virtue of its exceptionality. An oasis in a desert, a single mountain peak on an otherwise flat landscape, a tract of untamed wilderness surrounded by farmland. This is an opportunity to add to the folklore of the world, because there will always be two reasons for these exceptions: the real reason and the reason assigned by myth and legend. But even if you forgo that opportunity, exceptions are always worth mentioning because – if nothing else – they would be navigational markers.

For bonus merriment, have the exception midway between two different communities, used by both as a local landmark, but both with radically-different and equally-fanciful legends about how it came to be. It takes surprisingly little effort to convince the PCs that they will reveal a deep, dark secret if only they can reconcile the conflicting stories….

9. Timing is everything

The final reason that I have to detail a location is as a stalling tactic. If I know I need more time to prep the ultimate destination, I’ll look for an opportunity to fill time along the way with some minor side-quest or encounter – both of which need a location in which to occur.

I haven’t had to employ this tactic for a while. The last time I did so, it was a shrine with a book whose pages could not be written on, and a legend that said that only absolute truths in the right order would make a permanent impression on the parchment. The players were absolutely convinced that it was an artifact (AD&D) and that they could solve whatever the in-game mysteries were that confronted them by writing all the possible solutions in the book and seeing which one “stuck”. After three game sessions of brainstorming (and giving me all sorts of plot possibilities to work with) their paranoia about said mystery was on overload because they had passed beyond the mundane through the exotic and into the bizarre in their theories, without a “bite” from the book. Oh, and there was an order of monks who cared for the book, and who would not permit anyone to remove it.

The Priority Of Locations

So, having listed the reasons why I might consider a location to be noteworthy, I can now get back to my original question. I have three starting points that I routinely choose from:

  • The logistics
  • The Plot requirements
  • The description

Having identified the reason that I want to make the location significant, I will ask myself whether or not that reason mandates a logistical priority above all other considerations. Sometimes the answer will be yes, sometimes no. If not, I ask the equivalent question about the plot requirements. Sometimes the answer will be yes, sometimes no, and most frequently, “partially” – indicating that some features will be natural, while others will be overridden by the plot requirements. But, in such cases, I always start with what HAS to be there, and then fill in any blank spaces. Finally, if neither of the first two priorities have put their metaphoric hands up, I reach the default, a descriptive priority.

Logistical Priority

What are the tactical aspects of the location? Is it suited for defense, or a natural staging point for an attack? Is it suitable for an ambush? Is it naturally suited to be a lair for a noteworthy creature?

In other words – who is likely to find this attractive real estate?

The location’s characteristics drive its description and plot impact, both of which are modified to fit those characteristics.

Plot Priority

What does the plot require to happen at the location, and what are the characteristics of the location that are needed to accommodate those plot events? If the location is to be a Black Market exchange point, for example, there will have been alterations to make it more suitable for that purpose. If it’s to be a clandestine meeting place between the Princess and her Djinn lover, that will pose slightly different requirements – but it will have been chosen for its natural suitability with minimal alterations. If the plot requires the PCs to discover a Dragon’s nest with the Eggs having been stolen, that will impose a different set of requirements. And so on.

The location’s plot impact drives and alters the logistics and description.

Descriptive Priority

This means that first and foremost comes the description of what’s at the location, and the logistics and plot impact will derive from that description. If the description leaves the location sheltered but vulnerable to attack, so be it. If the description leaves the location obvious and open, that’s fine too. And if the description mandates certain logistics, the location will be designed to include those logistics regardless of what might appear to be there on a map or other reference document. What transpires at the location will be driven by the description of the place, or perhaps it would be better to say that the location offers a menu of possible occurrences from which I will cherry-pick.

Places through the campaign

It’s also important to note that the treatment of locations will change throughout the course of a given campaign.

In the beginning

Early in the campaign, and while the PCs are low level, the world is new to them, and small events are more significant. Establishing the world takes a priority over anything except the immediate plot, which should also be chosen to help establish the key parameters of the game world.

The Blasé Wanderer

As the PCs progress in levels, there is less filler. I stop detailing where they are stopping for the night (unless its significant for some other reason) and only bother with locations of some significance. By now, most of the basics of the world will be known to the players, though some chapters may not yet have been exposed. If the players have had no exposure to the Elvish Forest or the Land of Faerie, I might return to more introductory habits when they first enter those regions, for example. And every now and then, when I think it warranted, I might drop in a reminder location – frequently copying whole entire tracts of description about an earlier location.

Age Shall Not Wither Them

At still higher levels, there is still more hand-waving of travel and detail of only locations of reasonable significance. The criterion is generally being able to deal with whatever is found without risk. In part, this is due to the limited playing time available for my campaigns and the desire to prioritize play – if I was running the same game every week or two, I would put more passing locations into the game, because the alternative is to telegraph play. In other words, if I’m only detailing significant locations, the players can assume that any location I detail is significant for some reason. No matter how much they try to separate player knowledge from character knowledge, this fact can’t help but influence them somewhat. I try to counter that trend with the occasional piece of misdirection – planting them in a detailed but unimportant location and then repeatedly rolling dice to see “if and when things happen”, knowing full well that nothing will occur no matter what I roll.

Ten League Boots

Much to my annoyance, the time inevitably comes when the PCs are capable of bypassing everything of significance by flying or teleporting direct from A to C. As the campaign develops, you can no longer rely on “drive-by locations”, you need to get the PCs to want to go where the next piece of plot is to happen – or have it come to them. This makes it far more difficult to casually impart information, so I have to make darned sure that I have already given the players everything I want them to know.

The consequence is that later in the campaign, I need far fewer locations but the ones I do implement need to be more logically developed, better detailed, and more purposefully presented. What few casual opportunities remain are elements of a larger whole – a street vendor location might be required for a casual encounter but it has to fit into the broader location where the PCs already are. And, while a certain level of casual encounters for the sake of “keeping the world real” will be tolerated, to a far larger extent, they will need to do double or triple duty in advancing plotlines.

Into The Epic

In time, you may find that your campaign heads into “Epic” territory, the definition of which varies somewhat from GM to GM. In general, it can be characterized as that time in a campaign where descriptions matter more to the PCs than locations, unless those locations are really unusual and attention-getting. Locations are all about one of two things: what’s happening there, or a huge gosh-wow factor that is pushing towards over-the-top. Otherwise it’s a case of “another hostile fortified position? ho-hum. I Meteor Strike the gatehouse.”

In The Service Of Adventure

GMs need to always be aware of the role that the locations they present are going to have within the adventure, and tailor the locations to match those requirements. Failure to remain aware of the changing role of locations within the game results in wasted effort by the GM and frustration on the part of the players. I know of at least one GM whose low-level D&D campaigns were much-loved but which used to fail regularly when the PCs reached 5th-to-8th level because he couldn’t get his head around the changes that he needed to be putting in place. The treatment of locations is one of those essential changes.

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Creating Partial NPCs To Speed Game Prep


How much character do you need? Or, to phrase it another way, how much character construction do you have to undertake in advance when creating an NPC?

You could simply have a random character generator throw up something to avoid any character construction, but the results never seem to mesh properly with the situation in which the NPCs are encountered. Actually constructing a bespoke NPC is infinitely preferable – but it’s also a lot of work, especially if you have to do a lot of them,

Today’s article was going to be about a shortcut that I figured out last week for NPC generation – a companion piece to The three-minute-or-less NPC (creating personalities quickly) and last week’s 3 feet in someone else’s shoes (getting into character quickly) – but a lot of what I had to offer was very similar to the technique described in an earlier article on the subject, The Ubercharacter Wimp – and furthermore, assumed knowledge of some techniques that I haven’t yet shared, which would have been awkward to any readers who aren’t telepathic.

So the intent of this article is to plug that gap, and talk about Partial NPCs – and the most important decision of all, how incomplete can they be while still being fit for their intended purpose.

The Continuum Of Construction

First, let’s establish a frame of reference. NPC construction can vary in depth from complete characters, as well documented as any of the PCs or perhaps better, at one extreme, to nothing more than a couple of descriptive notes – an idea for an NPC – at the other. These two extremes form the end-points of a continuum, a straight line with multiple degrees of completeness in between.

Character Concept
Character concepts come in three flavors. You have characters that are there simply because someone has to be doing that job, and the PCs are going to interact with that someone – the Guard at the Palace Gate, for example. You have characters that the GM thinks are a cool idea, or that use a cool ability, or have a cool magic weapon, or whatever, that are essentially a “cool gimmick delivery system” – “A Beholder with Ninja training sounds like fun”. And you have NPCs that are window dressing, on tap and ready to be used the next time the NPCs interact with someone – “Barfly Number Nine” – who are nothing more than a personality or circumstance, but who can be used to flesh out the game environment, interact with the PCs, and perhaps supply one crucial piece of information on occasion.

These three types, when that concept stands alone with no further development, is a character concept, Concepts can be one partial sentence in length or a short paragraph, or just a link to a block of text elsewhere in the case of someone whose sole function is to have a particular magic item.

The Complete Character
A complete character can be even more strongly defined and complete than a PC simply because the GM knows more about the game world (or can create more as necessary) and hence a complete background history can be included, as can notes on characterization, how to get into character, and so on.

The points in between
There are all sorts of points in between these two extremes in which you have a character who has been partially created or defined, but which does not yet reach the full standard, and this is important because creating more character than you need is a waste of prep time.

Actually, that’s not quite true. Creating more character than you need right now is an investment in prep time; if the character is going to turn up time and time again, then time spent now – when you have the character clearly in mind – can be more efficient than doing it later – if you have the time to spare during your current game prep.


So the completeness that is desirable and the completeness that is required for immediate purposes are two different standards, with the first being as high or higher than the second. In other words, the target should fall somewhere in between immediate need and complete character, and the differentiating factor is the likelihood of reappearance, because that likelihood is loosely related to future “immediate needs”, but everything that is more bang than you need right now is only “nice to have”, it isn’t essential. It’s something to be done if you can spare the time.


When I first started generating NPCs for my campaigns, I started with the character concept and then created the character to fit that concept in exactly the same way that I would generate a PC – I’ll go into more detail on that in a moment, because the details will become important. But almost by definition, this will usually create more NPC construction than you need right now, so as I grew in experience I came to realize that it was far better just to do what was immediately needed and then reverse-engineer my way to earlier parts of the character construction process if I needed them for something else later.

This is almost always possible (there are some exceptions, such as original Traveller, but I regard that as being a flaw in the game system design because it forces the GM to do more work).


This technique relies on the skill of prioritization – of knowing what exactly you are going to need right now, and what might be nice to have but isn’t essential. Decide what you need right now and later you can use the game mechanics to derive how the character gets those immediately-useful scores.

Method 1: Natural Progression

“Natural Progression” is the same sequence of construction steps that you would expect to be carried out in the construction of a PC, which is the same as the way the rulebooks describe the process. As a general rule of thumb, it can be broken into seven steps:

  1. Concept/Personality
  2. Stats
  3. Skills or Abilities
  4. Abilities or Skills
  5. Equipment
  6. Flaws, weaknesses, disadvantages
  7. Personality revisited – history, background, etc

Complete all seven and you have yourself a complete character.

Clearly, if you only need the character to have one specific ability, there’s a whole bunch of work – steps 2, 3, 4, and most of 5 – that is completely wasted. What’s more, some of these steps have subdivisions, and sometimes you don’t need the whole step to satisfy your immediate needs.

In terms of any intelligently-designed Partial Characters technique, this is about as inefficient as you can get. Let me show you a better way…

Method 2: Functional Progression

“Functional Progression” performs character construction by deciding the desired outcome from any earlier steps of the character generation process and worrying about how you get there later. In other words, the steps of character construction are performed in the order needed to deliver the character’s practical function within the plot and nothing more. What this means will become clearer as we proceed.

combat vs roleplay

It didn’t take me very long to realize that two different forms of Functional Progression were needed – one for characters designed to be roleplayed in an interaction with the PCs, but that weren’t likely to be involved in combat, and one for characters designed to fight the NPCs but not to do much meaningful talking.

The Combat Model

The Combat Model of a Functional Progression divides character construction into fourteen steps:

  1. Concept/Personality - the starting point that identifies this as the model to use
  2. Attack & Defense - in D&D / Pathfinder, these are To Hit and AC. In the Hero system, they are OCV and DCV. They define the character’s chance to hit with an attack and his chance to be hit.
  3. Damage Capacity - How much damage can the NPC take?
  4. Equipment/Damage - What does the character use to inflict damage and how much damage does it inflict? In the Hero System, this is also where you decide PD and ED. Note that you don’t care WHY the character has the scores that he does, just the end results.
  5. Key Abilities - Does the character have any combat-related tricks or abilities or superpowers? What can they do?
  6. Key Flaws, weaknesses, disadvantages - Most game systems don’t go in for defining these. The Hero System and GURPS do. I like to enunciate them even in those games that don’t need them. Key Flaws are personality traits that can lead to the character making a mistake in battle, Key Weaknesses are holes in the character’s defenses (which he may or may not recognize) and Key Disadvantages are anything else that might hinder the character in combat.
  7. Key Skills - Any skills the character might have that are likely to make a difference in combat under the circumstances in which the character is to appear? This is likely to be a very short list.
  8. Other Key Stats - Many systems have other stats that you might need in a fight, like Initiative Bonus. Sometimes you need to know a DEX or STR check. Some abilities and game systems might dictate knowing the characters WILL or INT in order to deal with some forms of attack – but you only worry about those if the PCs have those attacks.
  9. Other Stats - Work backwards from the numbers you’ve assigned to derive the stats on which they are based, then set the levels of any remaining stats accordingly.
  10. Other Abilities - fill out any non-combat abilities.
  11. Other Skills - fill out any non-combat skills.
  12. Other Flaws, weaknesses, disadvantages - identify and detail any other manifestations of personality within the game mechanics that apply to the NPC that you don’t expect to make a difference in combat.
  13. Other Equipment - this is where you list any other equipment the character might be using.
  14. Personality Revisited - history, background, etc.

This list strips out just the things that you need to know before the character can fight and does them in a sensible order of priority, one that permits the GM to jump off the list at any point, or jump down to a later item if it is likely to become relevant. By definition, it excludes everything you don’t need to know, and focuses not on the mechanics of getting what you do need to know, but on allocating end results to those mechanics.

The Roleplay Model

You need to know different things when the NPC’s role is to talk to the PCs – possibly to relay information, possibly to react to information.

Bonus Tip: Your combat sequences will almost always feel less artificial if you can include at least one non-combat NPC as a bystander who will nevertheless get involved in the sequence in a non-combat way. Think of the classic Barroom Brawl in The Trouble With Tribbles with Cyranno Jones helping himself to the drinks and meandering through the fight. Think of a dust-up in a restaurant while the Maitre De squawks. Think of the tourist interrupting Superman in the middle of a brawl to ask for an autograph. Think of a seneschal offering snide comments about the combatants during a duel between a disliked courtier and a PC. It doesn’t matter what the fight is, or what it’s about, or where it happens – a non-combat element adds a touch of levity that adds immensely to the entertainment value of the fight, and makes it less about the game mechanics and more about the interaction between characters.

The list of elements in the roleplay model will look very familiar at first glance. They are just organized into a different order. But then you look at the definitions, and little subtleties begin to manifest themselves:

  1. Concept/Personality - Always the starting point, identifies this as the model to use.
  2. Key Flaws, weaknesses, disadvantages - These are all about the character’s personality and not his combat vulnerabilities.
  3. Key Abilities - Similarly, this is about what the character knows and what he can do in an interpersonal / information-gathering situation, and not what he can do in a fight.
  4. Key Skills – By now, the difference between the meaning of the term “key skills” in this model and the meaning of the same term in the combat model should be clear. Knowledge, crafts, and interpersonal skills.
  5. Key Stats - Int, Wis, Will, Cha, etc, depending on the game system.
  6. Personality Revisited - history, background, etc.
  7. Non-Combat Equipment - Anything that might help the character know or learn something or perform some non-combat task, that might help him seem credible in his role, etc. A Hat of Disguise probably won’t help you in a fight, but it’s vital to know about it in a roleplayed encounter.
  8. Everything Else:
        8.1 Other Stats
        8.2 Other Skills
        8.3 Other Flaws, weaknesses, disadvantages
        8.4 Attack & Defense
        8.5 Damage Capacity
        8.6 Equipment/Damage
        8.7 Combat Abilities

You don’t need to be especially observant to notice that the bulk of character construction has been lumped into the “everything else” category. That’s because, unless the character is going to enter combat on a subsequent appearance, and you know it, this stuff need never be done.

Oh, there may need to be the occasional highlight – “He’s carrying a mace painted like a clown’s face and wearing enchanted chain mail of some sort” – but you don’t need to worry about what these magic items actually are. Maybe the Clown’s Face would need some additional explanation, but you get the point…

Partial NPCs

A partial NPC is one in which the entire character construction process has deliberately not been carried out because most of it is unnecessary for this character being encountered in these specific circumstances.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it?

The Combat Model: Seven grades of NPC completeness

When it comes to combat, there are seven grades of completeness that I employ to decide how much of the character construction process needs to be completed.

  1. Flunkies - Next to no detail needed, and one common concept fits all. Combat Model elements 1-4. Optional but unlikely: element 5 if any; element 6 if unusual; elements 7 & 8 if they are likely to be needed. Same scores for all.
  2. Combatants - Described as an individual, otherwise the same as Flunkies.
  3. Major One-off Foes - Combat Model elements 1 through 7. Optional but unlikely: 8 if they are likely to be needed. Anticipating the likely need for this character to interact with the PCs in a roleplaying sense, I will also complete items 1-3 from the Roleplay Model.
  4. Lieutenants - What the character knows is more likely to be important, as are any limitations, so I will complete Combat Model elements 1 through 8 and Roleplay elements 1 through 6, but without going into great depth on roleplay elements 4-6.
  5. Arch-Enemies - Same as Lieutenants, but with more attention to the roleplay elements. An Arch-Enemy is a recurring enemy of one or more of the PCs, so there will be emphasis placed on the relationship with that character/those characters.
  6. Recurring Enemies - A recurring enemy is one that is expected to make multiple appearances in the campaign, but which is not tied to any individual PC. I treat them the same as an Arch-Enemy but without the relationship focus, and anticipate completing the process of making them Complete over time.
  7. Complete Characters - The only time I create a full character before that character has even entered play is when he is going to be an NPC ally of the PCs and part of their team. I consider it important that these characters be built to the same standards as would be expected of any other PC, and I am usually happy to consult with the best character-creating player on the course of their future development – while keeping some cards close to my chest, of course.

Most adventures will have one representative of groups D through F, maybe two in extreme cases. There may or may not be a couple of representatives from group B. Most of the NPCs who are expected to engage in battle will be group A.

The Roleplay Model: Seven grades of NPC completeness

I use a similar scale for roleplaying encounters.

  1. Casual Encounters - Next to no detail needed, usually encountered singly rather than as a group, though there are exceptions, which I will discuss below. Roleplay Model Elements 1-4, in as little detail as possible.
  2. One-offs of substance - A little more detail needed, so Roleplay Elements 1-4 in full.
  3. Recurring Encounters - More detail again. Roleplay Elements 1-4 in full, plus some quick notes on Elements 5 and 6.
  4. Intimate Recurring Encounters - These are the same as Recurring Encounters but with an important relationship to one or more of the PCs. Roleplay Elements 1-4 in full, a little more detail in Elements 5 and 6, and some notes on the relationship(s).
  5. Supporting Cast - Supporting Cast are NPCs who don’t fight alongside the PCs but who are frequent associates of the PCs. Roleplaying Elements 1-6 in full, and some notes on Element 7. I will also anticipate the possibility that the character will encounter combat at some point and do Combat Model elements 1-4.
  6. Central Interactions - Supporting cast members who are central to the campaign or the plotline, at least for a while, deserve a little more attention. Roleplaying Elements 1-7 in full, and just in case, Combat Elements 1-4, with notes on Combat Elements 5-8.
  7. NPC Team Members & Complete Characters - It’s very rare that full characters are needed unless they are NPC team members who live and fight alongside the PCs. In most cases, I will use the Roleplay Model “complete character” process rather than the Combat Model equivalent because I want these to be more than Flunkies to the PCs, I want them to be people with whom the PCs will interact. But there are occasional exceptions.
The Mob and other groups

As much as possible, I try to think of groups of individuals as a collective NPC. I do this largely without needing to analyze the logic behind the decisions I make, relying on my experience, a little education on group psychology, and a healthy dash of cynicism. What is the strength of a mob? Average plus one for each member able to contribute to one goal at the time. What is the INT or WIS of a mob? If they have no leader, it’s that of the lowest member – but any attempt to influence the mob has to reach all members of it, or they will resist attempts to persuade or dissuade them from whatever they think they need to do. Ditto the moral restraint of the mob. On the other hand, if they DO have a leader, these scores will be those of the leader, plus an X-factor for having the support of the mob pushing them on. And so on.

It’s so much easier to generate one set of stats for the group as a collective.

The Impact Of Game Balance

There are two major game architectures out there – the classic “character class” model, and the “construction points” model. Both the Partial Encounters systems blatantly ignore any attempt to balance characters in favor of fitting the character to the role that he or she is to play within the game, and I make no apologies for that. Ways can always be found to balance the books if you want to obsess over trivia, but there are better things to do with your time as a GM.

But that’s not to say that I don’t bear some reasonable standard of Game Balance in mind. The standard is always one that is relative to the PCs capabilities, and this is a key component of the initial concept. “Worse than the PCs” is a valid standard for grades 1 and 2 of the combat rankings, and for anyone short of full team members in the roleplay rankings. “Worse than the PCs except in their specialty” is another – though it then requires a further statement of the NPCs ability in their specialized field. “Better than the NPCs but slower to improve / advance” is another valid choice. “Better than any one PC” is a valid choice. “The equal of the entire group of PCs put together” is fair enough – for an enemy who is high up in the gradings, or for an NPC whose function is to serve as an advisor / mentor without doing the PCs job for them. The role in the plot is what dictates what I want an NPC to be able to do.

The Role of GM experience

The more inexperienced you are as a GM, the more you should treat NPCs as being one or two grades better than they need to be. It takes a lot of expertise to be able to judge correctly how far you need to go.

I know of one would-be GM who thought that to create an NPC that was the equal of the whole team put together, the right approach was to add all the PCs stats together and use the total. This completely ignored synergistic mechanics within a character’s construction, and non-linear progressions in ability, and a whole slew of other such factors. A far more balanced approach is to take the best score of the PCs in any given stat and add 1 for each PC after the first that he is going to oppose. And maybe +1 or +2 to some things because he is going to be facing multiple opponents simultaneously.

Greater experience also makes you more adept at winging it if circumstances propel an NPC into realms you didn’t expect them to go, so there is less penalty for underestimating the role that an NPC will play in the game.

The Initial Standard & Unpredictability

Even the most experienced GMs will get it wrong occasionally. The players will ‘take’ to an NPC like a duck to water, recruiting what was expected to be a one-shot NPC. A villain will be so much fun for everyone that he has to make a return appearance at some point. A character who was never expected to see combat ends up on the front lines. A character who should have been mincemeat gets a spot of luck and benefits from some clever thinking (on his part) and/or sloppy thinking on the part of the players and gets away, or successfully pulls off a Wizard Of Oz routine that makes him look far more effective than he really is. An NPC turns out to be tougher or more effective than he should have been.

There are so many ways to get it wrong.

The Build-as-you-go solution

As you become more experienced in GMing, if you aren’t already, you will discover the counterintuitive solution: Do Less and Build As You Go.

Even if you think a character is going to be recurring, build to a lower grade – the first time they appear. Then, if your prognostication turns out to be false, you’ve wasted less effort. If you are correct in your expectations, you can always bump them up a grade or two before their second appearance – and then again, before their third, and so on. Always keeping an eye on what you expect that NPC to be providing to the plot in those appearances, of course!

Don’t be afraid to skip ahead on the Model Hierarchy of elements as necessary. Build as much NPC as you need right now and extend on that when it’s warranted.

Flunkies should take one minute to create, two at the outside. Combatants and Casual Encounters should be two, maybe three minutes, at most. Work smart, work efficiently, and work hard – and you will work quickly.

I like to estimate how long generating a complete character to the required standard will take (in real hours and minutes). After the first couple of levels, I divide that into blocks of roughly 10-20% of the total – and that’s how much additional time I will invest in building on the basis of what I’ve done already.

Creating a first-level D&D character should take less than an hour. Maybe 30 minutes to do a complete one – with a full personality, history, etc. Creating a fifth-level character might take 2 hours. Creating a tenth level character, maybe 3. And so on. But those are how long it would take me – you might well be different. So use your numbers to allocate time. Do whatever you need to do in order to have the NPC ready for his function in the next adventure, and then – if the anticipated grade is high enough – spend whatever time remains in working on the next item in the appropriate hierarchy step of the Model. Yes, there will be exceptions to these rules – if you expect a character to be defeated, you might need to do a complete equipment list because the PCs will loot it, for example.

Apply the principle of doing what you need, just in time for you to need it, show a little love regularly to those NPCs who warrant it, and use a little common sense. At the VERY least you should be able to cut your character prep time in half. Or, more likely, to about 10% of what it would be if you created complete characters every time.


These are taken from the Pulp campaign that I co-referee. While you might not be familiar with the Hero System, it will be clear to anyone who knows that game that this is just about everything you need to know in a basic fight scene. What should be more obvious is the brevity, showing just how little you really need to create in order to manage a complex scene.

The scene is a nightclub with a number of patrons. Two different groups of NPCs, one led by “The Sikh”, are going to have a fight, with the PCs in the middle, not knowing whose side they should be on. The PCs have just rescued one of their number who was kidnapped by the owner of the club. That owner has left the club, leaving the execution of the PC in the charge of her Lieutenant, “The Sikh”.

Combat Examples

THE SIKH: Strongman, Huge 2-handed sword, think Raiders Of The Lost Ark: OCV 7 DCV 7 PD 6 ED 3 SPD 3 BDY 20, each attack can hit up to 4 tgts (one sweep) 2D6 normal + 2d6 HKA, easily distracted.

20 GENERIC TONG FIGHTER UNDER SIKH COMMAND: OCV 7 DCV 7 PD 4 ED 2 SPD 4 BDY 12 1d6 Normal + 1.5d6 HKA, will try to protect customers. Will attack PCs if they come within reach.

24 MARTIAL ARTISTS: Kung Fu style, OCV 5 DCV 6 PD 3 ED 3 SPD 6 BDY 10, 1d6 normal + 1.5d6 HKA, 3 throwing stars 1d6 RKA each, will try not to harm customers but will go through them to reach Tong. Will attack PCs if attacked.

10 POLICE: all armed with batons except Lt. who has a .38 Webley Revolver: OCV 3 DCV 3 PD 3 ED 1 SPD 3 BDY 8, 1d6 normal + 0.5d6 HKA.

So we have one group who behave a little more like good guys, but who will attack the PCs on sight, and another group who behave a little more like bad guys but who will not attack the PCs unless provoked. The Sikh tips the balance in the fight against the Martial Artists, but the PCs can tip it right back the other way – if they help the Martial Artists.

54 Flunkies, 1 Combatant, total time elapsed: <6 minutes.

Roleplay Examples:

Also at the “Jade Palace” tonight are:

  • 22 member Wedding Party: Bride, Groom, 2 sets of Parents (hostile to each other), 2 Bridesmaids, 2 Groomsmen, 12 guests, will panic, bride expects Groom to defend her; he will try but is hopeless;
  • Diplomat & Guests: 1 person from German Embassy, 2 businessmen, 3 female escorts, will overturn table and hide, will use escorts as distractions if necessary;
  • Diplomat & Guests: 2 people from Spanish Embassy, 1 Spanish Guest, 2 wives; most will attempt to flee, wife of diplomat wants to get involved in the fracas because they are ruining her night out;
  • Chinese Military Officer and Texan Arms Salesman: doing an arms deal for a “Pederson Device” which turns a bolt-action rifle into a semi-auto rifle. Chinese Officer will attempt to sneak out, Texan Salesman will pull a pistol and shoot wildly at anyone who gets in his way as he tries to escape; kill with a throwing star.
  • Shady Businessman: Immaculate white suit, 2 Bodyguards (.38 webley revolvers), one Floozy, is convinced that the Martial Artists have been sent by a rival, will attempt to escape under protection of bodyguards.
  • 28 General Customers with wives/girlfriends: Talking, drinking, watching show, etc – 1/3 will duck for cover, 1/3 will try to flee, 1/3 will just panic
  • 18 Patrons at the bar: Will run towards the stage and climb up, looking for a stage entrance to use for escape
  • 4 stage hands: will flee out performer’s entrance and lock it behind them, preventing performers from escaping.
  • 21 Entertainers: Will stay on stage, performing, will fight with patrons from bar – stage magician, 2 comics, an MC, 2 female singers, 8 chorus girls, band leader, 5 piece band, Chinese strongman in leopard skin with weights, big gong on stage with hammer, porcelain statues. Strongman will help the PCs by throwing objects from stage while using Gong as a shield.
  • 12 reserves: from whatever faction the PCs oppose (split evenly if PCs go after everyone)
  • 20 Staff (Generic Tong Fighters): waiters, kitchen staff, etc, all of whom are also Tong providing Club Security;
  • 10 Police: on stakeout outside, 3 rounds to make entrance after fracas starts.

152 NPCs, Total time elapsed: 30 minutes.

And a good time was had by all.

Comments (3)

My Table Runneth Over – An Update

Hungry of has been a long-time supporter of Campaign Mastery through his recently-retitled “Friday Faves” column and was kind enough to pen a few words of response to my hypothetical solutions to the problem of too many players since he has real-world experience from both sides of the gaming table. Unfortunately, a problem with the systems here at Campaign Mastery meant that his contribution wasn’t being accepted as a comment. I have appended his comments to the original article, but I’m also posting them here as an out-of-continuity extra post to bring them to the attention of anyone who has already read the original article.

Hungry’s Responses

I’ve run games for large groups before. My average seems to be around 6, but I’ve gone as high as 10 players (with most games having 6-8 of them, but sometimes we’d have all 10!)

The advice given here to keep them all engaged is very good. I’ll drop a brief comment on some of Mike’s bullet points:

Planning something for everyone: Usually, with a large group, someone will inevitably not make it. Just be prepared that your key plot point might have to shift to another player. It’s best if you can develop key points that involve 2-3 of the PCs. That covers your GM bases, and gives the players something to chat about during their downtime, which will happen in large groups.

Checklists: I tend to keep a running checklist in who I’ve engaged in a personal bit of role playing and who I haven’t. When I realize that I’ve left someone out for a short bit, I drag them back into the game by having a monster or NPC look them in the eyes and do/say something. This lets the player know that I’ve not forgotten them.

Combat Options: These work really well. I love the “N-1″ option because that’ll be a challenging encounter which will allow the PCs to shine as a group, but won’t leave anyone out until near the end of the encounter when the monsters are dwindling down to 1 or 2 left.

Prepared Tactics: This is a great bit of advice for GMs, especially if the Bad Guys are character-type critters with many abilities/powers or if it’s a monster packed with special abilities. I also flip this around on the players. I use some web-based software I’ve written to track initiative orders. When someone starts their action, I’ll point to the next person that gets to go and tell them, “You’re up next.” This engages the person that’s not actively doing anything, and lets them gear up mentally for what they want to do. This is a real time saver in those large combats.

Seating & Re-seating: I’m not sure shuffling players about the table would be a wise idea because of the time and distraction involved. I did read the ideas about being minimalist at the table, but there are also snacks and drinks at the table at most of my games. The players typically have more than two hands worth of stuff to try and move. It also draws them out of the game world and into the real world while they move from this side of the table to that. The best thing I’ve done for a split party in the past is to run a timer (smart phones are great for this!) in which one group gets a certain amount of time to do their RP, and then focus swaps to the other group. If one group gets into combat…. I wait. Cliffhanger style. I’ll see if the other group can find their way into a combat quickly, then I’ll run the two combats simultaneously. There’ll be one initiative order, but two separate combats going on. Yes, it’s more brain work for the GM to keep things running smoothly, but pulling it off makes the GM feel great.

Divisions in Roleplay: Mike’s take on 9+ players breaking into smaller groups works well, and I’ll take it a step further. Hand some minor NPCs to one group and have the players run the NPCs. This works really well with a little prep on index cards to let the players know what goals, motivations, approaches, and attitudes the NPCs will have. This will take a little load off of the GM, and keep the players engaged.

Caller, Handler, Scribe, Lawyer, and General: If the players want to establish these roles, I’m all for it. However, I (as the GM) will not dictate roles and responsibilities at this level, with one exception. If there’s a player at the table that’s comfortable with the rule book for the system, I might use them as a Lawyer if I can’t recall the particulars of a rule or power.

Assistant and Co-GMs: I’ve seen this done once to good effect, but we had somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 PCs at the table. I’ve never used them, and I’m not sure I’d want to “remove” a player from the playing experience and have them turn into a referee or rules adjudicator in addition to playing their character… or not playing a character at all.

I’ll make a few broad comment about the system simplification ideas Mike’s presented: These are very effective at speeding things up at the loss of “realism.” I like these ideas, but I’ll counter with the concept of, “If you need to simplify your system, perhaps you need to play a simpler system in the first place.” I’ve had players that can’t add d20+STR+BaB (even when STR+BaB are pre-added) in less than two minutes without a calculator. That REALLY grinds play to a halt. For those players, I make sure they sit next to me, and I do the math for them. I’ve also had players that could roll 24d6 and add it up in under 20 seconds (so long as they were pips, not numbers, on the dice). Many things come into play when picking the “right” system for your group, but that’s off topic for this post.

Table Etiquette: Mike has some great points here. In the weekly game I used to play, the “out of game chatter” was limited to the first 10-15 minutes of the session, then we got down to business. In my monthly game, the chatter runs about 30 minutes and rises up here and there during the course of the game. This is because we see each other so rarely and much has happened in the intervening month. It’s part of the game that I have to accept, but when I feel it’s getting in the way of the game, I step in and ask people to quiet down with the side chatter. We’re all adults, and I’m not mean or malicious about it. I just point out that the side conversations are making it hard for the other players to hear me. They get the point, and quiet down.

One last point that I’d like to make is that each player added to the table is a multiplier in effort, not an additive in the equation. From my experience, it’s not an exponential explosion in effort, but it’s probably 3X where X is the number of players. Before expanding a group, be prepared for this.

I hugely appreciate Hungry’s efforts at putting a real-world perspective on my musings, and apologize again for the (still ongoing) problems with comments!

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The Best Of 2010


2010 was the year Campaign Mastery started really hitting its stride. We hit the Watershed numbers of 100,000 hits in total and 10,000 readers every month. Our style started to settle into place – My deep and analytic articles balanced with Johnn’s shorter, more digestible offerings, and the hybrid that was Ask The GMs. By year’s end, we had only missed our twice-a-week target once, establishing a reputation for reliability that continues to this day. There were some great series started, and some articles that still draw in a steady trickle of readers.

I started my occasional “Lessons From The West Wing” series, and the still-ongoing “We all have our roles to play” series, and a series on characterization. There was the trilogy of articles on Time Travel, and Johnn’s pair of articles on being a confident GM, and the series on Psionics. And, toward the end of the year, the first rumblings of hints about the forthcoming Assassin’s Amulet began to be heard.

2010 was a great year, and 2011 looked like being even better…

The Best Of 2010

Man, was it hard cutting this list down from the 108 initial contenders to the very best articles of a great year. Several personal favorites among the articles fell by the wayside, and even then, the list is too long at 20 entries – but I can’t shrink it further without cutting some really valuable material. So it is what it is.

In order of publication:

In the next part, a month or so from now: The best of 2011!

And don’t forget, you can see the complete list (still in development) by clicking on “The Best” Button at the top of the page, or this link.

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3 Feet In Someone Else’s Shoes: Getting in character quickly

dramatic field thumbnail

Some images have so much expression that you can base an entire personality around them. Click on the thumbnail for a larger image.

It’s not easy being a GM. Not only do you have to create dozens or hundreds of characters for every one PC, but you have to create adventures and encounters that bring those characters to life in an entertaining way for the benefit of the players – all while refereeing a complex simulation of a reality that never existed. What’s more, where a player has just one character to play, the GM has to flit from one NPC to the next without pause, sometimes assuming the role of several simultaneously.

Where the players have the luxury of walking a mile in their character’s shoes, the GM has only three feet to travel, and yet, because they are the center of attention at the game table, they are expected to be able to roleplay these characters better than the players do – because each NPC should seem just as vibrant, just as deep and complex and fully-rounded, as the PCs do, if not more – even though each NPC has less screen time to show themselves.

So here’s the question: How do you slip into the character of an NPC quickly and successfully? What’s the secret?

Well, I can’t speak for any other GMs, but here’s how I do it…

The Full Treatment

I have three different processes that I employ, depending on how much time I have to get ready for play. The first assumes that I have fifteen-to-thirty minutes the night before, and is employed when I know that a key NPC is going to appear. Subsequent appearances by that NPC tend to require far less such prep, down to only five-to-ten minutes, because most of the decisions have been made. Note that this time is entirely separate from character creation / development. The aim is to abstract the character into a more-easily captured “digest”.

The other two processes are essentially cut-down versions of this full process, or when the NPC is to be the focus of much less attention in the course of the game.

The Night Before: Step 1: Character Synopsis

My character creation process is aimed at producing the game mechanics infrastructure and personality profiles needed to define the character as a unique individual, ready to interact with the game world around them. The process being discussed today assumes that character creation has been completed in advance (even if it has only just finishes) – though my preference is to complete creation at least 24 hours before play so that I have time to clear my mind of the creation process. All I want in “active RAM” is what I need to roleplay the character, everything else is a distraction from running the game, to be recalled only when necessary.

The first of three steps carried out the night before is to read the character’s description and background, initially aiming to establish in short-term memory a summary version of the answers to three questions: Who is the NPC? What is his background? What can he do?

I know that I have completed this step when I can clearly distinguish this NPC in my head from any others of similar expected standing in the next day’s play. That is sometimes as straightforward as reading over the character writeup prepared during the generation process, sometimes requires focusing on the key differences between the characters (which will need to be highlighted during play so that the players can distinguish between the NPCs), and sometimes can even require expanding or extending the background and associated notes – effort that is not budgeted into the thirty minute total because it doesn’t happen all that often.

The Night Before: Step 2: Character Profile

Once I feel I have a handle on these three broad questions, at least in summary, I create a profile synopsis. This is step two of the “night before” process, and involves answering ten specific and (reasonably) simple questions about the NPC. While, in a pinch, I might not take the time to actually write down the answers. failure to do so requires the full process to be repeated before the character’s next appearance. Given the time savings stated earlier (from 15-30 minutes down to 5-10 minutes), it should be clear that if the NPC is expected to make three or more appearances during the entire campaign, it’s worth the effort of writing these answers down, now, because it will save time in the long run.

The ten questions that comprise the character profile are:

  1. What does the NPC want, overall?
  2. What does the NPC not want, overall?
  3. What is the NPC’s motivation -what drives him or her?
  4. What is the NPC’s base emotional state going to be when he or she is encountered, what mood will he or she be in?
  5. What makes the NPC angry?
  6. What other emotional states might be triggered and how?
  7. What does the NPC want from the current situation?
  8. What does the NPC want to avoid in the current situation?
  9. What does the NPC want the PCs to do/not do?
  10. How does the NPC connect with the scene in which he appears – what’s his plot function?

Not all of these are necessary, all the time; experience lets me cherry-pick the answers that I need to provide, reducing the time required for this step. For example, if I have the character sufficiently defined in my mind, the answers to questions 4, 5, and 6 will follow automatically from that knowledge, just from considering the current circumstances surrounding the character at the time – which leaves me better able to cope if that situation is different from what I expected (often the case when PCs have been involved). And it certainly makes me better able to cope when a PC does or says something unexpected. (“He’s a murderer and a monster, and a suspected mercenary.” “I signal my desire to parley.” “What!?” – the synopsis of a recent real-life example from my superhero campaign). However, the more the NPC is going to recur, the more likely I am to make the effort to complete the whole profile, as an aid to consistency.

Until GMs who are unused to the system get used to it, I recommend giving featured NPCs the whole treatment.

The Night Before: Step 3: The Determinant

When the profile is complete, I turn to the most important step of the entire process, creating or identifying what I call “The Determinant”. This is a single sentence that sums up the entire character profile, and it always gets put in writing. Not the character’s abilities, though they may form part of it; the character’s personality. The key is to define the character specifically, without using clichés. Often it is sufficient to use a stock profile and enunciate the differences between that cardboard cutout and this character.

Another way to look at it: The Determinant is an answer to the question “Who is the character?” – not “What can the character do?” but who are they? What is their personality – in a nutshell.

Prior to play: The Strongest Determinant refresher

Just before play, I will read over The Strongest Determinant again, just to make sure that it’s fresh in my mind. If I expect it to be several hours, game time, before the NPC makes his appearance, I will usually call a break for five minutes and carry out this step during that break; I’ve found that three hours is about the maximum time that it will stay fresh in memory. You may find that your recall is better or worse, and – furthermore – that your abilities will change with practice, with experience, and with circumstances – everything from what you’ve had to eat and drink to how well you slept the night before can have an impact. Again, over time, you learn to judge these factors and adjust your game plans accordingly.

Prior to Play: Finding a voice

The other thing to done before the NPC first enters the game is to find a voice for the character. There are three techniques that I use to achieve this, either singly or in combination:

  • The TV / Cartoon / Movie archetype
  • From a picture
  • One Key Phrase

The TV / Cartoon / Movie archetype
The TV / Cartoon / Movie archetype means selecting one or two characters that you know well and using them as a role model for how the NPC expresses themselves. The key is selecting a role model that fits the Determinant, and it’s done as much by instinct as through any logical process. This isn’t a literal interpretation of the source material; if I choose to channel Bugs Bunny for an NPC, that doesn’t mean that the character will go around saying “What’s up, Doc?”, and it doesn’t even necessarily mean that the character will have a Brooklyn accent. But it does mean that character will be relatively unflappable, will have a somewhat nasty sense of humor, and tend to take whatever comes his way without too much thinking in advance. At the same time, he will only let himself be pushed so far before “Of course you know, This means War!

I have also had some success using archetypes from comics for some characters – “Gremlin” from my original Champions campaign had a very distinctive personality that was a blend of Daffy Duck, Mr Mxyzptlk, and Ambush Bug, with the Duck strain predominant (there was also a tip of the hat to the Cheshire Cat). Nominally a mischief-maker, he was nevertheless more often on the side of the PCs – so long as he could extract humor from the situation.

And one of the most memorable renditions of an NPC that I have ever achieved was blending Dr Zarkov from the Flash Gordon movies with overtones of Doc Brown from the back to the future movies! Whether I wanted to or not, I found myself throwing a far greater physicality into the performance than is usually the case.

I have found that characters from Novels rarely work as well, at least as the dominant character element. The voice you hear in your head is never quite as succinct when you speak aloud, and even less so when the dialogue isn’t verbatim from the source material; the characterization is usually relatively limp and useless.

From a picture
Some images capture so much mood or personality that they can form a touchstone around which the entire expression of characterization can be constructed. The goal is to express the emotion of the image in a way of speaking. This technique can take a bit of practice to get right, and no two uses of it are ever quite the same; some work better than you ever dreamed they would, others seem to fall flat. I find that it often helps if I can find some excuse to show the image to the players within the context of the game – whether it’s a painting on the wall, a news bulletin, an image in a magazine that the NPC (or one of the PCs, or a bystander) is reading, or the scene where events are taking place, or – once – the set for a play that was to be performed that night. The image itself conveys some of the personality of the character, gets the players minds going down the right track.

A less-frequently successful variation is to derive this expression from the mood of a piece of music, but this can occasionally be effective. I’ve found that the Eagle’s “Hotel California” is especially good for a somewhat mysterious Wizard, for example, and some of ELO’s material also works well. The problem is that you can’t play that piece of music, either to yourself or to the players; so you have to somehow abstract it into your head, and use it for the character’s ‘theme’, and that’s a lot harder to do on demand than it sounds.

One Key Phrase
A technique from Babylon-5 can also be useful: Peter Jurasik found that to get into character at the drop of a hat as Londo Mollari, all he had to do was say “Mister Garabaldi” in the faux-Hungarian accent that he chose for the character a couple of times, even just to himself. The trick is finding that magic phrase. You can say it either mentally or sub-vocalize it a time or two. Accents aren’t necessary (they can both help and hinder).

To some extent, it doesn’t matter if you get it wrong – so long as you don’t tell the players who you were trying to channel, so long as you keep using the same foundation, the character will be unique.

One word of warning: Avoid doing impressions of the character/actor that you are using as a foundation. Don’t use catchphrases that they made famous. The idea is not that the NPC is an impersonation of the source character, it is that the NPC’s mode of expression is inspired by the qualities and characteristics of the source character but is an individual in their own right, with their own things to say.

In Play: Getting inside the NPCs head

When the NPC actually enters the game, I use the profile and strongest determinant as a touchstone to restoring that concrete visualization of the NPC and his thought processes in mind. The Determinant is the key to unlocking the profile, and is the behavioral guide if the circumstances have changed from what you expected.

Incomplete Characters

Often, you won’t have a full workup of the character that you need to express in roleplay. I divide characters into three tiers of preparedness: Full, Incomplete, and A-La-Carte. Full characters are what I’ve been discussing so far. A-La-Carte characters are those who drop into the plotline as window dressing to serve a specific function and then leave again. Incomplete characters are somewhere in between these two extremes. Think of them as recurring window dressing, or “temporarily important”; they will be the focus of attention for an important piece of the plot, but won’t matter afterwards.

They are called “incomplete” because you know something about them, but have not wasted time doing full character generation.

In an ideal world, there would be no such thing, and anyone who ever appears in the game with the potential for a recurring appearance would get a full workup. In the real world, it isn’t going to happen.

Before Play: Step 1: Foundations

What do you know about the character to be roleplayed?

If you know them, stats can be your starting point. What single stat has the highest score? What has the lowest? Do you want to play to type, or against type? Is there a character that you know well from a media or literary source that you can use as a model? (Watching part of such a source the night before can be very helpful – it only has to be five or ten minutes long to refresh your recollection).

Another good starting point is to ask yourself what eccentricities the NPC has had the opportunity to indulge in. Because they are points of distinctiveness, they work well for this purpose.

The best techniques are those that actually give you a personality quickly and easily. But one way or another, you need to establish a foundation for the character.

Before Play: Step 2: Answer the Profile Questions

Thirty seconds to a minute should then be spent answering the ten key questions in your head. Don’t use a “question and answer” format; require yourself to state the answers as full sentences, because that associates the purpose of the question with the response. “This character wants to…” “[Name] gets angry when…” You want to be able to remove the questions entirely and have the responses be a self-evident description of the personality.

Thirty-to-sixty seconds is not a lot of time. The answers will be relatively superficial, without a lot of nuance. They will often be the first thing that pops into your head. Nevertheless, do your best to avoid clichés.

Before Play: Step 3: The Determinant

Using the Profile and foundation, produce a Determinant. Time pressure probably means that this will be less-developed than one that you had more time to develop, but that’s all right because the character is going to have less spotlight, anyway.

Before Play: Step 4: Find a voice

The less character development you have done in advance, the more dominant the results of this step will be, so it is just as important to choose carefully. Nevertheless, you don’t want to agonize over it; make a choice and get on with it.

In Play: as above

All told, two minutes before play should be enough to get you ready to play the character the same as you would any more developed NPC. That makes this a very powerful and useful technique. At this point, I should also point you to an earlier article, which couples with this one to make a great one-two punch: By the seat of your pants: the 3 minute (or less) NPC. And no, I haven’t forgotten (again) that I was going to develop a worksheet for this process – but I want to integrate the techniques described in this article into that worksheet.

Post-Play: make notes

If the character was a hit with the players (and survived the experience) you might want to bring him back. The information you have collected can easily be used to reverse-engineer a full description – but only if you get what is needed down on paper while it’s still fresh in your mind. In particular, the character may have evolved in the course of actually roleplaying him – that happens more often than many GMs realize. So it’s important to make notes, especially in terms of the character as he actually was during play, rather than the way he was on paper.

If the character wasn’t so successful, it’s still important to make notes – so that you don’t use the same unsuccessful combination in the future. A moment of introspection on why the character fell flat can also be useful.

A-La-Carte Characters

A-La-Carte characters are the ones who pop up without warning. “I pop into the nearest bar and ask the bartender about…” While such encounters can often be handwaved, and should be, if playing them out will alter your planned emotional ebb-and-flow (refer Swell And Lull – Emotional Pacing in RPGs Part 1 and Part 2), or will slow the adventure down too much, when you have the opportunity, you should roleplay them – if only so that your players can play their characters!

The other time these characters pop up is for combat encounters – which might not seem like an obvious time for roleplay, but is. The NPCs personality should impact their decisions in battle, how hard they will fight, who they will target, and so on. And all that even before considering the possibility of conversations in the course of the battle! Take a look at any combat sequence in the movies: it’s always noteworthy and deliberate when there is no conversation in the course of the fight. That means that you need to be equipped and ready for such conversation – even if the conflict is the result of some random happenstance.

One of the characteristics of these encounters is that there is no time for prep. That means that an even quicker solution is called for – a tall order, given that the last version took only two minutes, but it is what it is. The target this time is thirty seconds or less.

The Starting Point

Start with the only things known about the character, whatever they might be. That could be an occupation, or a couple of stats, or the weapon they are carrying, or where they are being encountered. You will always know something about the character, and that is your foundation. Use no more than five seconds thinking about this, and less is better.

The Model

The next step is to pick a model based on a character you know from media. Choose one that has acceptable levels of incongruity with the circumstances. The amount of incongruity you can tolerate depends on how creative you are and how well you can think on your feet. Voldemort as a bartender. Why not? Homer Simpson? Why not? Avoid characters that are hard to play, no matter how iconic they may seem – it takes a lot of effort to channel Jack Sparrow, for example. The one thing to avoid is the obvious answer, because the result will be a cliché – unless that’s what you deliberately want, but it will be forgettable.

Representatives of Ability: an alternative Model

The character, in order to be successful (or just to survive) where they are or what they are doing, presuming them to have been doing it before, must have certain abilities or skills. Pick one, and then think of some other occupation or circumstance where that ability would be useful; then use a representative of that occupation or circumstance as your model. A Brimstone-and-fire lay preacher as a bartender? Why Not? A Used-car salesman? Why not?

Choosing a model by either method should also take less than five seconds.

The Determinant

Half the time or more, the choice of model will give you the Determinant. The rest of the time, take five seconds to answer the question, “What makes the NPC interesting?” – that answer is your Determinant.

The most urgent Profile questions

Using the determinant, skim through the list of Profile Questions – the things you need to know right now. I can’t actually narrow the list for you, because which ones matter will depend on circumstances. But spend no more than fifteen seconds on this step.

The Voice

One way that you can separate the Model from this interpretation is to choose a Voice that stems from a different source than the obvious. But I only bother with this when the combination of current activity/location and Model are not sufficiently striking.

Go for it!

Make sure that the character, when encountered, is actually doing something and not just waiting passively for the PC to walk in. And make sure that the first thing they say is something memorable.

  • The bartender extends his arms and proclaims loudly “Bow ye head, you sinners, and pray for the forgiveness of the Lord!”
  • The bartender releases the safety on the crossbow pointed at you and says in an icy calm voice, “I knew you were trouble when I saw you turn down the street, maggot.”
  • The bartender polishes the brass on the counter as you enter, and grins ear to ear as he announced, “Ooh, fresh blood! We’re going to have so much fun together… Lock the door boys, we don’t want him to get away”, he adds, addressing the three burly men quaffing vile green beer at one of the tables.
  • The bartender looks up from his accounts tally and beams, “Customers! Have I got a bargain for you – the best prices in the city, that’s my promise, or my name’s not Fat Tony! – Have a seat, two-drink minimum, got a special on fermented frog’s ears, or perhaps you’d prefer an ale with optional salted peanuts, today’s lunch special can’t be refused, second to none, Roasted haunch of Mastiff with buttered parsnips – Alba! Two lunch specials!”

See what I mean? These characters have done one thing and said one thing (in the last example, quite a long one thing) and already they have come to life.

Finishing Touches

There are a number of finishing touches that can be applied. Some of these can wear thin with repeated use, and/or be hard to document, however, so use them sparingly, and only when you need that little extra to complete the character.

Props and Mannerisms

You can use something more than your voice to express the character. Props and Mannerisms work well in light doses, or when taken completely over the top – but once used for one character, they have limited availability for other characters, so choose carefully.

Also bear in mind the difficulty of adjusting or removing a prop repeatedly when roleplaying a conversation between two NPCs. An eye-patch may work wonderfully when playing a Pirate Captain, but it gets tricky when you have to perpetually put it on and take it off throughout a conversation with the first officer.

In general, mannerisms are easier to work with.

Slang and Colloquialisms

Virtually everyone uses slang and colloquialisms at times, and they are always diagnostic of a character’s background, but there is a huge range to select from – for example, take a look at this list of Australian Colloquialisms – it’s Bonza, by Crikey! There are some expressions on this list that I’ve never heard before, and I have lived here all my life; it follows that everyone should employ language just a little differently.

Carefully-selected slang expressions can elevate a character’s portrayal that extra step (and can even be a clue – Drow in my campaigns often misuse such terms, the result of their isolation from contemporary society).

Overlapping Modes Of Address

This is a particularly difficult trick to master. It involves thinking one thing while saying another so that your natural phrasing and accent get muddled to give the impression of a strange accent. It’s common, for example, for there to be a rising inflexion at the end of a question – so if you ask a question in your head at the same time as saying the character’s dialogue, you can place that inflexion at a strange place. This is the equivalent of adding and subtracting punctuation in unexpected places – something that’s easy to do if you’ve written the dialogue in advance, but far trickier to do without a script to follow (and some practice).

A lot of the time, this will just be confusing, or may deliver some unintended statement, but practice improves avoidance of those issues. It’s also VERY easy to overdo.

The Release Mechanism

It’s just as vital to find some release mechanism to get you out of character as it is to have a mechanism for getting into character in the first place. I find that counting silently “one – two – three – four” usually does the trick for me, and that I only have a problem with releasing from “in-character” mode when I am really deeply in character, anyway. But others have more difficulty, especially when they employ techniques for getting into character more effectively – at least for the first few times, until they get used to it. Everyone is different, and needs to find something that works for them. But it needs to be quick.

That’s a wrap!

Improved expression of characterization in roleplay benefits everyone, and everyone should be able to benefit from this technique. Use it, show it to your players, and bring your characters to life!

Comments (1)

Ask The GMs: My table runneth over (too many players)

Most ATGMs questions I can at least start to answer right away. This is not such a case (which is why it’s taken so long). I simply don’t have any experience in the particular problem being addressed – so, while I’ve done my best to offer as comprehensive an answer as usual, it’s all strictly theoretical from my end. Take the advice that I offer with a grain of salt…

Ask the gamemasters

The question comes from GM Joel, who (at the time) was struggling with the problem of too many players. He wrote:

“After a couple years off, I decided it was time to run another campaign. The group I’ve run with for the last 20 years is always family, mostly cousins. When I offered to run a game and made the regular invites, they all wanted to invite their significant other. I also invited my oldest daughter. Suddenly, we have 9 players. Due to the difficulty in scheduling a group that size we only get together every 4-6 weeks. I thought people would drop out, but we still get every player out for every session. We are going on our 5th month of the campaign.

“I only had a couple of players that even submitted character backgrounds. Since we have 3 first time players I left them off the hook. The bulk of the backgrounds I got were very weak. We used to often do some play by email stuff between sessions, but only one player is doing any of that so I stopped even sending stuff.

“So I have two problems.

“First, combat takes FOREVER. I have them go two at a time, and one of the players that is very rules-savvy helps me keep track of various things, but it still takes a while to get to each player’s turn. I hear this complaint every time, regardless of what kind of combat encounter I throw at them.

“Second, dialog based encounters are basically run by 2-3 players. They will occasionally try to include the new or quieter players, but for the most part, 6-7 people are just sitting there the whole time.

“I’ve asked for feedback from the players several times, but I never get much from them. I asked this question in the Roleplaying Tips discussion group before we started the campaign and got a few good replies, but am wondering what you suggest I do for this campaign?

“How do I craft encounters that are engaging for a group this large?”

The largest group I’ve ever GM’d was six, and I found that to be a bit of a struggle. Four-to-five players is my personal optimum. The Pulp campaign at one point had eight players, but that was a co-GMing situation, which spread the load. But I think that both these questions are symptoms of a single, simpler question:

“How do I GM a larger group than I am comfortable with?”

Let’s start by assuming that you must be doing something right, or the campaign would never have lasted as long as it had. Nevertheless, it’s my experience that each additional player added to a game carries an overhead in terms of GMing difficulty over and above a simple numeric increase, and that this overhead increases in size with every player added.


Blair’s Contribution

I talked about this problem with Blair Ramage, my Pulp campaign co-GM, because I remembered him telling me of his early RPG days (D&D first edition) and the number of players that were involved in those early sessions (8 to 10). He reported experiencing, as a player, the same sort of problems that GM Joel describes, and all came down to too small a fraction of screen time. The solutions employed to the problems were less than completely effective, but they did help somewhat.

  • Roleplaying: The GM made a point of going around the table and ensuring that each player got input. He broke any dialogue scene up into multiple smaller dialogues that were occurring simultaneously. Only a few people could participate in any one of these dialogues. Quite often, one group would get information while the others would get context within which to frame that dialogue.
  • Combat: Given that the game being played was early D&D, the GM tackled combat by class: All the fighters and fighter sub-types acted simultaneously, then all the clerics & druids, then the rogues, then the mages, and so on – in order of combat capability, in other words. Each person had a limited window to state their action or they simply missed out for that turn – which meant that you had to have decided what you were going to do and be ready to make any rolls required as soon as your name got called.

I also discussed the question with one of my players (part of both my superhero campaign and the co-GM’d pulp campaign), and a GM in his own right of a larger group, and he offered the following thoughts:

Saxon’s Thoughts:

One of the roleplaying groups I game with has been in existence for something in the order of twenty five years or more. This is a group of friends rather than a formal club. There has always been a certain turnover in membership. Sometimes this was because of people moving away, sometimes it was because of work-, family- or other commitments, and sometimes because of interpersonal conflict. There was a lengthy period when the number of members was so low that there developed a de-facto policy of open invitation to new players that continues even now that the group has eight members.

The thing is that non-gaming commitments have long interfered with the timing of gaming sessions and the availability of members in general, and these limitations have gotten more stringent as the members have gotten older, gotten married and had kids. The group has almost always tried to schedule for every two weeks on a mid-week evening, even though this allows for barely two to three hours for most sessions, plus recent attempts to add some all-day meetings on weekends two or three times a year.

The comparatively large number of current members does have the advantage that if some of them cannot make it at certain times, the group still has enough players to continue rather than canceling all together. This in turn means telling the missing players what happened while they were away. For a very long time this was done from memory of the players who had been present. Only relatively recently have players actually started keeping notes, usually typed up on laptops during play. (Although recently when comparing the notes of two different players from one session it was found that they wrote down slightly different summaries, then had no recollection of the overlooked incidents.) Additionally and most usefully for us, just under a decade ago we started sound recording the game sessions and then uploading them as a podcast for the absent players to listen to later.

Managing to keep all the players at the table engaged in the game has always been a bit slapdash. The group rotates through gamesmasters, who run different campaigns with different game systems of their own preference. Actual engagement in combat is good for making sure everybody gets a turn, but depending on the gaming system combat can be rather slow. (One gamesmaster has gone heavily into streamlining the system he uses over the years to make it rules light and quicker. Another has been using various fan-made computer apps for Dungeons and Dragons to speed up combat). However, almost all the games we have ever played have had a hefty amount of non-combat role playing involved. At that time the extroverted people who enjoy playing extroverts – such a diplomats, paladins, or con-men – have tended to dominate the game play, while other less dominate player personalities have tended to sit back, and in extreme cases simply read on their iPhones. This includes people playing characters such as police and military officers, who should by rights be taking a more active role in handling events than the civilians.

The later phenomenon is something we have never properly gotten a handle on. At some point or other gamesmasters have realized that they should make a point of focusing on the people who haven’t been participating as much – but that usually happens during a lull in the action when the extroverted players have stopped talking. I know I’m guilty of this, since in the last adventure I ran I made a mental note to myself to ensure that all players participated – but still allowed myself to get distracted by the enthusiasm generated from cool and/or weird game play. For next time around I’m toying with the idea of have a tick sheet – something like what can used to keep track of character actions during combat – and applying it to character actions in response to set non-combat events.

Mike’s Thoughts:

Armed with these contributions, I was able to start thinking clearly about the problems – from a strictly theoretical standpoint, as I said earlier. And it seems to me that in order to make a large group practical, you need to pull out every trick in the book. The problem is larger than simply having difficulty crafting suitable encounters; that’s only a symptom of the bigger issue of GMing such a large group. To really solve it, we need to go beyond crafting encounters to look at every aspect of the GMing. Unique requirements call for unique solutions.

My advice falls into four categories (with the occasional overlap): Planning, Division, System Simplification, and Table Etiquette.


Proper planning would be, I think, essential to handling a large group of players. The fewer players you need to accommodate in a game, the easier it is to get innovative and game on-the-fly; with a large group, even one as large as five, my experience is that someone gets forgotten. I shudder to think how bad things would get with still more players.

Roleplaying: Something for everyone

One of the absolute essentials would be making sure that there was something for everyone in each day’s play. Each character should be sufficiently unique that something – be it a key conversation, a roleplayed situation, a personal relationship or reaction, or just the interpretation of a critical clue – can be laid at their feet. And for each of them, ideally, you should have a “plan B” in case that individual simply can’t be there for that game session.


One of the easiest ways of making sure that no-one is overlooked is a checklist of the PCs. In fact, you will want to use these things for so many purposes that you may as well make a whole bunch of them at the same time. They don’t have to be anything fancy; the simplest design would be a table with the PCs names down the left hand side (and the player name underneath, perhaps), space for a couple more names under that, and a whole bunch of unlabeled columns running across the top – unlabeled so that you can label each column as you use it.

I would use such checklists for adventure development, for making sure that everyone got a chance to roleplay, for making sure that everyone got to do their thing in combat, that… well, you get the idea. It wouldn’t surprise me to use a page of these or more in a game session.

Combat Option 1: Percentage Of PCs

Designing combat encounters would be a whole different headache when you have so many characters to corral. There are two different options that I would consider, in terms of designing encounters; the first is “Percentage of PCs”, in which each creature encountered represents a given power level relative to the PCs. For example, if I wanted an encounter that was 70% of the PCs power level (which would be a relatively easy one), I might simply take the stats, HP, etc of one of the PCs and multiply by 70% to get a creature equivalent to that PC – then move on to the next one.

That would be a lot easier if you used a page or two of “the checklist” to list the stats of each PC. Use one column for STR, one for DEX, and so on.

The big advantage is that this produces a bunch of opponents that is as varied in capability as the PCs. The big disadvantage is that it produces opponents that are just as varied as the PCs. Quite frankly, there are better ways, which I’ll get to in due course, to use most of the time. But there are times when this is the easiest possible solution.

Combat Option 2: Differentials

How about if, instead of using a percentage, you simply applied a fixed modifier to the PC’s stats. “Everything is at -2″. If done correctly, this yields a specific variation of this approach called the “Unity Option”, and which I’ll talk about in “System Simplification”. Right now, I just want to put the option onto your radar.

Combat Option 3: Duplication, one exception

The first alternative would be for each encounter to consist of (N-1) identical critters, all of whom have exactly the same stats, and one “Boss Monster”. This would speed combat because you would always be working from the same calculations. I’ll also have more to say on this subject in “System Simplification”.

Addition, not subtraction

Addition tends to be a lot faster than subtraction. Unless you’re using an app/utility (again, something I’ll get into later), always arrange things so that any calculation is in the form of addition. I never track how many HP my monsters have left in D&D – I track how much damage they’ve taken and know that at a certain total, their behavior will change, and that at a subsequent total, they are dead. To keep things simple, that threshold is usually half, round up to the nearest 10, because that’s something I can calculate at a glance.


I would also strongly recommend that you read The Application Of Time and Motion to RPG Game Mechanics and apply its principles ruthlessly to absolutely everything you do. Not just to game mechanics, but to every action and interaction at the table that you can.

If it takes one second to name a character (asking for a response or an action, because it’s that character’s turn), and half a second to point at them, and you have to do so for five rounds of combat for 9 characters, that’s 45 half-seconds that you can save, per combat. Figure that such a combat will last for about 9 minutes per round (1 minute per character), real time, that’s 45 half seconds in 45 minutes. Assume that you have to call on other characters at about 1/5th this frequency outside combat – so that’s 45 half-seconds in 3.75 hours. If there’s one 45-minute combat to each such period, that gets us to 45 seconds every 4.5 hours of play. Doesn’t sound like very much, does it?

Those numbers are wildly unrealistic. If there are six steps to combat, plus 6 steps for each enemy, per combat round, saving half-a-second on each for 9 PCs gives 12 x 9 x 0.5 = 54 seconds per round of combat. Five rounds of combat – that’s 4.5 minutes saved. 45 seconds per character per round is a more normal sort of number, if you’re trying for speed – so thats 4.5 minutes in 30 minutes of combat. Assume like savings in non-combat, we get about 2 hrs 50 minutes of Roleplaying time to get another 4.5 minutes saved. That’s just about enough that you could have two roleplay sections and two combats per game session – so those half seconds add up to 18 minutes saved, per game session. Now, let’s assume that you can find four other such savings in the way you do things – those 18 minutes are suddenly an hour-and-a-half of extra play.

An additional implication is that you’re able to move the spotlight from one PC to another more frequently. That’s the sort of thing that makes a reduced net share less obvious – and the reduced share of the game spotlight is the number-one complaint identified by all three GMs who have experience with GMing this many players.

Prepared Tactics

The more you have to deal with players in a combat situation rather than managing your own side of the battle, the less time you are going to have to think on behalf of the opponents, whoever and whatever they may be. You’re already at a disadvantage because you have to keep several characters in mind at the same time; this only makes it worse. As soon as you add in a complex set of options and alternatives, a range of powers and abilities, the effectiveness with which you can handle these encounters declines markedly.

The solution is to have as many tactics prepared in advance as possible, with predefined triggers. “If X happens, the opponent will do Y. If not, move on to the next decision.”

Get Inside the Enemy’s Head
The key to mapping out tactics in advance in this manner is always to get into the head of whoever or whatever the enemy is. How aggressive are they? How Cautious? Is there something to which they are especially fearful or vulnerable? If so, a more aggressive creature will target anyone using that type of ability first, while a more cautious creature will be more easily driven off. Most creatures will fight until they reach a threshold of damage – as I mentioned earlier, the normal level I use is 50% round up to the nearest 10, but I might deduct 10 for a more aggressive creature (who will stay in combat a little longer) and add 10 for a cautious creature (who will attempt to retreat more quickly). What are the enemy’s strengths? How could he apply them to a perceived weakness on the part of the PCs? Is there something he can do to give himself an obvious advantage?

Always On effects vs triggered effects
The other cheat that I employ is to favor “Always-on” effects over triggered ones, even if they are less powerful. By taking decisions and complexity off the table, you make it easier to focus on simpler decisions. That alone can save bucket-loads of time.


It used to be a truism – don’t divide the party. I used to lead the chorus against doing so. Over the last few years, I’ve changed my mind, and the larger the group, the more benefits you can derive from following my lead. (I know I’ve written an article here at Campaign Mastery in which I expound on the techniques I use, but do you think I can find it to provide a link? No chance. Be that as it may…)

Splitting a large group up into smaller groups, each engaged in a different activity that is relevant to the overall plotline not only gives everyone a shot at the spotlight, it acts to prevent a few more dominant personalities from monopolizing the roleplay and conversational prospects. Add to that, smaller combats are far easier to balance, and the advantages just keep adding up.

But, of course, there are some other ways of dividing your problems into more manageable chunks…

Seating & Re-seating

I’ve written a quite extensive article on seating at the game table. Most of it goes out the window when discussing large groups. Instead, make table seating work to your advantage in dealing with the sheer size of the group and the benefits obtained will far outweigh the other impacts.

There are three ways that I would suggest organizing players at the table to be of practical benefit.

Rotating Table Order
Instead of letting players sit wherever they want, assign seating – and deliberately rotate the positions so that each player gets a turn at being next to the GM. This would work especially well in roleplaying situations (as opposed to combat).

Group subgroups together
If you accept the advice about splitting the party up, have players move so that the members of each subgroup are sitting together. The advantages should be obvious.

Initiative Order
There are clear advantages in a whole-group combat situation to having the players sit in the initiative order of their characters. This enables you to start to your left and proceed clockwise, or start to your right and proceed anti-clockwise. It takes no thought to work out who you have to talk to next in a combat round.

But this is useless if you adopt some of my later advice and junk initiative to make combat more manageable.

By Character Type
If you do decide to forget the Initiative system of your game – something I’ll talk about a little later – getting the characters to sit together by character type makes a lot of sense. There are two ways of organizing this dividing principle: by character mobility (most to least) and by attack type/capability.

The first permits the characters with the greatest mobility to move first, followed by the next most mobile, and so on, down to the characters who are slowest to move. This can greatly simplify combat.

The second groups characters who use ranged weapons together, then those who use physical strength and melee weapons, then characters who are more jack-of-all-trades, then characters who use rays and spells and so on, then those who use stealth, and finally, anyone who should stay out of combat entirely.

Rearrange Seating On The Fly
To obtain maximum advantage from these options, you can either make your choice based on the activity that you suspect will dominate the day’s play, or you can get your players to change seating as the in-game activity changes. If it can be made practical to do so, the latter is the best answer, but that’s one heck of a caveat.

I have two suggestions to aid that practicality. The first is to recommend that you permit minimal accouterments at the table – dice and character and pencil, full stop. Everything else should be on a separate side-table.

Secondly, to enable players to pick up and move their dice quickly, you should make a set of dice trays, each with the names of one player and their character prominently displayed. This enables them to serve as a nameplate as well as a quick dice caddy.

Old tissue boxes covered in self-adhesive book covering material or even kitchen bench contact (which is essentially a heavier-duty version of the same thing) would be ideal, and relatively easy.

Divisions in Roleplay

Nine players falls naturally into three groups of three, or one of five and one of four, or one trio and three pairs. The group is large enough to be in multiple places at the same time, making multiple simultaneous steps to further the plot. This eases if not eradicates the problem of a couple of dominant players hogging the roleplaying spotlight – it’s hard to steal spotlight time when your character is not there and is in the middle of a completely different encounter.

Every character is a gestalt of the personality defined for the character, the player’s ability to manifest that personality, his natural ability to roleplay, and the dictates of the relevant rules structures. It follows that the combination of character and player that participates in a roleplayed encounter may be less effective at producing a satisfactory outcome from the encounter than one of the more vocal, dominant, roleplayers. Over time, the group will learn the parameters of what individual combinations can and can’t do, and alter their groupings accordingly. I know one player who has two favorite characters – one he loves because he finds it a very difficult character to roleplay, and the other because the character’s personality meshes with his own so naturally that he can adopt that role effortlessly. The second is well within his capabilities but doesn’t challenge or grow those abilities; the other is only barely within reach, and is nothing but challenge and growth.

Any inability to roleplay the character should be considered part of the character’s personality, even when its the player who is having problems. If the player has trouble making up rousing speeches on the spot, that’s a foible of the character. If the player is not good at haggling, and routinely overpays for goods and services as a result, that’s part of the character’s profile. The character is a blend of the theoretical construction written on the character sheet and the capacity to express that construction in various ways of the player.

While initially, characters may be assigned certain tasks by the group based on that theoretical construction, they will soon learn that such typecasting doesn’t always work, and should modify their task allocations accordingly.

It follows that any discussions of whether or not character A should be sent to do B in future should be conducted in character and not at a player level – and this should be enforced by the GM.

Divisions in Combat

The same technique yields more manageable combat situations. Instead of one big combat, think of them as multiple small combats occurring simultaneously. The side-effects of all the other battles are nothing more than changing environmental conditions for the combat that the PC that is your focus at the moment is engaged in.

Of course, you can’t dictate how the players will subdivide their ranks in response to the apparent challenges set before them, for the most part. Some things can be predicted – this is a creature of magic, so the mages are best to deal with it; this is a creature of supernatural evil, so that’s a job for the clerics; this is a creature of stealth, so it belongs to the sneaky of the party. So long as you match each overall mini-combat in power and effectiveness, it doesn’t matter how the PCs rearrange themselves in response, the overall battle will remain balanced.

Handler, Scribe, Lawyer, and General

There are certain tasks that can be allocated to different players in order to assist the GM in handling so large a crowd. I’ve identified four of them, as shown in the heading above, but want to start by dealing with a fifth, and the only one that is actually official in a number of game systems, the Caller.

I don’t like Callers. I’ve never known them to be necessary with a small group (five or less) and never known them to be effective or efficient with larger groups (five or more). The idea is that the caller gets told by the other players what their PCs are doing, or trying to do, and the Caller then serves as intermediary and single point-of-contact between the players and the GM. In my experience, it simply adds to the potential for confusion (the caller misunderstands what a PC wants to do, or misinterprets what the GM tells him), ill-will (the player wants to do one thing and the caller disagrees and so overrides the player’s choice), and duplicated effort (player A tells the caller who then tells the GM). So I don’t use them and don’t recommend them.

When you’re using miniatures, on the other hand, it can take an age for every player to maneuver themselves to where they can lay hands on the figure representing their character, move that figure appropriately, and then get out of the way for the next player. I’ve seen groups as small as three or four players struggle with this. Designating one person as the miniatures ‘handler’ and creating a strict protocol for the communication of moves can be a lot more efficient – and the larger the group, the larger the savings.

The basic protocol is direction of movement, number of spaces, turns, and facing. “North, five inches, turn west, five inches, face east.” This requires that each map have some clear compass points regardless of how the map orients on a larger scale. Because that larger scale also uses north, south, east, and west, confusion is possible; you have the same terms representing two different things. That was one of the reasons why in my Fumanor campaign, the compass directions used by the society are “Sunrise, Sunset, Dexter, and Sinister” – which frees me to employ the traditional East, West, North, South compass points for battlemaps exclusively. In my Shards campaign, the locals use the traditional compass points, but my battlemaps use Alpha Bravo Charlie and Delta, or sometimes Alpha Beta Gamma Delta. Or I will carefully place key landmarks at the compass points – “Bridge, Tree, Statue, Windmill” then becoming the directional axes on the map.

If it comes right down to it, using the terms “towards” and “away” permit all this to be chopped down to just a pair of compass points. So the handler is a practical, time-saving solution to the problem.

The Scribe documents things for the players. This is invaluable, especially if the GM has access to those notes in between sessions, because that is one less thing that he has to do at the table.

The requirements are speed, legibility, and judgment. I think faster than I can speak, and speak faster than I can type, and type much faster than I can write – so I would make a poor scribe. But unless you all know shorthand, speed is the number one requirement, and you can never be fast enough. That’s where judgment comes in; if you have to summarize and document selectively, good judgment is essential in terms of what to record and how to abstract the rest. The faster you write, the easier these judgment calls become, so judgment – in an editorial sense – is not the most important characteristic required of the player Scribe, but it is a close second. The third requirement is legibility. We can all write quickly but the legibility normally suffers massively when we do so. Using a laptop ensures perfect legibility, but may not be as fast as handwriting at top speed.

Stephen Tunnicliff was always the natural scribe for any group he played in. His judgment system was simple – he recorded what happened to his character and what his character did and learned; but that was often enough for his notes to trigger recall on the part of the rest of the group. He wrote very quickly, so he had the number one and number two requirements down pat. Legibility was the big issue; there were occasions when he could not read his own handwriting! Nevertheless, he could usually puzzle most of it out, and I was often able to interpret the rest when he had trouble.

The more players you have, the more important the function of scribe becomes. You don’t want the GM using up to half his time documenting what happened, you want him to be free to get on with running the game.

Some people may not consider the role of Scribe to be that important, especially if the GM performs comprehensive game prep. This is flawed reasoning. First, the GMs prep reflects the way he expects the adventure to develop, not what actually happens. The two are hardly ever synonymous; in my 30+ years as a GM, I think I’ve had exactly three game sessions that went exactly as expected. They usually start off in close accord, but at some critical juncture the PCs will make the wrong choice, or have a clever insight, or come up with some crazy interpretation of what’s going on and act accordingly, or simply prioritize differently, say something clever, or say something stupid. From that point onwards, the adventure as played begins to diverge from the “script”, and oftentimes never recovers. So GM prep is insufficient.

Relying on memory is fraught with danger. Players are more likely to remember their pet theories and interpretations as fact, and forget anything that doesn’t fit those theories. On top of that, you have the proven unreliability of eyewitness testimony, even when people are doing their level best. If you have nine players, you have nine different recollections of the game session. Throw in any distance of time, and things begin to drown in noise very quickly. Documentation is essential, and the GM needs to be able to correct and annotate that documentation after the game session. So either he makes the notes – or you have a designated Scribe.

Some groups record their sessions – if you have decent microphones, this can be quite successful, I’m told. That automates the Scribe function, but it doesn’t eliminate it.

One person may be tasked as the group’s lawyer, the only person at the table permitted to look up rules. When there is a disputed call, rather than halting play, this person finds the relevant rules while the GM deals with the next player in line; the GM is then presented with the rules and can either affirm, amend, or reverse his earlier decision. There are even times when the GM can tell the Lawyer in advance, “look up the rules for X”. This permits the GM to get on with running the game, most of the time.

If the GM is confident that he has taking everything into account in reaching his decision that he should, the players have to accept his call and should assume – if the rules seem to contradict the call – that there is some factor in play that the GM knows but the players don’t.

Having a single lawyer is essential, because it limits the number of disputed calls that can be processed to just one at a time. But there can be limited exceptions – whenever a PC casts a spell, I require them to have the rulebook open to the spell description so that the effects can be properly interpreted. I may not need it, but it saves time when it’s at the ready. Beyond that, everything is left in the hands of the lawyer.

It might seem that one of the primary requirements of a Lawyer is an understanding of the rules. This is emphatically not the case. What you need is someone who is good at knowing where in the books a particular rule is written. Even being able to narrow it down to two or three places and then checking each of those to find the right one is good enough. What you don’t want is the lawyer citing his interpretation of the rules as “the way it works” without having the documentary evidence – because the players may not know everything that the GM is taking into account, and the lawyer’s interpretation of the rules may not be the same as the GMs.

The final position to discuss is that of the General. This is the player who formulates the overall strategy and tactics for the group, a strategy that the group then attempts to carry out. The fewer the players, the less essential this role is. With a large group of players, I can see it as being absolutely essential. This does not have to be the owner of the character who is the natural leader or strategist, or even simply the designated tactician of the group.

Here’s how it works: The player who is running the character who naturally would lead the group determines what the objective is. The tactician – who may be an entirely different player – then devises a plan to achieve this, and offers it to the group as though it had come from that natural leader. So long as the natural leader is not engaged in the battle, the tactician can modify and amend the plan to cope with changing circumstances; when the leader-character is busy with more immediate problems, the general can’t do anything except run his own character.

The GM should be aware of what the leader has specified as an objective, so that he can monitor the plan offered by the General for bias or self-interest or any attempt to alter the specified goal to one that the General thinks more important; that’s not his job, he’s there to achieve what the leader wants to do.

The more characters you have, the more anarchy you will have on the battlefield. This approach replaces that chaos with a more orderly approach, greatly simplifying the GMs workload and speeding up combat as a result.

Assistant GMs

As a step up from these “helper” positions, the GM with a large group may entertain the notion of appointing a couple of them as assistant GMs. “A, B, and C are buying provisions for the group. Dave [C's player], here’s the personality of the vendor, here’s his price list, go over to the corner and roleplay it for them.”

Dividing a large group into smaller groups and appointing an assistant GM from amongst those groups enables the GM to handle the group whose encounter is the most significant while the others get to roleplay scenes that might otherwise be hand-waved. If a PC does something unexpected, the Assistant GM can always bring the group back to the main GM or seek clarification from him. Because everything is being done according to the GMs script, he remains in overall charge of the adventure.

This can work in combat situations as well. It’s a way for the overall GM to be in multiple places at once, which (of course) enables a lot more play to happen, and a lot more players to get a share of screen time.

The ideal choice would be a player who is also a GM in their own right. Failing that, the simplicity and narrow confines of the Assistant’s remit can be a good way of giving a potential GM the experience to eventually step up to the screen.

The key is for everything – initial situation, location, personalities, and desired outcome – to be handed to the Assistant GM who then acts as the primary GM’s proxy for that encounter.

It might even be that the primary GM chooses not to take any one of the three groups for himself, but instead adopts a supervisory role and coordinates things. He can even stop by and drop a bombshell into the middle of events that the Assistant was Not briefed to expect (“It’s at this moment that there is an Earthquake that knocks you off your feet for a few seconds. Carry on”) – and only later will they discover that one of the other groups had an encounter that resulted in someone casting an Earthquake spell.


A further step up is for one or two of the players to become co-GMs. The big difference between an Assistant GM and a Co-GM is that the first has no input into the plot or story; the latter is an equal participant in all aspects of the game and the planning.

Co-GMing is something that I do know first-hand. In some respects, it makes game prep a little slower and more difficult; you have two or more people throwing ideas into the pot, and a consensus has to be reached, which can sometimes take considerable discussion. The world becomes a shared world. But there are other times when having multiple participants brainstorming can take a lot of headache out of the planning-and-prep process, and it really helps at the game table. You can read more about the difficulties and benefits of co-GMing in my article on the subject, An Adventure Into Writing: The Co-GMing Difference.

You can take everything that I said about Assistant GMs and the benefits that they offer and elevate them a notch when thinking about the advantages of co-GMing. The key is to make sure that the objectives are spelled out in advance, so that both GMs are on the same page going into any divided experience.

System Simplification

Let’s face facts: most game systems aren’t designed to cope with eight, nine, ten players, and the result is a significant contribution to the difficulties GM Joel describes. While the suggestions made so far can help, if they aren’t enough (and they won’t be), you have to grasp the nettle and simplify the game system itself.


Most initiative systems (and especially the d20 one) don’t carry a whole lot of overhead. Nevertheless, this is the first rule that I would junk. The reason is that several other economies only become possible once it is removed; it functions as a roadblock to those options, which all revolve around handling other aspects of combat in bulk, and which I discussed earlier. If you handle the fighters as a group, and the creatures attacking them as a group, and the clerics as a group, and so on, you can really speed combat up.

Attacks Option 1: Unified to-hit scores

Another choice to think about is always choosing creatures with the same effective to-hit score. Use magic/tech enhancements as necessary to achieve this, and don’t tell your players; they will assume that heaviest magic is on the stronger creatures (which would be sensible) and not on the weaker ones (which gives a practical benefit to you). So long as you aren’t blatant about it (giving a goblin the same attack roll as a dragon might be a touch obvious), this can greatly simplify the bookkeeping that has to be done for every attack in every round of every combat for every enemy.

Nine creatures, 2 attacks each, five rounds of combat – a saving of 5 seconds from this (which is the very minimum that I would expect) adds up to 9x2x5x5=7.5 minutes saved per battle. At ten seconds, fifteen seconds, twenty seconds or even thirty seconds (all more realistic numbers) those savings come to 15 minutes, 22.5 minutes, 30 minutes, and 45 minutes, respectively!

Attacks Option 2: Unified chance-to-hit margin

An alternative that requires a little more prep but which I favor is to ensure that the creature each character attacks (or is attacked by) has the same AC relative to the PC’s highest To-hit so that all the creatures effectively have the same chance-to-hit, when all is said and done. This works with just about any game system, only the names change. If you know (because that’s how you’ve defined the participants in the encounter) that each of them have to roll 13 or less on d20 to hit, you can roll a whole heap of attacks all at once, and process them in bulk – all the opposition in one hit.

Roll as many attacks as your creatures have. Your dice will scatter; simply line them up starting with the leftmost and then the next leftmost, and so on. Then go around the table, counting off the number of attackers on each character, and in no time you’ll be able to announce “Three hits on Ernie, Two hits on Fred, Four hits on Gary, they all missed Hank, One hit on Ian,” and so on.

Combat Modifiers & Complications

An awful lot of these should get dumped and replaced with something simpler. The easiest approach I’ve seen is the +1/+2/+4/+8 approach, which replaces every tactical, conditional and environmental modifier (aside from magic) into one simple question: the relative degree of advantage one combatant has over the other. +1 is a minor advantage, +2 is a strong tactical advantage, +4 is a VERY strong advantage, and +8 means they have an overwhelming advantage. If one side gets a +1 to their attacks, the other side gets a -1 to theirs, and so on.

This is something of a hybrid between 3.x and the D&DNext Advantage mechanic, but in a lot of ways it’s a lot simpler because this is a succession of flat modifiers, while at the same time, retaining some of the finesse. The big advantage is that you don’t have to add up a whole string of modifiers, you simply make an overall assessment of the situation and plug in the number.

Defense: Unified ACs, Unified to-hit margin

The same principles apply. You can tweak the enemies that you present so that they all have the same AC, or can match ACs to PCs so that the players all have the same chance to hit. This will be a LOT more obvious to the players, though, and they get to do the math, so it’s less beneficial to you, so I recommend these options be kept for a last resort.

Damage Tracking: Spreadsheet or Game Utility/App

It’s very easy to set up a spreadsheet that does nothing but add up part of a column of numbers and then subtracts it from a number in the first row of that column. I have minimal spreadsheet skills and could do that in two minutes or less.

In the top row, you put the HP of the enemies in the encounter. Each time one gets damaged by a PC, add an entry beneath that for the damage done. Instantly, the total damage done, and the HP remaining, get calculated for you.

There are gaming utilities and apps out there that work in exactly the same way. Find one that’s quick and easy to use, then use it!
comparison 18d6 vs 248d6

Mass Attacks: Base Roll plus variation

“He shoots a 24d6 Fireball at you.”

How many GMs and players would insist on rolling all 24d6?

There’s a much faster technique. In fact, there are a couple of them.

1. Assume average results on half-to-three quarters of the dice, roll the rest.
24d6 – so assume that 12 of them roll an average of 3.5 and just roll the other 12. Or assume that 18 of them roll 3.5 and just roll the remaining 6.

Every pair of “3.5″ results gives a total of 7. So these options yield 42+12d6, and 63+6d6, respectively. This technique is not perfect – there is a small probability on 24d6 of getting a result that lies outside these ranges of results. But it’s pretty tiny: The chance of getting 53 or less on a roll of 24d6 is 0.01%, and the chance of getting 68 or less on 24d6 is only 3.18%.

These are trivial compared to the other compromises that are being made.

2. Assume half of the total of average results plus a die roll of appropriate size for all but 5 of the dice. Roll the five dice.
This one’s a little more complicated, but it gives a better result. For the 24d6 example, we roll 1d6 and average the result with 3.5, then multiply the result by 19. Then roll and add the remaining 5 dice to the total.

This restores some of the capacity for very high and very low results, but the differences compared to rolling all 24d6 are still fairly minimal. It’s a compromise between option one and rolling all the dice. The example yields a results range from 41 to 111, which is not a lot different from the roll half and use averages for the other half. But it’s rarely worth the extra effort.

3. X dice times Y plus X dice. X is any number that divides evenly into the total. If necessary, increase the number of dice rolled by 1 or 2 to get a larger Y.
More complicated again, yet strangely simpler in execution.

24d6: 4×6=24, so either roll 4 dice and multiply the total by 5, then add another roll of 4 dice; or roll 6 dice and multiply by 3, then add another 6d6 roll.

37d6 (for some reason): 4 nines are 36, so roll 4d6, multiply the result by 8, then roll 5d6 and total.

This is the shortcut technique I use most often, or a simple variation on it based on ten dice times X plus Y dice. Much faster than rolling them all.

248 d6 (just for the sake of an extreme example): (24 x 10d6) + 8 d6.

Ideally, I prefer the second number of dice to be higher than the first, so I would probably use (23 x 10d6) +18d6, but it’s not really necessary; the differences between these rolls are tiny. The odds of rolling all ones, or all sixes, on 18d6 may be massively greater than the odds of doing so on 248d6, but in both cases they are so tiny that it’s a non-issue – relative to the time saved.

Simultaneous Saves

If there’s some effect that has to be saved against, have everyone make their saving throws at the same time. It takes more time to chop and change and then go back to one mechanic in battle than it does to process multiple results using the same mechanic at the same time.

Alternative System Selection

The ultimate technique for simplifying your game system has to be choosing a different one with simpler mechanics. With more than five or six players at once, you are pushing game systems way beyond what they were designed to do; some will adapt to that better than others. As general rule of thumb, I think that a lot of older game systems like AD&D, original Traveller, etc, scaled a lot better in this respect – perhaps because they had not been optimized for the typical group size so successfully. Others may hold different opinions. But if you’ve tried everything else that’s been suggested, this is the only option left to you.

Table Etiquette

Table etiquette is important all the time, but far more so when you have so many players. The number of ways players can combine increases geometrically with each additional seat at the table. And each of these combinations carries the potential of manifesting in breaches of player etiquette.


Probably the biggest single breach that is likely to occur comes in the form of side conversations, especially since GM Joel has a number of husband-and-wife players at his table. There are so many players that he can’t focus on all of them at once, and that is an open invitation to those not directly participating to chat amongst themselves.

I treat tolerance for side-conversations as being another emotion to be paced within the adventure. There are times when I’ll be permissive, and times when I’ll be intolerant. After a climax of some sort, it’s good to let the players blow off a little steam; when things are approaching such a climax, I’ll be a lot firmer in keeping people on track.

Normally, an imminent climax grabs and holds player attention, so there is already a natural tendency towards this behavior; I simply encourage it.

Player-out-of-the-room takes the PC out-of-the-room

A rule that I rarely enforce at my table, this principle becomes more important with more players. If you need a rest break, or want to get a drink, either ask for a five minute recess, or assume that your character will wander off while you aren’t there to control it – and there will be times when the only direction in which they can wander is into trouble.

Reward in-character conversations

This is something that is good practice at any time, but it becomes even more important with many players – simply because conversations in character are not unrelated side conversations. The rewards don’t have to be massive or game-changing – but they will add up.

Penalize unnecessary out-of-character conversations

The other side of the coin. Speaks for itself, really.

Yield a certain amount of control

Finally, it may be necessary at times to let the PCs argue over the steering wheel of the campaign, wrestling it out of each other’s hands. Unless strong discipline is enforced by them, so many voices will tend to ride off in six different directions at once. If you’re comfortable improvising, that can be fine; but if you have a strong preference for more organization and unity amongst the players, this can be a real problem.

One point that should be emphasized because I had not consciously realized it myself until I wrote the preceding paragraph: this factor is also game system/campaign dependent. I am more prepared to cope, or more able to cope, with anarchy amongst the PCs in some campaigns than in others. So if this is an issue, try switching to a game that is less mission-oriented and more casual, more lassoire-faire.

The Wrap-up

This answer has probably come far too late to help GM Joel. By now, he will almost certainly have either found his own solutions or trimmed his players to manageable proportions, possibly by splitting his campaign into two. But, on the off-chance that he is still struggling with the same issues, and in the certainty that others will encounter similar problems in the future, this advice is offered with the best of intentions and the hope that it helps.

I have to thank my fellow GMs for their time and their insights. While I seem to have done most of the talking in answer to the question, I had virtually nothing other than the section on Assistant GMs until the others put in their two cent’s worth. Blair & Saxon: Much appreciated!

About the contributors:

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

Blair Ramage was one of the first players of D&D in Australia, using a photocopied set of the rules brought over from the US before they were on sale here in Australia. When the rulebooks finally reached these shores, he started what is officially the fourth D&D campaign to be run in this country. He dropped out of gaming for a long time before being lured back about 15 years ago, or thereabouts. For the last eight years, he has been co-GM of the Adventurer’s Club campaign with Mike.

Saxon has been vaguely interested in gaming since the early 1980s, but only since going to university in the late 1980s has the opportunity for regular play developed into solid enthusiasm. Currently he plays in two different groups, both with alternating GMs, playing Dungeons and Dragons 4th ed., the Hero system (Pulp), a custom-rules superhero game (also based on the Hero System), WEG-era Star Wars, FASA-era Star Trek, and a Space 1889/Call of Cthulhu hybrid. When it’s his turn he runs a Dr Who campaign. He cheerfully admits to being a nerd, even if he’s not a particularly impressive specimen. He was a social acquaintance of both Mike and Blair long before he joined their games.

An Update:

Hungry of has been a long-time supporter of Campaign Mastery through his recently-retitled “Friday Faves” column and was kind enough to pen a few words of response to my hypothetical solutions (above), since he has real-world experience from both sides of the gaming table. Unfortunately, a problem with the systems here at Campaign Mastery meant that his contribution wasn’t being accepted as a comment. I have appended his comments to the original article, and I’m also going to put them up in an extra, out-of-continuity post for the benefit of anyone who’s already read the original article.

Hungry’s Responses

I’ve run games for large groups before. My average seems to be around 6, but I’ve gone as high as 10 players (with most games having 6-8 of them, but sometimes we’d have all 10!)

The advice given here to keep them all engaged is very good. I’ll drop a brief comment on some of Mike’s bullet points:

Planning something for everyone: Usually, with a large group, someone will inevitably not make it. Just be prepared that your key plot point might have to shift to another player. It’s best if you can develop key points that involve 2-3 of the PCs. That covers your GM bases, and gives the players something to chat about during their downtime, which will happen in large groups.

Checklists: I tend to keep a running checklist in who I’ve engaged in a personal bit of role playing and who I haven’t. When I realize that I’ve left someone out for a short bit, I drag them back into the game by having a monster or NPC look them in the eyes and do/say something. This lets the player know that I’ve not forgotten them.

Combat Options: These work really well. I love the “N-1″ option because that’ll be a challenging encounter which will allow the PCs to shine as a group, but won’t leave anyone out until near the end of the encounter when the monsters are dwindling down to 1 or 2 left.

Prepared Tactics: This is a great bit of advice for GMs, especially if the Bad Guys are character-type critters with many abilities/powers or if it’s a monster packed with special abilities. I also flip this around on the players. I use some web-based software I’ve written to track initiative orders. When someone starts their action, I’ll point to the next person that gets to go and tell them, “You’re up next.” This engages the person that’s not actively doing anything, and lets them gear up mentally for what they want to do. This is a real time saver in those large combats.

Seating & Re-seating: I’m not sure shuffling players about the table would be a wise idea because of the time and distraction involved. I did read the ideas about being minimalist at the table, but there are also snacks and drinks at the table at most of my games. The players typically have more than two hands worth of stuff to try and move. It also draws them out of the game world and into the real world while they move from this side of the table to that. The best thing I’ve done for a split party in the past is to run a timer (smart phones are great for this!) in which one group gets a certain amount of time to do their RP, and then focus swaps to the other group. If one group gets into combat…. I wait. Cliffhanger style. I’ll see if the other group can find their way into a combat quickly, then I’ll run the two combats simultaneously. There’ll be one initiative order, but two separate combats going on. Yes, it’s more brain work for the GM to keep things running smoothly, but pulling it off makes the GM feel great.

Divisions in Roleplay: Mike’s take on 9+ players breaking into smaller groups works well, and I’ll take it a step further. Hand some minor NPCs to one group and have the players run the NPCs. This works really well with a little prep on index cards to let the players know what goals, motivations, approaches, and attitudes the NPCs will have. This will take a little load off of the GM, and keep the players engaged.

Caller, Handler, Scribe, Lawyer, and General: If the players want to establish these roles, I’m all for it. However, I (as the GM) will not dictate roles and responsibilities at this level, with one exception. If there’s a player at the table that’s comfortable with the rule book for the system, I might use them as a Lawyer if I can’t recall the particulars of a rule or power.

Assistant and Co-GMs: I’ve seen this done once to good effect, but we had somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 PCs at the table. I’ve never used them, and I’m not sure I’d want to “remove” a player from the playing experience and have them turn into a referee or rules adjudicator in addition to playing their character… or not playing a character at all.

I’ll make a few broad comment about the system simplification ideas Mike’s presented: These are very effective at speeding things up at the loss of “realism.” I like these ideas, but I’ll counter with the concept of, “If you need to simplify your system, perhaps you need to play a simpler system in the first place.” I’ve had players that can’t add d20+STR+BaB (even when STR+BaB are pre-added) in less than two minutes without a calculator. That REALLY grinds play to a halt. For those players, I make sure they sit next to me, and I do the math for them. I’ve also had players that could roll 24d6 and add it up in under 20 seconds (so long as they were pips, not numbers, on the dice). Many things come into play when picking the “right” system for your group, but that’s off topic for this post.

Table Etiquette: Mike has some great points here. In the weekly game I used to play, the “out of game chatter” was limited to the first 10-15 minutes of the session, then we got down to business. In my monthly game, the chatter runs about 30 minutes and rises up here and there during the course of the game. This is because we see each other so rarely and much has happened in the intervening month. It’s part of the game that I have to accept, but when I feel it’s getting in the way of the game, I step in and ask people to quiet down with the side chatter. We’re all adults, and I’m not mean or malicious about it. I just point out that the side conversations are making it hard for the other players to hear me. They get the point, and quiet down.

One last point that I’d like to make is that each player added to the table is a multiplier in effort, not an additive in the equation. From my experience, it’s not an exponential explosion in effort, but it’s probably 3X where X is the number of players. Before expanding a group, be prepared for this.

I hugely appreciate Hungry’s efforts at putting a real-world perspective on my musings, and apologize again to him for the (still ongoing) problems with comments.

Next in this series: Making Drow (and other races) feel different. It’s not as simple as it sounds…

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It’s Not ‘Just A Game’: The legacies we leave


This is not the post that I expected to write today (an ATGMs article), nor is it the backup idea (about getting into character) that I expected to use next week but was ready to bring forward – look for those next week. A confluence of completely independent events has sent my thoughts surging down a different avenue, and one that deserves to be explored.

People die all the time. It’s shocking at the time, and painful for those left behind. Most of the time, those passings are unremarked by the wider world, no matter how strongly the departed has touched or influenced the lives of those in their immediate circle. Sometimes, though, the individual who has passed on has achieved some measure of fame, has influenced others with their lives, and then the grief is a more widespread. Sometimes, the manner of their passing is such that it touches the lives of many who never knew the fallen as individuals; it is the event itself that lends larger-than-life meaning to their passing.

Every person who dies in an aircraft accident that is properly investigated contributes in some measure to the improved safety of the aviation industry for those left behind. Ample blood has been spilled in retaliation for those tragically killed during the 9/11 attacks to ensure that they will never be forgotten as a group. Even when death has not yet occurred, when the circumstances are a slow and tragic ongoing struggle, as with Michael Schumacher, still in a state of near-death after a skiing accident that should not have had consequences of the severity that has resulted (at least in the minds of many), a legacy of achievements means that they will not soon be forgotten. These people did not set out to leave a lasting legacy for the world; many, if not all, of their achievements were for personal benefit. But that’s often the way the world works – you do something for yourself and find that it touches others along the way, inspiring them to make the lives of people richer, safer, or more fulfilled. This is certainly the case when a celebrity passes, however minor a celebrity that person may have been.

Sometimes, people leave a legacy that reaches out from beyond the grave to touch others, as was the case with a Western Australia teen that I was reading about this morning who – after passing away from an especially aggressive form of cancer – left an inspirational message written in texta on the back of her mirror for her family to find after she was gone (You can read the story at this website, at least for now – I don’t know how long it will stay up).

But, as is often the case in such circumstances, these events may prompt those who are left to think morbid thoughts about what legacies they will leave behind when their time comes.

My personal legacy is secure and very satisfactory – not that I expect to shuffle off this mortal coil anytime soon. I have touched people with my music. I have helped others discover the will to live when they lacked it, or contemplated bringing themselves to a premature end. I have received more than enough feedback to know that I have inspired many with the articles that I write at Campaign Mastery. I know that I have deliberately harmed no-one, and accidentally harmed few, and done my best to compensate those injured along the way through my misjudgments. I have given what I could to aid others in worse circumstances along the way. And I know that I have inspired others through my games.

I am not a major celebrity by any means, and I am not sure that I ever would want to be. But I’m not just a statistic, either; I can honestly say that I feel I have made a difference to others in my lifetime. It was never something that I consciously did in order to leave my mark on the world, it happened as a byproduct of living my life day-to-day as the best person I could be.

The makers of Star Trek never set out consciously to create a legacy, either. They were actors, they needed work, and this was a job like any other. Nevertheless, the idealism and optimism that the show contained was inspirational to others, and that rubbed off on the public perception of those who appeared in it. Some of them struggled to come to terms with their unexpected roles as near-messianic inspirations – “I Am Not Spock” by Leonard Nimoy makes that very clear. But what we do, day by day, touches those around us, and can have effects far beyond the purpose and intent of those daily activities.

Very few ever set out to become famous. Celebrity is something that happens as a byproduct of living their lives and doing what they do. That does not elevate the celebrity to sainthood, but it does impose the burden of living up to the public perception – and sometimes that proves too difficult to sustain. Celebrities are people, too, and just as capable of being flawed as anyone else.

And so it is with RPGs and GMing. I’ve learned something from every GM that I have ever played under. Any success that I have at the gaming table is, in part, due to those lessons. They never set out to teach the art of being a good GM – they just wanted to have fun. For that matter, I never set out to become a great GM (and I’m certainly nowhere near being the best) – I sought improvement in my craft because being better at the job made it more fun, both for myself, and vicariously through my players.

In the early days, some family and friends were dismissive, thinking that Gaming should occupy a lower place on my scale of priorities. “It’s just a game”, they would say. Thinking back on those comments now, they remind me more than anything else of various actors and musicians saying “It’s just a job” or “I was just having fun”. The Beatles and Elvis Presley, arguably the prototypes of the modern celebrity, never set out to change the world of entertainment, either. They got a bull by the horns, and they rode the whirlwind as far as it could take them.

There are many scientists who were inspired to earn their degrees by exposure to Star Trek. That was never an ambition of the creators of the show, who just wanted to create something entertaining because that was what they were being paid to do. And yet, every member of the cast and crew shares part of the legacy being created with every discovery made by those who chose science as a result.

Similarly, any legacy that I leave behind is, in part, shared with everyone who ever inspired, educated, or shaped me as a person, and in turn by those who inspired, educated, or shaped them, and on back throughout history. Every person who games, or games better, because of me is part of that legacy too, and at the same time, they are a conduit to passing that legacy on to others. I didn’t set out to leave a legacy behind; I write for self-gratification, because it’s something that I enjoy doing. I GM for the same reason. But in the process, I have nevertheless created a legacy, and now face the responsibility of living up to that legacy.

It’s not just a game when it can and does inspire others to become entertainers or GMs or players. They assume these roles for the same reason that I do the things that I do, for personal pleasure and satisfaction. But in the process, they too begin to craft a legacy for themselves, and it doesn’t matter how many concatenations of chained inheritance that the legacy passes through. Eventually, it will make life better for someone, more fulfilling or satisfying or just more fun.

That’s not such a bad mark to leave on the world.

My concluding point, then, is this: it doesn’t matter how good or bad you are as a GM. It doesn’t matter that you sit behind the screen for your own satisfaction, pleasure, or gratification. Just by being the person you are, and doing what you do, you shape the lives of those you encounter, directly or indirectly; you share a measure of any success they enjoy and a measure of the price of any failures. Being a GM means that you inherit the legacy of everyone who has sat at the table before you, and pass that legacy, with your own additions, to those who will sit at the table after you.

It’s more than just a game, or a sport, or just having fun, when it inspires others – even if neither of you know that it is doing so at the time. Legacies are the byproduct of ordinary people living their lives; they happen, whether you intend them or not, whether they have intentional meaning or not. It doesn’t matter how big or small they are; that’s something beyond your control. All that matters is living up to the responsibility that they carry – by being the best GM, player, entertainer, or person that you can be at the time, for your own satisfaction, and the rest will take care of itself.

And if anyone asks what you do for fun, tell them that you inspire others in your spare time. What could be better than that?

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Domino Theory: The Perils and Practicalities


I love a good domino theory. They keep things nice and tense within the campaign, are a fertile source of adventures as people try to break the connection between desired action and undesired consequence, and are almost guaranteed to blow up spectacularly in due course. But that doesn’t make them easy to do, never mind to do them well. In this article, I’m going to look at how to create the most spectacular domino-theory chain reactions of events within a campaign, what can go wrong, how to use them to create adventure seeds, and – ultimately – how to ride the whirlwind as the dominoes start to tumble.

Creating Domino-theory chains

I’m going to start by looking at how to create a domino-theory chain – and I’m going to begin by asking the very basic question: just what are they?

What is a domino-theory chain?

When a force within the game – be it an individual, a race, a society, or whatever – wants to carry out some act for some reason, but cannot do so because of an undesirable consequence, they can be said to be connected to that consequence. When a second force – be it a group, an individual, or whatever – wants to do something for some reason but can’t because the undesirable consequence of doing so will be to remove the inhibition upon the first force, then that second force can be said to be chained to the first – if the second force do what they want, there will be a chain reaction (albeit a small one) that ends with the first force doing what it wants. So A does B which makes C do D which makes E do F which makes G do H which…. and so on. Each Domino triggers the next one in a chain reaction that ultimately can only end in disaster, or redemption, or – at the very least – change.

These aren’t as easy to put together as they might at first appear – not if you want a really lovely interlocking web of triggers and consequences. Any hack can put together a simple chain like the one above – but putting together something more interesting is a lot harder.

Creating your initial state of tension

The place to start is by defining your initial state of tension. This is your initial “A wants to do B but can’t because C”.

  • The first step is to create an initial force (A) and decide what action they want to do (B).
  • The second step is to create a reason why they can’t do what they want (C).
  • The third step is to decide what they are doing about this problem (D).
  • Finally, decide what they are publicly doing in the meantime (E).

Those five facts are the things that need to documented for every force or faction that is part of the domino-theory chain: Force Name, Objective, Hindrance, Plan, and Cover.

If you want to be especially complete, you could add things like Motive and Reputation but while they might help characterize the Force, they aren’t necessary to the construction of a domino-theory chain. It’s far more important to make sure that the logic of (C) is absolutely iron-clad.

Creating your initial connecting link

(C), (D), and (E) – Hindrance, Plan and Cover – are what I think of as “loose ends”. These are threads that can connect to other forces and other groups without forming part of the primary chain. “Loose ends” work to form secondary chains, which are what really make a great domino-chain so much fun. So important are they that I’ll come back to them in a later section.

The next step is to create a second group – one that is blocked from doing what they want to do because of one of these loose ends. The best approach is to decide which of the loose ends you are going to use and then choose all the other parameters of the group to fit. Again, the critical thing is that the logic be ironclad.

  • If the force one Hindrance (C) is also the reason Force two are blocked, the two groups have the potential to eventually form a working alliance, or to compete with each other to be in position to take advantage of their goals when (B) eventually becomes possible.
  • If the force one Plan (D) is the reason Force two are blocked, then the two Forces are in opposition, but only Force 2 necessarily know it. Remember the old saying, “before you can stab someone in the back, you first need to get behind them?”
  • If the force one Cover (E) is the reason Force two are blocked, then the two forces appear to be in opposition, but in reality, force one is exploiting that apparent position to disguise their true goals. If force two recognizes this, there is scope for a secret alliance of convenience between the two while they maintain public opposition; if not, force two will genuinely oppose force one, while force one takes advantage of force two.

primary chain

Adding further connecting links

Continue adding links branching off from the initial chain. That means that force three should be linked to the Hindrance, Plan, or Cover of force two, and then force four to force three, and so on. For every group, you get three loose ends and use one of them, so if you draw it as a diagram – an approach that I encourage – you can draw your initial chain as a long vertical strip with the unused links hanging off each side from each group.

The image to the right illustrates this. It shows a primary chain of 9 Forces (numbered), with 1 connected to 2, which is connected to 3, which is connected to 4, and so on, leaving two links – labeled a and b by number – to each side of each of the groups. Note the unused third connector from group 9.

Personally, I don’t recommend chains anywhere near this big. Four or five links in the primary chain is plenty. I also recommend that at this point you draw up a matrix with each force across both the top and down the left so that you can document the relationships between the additional forces as you go (using the example offered in the previous section).

When you feel that the primary chain is long enough, it’s time to start adding Secondary chains.

Secondary Chains

A secondary chain is exactly the same as the primary chain in its construction except that it hangs off one of the unused branches of one of the primary chain and will use one more of those unused branches for one of its other connections. If you are really creative, you might be able to use all three connections from the new group to cross-connect, but two is good enough. Keep adding secondary groups until all the chains have a force relating to them. It will often be the case that you will need to build a group that connects from one secondary group to another in order to achieve this.

Think about what that means for a moment. Every Force that forms part of the resulting complex matrix is connected to three other Forces, each of which is also connected to three Forces. All of them have an agenda, something that is preventing them from acting overtly on that agenda, a plan to overcome that problem, and something else that they are doing in the meantime.

The Web Of Catastrophe

I call this a “Web of Catastrophe”, because any change (perceived or actual) will bring the whole structure crashing down as a chain reaction, one domino falling after another. Enter the wild cards: the PCs. If this describes the state of affairs within the campaign, whether we’re talking about the internal politics of a single noble Court or the relationship between multiple rival nations, or something in between, any change will have repercussions felt a long way away.

Critical Mass

As a general rule of thumb, I find that having as many Forces involved as their are players, or less, enables the players to grasp the totality of what is going on, often before the GM wants them to. Having more, by one or two, makes the totality easily-grasped, but not immediately obvious – but it can still come out before the GM is ready. So I recommend, as the minimum number of Forces, three more than there are PCs. This is analogous to achieving a Critical Mass of plotlines within the campaign.

It’s also easy for there to be too many factions, something that confuses the players and causes them to blur one group with another. In my experience, most players can cope if there are somewhere between two and three Forces at work per player – with the exact number varying from individual to individual. This number is often reduced dramatically if a player has not been present for the entire campaign – though it can sometimes be increased by the external perspective that comes from not have sat through the events, and being presented with an overview.

Once a Force has done it’s “job” within the plotline – something we have yet to generate – if there seem to be too many cooks for the players to keep up with the recipe, feel free to annihilate that Force. Purge, Zap, Delete – they have performed their role in the cosmic scheme of catastrophic chain reaction, and are now superfluous. If you can make the PCs the instruments of that destruction, so much the better – a victory now and then does wonders for player morale!

A segment of example

This might not be totally clear from the abstract description of the process that I have provided, so here’s a small piece of a small example to try and clarify matters.

  • Force 1: The Incarnum, a conspiracy amongst mages in the Kingdom of Truleth.
    • Goal: Ban Clerics and Clerical Magic from the kingdom of Truleth.
    • Hindrance: They have the political connections to do so but cannot employ this power because the NGaryth secret society of Demon-worshipers would gain ascendancy.
    • Plan: Construct a Divicula, an arcane device theoretically capable of driving out demons.
    • Cover: Advisers to the court of Truleth on all matters arcane, and strong proponents of law & order.
  • Force 2: The Ngaryth Secret Society
    • Goal: The resurrection of the mad God Dwarla to subjugate the other faiths of the Kingdom of Truleth.
    • Hindrance: They need the Ring Of Tyanthomath, a lost clerical artifact, to find and awaken the Mad God.
    • Plan: Use demons belonging to the Demon Prince Chasis to search for the Ring in return for the society’s aid in Chasis’ war with his rival Plicianth.
    • Cover: A secret society within an association of mercantile leaders.
  • Force 3: Dirim Harzer, Commander of the standing army of the Kingdom of Truleth.
    • Goal: To invade the neighboring Kingdom of Coalinth.
    • Hindrance: The Elvish Army allied to Coalinth.
    • Plan: Bribe the Troll Gaurdurk and his Army to invade the Elvish Forest to distract the Elves
    • Cover: Invent a Necromantic Secret Society to justify increased funding for the army to cover the diversion of funds from the military budget.
  • Force 4: House Matron Zilvani of the Drow
    • Goal: To use the Army of the Kingdom of Truleth to wipe out the Elvish Forest without risk to her own forces.
    • Hindrance: The Kingdom of Coalinth are historic enemies of Truleth and the alliance is too strong for Truleth to defeat alone; furthermore, they are more likely to attack Coalinth.
    • Plan: Leak intelligence to the Kingdom of Truleth suggesting that Gaurdurk The Troll is about to secretly ally with Coalinth, forcing them to attack the weakest flank – the Elves – before Coalinth becomes invincible.
    • Cover: Mentally dominate the Princess of Coalinth and cause her to send emissaries to Gaurdurk so that the alliance looks like a Coalinth idea.
  • Force 5: The Servants Of Dwarla (Half-elves and the real acolytes of the mad God)
    • Goal: Resurrect the Mad God to “purify the impure”
    • Hindrance: They need a Divicula whose purpose has been corrupted during construction, and don’t have the expertise to create one.
    • Plan: Trick the wannabe worshipers of Dwarla, the Ngaryth Secret Society, into retrieving the Ring Of Tyanthomath and attempting to use it, corrupting the Divicula being constructed by The Incarnum according to plans “fed” to them by the Servants.
    • Cover: Use Plicianth The Demon (clever but without high rank) to trick Prince Chasis (not clever but with the rank Plicianth thinks he deserves) to find and retrieve the Ring.

That seems like a deliciously-tangled web. It actually shortcuts the process a bit – there really should be an entry for each of the Demons – but it’s quite complete enough to yield plenty of fun and games.

Frayed Ends

The other thing that I would note, if I were preparing to GM this, is that everyone has their actions circumscribed by their circumstances, with one exception – the Troll Gaurdurk. Outside of the PCs, this is the only character with any freedom of action – and he’s being Feted by two different sides, while being manipulated by a third. If anyone deserves an entry of their own, he does! As things stand, he is a frayed end – pull on it and the whole carefully-knitted structure will fall apart.

On the other hand, having him at loose ends makes him a Trigger. Whichever side the PCs ally with, Guardurk can either ally with the same side or with the enemy, whichever looks like creating the most fun. So the occasional frayed end can sometimes be useful.

Source Of Illumination

With the construction process detailed and illustrated, let’s start talking about using this structure as a source of adventures.

The Status Quo

The collection of cover stories represent the apparent status quo within the campaign. So the first adventure or two (or more) that you derive should be only indirectly connected to the Domino Chain, and should establish and educate the Players as to whom the in-game players are.

Secrets Have A Way Of Getting Out

Additional adventures should be scheduled to bring any secret groups or organizations to the PCs awareness, even if they don’t know what the objectives of such groups are.

Warning: If any of the groups have a desire or need for secrecy as their Hindrance, these revelations may trigger the chain reaction if the GM is not very careful in planning those adventures. In particular, he needs to ensure that either the secret group don’t realize that their secrecy has been compromised, or he needs to ensure that the PCs have reason to keep the existence of the group secret and that the secret organization knows it.

Reactions To PC involvement

Whichever group the PCs interact with, the allies and enemies of that group should notice, and react appropriately. Each of those reactions can form the basis of a subplot running through a subsequent adventure. What’s more, some of these can then become the foundations of spin-off adventures.

There will be all sorts of forces not articulated in your chain reaction. The example makes no mention of the Dwarves, for example. If the PCs become affiliated with the Elves, or with the Kingdom of Coalinth, in the example, then the other of those two allied parties can ask the PCs to look into rumors that the Dwarves are allying with the Kingdom of Truleth (which seems to be where the money is). In fact, the Dwarves might be up to nothing of the sort.

The Direct Plans

Each and every Plan listed then becomes a potential adventure as it is put into motion or begins to work its way towards fruition. The question is, in what order should they occur?

Damped Reactions
Some of the chains of dominoes eventually run out of steam, come to a conclusion that leaves some of them still standing.

Explosive Reactions
Others cause one imbalance after another, creating the explosive reactions that will plunge the game world into chaos – unless the PCs intervene.

In other words, you can yield the entire plot potential all in one big bang, or you can dribble it out a bit at a time and get multiple smaller adventures instead of one all-or-nothing potential cataclysm.

The choice is up to you, but if I had put that much work into setting up a finely-balanced infrastructure like that, I would want to get as much bang for my buck as I could. Just as the PCs deal with one problem, the repercussions of that resolution should knock over the next domino, and bring about the next adventure. In other words, we want an explosive reaction – but not one that proceeds too quickly. The goal; is an controlled explosion.

Because we have kept the number of Forces to a manageable number, it’s not too difficult to set up theoretical trigger events and see what happens. A trigger is one of three things:

  • A Direct Plan succeeds
  • A Direct Plan is discovered by the PCs and stopped, forcing the Force behind it to come up with a New Plan (and possibly exposing them);
  • An internal schism occurs within one of the Forces when someone gets a clever idea that promises a quicker success.

Three possibilities for each Force.

  • Start with the first one, and with the first possible outcome of their plan, and see what happens. Does A set off B, which sets off C?
  • Then look at the second possible outcome, and see what happens if the group gets revealed or taken out of the picture, presumably by the PCs. Does that release B to act overtly, which sets off C, and so on?
  • The third possible outcome from the first group should then get assessed. Same question.
  • Then repeat this three-step examination with the second group, and then with the third, and so on.

It will soon become apparent which thread to pull – which chain gives the greatest combination of length and control. Ideally, the choice should be one that will trigger the next event in the chain whether the PCs succeed in stopping the current plan or not. But there is a caveat, which brings me to:

The Perils

The biggest peril that you face when creating such a web of concatenated consequences comes in the form of a premature detonation. Each time you introduce the players to another element within your grand scheme, you run the risk of someone pulling a Sampson and bringing the house down – with the campaign inside it.

This danger can never be completely avoided, but it can be mitigated. The easiest preventative measure is to introduce another Force into the picture – one which exists to maintain the status quo, stamp out potential explosions before they happen, and who view the PCs as disruptive, meddling, troublemakers. That last is very important, since eventually you want the dominoes to fall and the PCs to have to deal with each of these groups “making their move”.

Nevertheless, having a group that can parachute last-minute assistance in for the PCs to use to deal with whatever problem they have set off, can be a game-saver.

The second biggest danger is the wet firecracker. This occurs when the order in which you set off the chain reaction is not right in another respect: it’s no good having a full chain reaction if later explosions are an anticlimax. No, you want the stakes, the difficulties, and the drama to continually rise with each domino.

To some extent, these things are scalable. The ultimate confrontation of the example might be the PCs vs the Mad God, or the PCs vs one of the Demon Princes, or War between the two city-states, or war between the Mad God and one of the Demons, or even War between the two Demons with the PCs holding the balance of power – and their home base as ground zero. If the Demons aren’t in the ultimate fight, you can dial them back to more individual efforts and make it a Mano-e-Mano confrontation between them (with the PCs in the middle, of course) rather than hordes of subordinate Demons battling it out. The Mad God can be scaled back by only releasing one of his Foot Soldiers – the plan to release the Big Guy can fail. And so on.

But if scaling won’t work – and for some items it won’t – you need to ensure that things happen in the right order. Your first choice for the chain of events might not fit this criteria – in which case, you need to junk that starting point and look for another, continuing the three-step assessment of direct plans, and possibly even compromising the length of the chain reaction.


Once you have the basic outline of events – “A does B to C, which enables D to do E to F, which…” – it’s time to tie the whole bundle together. Remember how I said that each Force you had identified would react to what the PCs did? Well, they are also going to react to whatever any of the other Forces do, too.

Again, the best way to organize this is with a table. Across the top, we have the names of the factions, while each event in your domino chain gets listed down the side. The Force performing the action just gets a star in it, unless you think that they might have a range of internal responses. Factions within a single Force have proven the undoing of political parties and governments in the past, and will again, and it’s not exactly unknown for an organization to have a coup when the current leadership is betting the farm on a pair of sevens, either.

It’s important to note that you have to make an assumption about the success or failure of the action. As a general rule of thumb, if the PCs are in a position to intervene, I assume that the action will fail; if the PCs are not, I assume that the action will succeed unless I don’t want it to for plot reasons. I note the assumption in brackets at the end of the action description which will be in the left-hand column.

The group responsible for the next link in the chain is designated the primary reaction – just put an asterisk in their column, because you have already defined how they are going to react. I then work my way through each of the other groups.

  • Are they threatened by the action?
  • Do they benefit from it in some way?
  • Is there some other change in their circumstances because of the action? – An alliance broken, or an alliance strengthened?
  • Is there a way for them to further their own agendas using the action?
  • Is there a way for them to inconvenience or disrupt an opponent using the action?
  • Can they at least ‘spin’ the action to generate propaganda for their own agenda?

Only if the answer to all these questions is “no” do I write “none” in the appropriate space on the table and move on. If the answer to any of them is “yes” then the group have to react in some way to the event.

These also assume that the group knows about the event. That sometimes gets forgotten, we’re so used to instant news in the modern world. Everyone is constantly acting and reacting to yesterday’s news – or last week’s, or last month’s. Smart people will tend to take that into account, while ideologically-driven people will tend to assume that things will work out according to their ideological interpretation of the world.

It also assumes that the news of the event is accurate, and that can be a bigger deal than people realize a lot of the time. Accidental error, exaggeration, rumor, and deliberate misrepresentation of the outcome are all possible. But this is the correct assumption to make, as you will see in the next section.

Color-Coding the entries

I also find it useful to use some legible but distinct color for events that have not yet occurred in-game, and the reactions that they produce. Blue would be my first choice in this context.

When a planned event actually occurs, the text gets changed in color either to Black or to Red. Black means that the outcome was as expected, and the reactions and subsequent events can unfold into their next step as planned. Red means that something unexpected has occurred (and that usually means the PCs have somehow gotten mixed up in things), and that means that every subsequent line of both the plan and the table of reactions needs to be reevaluated.

As mnemonic device, I will usually change the color of those subsequent lines of the table to Fuchsia and change them back to blue, one by one, as they get updated.

Updates to allow for the unexpected

The first question that always needs to be asked is whether or not the unexpected outcome alters the next step in the domino chain. If it does, news of the event needs to be misreported or misrepresented.

Any of the reasons previously listed will work, but my first preference is to look for some group that might deliberately distort the reports of the outcome for their own benefit. A deliberate act by someone is always more plausible than any sort of coincidence or random chance that just “happens” to keep the GM’s plot running. And my second preference is to invent someone to deliberately cause the misrepresentation of the news.

Any such misreporting represents a complication of the situation that the GM can take advantage of. Groups can react to either the truth or to the erroneous reports – again, whichever creates the most fun. You can even have some groups having it both ways: “if the reports are true, then… but I think it more likely that…”

Why This Is Not A Plot Train

It should be observed that despite the domino chain representing an overall plotline assembled by the GM, it is not a plot train, or at least it doesn’t have to be. The PCs have complete freedom of choice – this plan is all about NPCs and what they plan to do. The PCs can alter the outcome of individual events – and the GM simply updates his plans to accommodate those changes.

The “Orcs & Elves” Connection

Anyone who went to the effort of reading the lengthy “Orcs & Elves” Series – I know some did and some didn’t – will recognize that the Elvish History presented therein is very much this sort of chain reaction. “A happened, and the Orcs did this as a result, and the Drow did that, and the Dwarves did the other, and that caused the Elves to do this other thing, and that meant that when the Orcs did their next thing, the result was an opportunity for the Drow to do their next action,” and so on. That story was all about opportunities: making them, seizing them when they occurred, and guarding against others having them. Several times the Elves seemed to have everything under control, their lives as good as they got – only for them to be blindsided by something they didn’t see coming. Very little happened in a vacuum, it was perpetually about the intersection between past experiences, future goals and ambitions, and the opportunities that arose in the present.

If anyone wants a more substantial and complete example of this plotting process, that’s where to find it. This article is, at it’s heart, a formalization of the plotting process that was used for that mammoth slice of campaign background.

The Aftermath

The dominoes have fallen, and lie strewn all across the table. A chain of events have led to an apocalyptic finale. It’s human nature to ask, “what happens next?”

You have two choices: an Aftermath within the same campaign, a denouement to wrap up plot threads and loose ends, a coda to the cataclysm; or a sequel campaign (part one of a how-to), part two is here.

Either way, the starting point is still the same:

  • Which Forces survived?
  • How have their agendas changed?
  • What opportunities exist for them to further those agendas?
  • How has their public perception changed?
  • What are their immediate problems?
  •    …and so on.

Half the work has already been done for you. You still have your list of Forces, and you have established what they wanted and how they went about getting it. They will learn from their mistakes and try again, if their agenda has survived intact. “They all lived happily ever after” might be fine for a fairy tale – this is a Roleplaying Game. So line up the dominoes, and let them fall…

Finished at last! It’s a little late, but here it is… I actually wrote this article from start to finish (in my head) on my way to Gaming over the weekend (a trip of about 25 minutes by bus that completely wipes out my back for the following day). It seemed a lot shorter until I actually started putting words on digital paper…

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