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Cinematic Combat Part 3 – The Absence Of Mechanics

absence mechanics

Why should the pace of gameplay be held hostage by combat mechanics?

Anything else we can take or leave – we can assume success on any skill roll and get straight to the results. But combat? No – not unless we hand victories to the players on a platter.

In part one of this series, I reduced attack rolls – regardless of game system – to a single d20 roll; and in part two, I showed how to abstract damage mechanics – again, no matter how complex the game system – to a single d10 roll. Between them, these sacrifice granularity and precision of result for speed of play and a focus on gameplay instead of game mechanics when that is particularly beneficial.

I call this sort of thing Cinematic Combat because it’s more focused on drama, action, and pace, than it is on precisely simulating every blow and movement.

Cinematic Combat isn’t my own term; others have used it before, and it has acquired a somewhat negative reputation as a result. Not everyone defines the term to mean the same thing, and some of the applications to which it has been put have been more successful than others. In particular, some people use the term to refer to diceless play, or to combat completely devoid of game mechanics – pure narrative.

Of course, in theory, if more abstract, faster combat mechanics are good, the complete absence of mechanics to interrupt the narrative is even better; but it hardly ever seems to work out that way. See, for example, the comments of Hungry at Ravenous Roleplaying in discussing the first part of this series:

quote start 150quote end 150
When someone breaks out the statement, “Let’s play a cinematic game!” I always cringe. This (in my experience) usually equates to, “I want to play a character where the rules don’t apply to me!” *sigh* I know that’s not the case. However, it’s happened to me too many times that the phrase still hurts me. I guess when I try to limit someone’s actions with a reasonable obstacle or circumstance, the player response has been, “I thought this was supposed to be cinematic?” Ugh.

Sans Mechanics

I think the place to start is where I think Hungry – and others – have gone wrong. Going Sans Mechanics doesn’t mean that there are no game mechanics in place and it certainly doesn’t mean that there are no rules; it simply means that the combat situation is such that the game mechanics will hinder more than they will help for this particular battle and have been set aside for that reason. I’ll get into the how of doing that a little later.

Playing the game without combat mechanics simply means that narrative replaces a strict interpretation, and that the Game Master chooses for the players to interface with the game situation without the barrier of mechanics so that both sides can concentrate on what is taking place in-game and the players can remain more deeply in character.

When to go Sans Mechanics

When to go without game mechanics is all tied up in why. There are two reasons why a GM might choose to do so:

  1. The combat situation is so complex that it’s going to take all of everyone’s concentration just to keep track of who’s where doing what; this situation occurs a lot less frequently if miniatures and battlemats can be employed, but even then, the occasional circumstance can demand this option.
  2. The other circumstance that might prompt going Sans Mechanics is when the combat situation is such that the actual battle poses no danger to the PCs taking part, and indeed, would be either boring or would consume lots of game time for no discernible benefit.

When either of these conditions apply, you should at least consider doing without the game mechanics for the battle. But before you can make that decision, there is one final option to consider: Cinematic Combat of the type described in parts one and two. This isn’t something that should be regarded as a compromise between full mechanics and no mechanics; instead, it should be the default option when you choose Cinematic Combat. Going completely Sans Mechanics should be reserved for those rare occasions when even this default option doesn’t go far enough.

There are several reasons for this.

  • The first is that the players need to be completely convinced of the GM’s fairness, and specifically confident that he isn’t making this choice in order to force an outcome that wouldn’t be possible if full mechanics were in place. If this is not the case, the players will feel like the GM is “cheating” to ensure an outcome.
  • The second is that it can be far more difficult for the GM than he is expecting, and if his descriptive skills or detail of imagination falls short, the whole game can collapse.
  • The third is that even the limited mechanics of the Abstract System provide a rules-based foundation for gameplay; players can go over the top or try to achieve too much at once when freed from this constraint, and so can a GM who’s not used to what he’s doing.
  • Fourth, the pace of the game can be too fast for the GM to keep up with, or – occasionally – for the players.
  • The fifth – as if that lot weren’t enough – is that the situation might not be as interesting to the players as the GM expects it to be, and the GM is pinning the entire enjoyment of the game on that entertainment value.
  • Finally, there are some players who derive the bulk of their entertainment from combat, and not from roleplay; those players can feel that the GM is picking on them and deliberately excluding them from enjoying the game. If there are some mechanics, no matter how abbreviated, the player can still focus on the tactical situation and enjoy his part of the adventure.

None of those reasons is sufficient to preclude going Sans Mechanics – but they are all good reasons to think very carefully about the alternatives before doing so, if you really are justified in the choice.

Game Flow Sans Mechanics

A decision that requires serious consideration as soon as the GM decides to go Sans Mechanics is how he is going to handle Game Flow. I’ve listed the two techniques that I normally use in separate sections below, but there may be others that I have not thought of.

Standard Combat Timing

ne alternative that some might consider an option is to employ standard combat timing – which means that you employ the standard initiative or combat sequence mechanics, and let each character have their full allocation of actions. You might think that this at least acknowledges the standard mechanics in a way that would mollify players disgruntled for one of the reasons listed previously.

I can’t advise against this approach strongly enough. Not only does the logic fail to stand up in reality, but it throws away a substantial degree of the benefit of going with combat mechanics. Players who are unhappy about being completely subject to the GMs interpretation of circumstances and attempted actions will still be unhappy, and the endless drag of turn-by-turn actions completely undoes the simplification of the situation or the bypassing of tedium – whichever motivation led to the choice of foregoing mechanics in the first place, it is totally undermined. On top of that, it unevenly divides screen time amongst the players. While there may be other options than those I’ve listed below, as I suggested a moment ago, this isn’t one of them.

N Subplots, Synchronized

Practical Option number one is to consider everything that’s going on to be a series of subplots being conducted virtually simultaneously – it might be one subplot per character, or two or more characters may be involved in a single subplot. It doesn’t matter if they are all taking place in the same location as long as they are doing separate things, or even combating separate opponents.

Go Around The Table

Practical Option number two is similar, but is player-based instead of character-based. You go around the table, giving each player identical screen time as measured in character actions or interactions. The recipe might be two exchanges of dialogue between a PC and an NPC, or one skill action, or a 30′ movement, or casting one spell, or a minute of fighting.

The time frame also needs thought when implementing this choice. Too long an interval and players will lose interest because for every occasion when their characters get to act, there is four times as much dead time while the others are acting. Too short an interval, and people won’t get the chance to do enough to advance their “subplot” significantly.

I recommend a maximum of three minutes, and a minimum of 30 seconds, but I have violated both those limits when the occasion seemed to warrant. Sometimes I’ve used a trigger condition – the conversation continues until “X” point comes out, then each of the other players gets a similar amount of screen time, and then it’s on to the next tour of the table; this means that the length of each circuit may be different, but each tour divides screen time evenly amongst the players.

This can be helped by not following the exact same sequence of players with each tour. You can select the player whose subplot is likely to be the next to reach a decisive moment first, and use that as your yardstick – which shows that one of the key benefits that you gain by leaving out the combat mechanics is flexibility.

Mental Mechanics

What both players and GM have to understand about combat without game mechanics is that the game mechanics still exist within the mind of the GM. He can abstract them as much as necessary, but he still uses them as a guideline to the narrative that he delivers and the interaction that the PCs have with events.

He probably won’t break things down into round-by-round action-by-action specifics, but will deal with such things in a more holistic manner, ascertaining what each PC is trying to do, determining how long it will be before success or failure become apparent, and describing the events and outcomes of each such intention, in exactly the same way that he would if he were GMing a conversation between a PC and an NPC.

When events reach the point at which he must describe an outcome, he determines the result on the informed basis of knowing both the mechanics and the interlocking intentions of both PC and NPC, describes the events in the form of narrative, and then prompts the player for a new intention based on that outcome – and the conflict then continues from that point.

The mechanics are still there – they are simply removed from directly interfacing with the players, leaving them to roleplay without mechanics to hide behind.

Imaginary Rolls

One of my favorite techniques for implementing mental mechanics is to use imaginary die rolls. These don’t specifically relate to attacks or skills or anything else, instead they synopsize the general trend of events for or against the PCs. Nor are they random; instead they follow one of two general trends, modified for PC and NPC intentions. The two general trends are the “Oscillating Trend”, and the “Roll-And-Reverse” Technique.

The Oscillating Trend

When one of the two factions starts out as dominant, and especially when the shape of the intended narrative casts the PCs as the underdogs, the technique to use is “The Oscillating Trend”.

oscillating trend diagram

An example of the Oscillating Trend. Click on the image for a larger version.

At the start of Cinematic Combat (Phase 1), the PCs are underdogs, and everything seems to go their enemy’s way, though little by little things improve for the PCs. In Phase 2, things make a pronounced swing in the PCs’ favor. During Phase 3, the PCs are dominant and look like achieving a hard-won victory against the odds, but in Phase 4, the enemy begin to fight back, striking a serious blow to the PCs’ hopes in Phase 5, and recovering to such an extent that in Phase 6 the outcome is in the balance. In Phase 7, momentum in the battle again shifts in the PCs’ favor until finally victory is achieved.

The number of times the battle swings this way or that, how long it stays to the advantage of one side or another, how quickly things change – these are all up to the GM. It might be that in a different battle, the PCs start out on top, and can reasonably anticipate an easy victory – but things don’t go their way, and the enemy reaches the point of almost total success before the PCs snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, having underestimated their opponents.

There is a narrative structure inherent in both these examples, and the idea is that the success of maneuvers, the success of attacks, the damage done – it is all synopsized by this trend line. Anything and everything that can affect the flow of combat is dictated by the trend, whether it is surprises or luck or the arrival of reinforcements to one side or the revelation of unexpected allies or betrayals or even a falling out between allies.

Intention Interpretation

Of course, these trends are influenced by what the characters on the battlefield are trying to achieve. In particular, characters who try to work with the trend and adjust their immediate goals accordingly – seeking smaller gains when things turn against them and chasing loftier goals when things are going their way – should prosper and eventually succeed. Trying for the spectacular, against-the-odds twist of fate when things are going against you tends to expose you to a higher likelihood of failure, and all you can hope to do is minimize the damage and hold out for the inevitable swing to your advantage.

Of course, the PCs aren’t going to be the only ones with immediate goals to try and achieve; the enemy will also have priorities and things that they want to achieve. The trend is obviously going to be modified by the likelihood of success of these immediate ambitions and actions in combat – attempt something that you would normally achieve easily, and the trend will likely begin to turn in your favor. Best of all is when both the PCs immediate ambitions and those of the enemy can be achieved because they don’t directly conflict; that’s when intentions are a wash and whatever trend there was continues. The tactical situation can be completely transformed without affecting the balance of advantage in the slightest.

The Roll-and-Reverse technique

When there is no obvious superiority between the forces and the circumstances of combat, I employ what I call the “Roll-and-Reverse” technique. This essentially means that for battle action #1, an imaginary die roll that is either at the 1/4 or 3/4 mark – eg 5 or 15 on d20 – dictates the balance of momentum (as described in “Oscillating Trend”, while in the next, the opposite value is used, so that a 5 follows a 15 and vice-versa. This continues until one side or the other establishes a clear superiority, when the “Oscillating Trend” becomes the pattern.

It might seem that this can’t happen if you continue to implement a policy of swapping 5’s and 15’s as the guideline to the action, but that impression fails to take into account intention interpretation. When the advantage is swapping back and forth at great rapidity, pursuing small, strategic, easily-achieved advantages accumulates an advantage with certainty – though a grand gesture when things are going in your favor can be decisive in terms of the initial advantage, too. Once again, it’s the combination of what the different participants try to achieve that eventually produces something decisive.

You might decide that the gain of a small advantage shifts things in the PCs favor by 1 in 20 – not a big improvement, but it means that the 15 becomes a 16, and the 5, a six. Repeat twice more, and it’s 18 and 8, and even when things are going against the PCs, an 8 means that they aren’t losing much ground – so the balance has shifted decisively to the PCs, and the GM can shift to trend oscillation. But, before that happens, if the enemy had tried something big when the trend was in their favor, the opposite could be true.

One point that should be made is that the enemy automatically have an advantage – they are controlled by the GM knows when chance is in their favor. That means that more often than not, the initial advantage will swing in their direction. Balancing against this are two advantages that the PCs have: because they are controlled by multiple players against the one GM, they can think about several different things at once; and secondly, players can be unpredictable at times. Surprise works in their favor. It is that double advantage that keeps the technique fair despite the advantage inherent in being an NPC under the circumstance.

Narrative & Interaction are Paramount

A point that was made earlier but bears both repetition and closer scrutiny is the importance of Narrative and Interaction. Narrative is when the GM is describing things to the players; Interaction is when he (in the role of an NPC) is conversing with a PC. When you forgo combat mechanics, these are what should take their place.

That means that they have to be good enough to justify their prioritization over standard gameplay. You can’t afford to waffle, or be vague, or bland; your delivery has to be rich and full of vivid imagery and character.

I know some people who think that doing away with combat mechanics is a lazy solution for the GM who is pressed for time, because generating mechanics-ready NPCs takes an effort. People who hold that opinion are usually the ones who come a cropper when they attempt Cinematic Combat because – to do it properly – Cinematic Combat, and especially Cinematic Combat Sans Mechanics, requires more prep and not less.

Such prep involves the careful characterization of NPCs, working on ways that characterization can manifest as actions and verbal cues, creating sub-paragraphs of prepared text that can be wrapped in a framing sentence and inserted at appropriate moments, practicing with voices and accents, picturing settings and locations from different positions – anything and everything that you can think of. On top of that, some of this prep can’t be done properly without having constructed the character to a sufficient extent that you could run a combat with full mechanics.

Combat Sans Mechanics

There is no bible to dictate how you should go about running a combat without the supporting game mechanics. Most game rules will, in fact, assume that you will always use the mechanics as written, barring the occasion tweak for unusual conditions. You may get some pointers from LARP-oriented game rulebooks, but that’s just an assumption on my part – I’ve never read one and certainly have never played a LARP, so I can’t speak from experience.

All that being said, I have evolved my own process, which I describe in following sections. I doubt this is the only way to do it, but it’s a technique that I have developed and utilized in campaigns from multiple genres and based on distinctly different game systems. It might not be the only solution, but it is one that works.

Action Rota

Step one is to always know who is going to act next. You have near-infinite flexibility; your guides have to be what works best for the overall narrative flow, and fairness in allocating screen time amongst the players. One of the easiest ways of representing one side or another being on top is to bunch their actions; this almost guarantees that the other side will then get the opportunity to swing the course of events their way.

One thing that you do have to be wary of is the combination of a “Call and response” pattern coupled with the Roll-and-reverse technique. It’s no good alternating “5 and 15″ if the “5” is always one faction and the “15” the other.

I sometimes attempt to second-guess the PCs, thinking at the start of each series of actions about what each character is most likely to want to achieve in the course of that round, based on the existing situation within the battle; then about how likely that is to succeed, and what the overall impact on the course of battle will be in the event of success or failure; and then using those results to decide the sequence that will be most entertaining/interesting for all concerned, and that will follow the intended overall narrative arc that I have in mind.

If the character plays it safe, they will probably succeed in what they are trying to do, but may not get much benefit or reward from it. If they are more ambitious, more interesting, they have a greater risk of failure – but will gain a greater benefit or advantage if they succeed. But there is also going to be some changes in plan as each character reacts to what has gone before, and players are sometimes unpredictable, so you can never be sure when you start what will happen. It takes only seconds for the battle to take on a direction and life of its own. I revise the action rota as I go, based on who is in the best position to react to whatever has just happened, bearing in mind the basic guidelines.

However you do it, the first decision is always who to throw the spotlight on first.


Once you know who the first character to act is going to be, next you need to decide what they are going to try and accomplish while the spotlight is on them.

What is reasonable?

Once you know what they are trying to accomplish, you can decide whether or not their current share of the spotlight is enough to see that task to the point of resolution, the alternative being for them to start it/continue it and get back to them the next time around. It’s also necessary at this point to start thinking about whether or not what they are attempting is reasonable at all; if it’s not, and I think the character is aware enough to realize that, I will let them start and then inform the player that they may have bitten off more than they can chew, giving them a clear choice to consider before their next spotlight time of whether they want to continue, or want to try something else.

Allowing For Conditions

You always have to make allowance for conditions. Often, the game mechanics serve as a checklist of sorts, a safety net that is no longer available to you; that makes it doubly important that you keep mental track of the combat situation at all times, and factor the current circumstances into your assessment of what is reasonable and what isn’t.

Part of those circumstances is the mental “trend indicator”; when things are going your way, difficult and challenging tasks can seem easy, and when things are going against you, even simple tasks can be too hard.

Unacceptable Narrative

While analyzing the stated intention of the character, I always have part of my attention focused on how I can describe both what is being attempted, what success or failure will “look” like, and what the consequences will be. This is because there’s not much that’s worse than waiting patiently for your turn of the spotlight only for the story to be “You’re still doing [X]” and the GM moving on to the next character. It’s not enough simply to “check in” on the character and signpost a continuing activity; this is unacceptable narrative. Each time you check in on the character, you want to be able to describe in specifics what they have done and what remains to do. You need to advance their “subplot” to a substantial degree before moving on to the next character.

When characters try too hard

Sometimes players will try to be general about what they are doing, either to get a large task done in one “hit” or because they don’t want to bog down in minutia. “I get the Grav-sled running”, or “I take out all the stormtroopers” or “I rescue the hostages”. When this happens, you have to give the player a direct choice – start task X knowing that they won’t get it finished in this “operating round”, or break the task down into a series of smaller bites. If the player chooses the first, and they have not specified how they are going to achieve the task, you can either prompt them for details of how they intend to go about it (unless you already know) or they have to accept your interpretation of how they will go about achieve their goal.


One thing that can quickly become confused in Cinematic Combat is where everybody is, and this can lead to colossal misjudgments. Not only should the GM make clear anything that the PC needs to know in terms of who is where in the course of a pre-intentions narrative, but he should be particularly vigilant for such errors, and permit sensible changes of intentions where that’s appropriate.

To assist with this, I will sometimes use battlemaps and miniatures to show the situation as it develops, and sometimes use the quick pencil-and-paper maps that I described and demonstrated in By The Seat Of Your Pants: Adventures On the Fly. Everyone has enough to concentrate on already, so unless the situation is completely straightforward and certain to stay that way these are just as useful in cinematic combat as they are at any other time.

Succeed Or Fail

Once I’ve got my head around what people are trying to do, and what the current circumstances are, I will determine whether or not they succeed or fail based on the relative difficulty of what they are attempting and the current trend indication – unless the task is going to take longer than this slice of spotlight time, in which event I will describe how far they have gotten and any problems or unexpected successes along the way.

  • “You get the first tumbler more easily than you expected, and have moved on to the second, which is proving a little harder; the lock is old and corroded internally, and this one seems rusted into place – either that, or you haven’t hit the sweet spot yet with your lock-picks.”
  • “With a splutter and a cough, the engine roars into life before it again coughs and cuts out. A cloud of thick black smoke erupts from the tailpipe and you smell the scent of gasoline. Running back to the vehicle’s cabin, you advance the choke a little further before returning to the crank and again grasp the handle firmly, preparing for a second attempt.”
  • “You tear pages out of the book five and ten at a time, throwing the sensitive data into the fire. It’s touch-and-go whether or not you’ll be finished before your position is overrun.”
  • “You leap from the second-story landing and reach out for the chandelier, grabbing hold of it firmly and swinging across the room. A creak from the timbers to which it is secured sends shivers down your spine, it’s a long way down. Carefully you check the angle of your swing and begin to adjust it to let you leap onto the fleeing courier before he reaches the door. At the last possible moment, you release your grasp and hurtle through the air! Meanwhile…”

That last “Meanwhile…” is a very important cue; that, and other similar phrases, indicate that the spotlight has moved on, and you’ll get back to the player the next time it’s his character’s turn to act.

Effects & Consequences

The other thing that the above examples also demonstrated was how to present the effects and consequences of the action, complete or not, and of success or failure. There are three possible statuses of a task: Success (so far), Failure (so far), and Continuing, too soon to tell. This status should be made clear by the narrative you provide.


Unless they are completely unaware of it, other characters involved in the combat should react to the success or failure, possibly amending their intended but unstated actions as a result.

Next, please

With that character’s action complete for this period of spotlight time, move on to the next. If the outcome of the last action significantly changed the circumstances, those characters who have not yet had their current turn in the spotlight act, but usually not in the order I initially determined; instead, I will rank those eligible according to their capability to react to the changed situation. This often means whoever is closest to the character who has just succeeded, then whoever is next closest, and so on.

Use “Off-camera” to your dramatic advantage

I often think of myself as a television or movie director when running Cinematic Combat, thinking about how best to show the course of events in a suitably dramatic fashion. This prompts me to use “off-camera” strategically.

For example, Character A begins to negotiate with an NPC for his assistance. So far as the player of the character is concerned, this action is unresolved; but before he gets his next action, the NPC with whom he was negotiating appears on the field of combat, the PC in tow. Clearly, the character has succeeded, but rather than actually showing the moment of success, I reveal the result by way of the consequences.

And so the pattern continues until the combat reaches a decisive conclusion.

An Even More Extreme Option

Cinematic Combat doesn’t have to stop there. You can compress events still more by having each PC declare what they are trying to do next all at the same time and then interpreting the trend as an indicator of the group’s overall success/failure; that means that on a more-or-less even value, roughly 50% of what they try will work and 50% won’t, and for every cataclysmic failure thrown in by the GM to liven things up, someone else will have an equally stupendous success.

In many ways, this is the easiest form of cinematic combat, despite the need for some closer attention to prep (as previously described). The conflict is distilled into a straightforward us-vs-them tug-of-war, or at least to something for which that is a metaphor! Things update for everyone all at once, smothering bureaucratic delays. You can even nuance in some acknowledgement that one character has more actions/attacks than others by letting them do a little more – remember, the mechanics are still there, they have simply been hidden behind a curtain that conveniently obscures them, some more than others.

And, to be honest and up-front about it, this is the variant of cinematic combat that I employ most frequently. Simple, robust, and direct – the players tell me what their PCs are trying to do, I decide what the NPCs are trying to do, and we roleplay for a bit. What could be simpler?

Cinematic Combat: The Wrap-up

Cinematic Combat is not something to be apprehensive about; it’s a tool that should be in every GM’s toolkit. When applied sparingly and at appropriate times, it can greatly benefit an adventure and a campaign. This series has hopefully given readers the instruction needed to do so with confidence and success!


Image courtesy of

This article wraps up the series on Cinematic Combat, but just as importantly, it celebrates the milestone that was announced a couple of weeks ago – Yesterday at about 1:45 PM local time, Campaign Mastery received it’s 1,000,000th page view!

This Blog would not exist without its readers, so on behalf of everyone whose words have been published here, I offer my sincere thanks!! The next milestone: 7th Birthday, 750 posts, and Xmas 2015 – all at about the same time!

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Traditional Interpretations and Rituals Of Culture


From time to time, I post thoughts on various subjects to twitter using the hashtag “#Musing”.

I did just that a little while back – and then thought some more about what I had written and realized there were game implications/applications.

The tweet said, “Traditions become empty when the meaning behind them is forgotten. We don’t teach enough relevance to create reverence.”

Every culture in an RPG should have traditions, and in most cases, the meaning behind them has been long-forgotten, so it is deemed acceptable to simply create a fictional tradition without regard to its significance – Invent something and move on.

This is incredibly short-sighted, neglecting an opportunity to deliver background and verisimilitude in the one sugar-coating.

The players, too, will be used to empty ceremonies and meaningless rituals – and to ignoring them if they are inconvenient. All it takes is an NPC to take the PCs to task for ignoring the tradition – and then to explain the meaning. If the information subsequently proves relevant (and all the game history that you deliver to the players should be relevant at some point), then you can bet that the players will never take ritual, ceremony, and tradition in your games for granted again.

Instead, these will become recognized as “GM Code” for “relevant briefing material” – all you have to do is describe something as “traditional” and the players will want to look into it, unless they are totally overconfident in their abilities to cope with anything you might throw at them. In other words, they ignore this “GM Code” at their own peril, because you’re offering them a hint.

After all, the GM has done the fair thing and made the essential information available to them; they have chosen to ignore it. He is thus totally justified in taking full advantage of their ignorance – which will only remind them of the lesson in future. That means assuming that the players have taken the hint on-board when balancing the encounter.

So, what do you need to know in order to take advantage of the opportunity this principle offers?

Process Overview

As with a lot of campaign and adventure planning, it’s easier to start at the end result desired and work backwards. In this case, that essentially means deciding on the encounter which will showcase the significance of your tradition, then designing a tradition to be relevant to that encounter, designing a historical significance for the tradition to hold, creating one or more ways of celebrating the tradition, and then applying the gauzy web of confusion and lost history to those practices that obscure the original meaning. Finally, it’s always good to look for other ways that the event being commemorated by the tradition might have influenced the present day. The result is a rich campaign element with immediate relevance. And the best part is that since every society has traditions, this technique can strengthen any campaign, regardless of genre.

A note on modern-day settings
That being said, modern-day settings pose an extra challenge: we all live in the modern world and already know many of the traditions, even if we don’t know the significance.

There are three solutions to this problem:

  • First, apply the technique to cultures and societies other than the one in which the players live, giving you a little additional freedom to play around with things;
  • second, for traditions you are introducing to the society in which everyone lives, make them deliberately limited and local – a great example being the presidential tradition of pardoning the turkey at Thanksgiving – which makes it more obscure and more likely that the players/PCs won’t have come across it, lending it verisimilitude; and
  • third, also for traditions affecting the society your players all know, do some research on obscure and forgotten traditions which you can resurrect and re-purpose. Unfortunately, this may not be as easy as it sounds – I was unable to find a comprehensive website dedicated to the subject, so I suspect that you will need a host of better-targeted searches, or to spend a lot more time on it than I was able to.


This isn’t the encounter in which the PCs learn of the tradition or its meaning, this is the encounter when the tradition’s relevance is important. As such, it’s important for there to be some obscure little quirk about the encounter that the tradition can focus on.

I don’t know about you, but I always assume that my players know the Monster Manual (or equivalent) backwards, forwards, and sideways – especially the quirks, strengths, and vulnerabilities of the listed creatures. I usually get around that by importing creatures from other, similar sources, and by adding my own little twists to creatures to create variations and sub-varieties that the players have never heard of.

A great example are the five varieties of Troll in my Fumanor campaign:

  • Common “Green” Trolls – these are as listed in the Monster Manual. Green Trolls only inhabit foothills and lowlands; they have a limited ability to cope with the slightly-lower atmospheric pressures at altitude.
  • Two-headed Trolls – Green trolls reproduce by a process of fission that starts at the head and proceeds through the body. At the same time as the the second head is forming, but before it achieves self-awareness, a second arm sprouts on one side, creating a two-headed, three-armed monstrosity that is twice as strong (+10 to STR) as normal trolls. Because of the fission process, these trolls are somewhat less well-protected than the usual (-5 to AC) but the same process hyper-accelerates their regenerative capabilities (twice as fast) and adds to their vitality (+10 CON, double hit dice) making these the most dangerous trolls of all.
  • Blue Trolls – Trollish regeneration is inhibited by wound cauterization and flame damage. During the Godswar, when certain mages sought to become gods and created new species of life to demonstrate their divinity, one made the mistake of producing an ice-loving flame-retardant variety of troll. Blue Trolls do cold damage with their touch (in addition to the normal); they regenerate more slowly, but are relatively strongly armored, and are almost-totally immune to fire damage. They inhabit snow-topped mountain peaks and other exceptionally cold locations; in winter, they will occasionally roam into inhabited regions. The PCs have never encountered them, but legends of Blue-white trolls made of ice persist and resurface every year. They have become bogeymen with which to scare children, and in some parts, it is now customary to hang a side of beef in the barn, just in case.
  • Black Trolls – A rare variant on the Green Troll with Black Skin, these trolls are smaller than normal and quite intelligent, though filled with malice. Their regenerative capabilities are compromised relative to other Trolls, and they are unable to reproduce alone; they need to capture a Green Troll who is about to divide and “infect” the newly-forming troll with “The Black Trait”. Green Trolls, left to their own devices, would kill the Black Offspring, but when threatened and confined, the mitosis will not mature; the Green Troll diverts physical resources into its own survival/escape. So the Black Troll has to stalk its’ “prey” throughout the gestation period, then overcome a far larger and stronger Troll to rescue the “newborn” Black Troll before it is too late. Black trolls have one other major advantage over Green Trolls; they are not susceptible to the lung weakness of the Green, and in fact prefer mountains as habitats. They cannot abide the cold, and hibernate through winter in the same manner as bears.
  • Gold Trolls – The rarest variety of troll, and the least intelligent of them all. When a troll is killed by a Dragon, and the corpse exposed to Dragon’s Blood, it resurrects into a strange form of Undead. Their skin develops a metallic yellow tone, and their regenerative capabilities are halved – but unlike most types of undead, even after being “destroyed” by turning, they recover, as the lost regenerative ability is directed toward “healing” the effects of being Turned. To date, no-one has discovered a means to permanently kill a Gold Troll. NB: The PCs have never encountered this variety of Troll, as they have not yet come into existence; they are one of the building blocks that have been put in place for a planned sequel campaign to the One Faith and Seeds Of Empire campaigns. Nor have I revealed all of the secrets that I have put into these creatures!

So the first stage is to develop the encounter that will give purpose to the tradition, from the PCs point of view, and you want that encounter to be as interesting and memorable as possible. You’re going to be hanging a lot off it, so it’s worth investing some extra time in getting the details right.

This is also the most critical decision of the whole process. If this choice is poorly made, it undermines the value of the entire encounter; instead of adding depth it will emphasize superficiality. This technique provides a vehicle to convey depth and make the campaign setting and background directly relevant to the daily lives of the PCs; don’t waste it. Choose an encounter that adds depth and meaning to the campaign, or that connects to subjects of significance.


The encounter should have lasting significance. A great example is the Gold Troll mentioned above; the mere discovery of them and their characteristics will pose a serious threat to the future of the campaign world. When first encountered, these will be like Terminators – you can slow them down, you can inconvenience and hinder them, but they will – not – stop. But an equally-valid example was the players’ first encounter with a Black Troll; they were nowhere near as wary of it as they should have been, but it lacked the campaign-changing ultimate significance that the Gold Trolls will have; it simply expanded the scope of the campaign.

The significance doesn’t have to be in the nature of the participants, of course. An encounter can be meaningful for all sorts of reasons; that’s just the easiest one to work with. Last week’s article referred to “The Pandorica Opens“, an episode of the fifth season of the rebooted Dr Who series, and that entire season and the mystery of the Pandorica and the “crack in time” that is a recurring motif within the season is a great example of how to build a significant element into your plots that isn’t about a creature type. We hear about the Pandorica in the first episode, but everyone’s attention was then diverted onto the crack in time, a plot element that became increasingly significant as the season progressed. Only in the aforementioned episode does the Pandorica re-enter the plot, when it is revealed that the crack in time is about to destroy the universe, and the Pandorica is a trap carefully devised for the Doctor, who is blamed for the problem.

As an aside, you may be tempted to read up on how the Doctor solves the problem, if you haven’t seen the series. Don’t bother with the wikipedia page on the final episode of the season; it has about as useless and confusing a synopsis of that final episode as it is possible to imagine. Entirely factual, there’s nothing actually incorrect, its just virtually incoherent unless you’ve just watched the episode. Instead, use the more comprehensive and far more comprehensible plot description at Tardis Data Core if you’re interested.


Once you know the events that will make the tradition significant, and you have decided on what that significance is going to be, the next step is to connect the significance to a prior event in the campaign history – preferably one that already exists, but insert one if you have to (provided it doesn’t conflict with what’s already been established, of course).

The Blue Trolls described above are a great example, because of the way they tie in with the Gods’ War and the Hubris of the Mages (if you want to know more about those events in the Campaign History, click on An Introduction to the Orcs and Elves series part 3 and search the article for “The Age Of Ambitions”).

But it doesn’t have to be about the origins of a species. It could be about the legendary first appearance of a variety of creature, or the historical motives for something to be built or created, or even how it was that the society of the time had the capability of building that something in the first place. Or it could be about the last time a species demonstrated atypical behavior – if that atypical behavior is what the encounter is all about.

These are the events that are going to inspire the tradition, so it’s important that the historical end of the story is something to commemorate or something to cause an ongoing response that can in time become traditional, the significance forgotten.

A key decision to be made is how much time is needed for the relevance to fade into obscurity; I have to admit to fudging on this quite a lot. Sometimes I have ruled that a century is long enough, other times hundreds of years or millennia are needed. Considerations include the nature of events, the lifespan of the populations involved, and what has happened in between. I’ll use any convenient date that is even marginally plausible if necessary, and suggest that you do the same; but the less you have to assume that things get “conveniently forgotten”, the better. It’s sometimes helpful to think of time in terms of “generations” instead of years:

  • One Generation: Parents have first-hand experience of events, so rarely plausible unless the truth of events can plausibly be held as a state secret.
  • Two Generations: Surviving Grandparents, and Parents who were only children at the time, have first-hand experience of events – so unless intervening events have decimated the population, this is still only marginally plausible.
  • Three Generations: Surviving Great-Grandparents have first-hand experience of events, and so do Grandparents who were young children at the time will do too, and surviving parents and grandparents will have been told first-hand stories. This is on the verge of plausibility, but still pushing it unless intervening events or “state secrets” can be used to enhance the verisimilitude of the proposal.
  • Four Generations: Grandparents would have received first-hand accounts from their Grandparents, but those will probably be getting vague by this point. The very very elderly might have been very young at the time, so first-hand accounts would still be available – but increasingly uncommon. If the events were significant enough or striking enough, the story would still be remembered and commemorated, so this is acceptable for some choices but quite implausible for others.
  • Five Generations: Now begins the slide into legend; sometime between this point and the previous generation mark, the last of those who heard the story first-hand will have died, leaving only second-hand accounts. And anyone who played “Chinese Whispers” (with apologies to anyone who finds the term offensive) as a child will know how reliable they can be. Leaving a buffer to ensure credibility, this marks the point at which im-plausibility begins to end. And, at the usual human rate of 20 years to a generation, this is a century since the event.

Creating The Tradition

It was during a church service that I first began to understand symbolism in a detailed way (it was for a funeral, I think). Unlike every other such service that I had attended, the priest took the time at each stage in the service to explain why people stood, or sat, or knelt, and how it reflected the relationship between worshiper and deity at that particular moment. In other words, he explained the symbolism, and the lesson stuck with me.

Every tradition is, or contains elements that are, symbolically representative of the events being captured or commemorated by the tradition. There is, in other words, a kernel of meaning. The tradition may be directly representative, a metaphor, allegorical, or may simply be suggestive through circumstance.

There’s a fine line to walk; you need the connection between the tradition and its relevance to be obscure, so that players can’t pre-empt the plot, and yet for the relationship to become obvious and completely natural in hindsight once the secret is revealed. You certainly don’t want it to feel tacked on, forced, or artificial in any way, or the players will feel like they are being manipulated and the game is unfair.

Historical Breakdown

The place to start is to break the original event down into key narrative elements. Each should consist of only one specific action by someone; tell the story in bullet-point form. At the same time, you don’t have a huge number of these bullet-points to play with; between three and six, no more. To make this possible, you need to identify the one action that represents the broader picture of what was happening at the time, that symbolizes it.

Most of the time, your historical breakdown will closely resemble a basic pattern that you will have seen time after time without realizing it:

  • Establish the circumstances
  • Establish the villainy of the enemy (Villainous action)
  • Establish the virtue of the heroes (Heroic action)
  • Villainous action (Setback)
  • Heroic action
  • Resolution (result of Heroic Action)

The obvious repetition in the above list makes it obvious how to reduce it to a four-element pattern; you simplify the conflict to one Villainous Action and a Heroic response:

  • Establish the circumstances
  • Establish the villainy of the enemy (Villainous action)
  • Establish the virtue of the heroes (Heroic response)
  • Resolution (result of Heroic Action)

The same pattern can be adapted to traditions that are not conflict-based; instead of “villainous actions” you have “challenges”.

  • Establish the circumstances
  • The challenge
  • The Heroic response
  • Challenge (Setback)
  • Heroic response
  • Resolution (result of Heroic Action)

Sometimes you can combine heroic action and resolution (the last two items) and/or circumstances and challenge (the first two items), and by skipping the set & heroic action response, you get down to three elements.

  • The challenge (including circumstances)
  • The Heroic response
  • Resolution (result of Heroic Action)

The symbolism of the tradition begins to define the tradition’s interpretation in modern times. You want the original form of the tradition to symbolize the events being commemorated, and even to tell the story of what happened, one symbolic reference at a time. The technique is to translate each individual bullet point into an object (the symbol) and an action. Where possible, objects should be reused.

The more layers of meaning you can incorporate into the object, the better. Color, form, construction material – they are all important. An object made of Maple-wood can symbolize both the source, and the culture, and the object itself (I don’t know about you, but I hear “Maple” and think “Canada”). Your game cultures will probably not have such an immediate correlation in the minds of the players, but you can prepare the ground for your tradition by choosing and establishing national symbols in advance – and this helps establish the unique identity of that culture in the first place.

The action should be symbolic of the action that takes place in the historical anecdote. Something raised overhead can symbolize belligerence, or triumph; something pointed to the left and then the right can symbolize being trapped into a course of action; something being touched to the lips can symbolize love, or commitment, or passion, or loyalty. There are thousands of possibilities.

This is one part of the tradition construction process where blank page syndrome can definitely be a factor. Once you have one idea, many others will usually come to mind in a maelstrom of creativity; but getting that first idea can be harder than choosing between many alternatives. If you get stuck, I have advice on dealing with the problem in part one of my series on writer’s block.

Readers may find these links of use in developing their symbolism:

Here’s a real world example: The Romans believed that Wedding Rings should be worn on the third finger of the left hand, because a vein from that finger runs directly to the heart. Thus, a ring on that finger symbolizes love. If your historical event ends with two lovers being united against the odds, or if that can be symbolic of the victory or achievement, then the placing of a ring on the ring finger of another can represent the success/outcome of the historic story.


At this point you have a ritual involving one or more objects and multiple actions. The next step is to obscure the connection to the original story by compromising the symbolic elements. There are two ways of going about this: the generalization of details, and the rise of alternative interpretations from these generalized elements.

An important principle to bear in mind while obscuring the tradition is that the part can be representative of the whole. What is an elaborate ritual can shed elements until all that remains is an irreducible core of the original. It’s as though you were taking a story told in six bullet points and boiling it down into a single (vastly oversimplified) sentence.

Start by working on a copy of your bullet-points that omits all references to the original events; it should consist of nothing more than the objects and actions. Replace the objects with the most generic form that still permits the actions to take place. Then eliminate any specific details within the actions, leaving only the most general and broad statements except for those in one of the actions. This, more detailed, action will become the centerpiece of future versions and reinterpretations of the tradition.

How do you choose which one? That’s a little trickier; it should be the one that most strongly represents the one-line summary of the historical story (for all we know, there was originally an elaborate ritual that accompanied the placing of a ring on a finger. Those were eroded away, one by one, and others – such as the husband-to-be getting down on one knee to propose – took their place. It’s known to have happened with other traditions and rituals, why should that one be an exception?)


Once you have obscured the tradition with layers of generality, the next step is to create as many alternative interpretations of the tradition as you can. One of these should be relevant to the modern society of the campaign, giving a reason for the tradition to have survived into the modern era. The best two or three of the other interpretations should also give rise to related traditions; the connection between them might be obscure or obvious.

For example, there is an obvious connection between the giving of engagement rings and the giving of wedding rings, and both are thematically connected to the concept of commitment – but the Engagement Ring originated relatively recently in 1477 when Archduke Maximilian of Austria presented one to his beloved, Mary of Burgundy. Of course, marriage is full of symbolic representations of commitment, second only to traditions symbolizing purity or wishes for fertility. For example, the “Something blue” in the tradition that starts “Something old, something new” also has this meaning, while the “Something new” from the same verse is supposed to symbolize a commitment to the new life together over the old.

I have been told – but have been unable to verify – that the tradition of West Point awarding their graduates class rings, which started in 1835, was intended to be symbolic of the new Officer’s commitment to the ideals and obligations of Military Service. As a theory, this makes perfect sense to me, and if true, it obviously relates to the tradition of the wedding ring. Certainly discussions on the history of class rings and wedding rings both refer back to the traditions of the ancient Egyptians (who believed that the circle or ring was symbolic of eternity, because it was without end), and to the Roman Empire.

It is even possible that the first wedding ring was actually an Officer’s Ring, and that it was given to the bride as symbolizing her conquest of the officer’s heart – that’s just romanticized speculation on my part, mind you, but it does tie the traditions and histories of both together in a plausible way.

Getting back to the subject at hand, You need these alternative relevancies because you want the players to be introduced to the tradition completely separately to the true relevance being revealed, and these give you a way to do so.


The penultimate stage in creating your tradition is to take your traditions (as they now stand) and refine them. Modify and tweak the specifics of the ritual to represent specifically and clearly each of the interpretations. Discard elements that don’t fit that interpretation. You can change any detail, go from generalization to a specific – it doesn’t have to be the specific that you started with; once again, use symbolism to guide you. Most traditions evolve over time, and what you want to do is evolve your tradition from its base in each of the directions you chose in the previous step.

Once you have clarified the rituals, it’s time to put fresh spins on them using your campaign background. There are two ways that the background can apply:

  1. Your tradition can blend with an existing tradition or celebration of an event prior to the incident that sparked it; many of the traditions of Christmas started that way.
  2. Alternatively, a new event may come along and usurp the tradition, creating new connotations and associations.

As a general rule of thumb, one interpretation will be forgotten by all but the best educated and the strongest traditionalists; one will find a new relevance; and one will tap into a broader relevance, becoming just one of several traditions around that theme. Think of all the traditions we associate with weddings – everything from the throwing of rice to the groom being forbidden to see the bride before the ceremony to the wearing of white to the wedding cake, and that’s without any of the things that I’ve mentioned already in this article. Each of these traditions evolved separately, though each may have originated with a specific marriage, and then became a part of the whole, evolving to integrate with the existing traditions that go with the common circumstance.

Introducing The Traditions

Having designed your tradition, and the various forms that it has degenerated into, the next thing that you need to do – if you can – is to introduce one or more of the corrupted traditions to the players, along with part of the story of that tradition, or an explanation of the symbology.

One of the reasons for having three corrupted traditions is to give you flexibility to match an appropriate in-game event to one of them. Of course, if you can manage to insert more than one, so much the better. On top of this, you also need to bring in the uncorrupted tradition, though the significance – as discussed earlier – has been long forgotten. This is all groundwork for when the real story emerges to provide a vital clue to the PCs.

Note that these events don’t have to directly involve a PC, making the task a lot easier. For example, if one of the traditions survives as a funerary ritual, any reason to get the PCs to a funeral is enough to expose them to the ritual; it might be that they need to speak to one of those in attendance, for example, or that someone picks a pocket and then runs through the funeral rites in an attempt to escape – with one or more PCs in hot pursuit.

In fact, as a general rule of thumb, it’s better to underplay the incident as just another random bit of color – just distinctive and significant enough to be memorable without being overly important. You don’t want your players making soup out of these particular bones if you can help it.

Using The Real Tradition

This should be relatively straightforward, because you have built the entire structure around making the real meaning of the tradition relevant to an in-game event. In fact, the hardest part is avoiding the threefold dangers:

  • telegraphing the plot;
  • getting caught up on a plot train; and
  • jumping too quickly or too slowly.

But these are always dangers to be avoided. If that’s the worst that you have to deal with, it should be smooth sailing.

I couldn’t resist one final example:

One of my first articles at Campaign Mastery was A Quality Of Spirit – Big Questions in RPGs, in which I advocate answering the big questions during campaign creation – what is life, what is the soul, what is magic, how does the afterlife work, and other such questions. A new “monster” that I have described below gets into the heart of several of these questions, making them of immediate life-and-death relevance to PCs that may encounter them:

Empowered Spirits:
Tradition: Jewelery and other personal property belonging by innocents who suffer violent deaths at the hands of another should be blessed by a cleric and then donated to the church; under no circumstances should they be returned to the families of the slain.

Why: Sometimes the souls of those wrongfully killed burn for revenge and find their way back to the world of the living. Most times, these return as Ghosts of limited power, usually within 3 days of death, but sometimes they get lost along the way. And sometimes those lost souls wander into one of the prime material planes and absorb some of the essence of that plane, gaining power vastly beyond those of ordinary ghosts. This matters little if the vengeful spirits do not eventually find their way to the Prime Material Plane, but the memories of the slain prompted by their personal property serve as beacons to eventually guide those Empowered Spirits home, months or even years later. Empowered Spirits cannot be permanently destroyed or turned so long as the focus that drew them back remains whole; with memories that have faded during their sojourn, they usually lash out at everyone they encounter, though if their wanderings consumed only months, their targets may match the general parameters of their killer in some specific respect. They might all be blond, or all Military Officers, or all tall and lean, or have some behavioral trait in common.

The additional powers possessed by Empowered Spirits vary according to the planes visited; as a rule of thumb, one additional power or additional dice of power per month, with an initial amount of three dice.

  • Earth: Pick up and throw stones at a distance, open pits beneath the feet, no need to breathe, shape earth, earth to rock, pass through walls, meteor swarm.
  • Air: Discorporate and re-incorporate at will, flight, transform air into poisonous gas, create a void in the air, explode lungs with a touch.
  • Fire: Flaming touch, immunity to fire, ability to throw fire, fireball.
  • Water: Drown with a touch, travel from one source of water large enough to contain a human to another eg barrels, shape water into solid limbs, attack from several different places at once, turn any source of water into a weapon.
  • Positive Energy: Shocking Touch, Lightning Bolt, Raise undead, restore healed wounds from the past, posses the living
  • Negative Energy: Wither limbs, Steal healing from those around (regeneration, loss of healing persists for 48 hours). cloud minds, control undead, control higher undead, Confuse enemies.

In addition, Deities of revenge and justice will sometimes shelter and aid Empowered Spirits, granting them clerical spells as though they were a cleric of level equal to their Hit Dice.

All Empowered Spirits also receive the characteristics, benefits and abilities of “standard” Ghosts.

Comments (3)

Cinematic Combat Part 2 – Damage Mechanics


HDCAM by Julien Boulanger (Bereflex). Unfortunately, the website that provided it no longer has a functioning messaging system that I can use to thank him and advise of the use of this image.

While merging all the tactical and attack mechanics into a single die roll, as described in part one, can greatly speed combat, there’s no reason to stop there. The next part of the combat sequence involves doing damage and may also require recording any losses of characteristics used in the attack if the system tracks endurance consumption.

There are many more variations in damage mechanic than there are attack mechanic.

  • The D&D / Pathfinder mechanic is relatively straightforward: you roll damage according to your weapon type and stats – per successful attack – and taking into account any successful critical hits.
  • Some Systems track an endurance cost for each successful attack.
  • Some Systems subtract an amount from the damage that represents the protection afforded by armor.
  • Some Systems track more than one kind of damage. Most commonly, one type represents Stun or Shock damage, and another represents physical harm.
  • The Hero system tracks all of these, and adds a couple of further wrinkles: damage gets recovered after every turn, which represents a number of actions determined by the characters speed stat; there is a power that reduces the damage taken to a percentage of that inflicted; the two types of damage are not rolled separately, but are based on different ways of counting the same die rolls; there are two different defense scores, one for physical attacks and one for energy attacks. On top of all that, there are attack forms such as Mind Control that bypass all of this, and do no direct damage at all, instead comparing the ratio of damage done to a stat of the target.

That makes it far harder to create a single process that is one-size-fits-all. Not impossible – just harder.

1. Effect

In fact, to make it work, there’s a concept that you need to wrap your head around, which I’ve labeled “Effect”. It doesn’t matter what the significance or nature of the damage roll is, or if it’s multiple dice or just one, or any of the other complications; either I’ll deal with them specifically as part of the process described below, or they get wrapped up in this nice little bundle called “Effect”.

“Effect”, then, could be 2d6+12 (a D&D/Pathfinder damage reference) or 5d6 Ranged Killing attack with Armor Piercing costing 15 Endurance (Hero System) or 12d6 Mind Control costing 24 Endurance (another Hero System reference) or a 16d6 Fireball (another D&D/Pathfinder Reference) or whatever. Effect is the fundamental definition of the “damage” roll, as it exists within the normal game mechanics.

I’m going to use a relatively straightforward Pathfinder example to highlight the process. The base effect is d8+6, representing a Medium-sized target, a +2 Longsword, and a character with 18 Strength (+4 modifier).

I’m further going to assume that we’re talking about a 12th level fighter, who therefore gets three attacks in a combat round.

The Effect is therefore d8+6.

2. The N Factor

The second stage of the process is to assess and analyze “the N factor”. Part of the abbreviation process for attack rolls was combining multiple attacks into one – whether that’s an entire turn’s worth (Hero System) or because the system inherently gives multiple attempts to hit to characters (D&D/Pathfinder, for example). This is where we take that into account by simply multiplying the base Effect by the N factor – but it isn’t the only time that we have to use this value, so jot it down.

Our example character gets three attacks in a round, so the N factor is three. We care not one bit that they have different chances of success – that’s something that would have been taken into account in the Attack Roll stage.

The total effect is therefore 3 x (d8+6) or 3d8+18.

3. Effect Barrier

The Effect Barrier is any defense that has to be deducted from Effect “rolled”, multiplied by the N factor (because the Barrier has to be overcome with each attack, and the net Effect represents multiple attacks when the N factor is anything but 1.

Pathfinder doesn’t subtract defense from damage, it reduces the chances of an attack being effective – and that’s built into the attack stage. So the Effect Barrier in this case is zero.

For the sake of argument, I could suggest that the character possesses a magical shield or something of some sort that absorbs the first four points of damage from an attack, in which case the Effect Barrier would be 4. Just to have a name to hang this benefit from, let’s call it an Absorbency. Taking the N factor of 3 into account, Absorbency would yield an Effect Barrier of 12.

4. Effect Minimum

So: calculate the minimum “effect” that can be achieved after the N factor is taken into account, less the Effect Barrier. This is the minimum effective effect that can actually make a difference.

The lowest that you can roll on a d8 is a 1, so the lowest result on 3d8 is obviously 3. Adding 18 and subtracting the Effect Barrier of zero yields an Effect Minimum for our example of 21.

With the fictional “Absorbency” to take into account, the Effect Minimum would be 3+18-12, or 9.

5. Probable Effect Maximum

The damage-handling compression process that I have devised handles effect levels in two tiers, the upper tier being reserved for critical hit effect levels. This is the lower tier, i.e. the normal-hit effect. So, disregard any potential critical hit and simply calculate the normal maximum effect that the character can achieve, If there is a hit location system built into the game mechanics, identify the highest relevant effect multiplier and apply one-half plus HALF that amount. Then multiply by the N factor, and subtract the Effect Barrier, which should also be adjusted by the same hit location factor if hit location is relevant.

Okay, there’s a lot to demonstrate in this part of the process.

  • The straight Pathfinder “Core Example”: Without any critical hits being involved, the maximum you can get from 3d8+18-0 is 24+18 or 42.
  • With “Absorbency”: Without any critical hits being involved, the maximum from 3d8+18-12 is 24+6=30.
  • If the Pathfinder GM were using a House Rule based on the Hero System hit location chart, the highest modifier would either be 2x damage (if based on the Body Damage results) or 5x damage (if based on the Stun Damage results). That yields a hit-location factor of x(0.5+1)=x1.5 or x(0.5+2.5)=x3. Folding this into the previous results gives:
    • No “Absorbency”, based on “Body”: 42×1.5=63, -0x1.5 = 63;
    • No “Absorbency”, based on “Stun”: 42×3=126, -0x3 = 126;
    • With “Absorbency”, based on “Body”: 42×1.5=63, -12×1.5 = 63-18 = 45;
    • With “Absorbency”, based on “Stun”: 42×3=126, -12×3 = 126-36 = 90.

Note that I don’t recommend either version of this House Rule, this is being used for illustrative purposes only! But if you did like the idea, I strongly recommend that this replace the normal critical hit system.

6. Absolute Effect Maximum

The absolute effect maximum is what happens when you do roll a (confirmed) critical, AND get the maximum benefit from any hit location, AND roll the absolute maximum damage that you can get.

Sticking with the same six examples:

  • Straight Pathfinder: The base damage multiplier for a critical is x2. So that’s 2x(3d8+18)-0, or a maximum of 2x(24+18) or 84.
  • With “Absorbency”: 2x(3d8+18)-12 gives 2×24 + 2×18 – 12 = 48 + 26 – 12 = 74 – 12 = 62.
  • With Hit location:
    • No “Absorbency”, based on “Body”: 2x 42 x2 = 2x 84 = 168, -0x2 = 168;
    • No “Absorbency”, based on “Stun”: 2x 42 x5 = 5x 84 = 416, -0x3 = 416;
    • With “Absorbency”, based on “Body”: 2x 42 x2 = 2x 84 = 168, -12×2 = 168-24 = 144;
    • With “Absorbency”, based on “Stun”: 2x 42 x5 = 2x 210 = 420, -12×5 = 420-60 = 360.

One look at the numbers above should show why I don’t recommend this as a House Rule unless it’s replacing the existing critical hit system!

7. Probable & Absolute Effect Ranges

Damage is therefore defined as falling into one of two ranges: The Probable Effect Range, from Minimum Effect to Probable Effect Maximum, and the Absolute Effect Range, from Probable Effect Maximum to Absolute Effect.

I’m going back to ignoring the Hit Location options in the example, having demonstrated them in previous sections.

  • Straight Pathfinder:
    • Probable Effect Range: 21-42.
    • Absolute Effect Range: 42-84.
  • With “Absorbency”:
    • Probable Effect Range: 9-30.
    • Absolute Effect Range: 30-62.

But these are far more usefully written as a minimum plus a range:

  • Straight Pathfinder:
    • Probable Effect Range: 21 + 0-21.
    • Absolute Effect Range: 42 + 0-42.
  • With “Absorbency”:
    • Probable Effect Range: 9 + 0-21.
    • Absolute Effect Range: 30 + 0-32.

8. Non-Linear Curve Correction

To be practical, we want to map the range of results against a flat probability curve, so that we can apply the results at the greatest possible speed. This means that our simulation of the normal combat mechanics will be inaccurate if a single attack requires multiple dice to be rolled.

The easiest way to adjust for that – and it can be quite significant if there are more than three or four dice of damage per attack that is being simulated – is to adjust the variation of results inward. That means raising the minimum and lowering the range. The question is, by how much?

If you want to be technical, the range should be defined by the most probable 80% or 90%. You could use probability to calculate it, but that sounds too much like work and isn’t the ultra-fast and responsive result that we want. So here’s a rough rule of thumb: for two or three dice, alter the range by 5%. For every dice after the third, and up to the seventh, alter the range by 5%. For the eighth up to the 11th, alter the range by 2%. From the 12th to the 18th, alter the range by 1%. If there are more than 18 dice in each attack – and it happens in the Hero System, especially with high-power characters – alter the range by 1% more.

Here’s a key step: You have to DOUBLE the range adjustment. Otherwise, the increase in the minimum will make up for the reduction in range (except for rounding errors).

In other words:

1 dice = no change.
2 dice = +5% minimum, 90% range.
3 dice = +5% minimum, 90% range.
4 dice = +5% minimum, 90% range.
5 dice = +10% minimum, 80% range.
6 dice = +15% minimum, 70% range.
7 dice = +20% minimum, 60% range.
8 dice = +22% minimum, 56% range.
9 dice = +24% minimum, 52% range.
10 dice = +26% minimum, 48% range.
11 dice = +28% minimum, 44% range.
12 dice = +29% minimum, 42% range.
13 dice = +30% minimum, 40% range.
14 dice = +31% minimum, 38% range.
15 dice = +32% minimum, 36% range.
16 dice = +33% minimum, 34% range.
17 dice = +34% minimum, 32% range.
18+ dice = +35% minimum, 30% range.

Round minimums down and ranges up, UNLESS that gives an odd number for the range, in which case do it the other way around.

In our example, we have three attacks each doing 1d8 plus something, and that has given us ranges of 21 + 0-21 and 42 + 0-42 (ignoring the “Absorbency” option. Let’s double that to three attacks doing 2d8 each, and then assume that all six d8s are from one attack – that still gives us a range of twice that shown, i.e. 42 + 0-42 and 84 + 0-84. Maybe it’s a spell and not a longsword.

6 dice = +15% minimum, 70% range – so the 42 + 0-42 becomes 49 + 0-28, and the 84 + 0-84 becomes 96 + 0-60.

Doing this accurately requires a calculator most of the time. Or you could simply guesstimate it based on the above percentages and keep going – which is what I would do.

9. Absolute Effect Midrange

For reasons that will shortly become clear, it’s required that we define the midpoint of the Absolute Effect Range. This isn’t necessarily the straightforward average; if there are more than one or two factors to take into account, if the ducks all have to line up in a row in order to achieve the absolute maximum, if there is additional damage that only happens on a critical hit, if – in D&D/Pathfinder terms – each critical has to be separately confirmed, the point that is roughly halfway through results by probability is going to be less than the simple average.

I don’t count simply rolling maximum on the damage dice; that’s what the damage abbreviation system is there to calculate.

The Bias Ratio Sum

As a general rule, the more things that have to go right, the smaller the fraction of the distance between the low point of the range and the high point of the range will be “middle probability”.

The “Bias Ratio Sum” is simply a fancy (but accurate) way of describing how far through the Absolute Effect Range the midpoint of probability will be located, and it’s actually really simple to calculate.


The important part is what’s on the underneath of the fraction. That is The Bias Ratio Sum, because it’s a total that gives the Bias Ratio.

If just one thing has to go right eg confirming a critical, the Bias Ratio Sum is 2.
If two things have to go right, the Bias Ratio Sum is 3.
If three things have to go right, the Bias Ratio Sum is 4.

The pattern should be clear: the number of things that have to go right, plus one.

To get the maximum, all three attacks have to be possible criticals, and each of those has to be confirmed. That’s actually 5 things that have to go right – the original critical roll (that’s assumed so it doesn’t count), the confirmation of that critical, and the two additional critical chances and confirmations, so in both examples, the Bias Ratio Sum is 6.

Numerator & Ratio

And the top part of the fraction is always a 1, unless there’s some re-roll or second-chance mechanism involved – in which case it’s 1 plus each additional chance. This can get a little more complicated than it seems, if the player has only one re-roll available for multiple rolls; if you have to handle this situation, the only way to get a usable value is to do one of two things:

  1. Work out the complete set of possible situations and assess their relative probability, in exactly the same way you would work out the results of 3d6 or 4d6; or,
  2. Fake it. Pick a number that seems about right.

The ratio is, obviously, numerator divided by denominator.

So, in our examples, the ratio is 1/6, since the denominator is 6 and the numerator is 1.

Calculating The Absolute Effect Midpoint

If there’s a range of 0 to whatever in the Absolute Range, then the absolute effect midpoint will be “Bias Ratio of the way through” that range. Which sounds a lot more complicated than it is. Just multiply the range by the fraction you’ve calculated and that’s the midpoint of probability, or close enough to it.

Quite often, you will have to decide how to round the result. I generally decide based on my reasons for choosing cinematic combat in the first place: if it’s to facilitate roleplay or skill activity against a combat background, I’ll round down; if it’s to enhance the drama of the encounter, I’ll round up; otherwise, I’ll round off.

  • Straight Pathfinder, Absolute Effect is 42 + 0-42, so the range is 0-42. 1/6th of the way through that range is 42/6 which equals 7. So the Range Midpoint is 42 + 7 = 49.
  • With “Absorbency”, the Absolute Effect is 30 + 0-32, so the range is 0-32. 1/6th of the way through that range is 32/6, or 5 1/3. For the sake of argument, I’ll assume that the combat is to be secondary to a player trying to solve a puzzle (a skill activity), and round down to 5. The Range Midpoint is 30 + 5 = 35.

10. Secondary Effect Types

While I’ve gone to a lot of trouble to explain what’s going on here, in practice – once you know what you’re doing – you can generally rattle off each number about as fast as you can write them down. Only once or twice is a calculator called for, and I’d guesstimate those numbers. Speed is more important than accuracy, as I’ll explain in a bit. I want to get the practical stuff out of the way, first.

It literally is just a matter of seconds. That means that it’s fast enough – when necessary – to repeat the process thus far for each type of effect that you need to track – whether that’s separate Stun and Body damage, or an Endurance cost, or whatever.

d10 or d12?

Ultimately, this replaces all the damage calculation with a single d10 or d12 roll. I’ll explain how in a moment.

Use a d10 if your game system doesn’t have critical hits. Use a d12 if it does.

Both D&D and Pathfinder definitely have critical hits, so in this case the choice would be a d12.

The d10 Range

Doing damage based on the d10 roll is really simple: roll a d10, multiply the result by one tenth of the adjusted Probable Effect Range (roughly), and add the Probable Effect Minimum.

The d12 Results

For results of 1 to 10, on the d12, simply multiply the result by one tenth of the adjusted Probable Effect Range (roughly), and add the Probable Effect Minimum, exactly as if you were rolling a d10. The result is not a critical hit.

13a. The 11 Result: Absolute Effect Midpoint

If the result on the d12 is an 11, the result is a critical hit doing the damage calculated as the Absolute Effect Midpoint. If you want a bit of variability, subtract 5 and add a d10, or use -10 and a d20, but I don’t usually bother.

13b. The 12 Result: Adjusted Absolute Maximum

If the result on the d12 is a 12, the result is a critical hit doing the damage calculated as the Absolute Maximum – as adjusted for multiple dice, if necessary. If you want a bit of variability, subtract 5 and add a d10, or use -10 and a d20, but I don’t usually bother.

The Underlying Philosophy

While this system for accelerating damage handling is grounded in the realities of the existing game mechanics, it is not a perfect simulation and doesn’t pretend to be. It is predicated on the principle that so long as both sides are utilizing the same mechanics, it doesn’t matter if there’s an approximation here or there, or the occasional inaccuracy; the system is still fair to both. Just thought I’d clear that up.

Going one step further

Of course, it’s possible to go even further. You could combine both the Cinematic Attack Roll and the determination of damage without too much difficulty. All you have to do is regard the margin of success as your d-whatever. If the damage process states a d12 is the right choice, i.e. you have critical hits to worry about, then the top two results – natural 19 and natural 20 – are treated as the 11 and 12 on the d12, otherwise the 20 is the same as rolling a 10 on the d10.

Of course, it would be absolutely astonishing if the range of success just happened to be 10 or 12, whatever is called for. It’s more likely to be 7 or 9 or 14 or something. So you may sacrifice some granularity – or you may gain some, but the odds are more the other way.

If your range of successful “hit” results is, say, 14, and you don’t need to allow for criticals, then it’s range times margin of success / number of possible “hit” results, i.e. 14. And a calculator is almost certainly needed.

And that’s the ultimate reason why I only rarely go to this extent. Why sacrifice everything you’ve gained by needing to pull out a calculator and use it?

The Advantage Gained

Ultimately, what this process does is define the minimum and maximum damage that can be achieved by a non-critical attack, make allowances for game mechanics, and then spread the range of damage between these extremes over a convenient linear scale after adjusting for what I described in the article on Attack Mechanics as the “non-linear probability hump”.

The scale of the advantage to be gained is dependent on the game mechanics being replaced; the more complex they are, the more the GM stands to gain. The Hero System, for example, is both the most complex game system to be simulated by this process, and the Game System that gives the greatest benefit from being streamlined.

Pathfinder, on the other hand, is far more typical. So, let’s tally up the gains and their cost using our example as a standard.

Three critical confirmations, three rolls of the damage dice, and six additions per combat round have been replaced with about six simple calculations that only have to be done once per combat. Let’s assume an average of 1 second to complete each of these tasks.

One combat round: 12 seconds vs 8 seconds.
Two combat rounds: 24 seconds vs 10 seconds.
Three combat rounds: 36 seconds vs 12 seconds.
Four combat rounds: 48 seconds vs 14 seconds.

Even at this freakishly fast pace, the trend is clear. But the reality is even more distinct: five-to-ten seconds for each action per combat round is probably closer to the mark even in a quick combat, while 1-2 seconds for each calculation remains fairly reasonable. And that’s per character. You ALWAYS roll a d20 to attack and a d10 for damage, so you may as well roll them both at the same time and simply ignore the damage if you miss. Yes, there is slightly more set-up time; but that is a one-time thing, or once per combat at most.

The Abstraction Of Damage

It’s far more challenging to abstract the damage part of the combat mechanic, but no less rewarding. The combination yields an enormous time saving, and enables combat to flow far more naturally, succinctly, and dynamically. The process may be more abstract, but the result is often a smaller gulf between action and consequence; battle feels more real because there is less of a wall dividing the visualization of action. Game mechanics may simulate reality, but they do so at arm’s length; cinematic combat is an action-movie roller-coaster in comparison.

Of course, part of that benefit exists purely through the contrast of pace between the abstracted mechanisms and the normal game system. You should always have a clear and compelling reason for choosing cinematic combat; overuse it and it will lose its mojo. But use these techniques in appropriate circumstances and you will be astonished at their effectiveness.

If abstracted mechanics bring combat closer to the players, would not no mechanics at all be the ultimate delivery vehicle for excitement? That’s the minefield that the final part of this series is going to walk right into…

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The Power Of The Question-mark in RPG Plotting


Here in Australia, there has recently been a confrontation between the media and politics within the courts in the form of the Treasurer, Joe Hockey, suing one of our newspapers for defamation over a story which appeared both in print and on their website, and two tweets promoting that story. The story alleged that Hockey was offering privileged access in return for party donations. The headline was “Treasurer For Sale”, and the offending tweets consisted of nothing more than that headline and a link to the story.

The outcome was something of a draw, and quite possibly, a pyrrhic victory. Hockey wanted damages of a million dollars plus; what he got was an award of $200,000 for the headline and the tweets, and nothing for the story. Furthermore, there has been the suggestion that since he lost the main part of his case, he will be stuck paying the majority of both sides’ legal fees, which will easily top the $1 million that he originally sought.

You can read more about the story and the judgment here and here (two transcripts from a television show about media issues and stuff-ups).

From the first that I heard of the case, I was struck by one thought, which has only been reinforced by the verdict and all the coverage that I have seen since. Hockey “won” (if you can call it that) because the headline was deemed to have alleged that he was corrupt. If only the editor of the newspaper had seen fit to place a question mark at the end of the headline, it’s entirely likely that Hockey would have lost on all counts.

After all, there’s a world of difference between a headline that simply states, “Treasurer For Sale”, and one that asks the question, “Treasurer For Sale?” – the first is an accusation, the second merely asks the question and leaves the reader to make up their own minds based on the evidence provided in the story.

That got me thinking about the power of the question-mark, and – everything that crosses my mind gets reviewed from a gaming perspective sooner or later – about the power of the question-mark in RPGs. In particular, when you put a Question-mark in your plans for an adventure, what can it denote? What might it represent?

The Unknown

The first thing you might use a ? to represent in an adventure is an unknown.

  • “? The player who moves first…” or,
  • “? The highest perception total notices…”,

for example. This represents a point of interface between PC capabilities or player choices and the way the adventure content will be shaped as a result.

The other thing that the adventure designer might use a ? to represent is something that he doesn’t know, even cannot know, at the time of drafting the adventure.

  • “? The last enemy standing…” or,
  • “? When half the soldiers have been defeated…”

As you can see, these are variations on the same theme, a way to build a variable into the adventure while keeping the structure of events nice and straightforward.

GM Decisions to be made

The second major purpose that comes to mind is for the ? to represent a decision that the GM has to make, in particular one that is predefined based on events earlier in the adventure.

  • “? If the PCs believed the old man in Scene 3, …”, or
  • “? If any of the attackers in Scene 4 escaped, …”

A variation on this application is for the ? to represent real-time decisions.

  • “? If there is not enough time for the combat to be completed, insert Scene 3a” or,
  • “? Let the PCs roleplay random encounters until 40 mins of play remain,” or even,
  • “? Don’t let the lock get picked until the PCs have had encounters 1, 2, and at least one of 4, 5, or 6.”

or any other “If-then-else” flags that control the flow of the adventure.


A further variation could occur when the GM is uncertain about the course events will take.

  • “? Will the PCs stop to investigate, encountering the bandits (scene 5b)…”, or,
  • “? If the PCs win too easily…” or even,
  • “? How the PCs react is up to them, play it by ear.”


An obvious purpose would be to represent variables.

  • “? There are three NPCs who can tell the PCs about the treasure: 1, 4, and 6. Let them ask until they find one of these,” or,
  • “? The charge will continue to build by 1d6 per round until one of the PCs zaps themselves or it reaches a maximum of 25d6.”

Puzzles & Riddles

Another obvious use would be to call the GM’s attention to puzzles and riddles that the PCs have to solve.

  • “? There is an 11 minute hourglass and a 13-minute hourglass. The door will only open exactly 15 minutes after the first hourglass is turned. The note says ‘You will only be given one chance to prove your worth.’ The PCs must solve the riddle of how to accurately time 15 minutes using these two hourglasses.”


The Solution:

  • Start both hourglasses at the same time.
  • When the 11 minute hourglass runs out, flip it again immediately.
  • When the 13 minute hourglass runs out, the 11 minute hourglass will have 9 minutes left, so flip it and it will last another 2 minutes.
  • 13 minutes + 2 minutes = exactly 15 minutes.

Riddle taken from Good Riddles.

The Low Road

The uses keep on coming. Another might be to signify an alternative to be offered to the PCs.

  • “? Let the players decide whether to harvest the mushrooms or water the herd.” or,
  • “? Let the players choose which door to open. When they touch the handle…”

To Be Continued?

The final use comes from the Dr Who episode, ‘The Pandorica Opens‘ and is a bit of an afterthought. At the end of the episode, the TARDIS has exploded, rupturing time throughout its’ length, and explosions surround the Earth in space before everything fades to black and silence. And then, with everything supposedly and seemingly destroyed, the graphic comes up on-screen, “To Be Continued” – which, to me, takes all the suspense out of the situation.

Sure, people would have known that the season had one more episode left, but the “To be continued” as good as states that the story isn’t over yet.

The ending would have been far more powerful if the producers had attached a simple question mark to that end-of-show graphic: “To Be Continued?” instead of “To Be Continued”.

Because every time you can attach a question mark to something to be communicated, the doubts and confusion it raises and represents are in the minds of the players. And of all the ways that the GM can make use of a Question Mark, that may be the best of them all.

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Cinematic Combat Part 1 – Attack Mechanics


Cinema Film by Alexandre Saes

On any number of occasions, I’ve referred to using a Cinematic combat style instead of the “full treatment”, but I’ve never gone into detail of how I go about that. I’ve explained why, but never how. (just in case, I’ll recap “why” as we go along).

I’ve always resisted doing so because I felt that the techniques that I use are too dependent on the game system that I am using, and so they would be of limited utility to anyone not using those systems.

It’s taken me a long time and a lot of thought to catch a glimmer of how I might be able to sufficiently abstract my techniques to give them a broader applicability, and even now I’m not sure that I’ll succeed. But I definitely won’t do so if I don’t give it a crack!

This is an article in three parts. Part one will deal with simplifying your game mechanics for attacks; part two deals with abstracted mechanics for damage; and part three will deal with the complete absence of traditional combat mechanics.

So here we go…

Reasons For Cinema

There are three central reasons why you might want to choose a more cinematic combat style.

  1. It increases the Drama of the conflict.
  2. It makes Combat secondary to Roleplay & Non-Combat Action.
  3. It permits greater manipulation of the look and feel of the situation.

Cinematic Combat is essentially throwing away selected game mechanics and replacing them with narrative. Because the resulting mechanics are greatly simplified, Combat goes faster and is more dramatic, especially if the GM manipulates his narrative to emphasize that drama.

Combat vs Roleplay & Non-combat Action

Cinematic Combat leaves greater capacity for non-combat activities and elevates these to be equal or greater in importance than the combat that is taking place alongside such activities.

Look and Feel

And, by replacing relatively flavorless mechanics with flavor-rich narrative, the GM can adjust the content and style of his delivery in order to control the look and feel of the encounter.

Justification Examples

Whenever the fight should not be the center of attention, cinematic combat is the preferable approach. A group of PCs trying to hold off hostile forces while another PC attempts to solve a puzzle, pick a lock, reprogram a missile, hack a computer, defuse a bomb, negotiate with an enemy – the list is endless – for example.

Or perhaps the outcome of the combat doesn’t matter as much as the amount of time it takes while something else is happening, or how the PCs behave during combat, or the combat itself is relatively trivial compared to the fact that it has taken place – trying to prevent or intercept an attacker who is trying to reach a target protected by the PCs.

Whenever the PCs are up against a deadline, by the end of which the combat has to be resolved – indicating that the Pace of the action is more important than the action itself – cinematic combat is at least worth considering.

Or perhaps the need is to emphasize a particular look-and-feel rather than being slavish to the game mechanics. Barroom brawls, a duel while the combatants balance on a piece of rope stretched between two masts, a PC and group of NPC grunts vs another group of NPC grunts, combat between two starships using a game system that doesn’t explicitly cater for it, a dogfight – these are all valid reasons to employ cinematic combat.

What To Throw Away

So Cinematic Combat is all about throwing away game mechanics and substituting something simpler. The question is therefore “what to throw away?”

Cinematic Timekeeping

The first thing to get tossed aside like a chew-toy is any detailed timekeeping. I’ve actually reported previously on my adapting a D&D 3.5 Initiative/Combat-Sequence approach to the Hero System (Taking the initiative with the Hero System). You can’t afford a high level of granularity in a cinematic combat sequence; you want the fight to Flow. This is so much a sine-qua-non of cinematic combat that it can be taken as read.

The Elements Of Combat

After that, it gets more complicated. Combat Systems – all of them – essentially come down to Tactical Assessments, Number Of Attacks, Attack rolls, Defensive or Target Comparisons, Resolution, Damage Calculation, and Consequences Assessment. Attack Rolls may have Critical Hit and/or Fumble sub-steps. Damage Calculation may have Hit Location complications, and may also be different based on those attack roll variations.

The question can be simplified by uniting these into logical groups. Tactical Assessments usually modify attack rolls, so they can be combined, and an attack roll is nothing without the Defense/Target comparison and Resolution. And Number of attacks is just more of the same. Abstracting all of that into a single Combat Element makes perfect sense to me.

Because Critical Hits alter the Damage Calculation, and Fumbles are the other side of the coin to that, those three elements can be considered a second Combat Element. The same basic argument also integrates Hit Location into the damage assessment.

That leaves Consequence Assessment to stand alone as a third combat element, though you could argue that Critical Hits and Fumbles should be in a group with it. Either way, we’ve – in theory – simplified combat mechanics down to three things from nine elements to three, and that’s good enough for the first level of abstraction.

But we’re a long way from being able to actually accomplish that. How do you combine these elements? What are the effects on combat? What are the traps?

The Attack Element

This is actually a lot simpler than it might seem. There are four elements to be combined into a single abstract quality. The trick is to remove the complications, building everything into a single die roll. For many reasons, the best choice of die roll to work from is a d20; it’s linear probability nature, and degree of granularity permits substantial finessing of results.

Relative Attack

We start with the character – PC or NPC – who is both participating in the combat sequence and who has the lowest attack value, ignoring any tactical or circumstantial modifiers. I tag his score as “Base”. Everyone else is rated relative to that score. If you are using a game system that already employs linear probability to determine combat results, that is a simple subtraction; if your game system uses 3d6 then you might need to take into account the “bulge” in probable result centered on the 10.5 mark; but that’s much more complicated, so we’ll deal with it separately.

What you want to know is an approximation of the linear-probability gap from the base combat score to the individual scores of all the other combat participants. If there is a substantial gap between the scores of the PCs and those of the NPC combatants / monsters, you may need to choose separate base values. In the case of multiple attacks at different attack values, as happens in the d20 system, D&D, and Pathfinder, ignore the other attacks and just calculate from the first attack score.

For example, assuming that higher is better, if the PCs have d20 attack scores of 15, 16, 13, 9, and 10, the base score is 9, and the characters have values of +6, +7, +4, +0, and +1, respectively. Jot them down on a piece of paper, a notepad, or a whiteboard. If lower is better – and some counterintuitive game mechanics operate that way – then the base value (ie worst attack value) is 16, and the modifiers are -1, -0, -3, -7, and -6 respectively. The way to tell: “higher is better” translates into “roll this or less”, while “lower is better” translates into “roll this or more”.

Continuing the example, and making the same assumption, if the NPCs/monsters had attack scores of 12, this fits nicely into the same range of results, so use the same base roll and a value of +3. If the NPCs/monsters had an attack score of 2, or of 25, though, it would not fit so comfortably in the same range; you would end up with values of -7 and +13. The first can be lived with, but just barely; the second is more problematic.

Relative Defense

Attack rolls are meaningless until compared to a defensive target. Some systems add the attack value to a die roll to compare with the target, others require the gap between die roll and attack value to exceed the defenses of the target in order to penetrate the defenses. There are other variations; the Hero System adds a fixed +11 to the attack value and subtracts the defensive value of the target to determine the number that must be rolled on 3d6. There are a lot more variations in defensive simulation “theory” than in attack models.

We don’t care about any of that. All we need is a relative assessment of the defensive or target values presented by the different targets – a base value and an assessment of how much better or worse the other values are. If the combat system is non-linear, we also need to account for the potential for the better defensive values to shift combat target values to the “wrong side” of the probability bulge.

Depending on which yields the most convenient results, you can either employ a “highest equals base” approach or a “lowest equals base”. A “lowest=base” approach produces negative modifiers for the better defenses, reducing the relative attack values, sending some into the negative; the “highest=base” approach yields further pluses to attack, which is often easier for GMs to calculate but may be harder to translate into meaningful results. As a rule of thumb, you don’t want the total to exceed the size of your die’s range of results – a d20 has a range of 19, so that’s the highest that can be accommodated. However, in a non-linear combat system, 6 of that range have to be set aside to accommodate the probability bulge, as discussed below – so the biggest range that can be accommodated is 13.

My approach is therefore to consider the “highest=base” approach first, and if the highest combination has a total of 20 or more (14 or more in a 3d6 system), use the “lowest=base” approach.

There’s a slight twist in the logic applied above that might not be clear to the casual reader.

A better defense means that it’s harder to score a successful hit; that means that a “highest=base” approach means that all relative values to the base make it easier to score a successful hit, and therefore add “+modifiers” to the relative attack chance.

Conversely, it also means that using the “lowest=base” means that the modifiers reflect a reduction in the chance of a successful hit, and therefore operate in the opposite direction to the relative attack modifiers; those were “+modifiers”, so the relative defensive values have to be “-modifiers”.

For example: Defensive values of 16, 20, 22, 14, and 17. “Highest=Base” gives a base of 22, and modifiers of +6, +2, +0, +8, and +5. The highest attack modifier that we have from the d20 (linear) combat model is +7; combining that with the highest defensive value of +8 gives a +15 total. This is well within our 19-point range, so that works fine, and this will be the case 99% of the time.
Abstract Combat Table 1

The end product

We have defined a “Base vs Base” result that is the worst attacker vs the strongest defender. If a character has a better attack, he will have a +modifier to the likelihood of successfully hitting that defender; if the defender has a weaker defense, whoever is attacking them will also have a +modifier to the likelihood of successfully hitting that defender.

You could draw up a table showing all the combinations, as shown to the left, but that sounds too much like work to me, and it’s totally unnecessary. All you need is a pair of lists: PC1 A+6, PC2 A+2, PC3 A+0 (and so on), and Tgt1 D+6, Tgt 2 D+7, Tgt 3 D+4, and so on. Of course, you’ll also need attack and defense values for the NPCs attacking the PCs – but that’s simply a matter of extending the lists.

When an attack is made, the attacker simply rolls a d20, the GM mentally adds the attacker’s attack modifier and the defender’s defense modifier, and interprets the result.

Ahh, if only it were that simple.

The complicating bulge

The biggest wrinkle to be tackled is the non-linear nature of some combat systems’ die rolls – typically 3d6, but there are all sorts of variations. That means that there is a probability “hump” around the average roll result. If your required roll is higher than this, and you have to roll higher than a target, your chances of success are considerably lower than a strict linear accounting (such as I’ve been using) shows. If your required roll is higher, and you have to roll less than a target value, the hump significantly boosts your chances of success.

While an exact accounting of the changes is far too complicated and messy to be practical, some notional adjustment is needed – a tip of the abstract hat to the greater or lesser chances of success. Because the actual adjustments vary too much with specific game systems, I don’t think it’s possible to offer a general solution that is applicable in every case, or even in most of them.

I can offer some broad advice, however. What that comes down to is a three-step procedure:

  • Assess a base-attack-vs-base-defense attempt to hit – what needs to be rolled for success?
  • Use the result to assess where the base-attack-vs-base-defense combination falls on the 3d6 curve, relative to the “hump”. On 3d6, I consider results of 9-10-11-12 to be that “hump”.
  • A better attack will move the hump one way or the other of the succeed/fail division point; a better defense will move it in the other direction.
  • Use this information to assess each combined adjustment (attack and defense) at the time an attack is made; use a quick rule of thumb (given below) to assign an adjustment to the attack chances that gives a rough approximation of the corrected chances to successfully hit. A “+modifier” represents an increased chance to hit; a “-modifier” represents a decreased chance to hit.

So, to that rough rule of thumb:

  • 9 to 11 or 12, or 10 to 12 – i.e. moving from one side of the hump to the other – is worth plus-or-minus 1.
  • 7 or 8 to 11 or 12, i.e. moving from outside the hump to a chance that includes the hump is worth plus-or-minus 2.
  • 6 or below to 11 or 12, i.e. moving from very early on the curve to include the hump is worth plus-or-minus 3.
  • any change from 11 or 12 to 13 or 14 is worth an additional plus-or-minus 1.
  • any change from 11 or 12 to 15 or 16 is worth an additional plus-or-minus 2.
  • any change from 11 or 12 to 17 or better is worth an additional plus-or-minus 3.
An Example

That might not make a lot of sense without an example. So let’s say that we have a “roll X or less” combat system, and that our base-attack-vs-base-defense combination attempt to hit requires 7 or less to hit. This is slightly to the left of the hump, indicating a relatively poor chance of success. A better attack will increase this number, so more of the hump will act to improve chances to hit; a worse defense will do likewise. Assuming a “higher=base” defense assessment – which is what I prefer to use, because it’s all addition – that means that assessing what the modifier due to non-linearity is simply a matter of getting the total modifier.

So, if we have a +5 attack (PC 5) and a +4 defense (NPC 3), indicating that PC 5 is attacking NPC 3, we have a total of +9 from a starting point of 7, i.e. a shift from 7 to 16 on the table above. “7 or 8 to 11 or 12″ gives +3, and the further change from “11 or 12 to 15 or 16″ is worth an additional +2. So the total modifiers for this particular attacker/defender combination is actually +9+3+2=+14.

non-linear Practicality

To be honest, I know the 3d6 probability curve well enough that I don’t bother with the rule of thumb given above; tell me “7 or less” and “+9″ and an answer of “+5 more on a d20″ pops straight out (That’s one of the benefits of Gaming for 34 years). What I’ve described above is the best approximation of my subconscious number-crunching that I can capture.

Tactical Modifier

Tactical Modifiers are now simplicity itself. The GM simply takes ALL the circumstances, in aggregate, into account, and decrees “+0″ or “+1″ or whatever feels right. DON’T let a player begin to rattle off “book values” or mechanics: “I’ve got reach, I’m attacking from behind, by surprise, I’m flanking him, and I’m invisible so that’s a modifier of…” To all such, the answer is “I’ve already taken all that into account”. You can even consider giving the enemy attackers an extra +1 if the player repeats his litany. The character is already in as advantageous a tactical position as he can get, so far as you are concerned, and the modifier you’ve mentally assigned is appropriate to that determination.

Number Of Attacks Modifier

Some game systems give characters multiple attacks at decreasing chances of success. Some give a character multiple attacks at the same attack value in a given time frame according to some stat.

Here’s the truth about abstracting such situations: An increased number of attacks gives a better chance of at least one of them hitting, so the character gets a bonus to hit. I use +1 per extra attack per +5 or less of other modifiers. And it increases the average total amount of damage done, so that needs to get taken into account when abstracting the damage part of the combat.

Example Continued

The highest combined modifier we have is +15. If the attacker in that case has two extra attacks, he gets +3 attack modifier to represent each of those extra attacks (+15/5=+3). If the total was only +14, it would be +2 attack modifier per attack.

The Universal Success Target

Success is a modified roll of Twenty or more. This is the target for ALL characters – apply the case-by-case modifiers to the actual die roll to determine the outcome of an attack – success or failure.

The upshot

The net effect of all this is to take the entire mechanism of determining whether or not a target has been damaged to a single yes-or-no determination based on whether or not the player rolls a target number or less.

It takes only:

  • a second or two to list the attack and defense values of the combat participants, per participant;
  • another second to identify the lowest attack;
  • another one or two per participant to list the differences between this value and the other participants;
  • another to identify the highest defense, and one or two to identify the lowest and get that difference, telling you whether or not you can use the preferred “highest=base” defense approach, or need to use the “lowest=base” approach; allow one more to interpret the result;
  • another second or two per participant to list the differences between the base defensive value and the defensive values of the other participants.

Total prep time for combat between 5 PCs and 5 NPCs: 10-20 plus 1 plus 10-20 plus 1 plus 1-2 plus 1 plus 10-20 equals a grand total of 34-65 seconds.

But it’s in conducting combat that the real benefit emerges. Instead of identifying and analyzing who-knows-how-many tactical modifiers, rolling a die per attack (or 3 dice and getting a total), applying (possibly different) combat values to each, looking up the defensive value of the target, comparing each total to that value, and interpreting each result, there is ONE roll, to which two or three modifiers are added, and an interpretation of the result. You don’t need a second-by-second breakdown to see that the abstraction is a LOT faster.

I didn’t consciously set out to dedicate Mondays to writing article series and Thursdays to standalone articles, but I’ve found that it’s a lot harder writing two series at once. So – for now, at least – that’s the pattern that I find myself in. But that’s not a bad thing – consistency of subject on the one side balanced with something with a greater chance of finding favor an audience who aren’t into that series on the other.

The alternative – seriously contemplated – was to use both Monday and Thursday for a series, so that whatever the subject, it gets dealt with in half the real-world time. But sometimes you need that extra time up your sleeve; a number of times I’ve only been able to get the next part in a series finished by scheduling a relatively short and simple article for the other part of the week, freeing up time to work on the series. So this seems the best compromise. But it will only take one filler article when the next part of a series is nowhere near ready, and the pattern will swap ends of the week.

So the plan is to present part two of this series, dealing with abstracted damage handling, next Monday…

Comments (1)

A Helping Handout

give-me-1113096-mHungry v2

Hungry, over at Ravenous Roleplaying, is a long-time supporter of Campaign Mastery through his regular “Friday Faves” column, in which he collects links to the articles that have most inspired or interested him from the past week. When he has time, he accompanies those links with some comments; these are always interesting, and sometimes genuinely insightful and inspiring.

Last week, in the Friday Faves, he talked about an article at Gnome Stew by Phil Vecchione, Getting Handy with GM Handouts.

In his commentary on the article, Hungry described how his players didn’t seem to respect his efforts when he invested time and effort into game handouts, frequently spending just three seconds glancing at whatever it might be, and lauding Phil’s article as (he hoped) being the key to extending those three-second glances into three minutes of gaming value.

Having observed the “three-second glance” myself, at times, I was sufficiently intrigued to check out Phil’s article for myself, and found it to be both well worth reading, and yet somehow incomplete. Within the bounds of achieving the purposes for handouts that Phil establishes, his techniques are quite reasonable and effective, but I can’t help but feel that he has set the bar too low, and hence is not getting all the value that he could from his handouts – and that he has inadvertently passed on that low-bar objective to others who read the article and implement his advice.

His article, in other words, doesn’t go far enough, isn’t ambitious enough. Handouts can do far more than the limited and superficial purposes that he has assigned to them, and can be far more useful to the GM than his article allows. And that’s what this article is all about.

Specific Exclusions

I want to start by specifically excluding two types of campaign material that could be provided in handout form. These should not be bound by the restrictions imposed on Handouts, because they are designed for players to take away and assimilate over a longer time-frame. If the material is not intended for “immediate consumption” then it should not suffer under the restrictions imposed by providing the material in a format designed to facilitate such consumption.

The first exclusion are any Rules Documents. These can be catalogs of precedents that are to be considered “official rulings” henceforth, they might be some specific extension of the game rules (see, for example, “I Got A Plot Device and I know how to use it: Bluffing in the Hero System“, or A strong wind blows: Environmental effects for RPGs, both of which include rules handouts written for the Adventurer’s Club campaign.).

The second exclusion is anything intended to impart Campaign Background or overall Game World information to the players. Some GMs produce such briefing documents (usually before play begins), some don’t; a relative minority treat them as living documents and actively update them as hitherto-unknown chapters of the game history are discovered by the PCs. Personally, I strongly recommend these and always try to provide them for my campaigns, but YMMV.

Note that this doesn’t mean that I tell my players everything, or that everything that I DO tell them is necessarily accurate. What I provide is the best information available to their characters, and no more accurate or complete than any other common folklore or historical overview. In fact, I don’t feel like I’m giving the campaign it’s best chances of succeeding unless about 75% of these contents are inaccurate or incomplete – because I can then build adventures and encounters around the differences between documented belief and “the truth”. Denying yourself such a rich source of in-game content is cutting off your nose to spite your face.

The 13 purposes of handouts

When I listed all the possible purposes to which handouts could be put, I ended up with ten – but Phil’s article specifically targeted one restricted form of one of the purposes, so I added the other three that I think can be included, in direct contradiction to what Phil has advised, as separate items, bringing the total to a lucky 13.

The first 4 are from Phil’s article:

  1. Downtime Filler*
  2. Info-dump (Immediate Relevance)*
  3. Eye Candy*
  4. Tactical Information*

The rest are what I think can be added to that list:

  1. Info-dump (Short-term Relevance)*
  2. Info-dump (Medium-term Relevance)
  3. Info-dump (Long-term Relevance)
  4. Verisimilitude*
  5. Color*
  6. Context
  7. Subtext
  8. Immersion
  9. Characterization through Customization

* indicates relevance to convention play. The fact that 4/7 of the items so tagged derive from Phil’s article suggest to me that his initial approach may have derived from Convention Play, and that the larger potentials (which require a longer-term campaign before they can provide value) were largely overlooked for that reason. But that’s just speculation on my part.

A special note about maps

Phil specifically suggests including map information. I tend to think about maps as a separate class of handout simply because a good map needs to be at least one page in size to carry enough information to be useful, in my opinion. (I also tend to treat eye candy as separate items because I want to be able to display the graphics on my laptop as they become relevant to the adventure. But that’s neither here nor there).

Phil’s example shows a map that is so small as to be close to useless except as eye candy and two lines of text, in my opinion. It looks very pretty, but it fills a lot of the available space for limited functionality. I would rather have the two lines of text, and bullet-point summaries of the three towns in the region that are shown on the map – taking up about 1/4 of the space used for the map, leaving room for more content.

But that’s my taste in such things, and readers shouldn’t feel obligated to take the same approach as I do. What it means is that you will find no reference to maps in the purposes I’ve listed above – I think Maps should be a third variety of “excluded material”. But I’ve placed them, and this discussion, in a sort of halfway-house because Phil’s article includes them. Feel free to consider them a 14th category if your style aligns with Phil’s!

1. Downtime Filler

I never use a handout as a downtime filler. I want my non-participating players paying attention to what is happening at the table even though their characters are not present, simply because it saves the playing time that would be required to bring them up to speed – and avoids fallible memories on the part of the player actually participating. If there’s something going on that really does require the player to make decisions or discoveries to which the other players are not privy, we step away from the game table.

In fact, rather than using a handout as a downtime filler, I will actively shift the spotlight to give a player time to assimilate a handout specifically targeted at their character – a subtle but profound distinction.

But that’s all a legacy of the number of available hours a month in which to game – 4 or 5 for any given campaign, sometimes less. If we were playing the same campaign every week, or had more hours available on a playing day, my gaming approach might be different – though it was the same when we were playing the Champions Campaign fortnightly, for 10-12 hours a day (sometimes more), so perhaps not.

Of course, not specifically targeting “downtime filler” as an intended function of a handout doesn’t mean that they can’t be designed with the expectation that the players will use that downtime to study the handout! On the contrary, I’m of the opinion that if you issue a handout, the players need to be given time to study it – and that can either be time spent on that activity as a group, or individually during character downtime.

Hungry specifically cites the toner required for the production of handouts as a reason why he dislikes them as a GM. I can sympathize. I get around that problem by producing just one copy of a handout, regardless of its length – it’s “read a page and then pass it to the player on your left”. This round-robin approach solves that problem and can fit with either of the approaches to including “study time” in your session schedule with only a little variation. I mention it here because this is where those approaches are discussed.

2. Info-dump (Immediate Relevance)

Phil makes a specific point about the information provided being directly relevant to the session at hand. In fact, he makes the point twice. Sorry, but I don’t agree.

That’s not to say that some of the information provided should not be directly relevant – it should be. You could even argue that the majority of it should be, and some of the remainder should be indirectly relevant – I’ll get to that a little later.

Restricting the value of a handout to content directly relevant to the day’s play makes the handout more of a disposable commodity, and that doesn’t actually encourage players to play close attention to it; rather, it promotes a quick skim and more detailed reading when the information becomes immediately relevant – hence the label applied to this sort of information.

The other problem with this sort of info-dump is that critical information is often not going to be available to the players prior to the start of play – so you either jump the gun, giving out the information early, or delay giving them the handouts until they get the information in question, or you have to produce a second handout.

I don’t consider any of those particularly acceptable. My solution is something discussed much later in the article (in the section “Different Handouts for Different Purposes?”); suffice it to say that I employ a variation on the “second handout” approach.

3. Eye Candy

I never – well, hardly ever – distribute Eye Candy as a handout unless it also serves as a prop, and then only if the plot mandates the use of a prop. Frankly, there are better ways of distributing eye candy. The last time I can remember doing so was during my TORG campaign, at least ten years ago, when I produced a letter which I artificially aged and very carefully imbued with a lavender scent by staining the page with Lavender Oil, hitting it with a blast from a lavender-scented air-freshener, and rubbing the carefully-died paper with lavender-scented talcum powder. The scent was an essential clue to the players, explaining why I went to such lengths – I was taking no chances!

That letter was a masterpiece, if I do say so myself – colored pencil, water-color paint, coffee and tea baths, ironing to compress the heavy paper, writing part of the letter in permanent marker (so that it wouldn’t run) and part in Lemon Juice which was made visible by baking the page, carefully singing one edge of the paper, abrading the paper in places with gentle application of sandpaper, dripping wax on the page, making an envelope out of the same sort of art paper, making a wax seal and carefully breaking it to show that someone else had already read it – I spent two full days making it. I even rubbed slices of fresh mushroom onto it to give it a slightly musty odor under the lingering Lavender scent! But it was central to selling the plot to the Players.

Getting back on point, not only are there better ways of disseminating eye candy, but not wasting space on it frees that space for more functional content.

4. Tactical Information

I suspect from the example that he included that Phil included this within his “info-dump” category, but I think it warrants a place of its’ own. The actual content that would be covered under this heading would vary from one game system and genre to another; for example:

  • D&D/Pathfinder: Creature information shorn of game mechanics and using emotive, relative terminology in its place. “Immensely strong”, “Extremely Resilient”, “Quick-witted”, “Touch creates agony”, etc. This relates what the PCs already know about a creature the GM expects them to encounter in the course of the day, so a brief descriptive narrative or illustration may also be valid in a non-eye-candy way. In particular, if known to the PCs, preferred habitats, warning signs, and usual combat tactics (in general terms) are also useful. NB: if the creatures to be encountered are ones that the PCs already know, the GM can use this opportunity to provide misinformation while educating the players on another of the creatures they might one day encounter!
  • Superhero/Law Enforcement: A one-paragraph capsule bio of a villain, or the peculiarities of a particular law that will be relevant to the events of the day e.g. “probable cause”, etc.
  • Sci-Fi: An abbreviated summary of a scientific principle that will be relevant to the adventure at hand, or information on a particular planet, culture, or race, or information on a particular model of ship.

GMs should decide what the players need to know in order to make informed decisions in the course of the current day’s play for their campaigns. (And yes, I know that the examples offered provide a rather broad interpretation of “Tactical” – the key parameter is not necessarily combat, it’s decision-making).

5. Info-dump (Short-term Relevance)

Okay, so let’s talk about time-scale definitions. “Immediate” for me means the current game session; “Short-Term” means within the next 2-to-4 game sessions; medium term means within the next 6 months to a year; and long-term is anything more than that. But that’s playing once a month; if you play fortnightly, divide those time-frames in two (except for “immediate” of course), and if you play every week, divide them by three. Round up where necessary.

Having stated what I mean by the time-scale “Short-term”, let’s look at what and you might want to include under this heading, and why.

There’s a lot that can be done under the umbrella of short-term relevance. This is an opportunity to give players background information on broader topics that will become relevant in the near-future, and that might provide a context to the events that will lead to the information becoming relevant. For example, if you tell the players that Elves are going to become important to the campaign over the next few months, the PCs will start watching for anything that might relate to Elves, and will be more aware of any event that might connect with the Elvish involvement or attitudes. This effectively prepares the ground for the next stages of the campaign.

Then, there is the potential for misdirection. Getting the players focused in a particular direction or on a particular potential threat can influence their choices and behavior, steering the campaign in the direction the GM wants it to go. For example, describing Drow as the “masters of covert manipulation” is sure to arouse paranoia about Drow involvement when the PCs start noticing something that might be explained by “covert manipulation”. The secret to being fair about this technique is for the misinterpretation to be widespread amongst a large segment of the society; getting the PCs to be a little paranoid about Drow Plots is simply helping depict the PCs as part of their society.

Of course, this sort of thing is far less effective if the PCs aren’t used to receiving credible information about the game world under this heading. Before you can lie effectively, you need to establish your credibility!

6. Info-dump (Medium-term Relevance)

Today’s article was almost complete when an inadvertent click wiped out everything after this point. While I was able to recreate virtually all of the substance, a lot of the examples have been almost completely lost.

The medium-term is of extraordinary value as a means of making a campaign dynamic instead of static. In the real world, it takes years, decades, or even a generation for social, historical, and economic trends to manifest. Most RPGs don’t have that sort of scale, so it becomes necessary to compress time somewhat.

Such trends have three stages: Before the public become aware of them, after the public become aware of them but before they affect day-to-day life, and the period when they are of immediate significance.

I had a substantial example depicting the buildup to an attempted invasion of a neighboring Kingdom that was lost. The text below captures the essence of what the example depicted.

In terms of game-play, the first stage is when the trend is only noticeable by those with inside knowledge, and sometimes not even then, so it has no effect. The second stage is when people are expressing opinions on the subject, but the overall perspective is evenly balanced between different courses of action; as the stage proceeds, the trend is increasingly the subject of conversation, and the majority of opinions tends to shift into a few unified camps, one of which is in an increasingly-clear majority. At the end of the second stage, action is taken either as a result of, or to mitigate, or to take advantage of, the trend. This action then becomes a day-to-day factor that has to be taken into account by everyone in the affected society, either resident or visiting, including the PCs.

In terms of handout content, unless someone gets advance warning through customized content (see later in the article), the first time the trend gets mentioned should be at the point of entry into stage 2, and it would take the form “people are talking about [X]”, or “There is a growing movement toward [X]”, or something along those lines. From this point on, it will increasingly get brought up in general conversation with NPCs – from occasionally (and fairly dispassionately), to frequently, to regularly (and with strong opinions). In addition, throughout stage 2, the consequences and side-effects of the trend should be increasingly noticeable, and influential people should increasingly demand action – often of radically different sorts. From the point at which such action is taken, the trend shifts from being of medium-term relevance to being of immediate consequence. Once that happens, it starts affecting the PCs in ways beyond being a mere subject of conversation.

Handouts during the time that the trend is in stage 2 should consist of general news-bytes, a few lines long, each highlighting one of: the trend itself (and it’s supposed causes); opinions expressed by notable figures; and mention of the immediate-level consequences of the trend. Depending on what the trend is, this could be anything from public protests, controversial demonstrations, civil unrest, public condemnation by hard-line authorities, perpetrated injustices, and economic and trade impacts.

At the same time as one trend is in the latter stages of stage 2, a second is generally in the early phases of stage 1, ready to start becoming a general subject of discussion (ie entering stage 2) sometime shortly after the earlier trend enters phase 3 and begins to head toward a resolution. The subject of this second trend is often related to undesirable side-effects or consequences of the action taken regarding the trend that is of immediate impact, or otherwise deriving from it.

Of course, once the trend begins directly affecting the PCs, they can also begin affecting the outcome of the actions taken in response to the trend, even if these are never a primary consideration; they can make a difference through inadvertent consequences of whatever they are doing. Remember the old aphorism that begins For want of a nail“? Picture the PCs as accidentally impacting the nail supply…

Because the players see the trends highlighted in the handout having an increasing impact on their character’s lives, they become aware of the campaign world as a dynamic, changing, and evolving location. What’s more, the clear implication is that if the PCs do something in the game world, whatever it may be, it will have appropriate consequences for the campaign. These may be trivial, or profound, and will often not be what the players might have forecast at the time.

7. Info-dump (Long-term Relevance)

A section of the handout dedicated to mentioning subjects of long-term relevance is less concerned with the historical and social forces that are influencing, or will soon influence, the world around the characters, and is more concerned with the ultimate course of the campaign itself, and the forces that are driving those developments. Only as the campaign approaches a climax will the subjects mentioned in this section begin to manifest, first in trends of medium-term relevance, and then – at the actual climax adventure – in day-to-day significance.

Content that falls under this banner are an example of one of the themes of the campaign, a recap of an event that went unnoticed by the PCs at the time, and other events whose significance will take a long time to manifest.

8. Verisimilitude

One of the side-effects of the content described so far, a benefit that comes along for the ride, is an increase in the Verisimilitude of the campaign. It will feel more “real” to the players, because it will feel less like their characters exist in a vacuum and more like they are part of a wider world – one that sometimes impacts on the lives of those characters in a substantiative manner.

The medium- and long-term relevance info-dumps add depth to the campaign, and make it easier for the GM to focus game-time on the immediate.

9. Color

Game handouts are a great vector for general trivia that adds color to the game world. These can be anything from gossip, to factoids, to anecdote, to superstition. These are items of deliberately-negligible immediate relevance, but which accumulate to show that there is more substance to the game world than is presented in the course of play. A few fantasy-themed examples:

  • “The leading collector of militaria is Hawthin Longfellow, a Halfling.”
  • “Any mage with fewer than two apprentices a year after graduation is considered professionally disreputable by the Thak-Durn Arcane Society.”
  • “After he was badly scarred in battle, King Wallend ordered that all coins bearing his former face be disfigured and issued fresh currency with a symbolic crown in place of his likeness.”
  • “During the neo-Barbaric Art Movement, the most expensive pigment was Greenscale, made from the blood of Goblins.”

You could spend a (short) paragraph describing the scabbard-carvings of a particular culture, or the “fact” that Troglodytes consider two to be an unlucky number, or the fashion in Dwarfish Beards. Anything and everything that adds color to the game world, in fact.

And, as an added side-benefit, these are a great source of encounters or adventures in a pinch!

10. Context

“Context” is all about adding relevance to events that have just taken place. These can be direct, or by way of analogy. They call out those events that took place in the last session that will have repercussions at some point in the future, especially those that may have gone unnoticed at the time.

11. Subtext

Where Context is about the past, “Subtext” is about the immediate future. This is the use of anecdote and metaphor to add additional layers of meaning to the events that are about to unfold. “Most people think Elves are paranoid when it comes to Drow” might be a good example. “Lefayre Citadel was thought impregnable until Grek The Great-Orc obtained the services of the Alchemist Droken-Thoria, who devised a waterproof corrosive paste that enabled the Orcs to cut an entrance through the bars protecting the sewer outlets. The moral: anyone who thinks themselves invulnerable is overlooking something,” is a better one.

12. Immersion

In addition to verisimilitude, content types 9 to 11 carry another added benefit: Immersion. By highlighting significance and substance, the game world becomes less shallow and more substantial.

On top of that inherent quality, adding trivia about people and places with whom the PCs are about to interact makes it easier for the players to feel a part of the game setting without the GM spending additional playing time for the purpose.

13. Characterization through Customization

If you are only producing one copy of the handout in the expectation that it will be passed around, this won’t matter. But if you are intent on giving each player his own, why not spend a minute or two customizing the content to suit the background and racial profile of that character?

Fighters usually have a military background. Mages receive arcane instruction, which may or may not be the cultural equivalent of a “science” degree. Clerics receive training in theology.

Elves look at the world differently from Dwarves, who look at the world differently to Humans, and so on – or, at least, they should.

Both of these factors should shape the interpretation of some items, or even leave to some things being left out of their handouts because they aren’t considered relevant, replaced by an appropriate notation.

The Easy route to Customization

It doesn’t take much effort to achieve this. As you write each item, review it for distinct perspective shifts, and create the necessary variants at the same time. Add a code to indicate which specific characters get the variant version. Put everything into your master template, save it under a unique filename, then highlight and cut to exclude anything character one doesn’t get, “save as” to save his unique copy, reload the working copy, highlight and cut passages as necessary out to get character two’s version, and so on.

Ease Of Assimilation vs Depth Of Content

Phil’s article insists on bullet points for easy assimilation. I don’t necessarily agree; bullet points take up more visual real estate for each item, sacrificing depth of content. Bullet points are probably the difference between two-or-three sentences of content and four-or-five – so that’s around 50-60% more content that you can fit using a paragraph-based format.

Furthermore, some people work naturally in bullet points, others don’t. Johnn Four is one of the former, I’m one of the latter. I’ve learned to use them, but it takes me up to twice as long. So I would recommend either that you use the approach that best suits you, or you choose using a horses-for-courses approach; a lot of the content listed above is amenable to the bullet-point treatment, but a lot of it seems better suited to presentation as a three-or-four sentence paragraph.

For example, if I take the preceding paragraph and put it into bullet points:

  • Some people work naturally in bullet points, others don’t.
  • Johnn Four is an example of the first group. I’m an example of the second.
  • If it doesn’t come naturally, you can still work in bullet-point format, but it will take up to twice as long.
  • I would recommend either using the approach that best suits you, or,
  • Using a horses-for-courses approach that is content-dependent.

The bullet-point format clearly takes up more space to say the same thing. The number of lines of text is not all that different, but the column width available is less, and there’s “white space” between the bullet-pointed items; furthermore, several lines leave empty space at the end of individual lines.

The Keeper Of Secrets

If you go with the one-copy-to-be-passed-around approach, it makes sense to designate one (reliable) player to act as “The Keeper Of Secrets”, responsible for archiving past handouts for later reference. Sure, the GM can do it, but he’s already got a lot on his plate.

My choice would be to use a clear-book, with a page of notepaper facing each handout so that there is somewhere for players to make notes, but that’s up to you.

Production Value vs Content Value

Phil’s example clearly puts a premium on production value. But where should your priorities lie? I would argue that content value is more important than making it all look pretty. On the other hand, using templates and pre-built background textures and consistent graphics, you can reduce some production value elements to one-time investments.

Content value should never be sacrificed for production values, but without crossing that border, you may be able to achieve quite satisfactory results that are better than plain text on white. It depends on how skilled you are with your word processor of choice and what it supports.

Different Handouts for Different Purposes?

Another unstated assumption that Phil makes is that he will provide only one handout, a kitchen-sink model that bears some resemblance to a campaign newsletter. To be honest, most of the time that’s not what I think of when I consider the subject of handouts.

What I create and use are documents designed for in-game interaction with the players – half prop and half document. For example, here’s a list of the handouts that were employed in a recent adventure for the Adventurer’s Club campaign:

  • Catholic Churches in central London – a map & key
  • December 193x London Weather synopsis
  • M’s Appointments
  • Notes to players – to be separated for distribution
  • Profile, Archbishop Of Canterbury – a somewhat-revised version of the actual Archbishop of the period
  • Chinese Embassy Personnel List – all invented people
  • MI5 Activity report on Chinese Embassy Personnel for Dec 6, 193x
  • Japanese Embassy Personnel List – all invented people
  • M’s Case Notes & reports, all currently active cases
  • MI6 profile of the “Shadow Demon” Tong – an NPC organization
  • MI6 profile of Tatsuya Hiyatsu – a key NPC
  • Telegram to Captain Ferguson (one of the PCs) about Kasugi activities
  • “The Compact” – obscure and suppressed theological doctrine from the Roman Catholic Church
  • Specifications of a tramp steamer, with blueprints and operational notes
  • Tourist Map of central London, 1930s

In addition, there were folders of photographic reference, and amended versions of some of the above documents for GM use, and a couple of documents exclusively for GM reference.

In a nutshell, M was assassinated in his office. There was suspicion directed toward M’s deputy of the time, so the PCs were called in to uncover the identity of the Assassin since the intelligence organization could not be trusted to conduct their investigation in-house.

The murder coincided with the visit of a Yakuza leader who had established common ground with the PCs in an earlier Adventure. One of M’s open cases dealt with the Kasugi family, the arch-enemies of one of the PCs, and a supply of rare ores to Germany for munitions manufacturing in exchange for “re-birthing” and refurbishment of pirated vessels; they were certainly more than capable of using assassination if it advanced or protected their agenda. And the presence of a demonic being in London led the Catholic Church to dispatch a member of Opus Dei (which, in this pulp universe, is a super-spy organization under church control), with whom the PCs had crossed swords in the past, and who was also a potential assassin. So, no shortage of suspects.

In the end, it turned out that the Chinese Government had contracted with an assassin to Kill M using blowfish venom to make it look like the Japanese were responsible, in order to persuade the British Government to tighten bonds with China prior to an anticipated Japanese invasion of the mainland. It might have worked, but unknown to the Chinese, their assassin was a demonically-empowered Tong Leader who took advantage of his presence in London to seize control over several of the local criminal organizations. This kept him in town long enough for the PCs to get on his scent, uncover the real perpetrator, and identify his employers. As a result, the plot has backfired and Britain will keep China’s problems at arm’s length when the invasion begins – historically, several years before World War II officially begins.

We could have used Phil’s approach for some the above, but greatly enhanced the verisimilitude of the adventure by producing a reasonable facsimile of the contents of an “official” MI6 report. (You might also note that we haven’t specified what the current game year is – we intend to keep it mid-1930s for virtually the entire campaign), but are fully prepared to play fast-and-loose with times and events as necessary. So last year, game time, was an amalgam of 1935 and 1936, with infusions of 1933, 1934 and 1937; so far, the current in-game year is pure 1936, but that’s only because we’ve had no need to incorporate events from elsewhen. And next year will be, at least in part, 1936 again).

The Ticket to success with Handouts

Getting back to the point, the ultimate definition of a handout, in my opinion, is a communication designed to interact with the players. Phil’s handouts are one example of a single type of handout, and even within that narrow niche, are capable of far more than he currently uses them for. His approach works for him, but undersells the value and potential of handouts.

Of course, the GM can and should expect that the players have read the provided material – something that is not facilitated by long blocks of text or by bullet-points, most of the time. Instead, aim for a single three-or-four line paragraph or short list of bullet-points for each of the categories described and ensure that the plot requires the players to interact with the handout’s content.

The keyword is “interaction”. If handouts provide clues and reference material of vital importance to the current session’s game, the PCs will study them, making them a vehicle for other content and a substantial enhancement to any campaign, and Hungry’s “three second” problem will be a thing of the past; if they are disposable, they will be glanced at and disposed of. The trick is giving your handouts added value that makes them meaningful to the players in ways that are not apparent after a mere three-second glance.

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Plunging Into Game Physics Pt 4: Better Campaigns Through Physics


A ‘Game Physics’ can shape plots, be revealed and extended by plots, but its greatest impact is usually more subtle and cumulative, and only experienced at a Campaign Level, where it can serve as a binding influence that ties disparate plots into a unified whole.

Game Systems in service of plot

This section was originally going to be part of the previous article in this series, because it bridges the gap between plot and campaign; when this was going to be a three-part article, it was intended to transition from one sub-topic to the other. At the last minute, I decided that the accompanying side-note, while inextricably linked with the content of the section, tipped the balance more towards the campaign-level perspective, and moved it from that article to this. In the process, this article grew in length while the previous one became shorter. Oh, well…

If the Game Physics can override the game mechanics, producing House Rules, then there are two implications that need to be observed. The first is that the Game System is defined as being mechanics in service of the plot, elevating campaign and plot over whatever the rules say is possible. Story and Internal Consistency become the driving forces of the Campaign. This produces the hierarchy spelt out in a number of articles here at Campaign Mastery, for example in Blat! Zot! Pow! The Rules Of Genre In RPGs.

The Game Physics becomes the primary underpinning of the Campaign as a result, a function that is performed by the Rules in most beginning GM’s campaigns. This expands the plot capabilities available to the GM. Instead of being restricted to the game world described by the official sources, and having his plots restricted to the interactions of characters and circumstances permitted by those official sources, the GM is free to expand his horizons in any direction he sees fit. Of course, if he does not take advantage of this possibility, he will not realize most of the benefits of having a game physics in the first place; one can still be justified in terms of providing guidelines for situations not explicitly detailed in the rules, but the campaign is a mere shadow of what it could be.

The natural evolution of a GM is to create a campaign using the official rules, generate a game physics for his own use as explanation for what those rules describe and to provide the guidelines mentioned a moment ago, and eventually either face a confrontation between that game physics and the official rules, or find the temptation of a plot idea made possible by the game physics irresistible. Either way, the GM will undergo a profound reassessment of his game style and campaign, and the inevitable result is that the need for consistency and fairness will win out over a peculiarity of the “official rules”. How long it takes for the GM to reach this point will vary – I’ve known GMs who never seem to get there, and I’ve known GMs who got there after a single game session. The campaigns run by the former seem lifeless and stilted, workmanlike and tame, in comparison to the exuberance that comes from being liberated from the confinement of the official rules. This is the inevitable process that slowly evolves GMs into Game Designers.

Inevitably, the second implication that I mentioned will manifest: Adventures that break the mechanics. If the Game System is subordinate to the campaign, it follows that the campaign can change Game System whenever it is convenient or preferable to do so.

The Ultimate Round-Robin Shared Campaign: A Side-note

This idea came to me about a year ago, but until now I’ve never found the right context in which to bring it up. Picture a campaign in which each participant has a character (including the GM). At the conclusion to an adventure, the position of GM rotates to the next in the group. There are only six rules to this transition:

  1. The outgoing GM must provide a way for the PCs to transition to the world of the new GM;
  2. The only game system that the new GM cannot use for his adventure is the one that the outgoing GM just employed;
  3. Characters must remain as consistent in capabilities as possible during this transition;
  4. There must be an overall plotline to the campaign and each GM’s adventure must advance that overall plotline;
  5. There must be a shared “game physics” to which all GMs have access and which any can extend when they are in the GM’s chair;
  6. And, finally, each adventure should have a set limit to the number of game sessions it can run. Four or five is probably a good number, and keeps the rotation going. Three is perhaps a little constrictive, though it clearly defines each adventure as having a Beginning, Middle, and End.

After each GM has been run a set number of adventures each, each GM crafts an adventure that resolves the overall plotline, ending the campaign; these are put into a hat in some symbolic manner and one is drawn at random. If a GM doesn’t come up with a satisfactory way of resolving the overall plot (by his own standards), he can opt out of this final draw. Whoever “wins” the honor of wrapping up the campaign gets the notes and ideas of the others as additional resources and inspiration, and is free to incorporate them into his own “final solution”. This effectively permits the GMs to collaborate on the campaign conclusion while still preserving their ignorance of what is to unfold.

Obviously, the first adventure must set the overarching plotline in motion and justify the “game/genre-hopping” that will follow, setting the tone for the overall campaign.

I can’t see why this wouldn’t work, and it should be an awful lot of fun… D&D to Steampunk to Pulp to Cthulhu to Time Travel to Superhero to whatever, the possibilities are endless! Half the fun would be the “fish out of water” effect as PCs from a different reality come to terms with the new “game world” in which they are playing!

The Primacy Of Campaign

There is an implicit implication in the working definitions of a Game Physics and the inherent applications to which one can be put (as described in part one of this series) that needs to be fully understood. That is: “anything permitted within Game Physics is permitted, and Game Mechanics are simply imperfect reflections of Game Physics.”

This principle enables the Game Physics to override Game Mechanics, as was discussed at the time. It also facilitates a hierarchy of content, as detailed in Part 2, which elevates Plot needs over game mechanics, a cornerstone of the discussion in part three. The conclusion reached was that if the plot required a violation of the game mechanics, the Game Physics should be employed to create house rules that enable the plot to function. The game mechanics bend to plot needs, and not vice-versa.

But there’s more to be said on the topic. Not all house rules are created equal, and some create more headaches than they are worth; and furthermore, a consistency of mechanics is also a desirable trait in a campaign. After all, if you can change the rules every week, it becomes impossible to make an intelligent choice of action. So there are valid counterarguments to the proposition, and the decisions are not as cut-and-dried as they might have seemed at the time. How, then, is the GM to decide?

There are two different considerations that enable the question to be reframed on a case-by-case basis, and when the immediate situation doesn’t provide a decisive conclusion, these considerations can usually be used to reach a decision. The first is practicality of mechanics, and the second – and arguably more important – is campaign consistency.

Practicality Of Mechanics

“How do you tell a good House Rule from a Bad?” That was the question that I posed in The Application Of Time and Motion to RPG Game Mechanics early last year. The basic principle that the article demonstrated is quite simple: the more frequently a game mechanic needs to be accessed in the course of play, the more sensitive that game mechanic is to any form of complication or delay.

If there are 3 combats in a game session, each of an average of 5 combat rounds, each involving 5 PCs and an average of 5 NPCs, each of whom take 30 seconds longer to complete their combat action as a result of a House Rule, the total lost playing time is a “mere” 75 minutes. And that completely ignores the fact that after a while, with combat slowed that much, side chatter will further delay play, as boredom and frustration take hold.

As Johnn found in one of his articles back when he was writing for Campaign Mastery, My Group’s Time Thief Revealed, the GM is more susceptible to these additional delays than anyone else at the table, simply because he has more on his plate already. A single rule that adds a mere 5 seconds to the time a player requires to act in combat may add four, five, six, or even ten times as much to the time the GM needs to perform the equivalent action for an NPC.

Let’s run that calculation again, taking this into account: 3 combats, 5 rounds per combat, 5 PCs, +5 seconds each; plus 3 combats, 5 rounds per combat, average of 5 NPCs, +25 seconds each: 6.25 minutes for players, 31.25 minutes for the GM. The Total is still more than 37 minutes lost out of each game session.

There are three ways of considering these facts in the context of Game Physics.

  • The first is to consider such losses to be offset by the amount of time saved for the GM by using the Game Physics to resolve unanswered questions within the game. If these two factors are anywhere close to equal, or if the Game time lost is less than that gained, then the Game Physics, as manifested within the new House Rule, are effectively conferring all the advantages of the Game Physics at no cost to the game – a win-win that is obviously acceptable.
  • The second is to determine that even if the balance between the two is tilted in the wrong direction, the game rule will only apply in limited and unusual circumstances, and as such won’t impact the game play to the same extent on most occasions – making it at least tolerable. Furthermore, the problem can perhaps be overcome by employing a more abstract form of combat for the occasion.
  • And the third is to determine that on this occasion, under these circumstances, the House Rule is too great a price to pay. Unless some shortcut can be found to simplify some other aspect of the combat as a counterbalance, the plot cannot be permitted to override the normal mechanics.

The net effect of these considerations is to frame the question in terms of the long-term impact on the campaign, transcending the plot-level considerations.

Campaign Consistency

The second consideration is campaign consistency. It has to be determined which is more valuable to the campaign: Consistency of rules, or consistency of game physics.

Both are important, and if the vast majority of House Rules and variant mechanics can be established at the very beginning of the campaign, it is possible to both have your cake and eat it, too. The problems only really arise when discussion turns to extending the house rules to accommodate some plot need that is not already catered for within the rules.

Consider the following logic:

  • It is “more harmful” to a campaign to use only established rules than it is to customize the rules to support the campaign.
  • It is more harmful to a campaign to continually chop and change rules than to consistently use a single body of rules.
  • Therefore, it is more harmful to institute temporary rules changes than it is to create and apply new House Rules that will are intended to apply henceforth.
  • It is more harmful to a campaign to have impractical house rules than to have practical house rules.
  • Therefore, it can be argued that the GM should reach his decision on the basis of which will do the least harm: A temporary house rule that is impractical, or not having a house rule that covers the circumstance at all and accepting that the simulation of the “reality” of the particular combination of genre and broader plot that constitutes this specific campaign is always going to be imperfect – and some plots simply will not work as a result of that imperfection, when addressing the imperfection does more harm than good.
  • The game physics describes the “world” in which play takes place, while the game mechanics are an imperfect representation in specific cases of that description.
  • Therefore, consistency of game physics is more important than consistency of game mechanics.

So, if a house rule passes the practicality test, and it can be considered to apply going forward within the campaign, then it is worth implementing it so that the game mechanics more accurately represent the game physics.

If one fails the practicality test, it can be still implemented as a temporary enhancement of the “simulation”, but should not be something that routinely affects play. It may therefore be necessary to cloak the plot in “unusual circumstances” to restrict the impact of the house rule.

The game physics doesn’t change from adventure to adventure. It may be extended, or refined, exceptions to general principles may be revealed in what was previously considered a universal rule. These exceptions may manifest as temporary house rules when practicality of play does not permit a more general solution.

Mechanics Vs Plot: The Game Physics tiebreaker

The result of these deliberations is that when the Game Mechanics, as modified by the existing House Rules, are inadequate for the correct operation of the plot, the choice of which should yield to the other should be made on the basis of consistency with the game physics. It is more useful to the campaign to spend time getting the Game Physics right than it is generating specific House Rules for the campaign.

Most GMs don’t distinguish between the two; they consider the creation and implementation of a House Rule to be a de-facto manifestation of the Game Physics. Whenever you hear of House Rules causing a problem for a GM, the reality is that one of two things has occurred: the GM has made that assumption and failed to address the bigger picture, or the House Rule in question has failed the practicality test. By separating the two, and describing the purpose of any given House Rule before such a rule is written, both these problems can be avoided, and a given House Rule (or existing official mechanic) can be replaced or updated as necessary to avoid or remove a problem.

Game Physics: Big Answers To Big Questions

That’s all well and good. It means that Campaign needs override everything else that you might consider – whether that is the game physics or the rules or even an individual plot, and that the campaign’s needs are best served by a consistent body of game physics principles. This is the principle that I was implying in one of my very first articles here at Campaign Mastery, A Quality Of Spirit – Big Questions in RPGs.

If you can describe, in abstract terms, what “Magic” is and how (in principle) it works within the bounds of a particular campaign, then you are better equipped as a GM to make decisions and game rulings because they will reflect that description. In order to decide on how the Afterlife works, i.e. what happens to a person within the game when they die, you have to decide exactly what a soul is, and the combination of those two answers informs decisions on everything from Resurrection Spells to Necromancy to the nature of the Gods and the nature of Undead, which in turn impacts on Clerical Turning.

All this adds up to the game physics – regardless of game system – being a central and essential element in defining a particular campaign, in specifying what twists and turns on the genre of choice are going to make this campaign unique and interesting. To a large extent, in fact, the game physics can ignore lesser questions, and take it as read that traditional physics will hold sway except where specific contradicted either directly by the Game Physics or by the implied game physics represented by the rules. This makes what can be a difficult creative job practical.

After all, very few of us have a string of doctorates in everything. We rely on reference books, acquired trivia, television, and the internet for our understanding of a whole brace of subjects. For an article I wrote (but can no longer find), I once listed the subjects that a good GM has to know and understand. It was about 20 lines long, listing 5 or 6 items (possibly more) on each line. In The Expert In Everything? I created a much shorter version of that list, which read “Biology, genetics, politics, history, music, art, sociology, real estate, banking, economics, computer science, software design, desktop publishing, cooking, geography, geology, thermodynamics, engineering, metallurgy, movies & media, publishing, journalism, mathematics” – and which even a quick glance now shows to be inadequate. At the very least I should add “agriculture, sailing, navigation, statistics, physics, statics, architecture, literature, chemistry, alchemy, manufacturing, industrial relations, race relations, diplomacy, negotiation, military theory, tactics & strategy, language and cognition, and medicine” to the list. And the history of every field listed. But this is the sort of list that simply grows, the more time you spend looking at it.

When Game Physics Breaks Down

The fact of the matter is that none of us are “Experts at everything” – and our effectiveness as a GM and as a creator often hinges on how well we can fake it. But no fake can ever be as good as the real thing. We’re sure to make mistakes in creating a game physics. We’re certain to overlook implications and applications. There are always going to be ideas that we didn’t think of.

Furthermore, it’s dead certain that at least one of your players will have greater expertise than you do in something on the list, and that none of your players think exactly the same way that you do. That means that they will inevitably push your game physics in unexpected areas, and explore your game physics from the perspective of their (real) expertise – finding the flaws that have resulted in your “faking it”.

I know at least one former GM (he no longer games) who refused to generate game physics for his campaigns because of his fears of inadequacy in this respect. But this doesn’t have to be the end of the world, if you plan for this inevitability in advance.

Closed Universe Game Physics vs. Open-ended Game Physics

There are two major philosophic approaches that can be adopted with respect to a game physics: it can either be considered a Closed Universe, or Open-ended.

Closed Universe Game Physics

In the closed universe approach, the game physics is static and unchanging. Whatever is defined at the start of the game is the last word on how things work, and anything that disagrees with that are interpretational errors on the part of either the GM or players. This effectively means that the more accurate topic-specific knowledge of a player can only apply where and how it fits with that game physics. The game world is different to the real world, and their expertise is “real world”; at best, they can simply highlight areas in which the two differ that you had not appreciated because you lacked the expertise to do so.

There are serious benefits to this approach. It’s much less work, and the GM is less likely to tie themselves in knots. Everyone starts off with the same knowledge base – though the GM has almost certainly spent more time thinking about the physics and its ramifications than the players have. The game physics itself is spelt out in black and white, iron-clad universal laws that everyone has to live or die with.

If you are the type of GM who is uncomfortable generating a game physics, or you are just starting out, or if you are seriously time-limited, this is probably the approach that you should consider. What’s more, the shorter the intended campaign, the less opportunity the players will have to push beyond the bounds of the known, and the more the reality will tend to default to this state of affairs regardless of what decision you make.

In particular, this approach tends to find favor with GMs who subscribe to the “GM is the last word, always right even when he is wrong” school, and those who dislike “cosmic”-level adventures and high fantasy.

Open-ended Game Physics

The alternative is to have the game physics represent the state of the art knowledge of the GM, and permit to expand and develop as shortcomings and inadequacies turn up. This approach means that what you describe to the players is the equivalent of classical physics; push it hard enough, and it may break.

The GM can be called upon at little or no notice to extend and improve that understanding of the universe. Early in a campaign, that won’t happen very frequently (in most cases) because the PCs simply don’t have the resources or understanding to push the game physics that hard. When they initially reach the sort of expertise level where they are working with the game physics to find solutions to their problems, there may be a flurry of demands on the GM to enhance the game physics, but as the most obvious holes are found and plugged, these will taper off.

This approach openly admits – without drawing a lot of attention to the fact – that the GM is not, in fact, an expert in everything, but is a human being of limited faculties and time. The Game Physics is defined as “the best that he can do at the time”.

This has the huge advantage in that the game physics is responsive to the players and PCs – it will grow in the areas they are interested in, and to encompass the tactics that they employ. And if one side or the other has a brilliant idea, it can be incorporated – provided that it doesn’t conflict with the past in a way that cannot be explained, retroactively. The Game Physics can perpetually get better, in other words.

If you are the kind of GM who can admit “I don’t know – yet”, or “I need time to think”; if you have a reasonable level of GMing expertise under your belt – two or three years of weekly play is usually more than enough; if you consider time spent on the game physics to be an investment in better understanding your campaign; if you enjoy high fantasy and playing with ideas, then this is the approach that is more likely to suit. It tends to go hand-in-glove with a more humble or “modern” attitude as a GM, and is particularly appropriate for those who plan long campaigns and enjoy “cosmic”-level adventures.

The longer the campaign runs, the more benefit that will derive from this approach – the greater the yield on your time-investment, in other words.

The Open Topology model

A variant on the Open-Universe approach is the “Open Topology” model, often a great compromise between the two. The GM spells out the key ideas within the game physics – the ones that will have an immediate impact on the campaign – and simply ignores the rest until it comes up in the course of play. He makes his decisions on the basis of what is most fun in the short-term and best for the campaign in the long run, and retroactively justifies these decisions with game physics each time a decision conflicts with the basic game mechanics.

The approach gets its name from (a) the fact that it is fundamentally an “open universe” model of game physics, and (b) the GM doesn’t know the ultimate shape of the game physics at any point.

I’ve employed it in the past, and while it is an adequate solution that minimizes the prep time spent on the Game Physics, it suffers from a few colossal drawbacks.

  • First, expanding the game physics becomes progressively harder work, because everything that has already happened within the campaign, every decision and every precedent, have to be accommodated in the revised-and-expanded game physics. Forget one, and you can get yourself caught in an incredible tangle.
  • Second, players can view it as “making up the rules as you go” – any whiff of suspicion of GM bias or anti-GM paranoia can explode, doing lasting harm not only to the campaign but to the relationships between the participants. I know one player who refuses to play under one specific GM because this happened – and to be fair, the GM bias in that case seems fairly clear-cut: the player told the GM what he wanted his character to be able to do, the GM agreed and spelt out a difficult and lengthy process that would enable the PC to achieve this, and – at the end of the process – the GM refused to let the PC have the ability in question, going so far as to change the rules to prevent it.
  • And third, you deprive yourself of the advantage to your decision-making that the game physics can provide. Consistency is sacrificed at the altar of “not enough prep time” (to put the most kindly face on it) or “sheer laziness” (to describe it in less forgiving terms).
Telling Less Than You Know

One solution that is usually a win-win is to tell less than you know. Give the players a cut-down version of the game physics – enough to capture the uniqueness of the campaign, and that adequately describes everything that the PCs would know about “how the world works” from their pre-game experience of living there. However, the GM has a far fuller and more robust Game Physics waiting in the wings for the players to discover as it makes a difference to their lives and the events that surround them. Sometimes, this results in things happening that the players cannot explain – but if they dig into those occurrences, and experiment, and consult experts, they will discover that there is an explanation. “This happens, but no-one knows why” in the game briefing material is a perfectly-acceptable answer. Giving three or four possible explanations – none of which are entirely correct – is an even better answer, because it more closely mimics the real world evolution of understanding of phenomena.

Coupling this approach with the Open Topology model of Game Physics often yields the best of all possible worlds, because it gives the GM the tools and benefits of the game physics while forestalling and potentially excluding entirely the need to expand it subsequently; and it provides another source of great adventures, ones built around someone taking advantage of the things that the players (and their characters) don’t know.

Fixing The Problem

Problems with the game physics tend to boil down to one of only a few things, when analyzed. Either there is an implication or application of the game physics that the GM hasn’t thought of that upsets the balance of power between PCs and NPCs, enabling the PCs to do things that the GM doesn’t want them to be able to accomplish for the long-term health of the campaign; or there is a part of the game physics that is inadequately defined, leaving the GM without the benefit of his guideline exactly when he needs it most; or there is a contradiction in the game physics that hasn’t been noticed previously; or the game physics won’t permit the GM to have an NPC do what his plot wants him to be able to do.

In other words, the game physics is incorrect, inadequate, erroneous, or bites the hand of its creator.

I’m not going to pretend that these aren’t potentially serious problems – they can be. But none of them need to be fatal.

New Implications of Pseudo-science

The first solution is to look at the rest of the Game Physics. Is there something you’re overlooking that can solve the problem? Fresh eyes can sometimes see possibilities that have been previously overlooked.

The Fuzziness Factor

In particular, are there any assumptions made by the existing game physics, especially the part with the problem, that might not be correct, or might be correct only part of the time? Can you solve the problem by refining the game physics you already have, in other words, by applying a fuzziness to it?

For example:

  • Problem: The game physics of multi-spacial timelines implies that you can jump from your current timeline into another, devote as much time to study or research as necessary to find a solution, then return to just after the moment you left in your current timeline.

    • Discussion: So long as none of the players tries this, and you haven’t been so short-sighted as to forget the principle that “Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander” – i.e. that anything an NPC can do, the PCs should also be able to do (at least in theory), you don’t have to worry about it. But when someone thinks of it – and they will – you need to address the problem. (This is an actual example from my Zenith-3 campaign). Nor was it being seriously proposed at the time – the players I have know that my game universe “actively conspires” to punish those who try to cheat the system. Nevertheless, I took the position that one of the PCs was asking “why not do this” and looking for an in-game answer purely out of player-curiosity.
  • Solution: There is an uncertainty factor that prevents such close targeting of the arrival point (partial solution); and there is a temporal shock when re-entering a timeline that is proportional to the differential between personal time experienced and the duration of events experienced in the timeline you are re-entering. Recent memories are particularly susceptible to damage as a result of this temporal shock, but physical trauma can result. What’s more, the uncertainty factor can increase the temporal shock exponentially.
    • Discussion: Fortunately, the inter-dimensional transits had always been portrayed as taking a measurable “perceived time” that was roughly 1:1 to the interval of duration in question. This was the first time that anyone had considered deliberately choosing to target their arrival time to disregard that perceived personal time experienced. I had done this because I wanted various threats and interactions between the characters to occur “en route”, but it could also serve to explain why this phenomenon had never been noticed by the PCs before, and the few exceptions that came close were all of very short duration – i.e. producing negligible temporal shock effects.
    • So, the assumption was that you could travel between dimensions and arrive unharmed unless you had encountered some hostile force en route, and that assumption could be rendered fuzzy – it’s accurate enough if you don’t try and rort the system, but as soon as you do, the universe smacks you around the ears.
    • NB: the question of why this had not been noticed previously was a critical requirement of the solution, because dimensional travel itself was already well-established within the campaign.
    • Further Discussion: The “uncertainty factor” had also been in place for quite a while – the more accurately you determined arrival point in space, the less accurately you could determine your arrival point in time, and vice-versa. Various enhancements to the technology used for dimension travel enabled a more precise “fix” on both, but some uncertainty remained.
    • Implementation: How best to make the players aware of this “enhancement” to the ground rules? Answer: by modifying an existing subplot to place demands on the PCs that would force them to experience Temporal Shock from trying to cram too many hours into a day. Temporal Shock played havoc with the PCs, and established that being the “brick” gave no resistance, and – indirectly – answered the question, “why can’t you do this?”
  • Still more discussion: Before I set out to find a reason not to do it, I first considered whether or not it was tolerable to permit it – was the partial solution imposed by the uncertainty factor enough of a control? I had momentary visions of a plotline in which some greedy dimension-traveler was selling “extra time” to students at a university, time that some of them were using for more nefarious purposes. It would have been a good plot, but ultimately I decided that the risks posed to game balance by granting the PCs and NPCs this capability were too great.
Pseudoscience Interactions Of Theory

Sometimes, solutions can be found from elsewhere in the game physics.

I’ve written in the past about the problem of “Elvish resurrection” that emerged when the Fumanor Campaign transited from 2nd edition to 3rd. The solution came not from anything related to Elves, but to the concepts of the afterlife itself, and the definitions of positive and negative energy, and to the fact that mummies were defined as positive-energy undead, unlike the others. Essentially, the process was impossible until it was successfully completed, and the first such success was the result of accidentally exploiting a “loophole” in the game physics. The implication was that just such a loophole had been exploited by other races in the past to enable them to be resurrected.

These thoughts and ideas then entwined with questions relating to the roles of the positive and negative planes in creating the Material Plane in the first place, which led to the “Cavern Realms of Zhin-Tarn” series of adventures in a sequel campaign; further reflection showed that the resulting plane would be unstable and would ultimately become unraveled unless action was taken by someone to correct the problem.

This led to a subsequent adventure at the conclusion of the “Caverns” series of adventures in which the Gods and Chaos Powers both attempted to stabilize the new material plane in a way that advanced their own respective agendas, with the PCs as their instruments.

A consequence of this was that an NPC became that “all powerful expert in everything” (the problem from the Zenith-3 campaign discussed in the previous section) as a result of having close to a century of twiddling his thumbs – but that will actually work to my benefit, making plausible that character’s ultimate retirement from the campaign in a way that suited the overall plotline and was only marginally believable without it. In a nutshell, that character has a destiny, and knows it, and has certain abilities to use in order to make that destiny possible. Pursuing that still-unrevealed destiny led to the circumstances in which he joined the party, which put him in a position to greatly enhance his abilities, thereby justifying (from the point of view of his destiny) his involvement with the party.

Four times, the game physics evolved – and each time, the campaign was strengthened and made richer, more complex, as a result.

Evolving understanding of the Game Universe to fill plot needs

And that’s also an example of the ultimate game physics development process within an Open Universe: Take advantage of the game physics to explain what your plots need to have happen, to lend verisimilitude to your creations, to make the game easier to administer, and enhance its uniqueness. If there is a plot need to be satisfied, first ensure that it’s acceptable for the PCs to also have (at least theoretical) access to the capability in question, and then expand the game physics as necessary. Treat problems as opportunities.

Rewards for Solutions

But, if you ever get really, really stuck, consider posing the problem to your players, offering some reward as a solution – or making it the PCs problem, and listening very hard to the players as they wrestle to discover a solution.

The players, both past and present, have had more input into my game physics in the Zenith-3 campaign than I think they realize. Even when they engage in a fruitless line of speculation while searching for an answer to the problem set before them by the current adventure, I’m paying close attention – first, so that I can work out where their plan goes off the rails, and how, and secondly, because I can sometimes apply their reasoning to another aspect of the game physics, solving potential problems before they manifest, and keeping the game physics one step ahead of the best understanding of the players.

Few campaigns have the longevity of the Zenith-3 campaign and its forebears; it is now approaching its 34th anniversary. There are adults out there whose parents weren’t born when the campaign started (Adults at 18 years, born when parents were 16 years old, = parents born 34 years ago)! One of the reasons for the survival of the campaign for this long has been the Game Physics, the fundamentals of which remain unchanged from their initial creation all those years ago.

Game Physics matter

I opened this series with the statement, “Game Physics’ is a term that not enough GMs take the time to think about in depth.” This exploration has uncovered the reasoning behind that statement. The way the game world works is something that GMs need to take seriously, and enhance to suit their games as necessary – because those games will in turn be enhanced many-fold as a result.

That wraps up this series on Game Physics. I hope that my readers have gotten something worthwhile from it. Next week, if all goes according to plan, a three-part series on Cinematic Combat!

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The Best Of 2013


A large part of 2013 was given over to expanding the background of my Fumanor campaign by telling the story of the origins of Elves and Orcs. But there was quite a lot of other great stuff along the way! Milestones within the year include the absolutely massive 500th post (so big that it broke the software), and the 5th anniversary special that saw out the year. But for the most part, it was a year of building on past successes and quietly ticking the weeks off the calander, one after another.

By the time of that 5th anniversary, though, some impressive numbers had been racked up. In five years, Campaign Mastery had amassed 444,000 visits; 283,000 unique visitors (so quite a lot of regular readers, in fact more than three times what is typical of most websites’ loyal audiances), and a grand total of over 800,000 pageviews.

All told, it was a good year, and that’s reflected in the number of articles listed below. To get it down to the 24 selections on offer, I cut half-a-dozen items that were initially listed from the “Location, Location, Location” blog carnival; this was possible only because – as host – I could replace them with the article that rounds up all the submissions that were recieved, and – as usual – treated series as a single entry.

But I also had to cull some really excellent articles, like the one that asked whether or not humans were still evolving, and the one that looked at the intellectual-property crisis that continues to rumble on, to this day. I’m still arguing with myself about cutting the article on Hyperreality and its impact on RPGs, and the one on the way Social Media and SEO are changing the internet! These three are easily amongst the most thought-provoking articles of the year, and still current.

The article on Bluffing In The Hero System survived until the very last minute, simply because it’s something that few game systems handle very well (and that specific game system, not at all). And then, there’s the article on institutional secrecy, which I’ve put in and taken out half-a-dozen times while preparing this chosen list.

After some very hard choices, though, the cream have once again risen.

The Best Of 2013

Finally, an article that took months to create and that merits special attention. So big that it broke our delivery systems,

is both unworthy of inclusion and – at the same time – more deserving of inclusion than any other article on this list. Unworthy, because it doesn’t actually contain anything new of direct benefit to a GM; more deserving than any other, because it is easily the article that I most frequently consult. Why? Because it’s a list of articles published to date by Campaign Mastery, organized by topic, with a review/synopsis of each article.

The astute may have noticed that I actually intended to publish this in mid-to-late February. But at the time I was hip-deep in two major series – New Beginnings and a four-part Ask-The-GMs – that were consuming all my available time and energy. So why is it appearing now?

This is Campaign Mastery’s
Seven Hundredth Post!

What’s more, sometime in the two or three weeks, CM will have our (wait for it!!!)
1 Millionth Pageview!

How better to celebrate?

When will the next in the series appear? Well, the 750th post is scheduled to occur a week before Christmas – just two weeks before Campaign Mastery’s official 7th Birthday – and almost exactly when current numbers forecast our 600,000th visitor! I have something special in mind to celebrate that event, but that would be telling…

Suffice it to say that December 2015 is going to be busy, and that “The Best Of 2014″ is currently planned to be part of it!

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Plunging Into Game Physics Pt 3: Tales From The Ether

Dispersion prism

Original Image: “Dispersion prism”, artist unknown, uploaded to WikiMedia Commons by Florenco~commonswiki. Licensed under CC SA 1.0 via Wikimedia Commons. Click on image to view license.

In this series, I’ve been looking into the subject of Game Physics.

Part one examined what a ‘game physics’ is, and what one can be used for.

Part two focused in on one particular application, the generation and validation of House Rules.

In this third part, the subject is the relationship between Game Physics and Plot…

Game Physics as a driver of Plot

If a Game Physics can extend the range of options available to a character – either PC or NPC – then the existence of those options has to expand the storytelling palette on both sides of the GM screen.

Players love knowing that the world their characters inhabit makes sense, even if neither players nor characters fully understand it. (Rhetorical question: how many readers fully understand the world we live in?) Achieving that understanding can be accomplished by memorizing every rule and understanding how they all interact with each other under every possible permutation of conditions, or by understanding the Game Physics that those rules embody.

Because a Game Physics is a simplified and abstracted set of principles that the GM has designed for ease of use when he is busy dealing with the minutia of running the game, it is usually more rational and more easily understood than a rules hodgepodge. If the principle has been established that the Game Physics overrides the rules when necessary, the second choice is clearly the better of the two.

And, because all game physics – just like the physics of the real world – are imperfectly understood, and can be extended by asking the right questions and conducting the appropriate research to answer these questions – there are obvious plot opportunities. NPCs who understand some aspect of the game physics better than most inhabitants of the game world can do things that appear impossible, even miraculous, to those who don’t know what they know. Such plots challenge the players to understand what their enemies know, expanding their own knowledge of the game physics, in search of ways of neutralizing the advantage that those enemies posses.

Some of the very best science fiction takes this as its primary plot. So does some absolute drek, so it is no guarantee of quality, but it’s at least a start. But the same principles apply to any genre.

When I first started my TORG campaign, I deliberately started the campaign a year before the invasion of Earth and the Possibility Wars, simply because these were dramatic developments in the lives of all PCs and I wanted the players to experience them rather than having them occur in some past that was only alluded to in character creation. While I could have chosen any of the settings, the one that appealed most to me was the Fantasy realm of Aysle.

But there was a problem: the world simply didn’t make sense, as described. A flat disc of a world with different topography on each side, much smaller in size than Earth, yet it somehow had something clearly similar to normal gravity. I solved this problem by inventing a new material – I no longer remember the name – and lacing the subterranean earth with it. This material generated increasing gravitational pull as it was heated – but in a non-linear way. Thus, gravity was substantially less on mountaintops, enabling the creatures there to grow larger, and was most intense underground and near volcanoes. In particular, it meant that Dragons naturally sought mountaintops to live on.

This one piece of game physics produced all the attributes of continental drift, mountain formation, earthquakes, and so on. This produced the topography that was observed, which was clearly unbalanced, and produced a tumble like a coin that had been flipped as the sun orbited the world, creating day and night cycles and generating weather and climate. The topography was also clearly unbalanced, producing an oscillating back-and-forth motion as the “penny” tumbled, creating seasons. Uneven heating of land and water meant that things weighed more in summer and less in winter – so the best time to transport heavy loads was in Spring and Autumn, as close to winter as possible before travel became more difficult due to snow and ice.

Most of these effects were specified, or at least implied, in the world description in the official sourcebook, without explanation.

The second principle of the game physics was that life was more mutable in form than is normal for earth. Dwarves were short because they lived underground, closer to the pull of gravity, and that also made them stronger. Elves were taller and slighter because they lived on the slopes of mountains. Should either move into human regions, two or three generations would have seen them assume human proportions and capabilities.

The first major plot arc dealt with the rise of a terrifying Dragon which cause mass panic; infused with Possibility Energy by the conspirators who sought to seize control of the world, this was bigger, stronger, and faster than any Dragon ever before seen, and had abilities that no dragon had ever possessed before. The PCs were tasked with destroying the Draco Necromantus, hunting it down, tracking it to its lair, and killing it. This put them on the periphery of the power struggle for the throne, able to view events from afar, and continually getting caught in the secondary impacts of each political move and counter-move, discovering the organized conspiracy too late; the invasion of Earth was underway by the time they completed their mission, and the government that had sent them on their quest overthrown. At the same time, they were discovering hitherto-unknown abilities of their own, transforming into Storm Knights, giving them the ability to deal with the creature they hunted.

This then enabled them to cross the dimensional boundary and enter the world of the Transformed Earth, discovering that their problems were only a small part of a much larger problem.

Throughout, the Game Physics was entwined in the plot. To reach the capital after the overthrow of Pella Ardinay and invasion of Earth, the PCs traveled by Dwarfish Mass Transit. A State secret that all Dwarves knew, but that was secret from all other races (until this crisis), this consisted of millions of miles of mineshaft with rails, traveled by ore-carts the size of buses. A chunk of Material X (I still can’t remember the name) was attached at one end of the cart beneath a torch; as it grew hot, it shifted “down” from vertical to an angle forward of the front of the cart, permitting it to perpetually roll “downhill” even when gaining in altitude.

The entire subterranean crust of Aysle was honeycombed with these tunnels. It didn’t take long for truly terrifying speeds to be achieved – even a constant acceleration of 1/4 G will get get you there (approx 2.5 m/s/s):

  • After 1 second: 2.5m/s.
  • 2 sec: 5 m/s.
  • 3 sec: 7.5 m/s.
  • 60 sec: 180 m/s.
  • 5 mins: 750 m/s.
  • 30 mins: 4500 m/s.

Multiply by 3.6 to get km/h:

  • 1 sec: 9 km/h.
  • 2 sec: 18 km/h.
  • 3 sec: 27 km/h.
  • 60 sec: 648 km/h.
  • 5 mins: 2700 km/h.
  • 30 mins: 16,200 km/h.

Tracks were graded according to maximum permitted speed: in some slow stretches, the limit was 50 km/h, in the transcontinental express “lanes”, up to 1000 km/h was regarded as “safe”. These were purely arbitrary; nor did I bother calculating the absolute top speed (terminal velocity), but set it at an entirely arbitrary 5000km/h. “Stops” for this subway were located in all Dwarven communities and beneath the major settlements of other races.

Traveling to-and-from the nearest “subway station” was frequently the lengthiest part of any journey, but Dwarves could get troops from A to B faster than anyone who didn’t expend a LOT of arcane energy on apportation magic. “Ship via Dwarf – when it absolutely has to be there in a week or less!”

Of course, the Dwarves kept this a secret, making up tall tales of “running all night” to reach the battlefield, and creating an enduring legend around their endurance in the process!! Everyone on the surface was convinced that the Dwarves were exaggerating their prowess in battle – but no-one was ever willing to call their bluff, because they had the nasty little habit of reaching battlefields in numbers and looking fresh as daisies faster than was possible to even mounted riders!

Plot as a driver of Game Physics

It works in the other direction, too. You can have a plot need and expand your game physics to make some desired plot development plausible and possible. Step by step, inch by inch, this builds depth, uniqueness, and consistency into your game world.

For example, in the Zenith-3 campaign, there was a space-time facing imminent heat-death. Their greatest scientist discovered a way of opening an interdimensional conduit to take advantage of the energy differential between the two, effectively “bleeding off” their excess entropy into other dimensions. The concept was based on Isaac Asimov’s novel The Gods Themselves. There were also elements from two novels by James P. Hogan, The Genesis Machine (not one his best novels, to be honest, but not bad) and The Proteus Operation (definitely one of his more enjoyable efforts!) The basic foundations of the situation already existed in the game physics describing the possible differences between space-times, but the game physics needed to expand to describe this new way of harnessing the differences. This was made immeasurably easier because I had already drawn on “The Gods Themselves” for inspiration in creating the existing game physics.

  • Click here to buy The Gods Themselves from Amazon. Limited copies.
  • Click here to buy The Genesis Machine from Amazon. Limited copies.
  • Click here to buy The Proteus Operation from Amazon. Limited copies.

The Ouroboros Development Cycle

In some campaigns, you can enter a wonderful cycle in which you spot a potential plot deriving from your game physics, development of which further develops the game physics, which leads to the discovery of new potential plots. Like the mythical snake swallowing its own tail, this cycle can be repeated time after time. So long as these plots are interspersed with stories deriving from other sources, especially the history, personalities, and activities of the PCs, they won’t grow stale.

A wonderful example of this takes place periodically within the Stargate SG-1 TV show. Almost every season has at least one episode in which a peculiarity of the way the Gate operates is central to the plot, and in almost every case the knowledge acquired in dealing with the problem later provides the solution to a completely unrelated problem. The Second Gate, the Black Hole episode, the Parallel World episode, the time-travel-to-1969 episode, the Groundhog Day episode, the time Jack gets trapped off-world when the gate is buried by a volcanic eruption, using the gate to explode a star, Sokhor’s attack to get SG1 to hand over the captured and dying Apophis… the list goes on and on (I could name the actual episodes, and put them in sequential order, but I thought these off-the-top-of-my-head snapshot synopses would better connect with the typical reader).

Each of these episodes clearly began development as a “What If…” question. Explaining the “Show Physics” that justifies that particular circumstance expands that physics (plot as the driver), but that in turn expands the show’s Canon, the repertoire of tricks up the sleeves of the Heroes – and the villains – which then drives future episodes, either by creating new conundra for the protagonists to solve, or by furnishing the solutions to such problems – when correctly applied.

Plot as exposition of Game Physics

There is – or should be – nothing in the Game Physics without a reason for its inclusion (One of the best justifications is the plot potential, and another is a definite look-and-feel for the campaign). That justification manifests as potential plotlines.

That means that one of the best times to come up with plot ideas for later use is during the initial development of the game physics itself. I have, for a very long time, been an advocate of keeping an “Ideas File” for plotlines, and this is where at least some of those Ideas come from to populate that file.

The benefits should be self-evident, but I’ll spell them out anyway: Because the Game Physics is increasingly unique to the particular campaign that you are running, these plots derive explicitly from the uniqueness of that campaign, and each such plot further enhances and develops that uniqueness. Verisimilitude and internal consistency are inevitable side-effects!

Possible Plot Manifestations

So, what are the possible Game Physics manifestations of a plot? They come down to four basic models: Need, Desire, Motivation, and Capability.

  • Need: The plot needs something to happen, and the GM asks how that occurrence is possible within the Game Physics.
  • Desire: A character wants something, and the GM asks how that desire can be satisfied using the Game Physics.
  • Motivation: A character needs a motivation to do what the plot requires them to do, and the GM answers that requirement with a consequence of the existing Game Physics or an extension of that Physics.
  • Capability: A character needs a particular capability, or needs the capability demanded by the plot to be explained within the Game Physics.

Any of these four plot-related elements can lead to an extension of the Game Physics, and the discovery of that extension by the protagonists is part of the resulting plotline.

Plotlines from Game Physics

The flip side of the coin is the derivation of plotlines from the existing Game Physics. The same four plot elements manifest:

  • Need: The GM spots an interesting consequence or peculiarity of the Game Physics and creates a plotline in which that consequence or peculiarity is featured as either problem or solution.
  • Desire: The PCs want to achieve something that is inherent in the Game Physics as the players understand it. The plot is about the transition from theory to practical application, and the consequences and side-effects. Challenges will often result from extending the Game Physics, and extensions to the Game Physics will frequently result from the GM’s need to pose challenges for the PCs to solve.
  • Motivation: The GM Game Physics makes something possible; the GM creates a character who desires to achieve that something, for whatever reason. The plot revolves around the steps that the character takes to achieve the something, and the PCs interacting with those steps or with the consequences.
  • Capability: The GM notices that the Game Physics can be used to give a character a capability not described within the “official” rules. Giving a character that ability forces the PCs to come to terms with the Game Physics as distinct from those “official” rules, establishing the primacy of the Game Physics and spelling out some part of that Physics through practical manifestation.

As feared, I’m out of time and still have a smallish post’s worth to write – so there will be a part four to this series, when I expand the horizons and consider Game Physics and the Campaign.

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A Vague Beginning

autumn morning road

‘Autumn Morning Road’, photo by Ivanmarn. Click on the image to visit his website (‘Lux Enigmae’).

Having just finished the “New Beginnings” series only a few weeks ago, I had no intention of publishing another article on the subject of campaign design for quite a while. Plans changed…

An Endless Vista

All campaigns start on a blank sheet of paper, which presents an endless vista of possibilities. This is not all that dissimilar to a sculptor working with a block of stone or wood; every choice narrows the possibilities, slowly revealing the shape that was always hidden within the source material, by eliminating everything that was extraneous to that design.

Each block has its unique attributes that make it more suitable for this shape than that, more amenable to one set of artistic expressions than the others that are possible. In campaign design, the limitations – of experience, desire, and style – of the GM and the players serve a similar function, limiting the endless vista and imposing a horizon beyond which the campaign cannot go – at least initially.

A genius sculptor can look at a block of material and see the possibilities within before a single stroke of their hammer. The results of their efforts are polished and nuanced with implied content and context that goes way beyond the superficial perceptions of shape and line. An expert can chip away at the block of stone with some broad preconceived ideas and then refine the revealed shape as best they can, eventually achieving something that looks pretty, and may even have one or two novel perceptions to offer that make it unique. A novice hacks away almost at random until a shape emerges, then does his best to polish away the imperfections – but can never put back any pieces they have torn away and that should not have been.

Campaign design is a similar process. A genius can consider all the possibilities and craft a series of campaigns that are unique and distinctive, with philosophical meat underpinning the superficialities, and nothing that does not contribute to the overall experiencing of that uniqueness. An experienced craftsman can create something that is playable and even somewhat interesting, but which may have a kitchen sink on one side for no apparent reason. And the novice starts with a rough idea and no real underlying logic, and polishes this aspect and that until a contradiction – a flaw – brings the whole lot crashing down.

The early design steps of campaign creation are therefore the most important to defining the shape of the final campaign. They should be the most carefully considered and should always be decided with the final objectives in mind. Fortunately, campaign designers have a huge advantage over our hapless sculptor; we have no trouble at all re-attaching something we’ve discarded, provided that we recognize the need to do so.

Campaign Re-design

It follows that any campaign can benefit from being re-imagined through any creation system or guideline offered to the GM. Every campaign generation technique, from any source, offers the opportunity of asking the GM questions that he has not considered previously, and assessing their relevance and impact. The very least outcome from such processing is a reality check on the campaigns’ foundations, but very few of us – myself included – are geniuses; it is infinitely more likely that at least some of the questions raised by such processes will reach into unexplored territory.

The answers to such unanswered questions provide two benefits of unquestionable value: A better understanding of the campaign and the “world” (history or cosmology or whatever) that serves as its backdrop; and a new source of adventures intended to explore the new territory.

Initial Questions

What objectives should a GM Choose? What path leads to the optimum result, and how can a GM strive to unleash whatever genius he can bring to his creation?

There are three decisions that should come before any others:

  1. A central idea that inspires your creativity
  2. A conceptual focus that can give the campaign a name, and around which all other campaign elements can be framed
  3. Something that will make this campaign different or unique.

With these decisions made, you can write a campaign premise – a single paragraph on each of the three decisions made, and another on how each relates to the other two.

For example:

  • the first idea might be “The spirits of nature have awakened and seek to reclaim their domination over the world”;
  • the second might be “The Source Of All Evil”;
  • and the third might be “Devils and demons abide in a hellish underworld – not because they were corrupted or fell from grace, but because they have been serving as the jailers of spirits of this nature. Because of the psychological effects of acting as a prison guard, their behavior has become violent, destructive, and evil. The only reason the forces of Good oppose them is to prevent them from inflicting this behavior on innocents.”

Right away in this example, a cosmology and a Theology is starting to suggest itself, in which Devils and Demons are not so much “fallen angels” as “angels doing a thankless job”, they are both part of a larger society of heaven, and allied to those more frequently associated with the Divine. The campaign would be easy to develop from this starting point.

Questions Not Considered

It is equally important to note what decisions have not been made at this point.

  1. There has been no consideration of game genre; this plotline would work for a fantasy genre, or an early-20th century horror (such as Call Of Cthulhu), a modern horror, an action-adventure set in modern times, a western (heavy emphasis on the tribal Indian mythos), a superhero campaign, a post-apocalyptic campaign, or possibly even a near-future science-fiction campaign. It wouldn’t work all that well as a high-tech/hard science fiction campaign, as a pulp campaign, or as a super-spy campaign though, and there are other choices that might be problematic, such as a Pirates campaign.
  2. There has been no consideration of game system; it could be anything from Empire Of The Petal Throne to Pathfinder to D&D. As with the first undecided factor, there will be some game systems that are less than felicitous in providing a vehicle for this campaign – Traveller is a little doubtful, and The Lord Of The Rings would be downright dubious.
  3. There has been no consideration of what type of campaign the players want to play in.
  4. There has been no consideration of what style of game the GM will feel most comfortable running.
Genre & Game System

Only once the campaign premise has been defined should answers to the four questions above be considered. Again, I would start by listing all the genres that are suitable, and making a note on how the genre would influence the ideas given. Once I was satisfied with that list, I would then define for each any special requirements of the game mechanics. The game system for the example offered would need to be able to handle beings of divine power, and an abstract combat system would probably suit the campaign better than a very detailed, complex one.

What you are looking for is the genre that offers the greatest scope for adventures set within the campaign, i.e. the genre with the greatest creative potential; and the game system that (a) works best within that genre, and (b) meets the specific criteria. Only then can player desires and GM confidence be taken into account – there will usually be one obvious winning combination.

In effect, the analysis of potential genres and rules systems (questions 4 and 5 respectively) creates a pair of shortlists that preferential differentiation (questions 6 and 7) can then choose between.

Abandoning The Design

And it might be the case that what you’ve come up with is an interesting idea in which none of your players will want to participate, or that you are not able to GM, or confident in GMing, for whatever reason. When that’s the case, it’s usually best to file the concept away for use some other time, and start over with different answers to the three big questions.

Subsequent Design Decisions

Assuming that the campaign design premise is suitable, the design process can move ahead. The next decisions are equally basic:

  1. Who are the PCs going to be (in general)?
  2. What sort of local environment will offer that general type of PC the maximum opportunity to interact with the campaign premise in interesting ways?
  3. How much of what the campaign is all about should the Players be told in advance?
  4. And, in a related question, how much should the PCs know?

For a modern campaign built around our example premise, I would probably go with the personnel of a military base, including a PC chaplain and at least one PC officer. For a post-apocalyptic take on the premise, the crew of a nuclear submarine – again, with chaplain and officers – might be a better choice. Both offer opportunities to compartmentalize and restrict character knowledge, confining the scope of what needs to be prepped before play can begin, without restricting the scope for adventure.

Perhaps equally interesting might be intelligent talking animals – either inspired by Planet Of The Apes or by Komandi, or some combination. A Fantasy Campaign would use experienced adventurers. A Call Of Cthulhu campaign might revolve around an elite team of specialists brought together by a half-mad librarian or detective who has figured out part of the background situation.

In terms of location, I would put the military base (modern campaign) close to some mythic or theological location – Greece, Egypt, Jerusalem, or Stonehenge, for example – to give the maximum potential to interact with religion and theology. The submarine crew (post-apocalyptic) would be a traveling campaign using the Sub as both central base of operations and vehicle to travel from one location to another (read: one adventure to another,) and so on.

These decisions are sometimes sufficient, but usually you will need some kind of campaign background to tell the players what their characters know about the world, and that will require further campaign decisions. How much to tell the players is a more difficult question, and the obvious starting point for the next phase of campaign design. The more you can keep up your sleeve, for discovery in-play, the better, but at the same time, you have to be careful of the expectations that can arise from the choice of game system – players will expect something specific from D&D, and something quite different from Call Of Cthulhu. If you have chosen a game system with such expectations, you should make certain that the players know what’s different from the usual up front premise, even if they don’t know why those elements have changed.

Further Questions

You also have to bear in mind the sensibilities of the players; each time you think you’ve explained enough of the world to them, the following questions should be silently posed:

  1. If I were a player in this campaign and only knew what was in this briefing material, would I be satisfied with the state of my knowledge?
  2. Would I feel short-changed or cheated, when the content that isn’t provided is discovered?
  3. Can I tell what the style and general substance of the campaign is going to be, from this material?
  4. Are there any classes or races or occupations or other character choices which are going to be undermined in this campaign – and how can players be warned against these combinations without tipping the GMs hand?
  5. Are there any classes or races or occupations that are going to be more important than usual in this campaign – and does something need to be done to prevent them dominating it? How can that be done without giving the game away?

Only when the answers are all at least satisfactory can the campaign be considered ready-to-run, i.e. ready to generate adventures and accept PCs.

Deferred Questions, Hidden Answers, and Open, Closed, & Linking Decisions

All decisions in a campaign background can be simplified to a question and an answer. Each of these answers will be one of three possible types: open, closed, or linking.

  • A closed answer does nothing but restrict possibilities.
  • An open answer might close the door on some possibilities but open a window onto another.
  • A linking answer ties two seemingly-unrelated answers together.

The objective is to confine and constrain the campaign as little as possible, gradually working from the general to the specific.

Let’s say – as the basis for discussion – that the world in question is one that has been overrun by immensely-powerful, immensely-dangerous, demon-worshiping Goblins. This decision is clearly an open one, because it immediately implies a string of further questions: Which Demon is worshiped? Or are the Goblins polytheistic? How did this situation come about? What abilities do the Goblins actually have? What impact did this have on Goblin Society? What Impact did it have on Human Society? What Impact did it have on Elves, and Dwarves? What impact on Theology and Clericism? and, last but not least, How will all this affect the PCs? When you have an inspiring foundation, like that one initial statement, it throws shoots off in all sorts of directions.

The first step in answering this myriad of questions is to decide whether or not each question can be Deferred until a later time – i.e. in-play.

If it can’t be deferred, the second step is to decide whether or not the players need the answer right now, (prior to character generation) or if it can be revealed in the course of the campaign. A related sub-step should consider the possibility of a false or misleading answer to the question being served up to the players in the campaign briefing. These add a lot to the nature of the campaign, because they build a plot twist into the very fabric of the game that you are going to run; but this plot twist must not be predictable or it will be just plain boring. At the same time, this again raises the prospect of player expectations and the risk of them feeling deceived; it is a fine line to tread.

The final step is to answer each of the litany of questions using one of the three decision types summarized in bullet form.

Closed Answers In Detail

Closed answers are the ones to use when the answer pulls a campaign in a direction you don’t want it to go. They circumscribe the limits of the game, indicating “this is not what the campaign’s about”. They take a short, immediate, and declarative form.

An example might be in answer to the question, “What impact did it [the changes to Goblins] have on Elves and Dwarves?”; a closed answer would be “the Goblins killed them all in a terrible war 300 years ago”. This means that you will accept no Half-Elves, Elves, or Dwarves as PCs, at least so long as this answer is in effect. If the PCs discover a lost tribe or something, that can change at some future time, but for the moment, this answer is closed, it reduces the number of options available for the campaign, and it is essential information for the players to have so that they don’t waste time generating Elves and Dwarves.

Open Answers In Detail

As a rule of thumb, early decisions will tend to be either closed or open, with very few Linking Answers. Later in the campaign development process, there will be few Open Questions and a preponderance of either Linking or Open Questions.

An Open answer is one that mentions a new subject or noun. They open up new lines of questioning. I’m a strong advocate for an organized, hierarchical, approach to questions; anything else risks leaving things out.

In D&D, for example, a suitable format for such a hierarchical approach might be:

  • Humans

    • Origins
    • Society
    • Geography
    • Politics
    • Theology
    • History
    • Economy
    • Trade
    • Race Relations

    …and so on

  • Elves
    • Same list as humans
  • Dwarves
    • Same list as humans
  • Halflings
    • Same list as humans
  • Orcs
    • Same list as humans
  • Ogres
    • Same list as humans
  • Trolls
    • Same list as humans
  • Dragons
    • Same list as humans

…and so on through the entire list of sentient races and some of the more significant non-sentient species.

  • Clerics

    • Origins
    • Power Source
    • History
    • Society & Organization
    • Geography
    • Politics
    • Economic Profile
    • Social Class
    • Class Relations

    …and so on

  • Magic-Users
    • Same list as Clerics
  • Sorcerers
    • Same list as humans

…and so on through the entire list of character classes

  • Magic

    • Origins
    • Manifestations
    • Accessibility
    • Limitations
    • Constructs
    • History
    • Game Physics

    …and so on

  • Gods
    • Same list as Magic
  • The Afterlife
    • Same list as Magic
  • Resurrection
    • Same list as Magic
  • Dungeons
    • Same list as Magic
  • Cosmology
    • Same list as Magic

…and so on through the entire list of overarching concepts, including some racial/class special abilities.

There are, quite frankly, so many questions to be answered in this list that most campaign designs don’t even think about most of them. Applying the list to the initial concept – “a world that has been overrun by immensely-powerful, immensely-dangerous, demon-worshiping Goblins” – is the equivalent of asking what impact that concept has upon the specific subject.

The example went on to ask how the concept altered Elves and Dwarves – in the previous section, the GM attempted to close that door in order to confine his campaign to manageable proportions, but its not that easy. Stating that “the Goblins wiped out the Elves and Dwarves in a terrible war 300 years ago” (as I did as an example of a closed question) immediately brings up new questions anyway, such as “Why were the Elves and Dwarves targeted? If they weren’t specifically targeted, why were the Goblins more successful against them than they were against other races? What did the Elves and Dwarves leave behind?” and so on.

Linking Answers In Detail

Closed and Open Answers can be viewed as threads in the tapestry that is the campaign. Sooner or later, those threads will start to connect with other threads to form patterns. For example, the question “What did the Elves and Dwarves leave behind?” (just posed) could be answered: “Ruins – Abandoned mineshafts and fallen towers and collapsed forts, keeps, and castles, all of which have since become lairs for monstrosities and other creatures”.

This immediately connects the new inhabitants with a Dwarfish or Elven Legacy, not to mention the concept of Dungeons in general. It wouldn’t take much further development to connect Elven Forests that have now gone “wild” with the concept of Druids and their source of power.

Linking answers are vitally important because they unify the campaign concept and its implications; they interconnect different elements of the campaign, so that it doesn’t matter from which direction the PCs approach the campaign world, one question about its nature will lead to another, until ultimately the entire concept of the campaign is accessible.

Static vs. Dynamic campaigns

If that was as far as the campaign went, it would be a “static” campaign, one in which the subject is to explore and interact with the existing campaign world. But players have a bad habit of wanting to get involved, of seeking ways to change and manipulate the circumstances they encounter to achieve outcomes more to their own liking. As soon as the GM permits a change in the campaign environment – social, political, theological, economic – to go beyond the arms’ reach of the PCs, his campaign is on the verge of transforming from a static to a dynamic frame of reference.

A dynamic campaign is one in which a change or plot development occurs, instigated by either a PC or NPC, and others react in response to that change, and others react to that initial reaction, and so on. While it is possible for campaigns to be dynamic only in response to PC-initiated actions, these tend to feel limp and lifeless; it is far better for the GM to initiate at least one stimulus via an NPC for each action initiated by the Players.

There is, in fact, an entire spectrum of possible degrees of evolution within a campaign, from ‘static’ at one extreme all the way through to a campaign in which every group within the campaign either reacts to an existing stimulation or initiates a new stimulus in order to achieve some ambition of their own.

Directed vs. Undirected evolution

Most campaigns will fall upon some central point upon the Static-to-dynamic spectrum rather than at an extreme; in other words, there will be some ongoing evolution of the campaign background and premise as play proceeds. The game world that the next group of PCs enter will have been altered somewhat by the prior existence of the last group of PCs.

This evolution can take one of two forms: it will either be anarchic and chaotic, with each group attempting to advance its own agenda and the plotlines manifesting as events swirling around a central focus; or it will have an overall trend that has been dictated in advance by the GM in order to create a vaster, more sweeping plotline. The anarchic approach can be termed “Undirected Evolution” while the more disciplined, pre-planned, approach can be termed “Directed Evolution”.

Get Off The Plot Train

A lot of GMs seem to strike trouble when they attempt Directed Evolution, especially in the form of plot trains; but these are surprisingly easy to avoid with a slight change in the way they prepare their campaigns.

The solution is to decide on the direction of the evolution extremely early in the design process, and then to build the desired “direction of evolution” into the ambitions of a number of different groups – whether they be races or professions. This permits the PCs to meddle as they see fit, derailing or interacting with the plots of each group as they encounter them, while the overall direction remains blissfully untouched. “When it’s time to railroad, everyone invents steam engines” is the general idea.

Let us postulate four groups – call them A, B, C, and D. Each of these groups, by definition of who they are and what they want to achieve, are sufficient to lead the campaign in the direction the GM wants it to go. The PCs can happily derail the plans of group A, stall the plots of group B, and discombobulate group C. The evolution will continue as a result of the machinations of group D. And, by the time the PCs have smashed D:

  • group A will have had time to regather its forces and come up with a new plan to achieve their objectives;
  • group B will be recovering from the setbacks dealt them by the party;
  • groups E and F will have arisen from the ashes of group C; and,
  • group G will have arisen after someone saw an opportunity for personal gain from all the preceding events!

The net result is that there are no plot trains, but the campaign arrives at the destination that the GM desired all along.

The key is ensuring that the ‘right’ goals, structure, and ambitions are built into those groups from the outset – and that’s easier to do when they are being created and defined in the first place, rather than grafting them on at a later date.

Let’s consider the example campaign with the Goblins: the GM’s ambition might be to maintain the status quo despite the best efforts of the PCs, or for things to degenerate into an ever-more-desperate struggle for survival, or for the PCs to be at the forefront of the recovery of society from the low point at which the campaign starts. Or perhaps the whole Goblin/Demon invasion is just a red herring to occupy the players while the real plot is manifesting behind closed doors. It doesn’t matter what the overall plotline is that the GM wants to incorporate; what’s more important is that it be built into the campaign from the ground up, inevitable and implacable, so that the GM can be an absolutely neutral and bipartisan referee when it comes to adjudicating player actions and their consequences.

And not a plot train in sight!

A Life Of Its Own

Leaving as many options open as possible means that a GM has the maximum possible scope for the players to influence the direction of events and of the campaign, shaping it towards what they want to play. As soon as a PC enters the picture, every campaign takes on a life of its own; not only will player contributions and actions shape the campaign, so will GM responses and reactions to those contributions and actions. No background element is set in stone until the players discover it, and sometimes not even then.

Leave your campaign design room to breathe, and it will also have room to grow, throwing off unexpected offshoots, unusual branches, and deep roots; becoming the sort of campaign that everyone remembers for years afterwards. The key is to give your own unique genius an opportunity to speak out, be heard, and be heeded, then filling in the rest of the design with as much professionalism as you can muster; don’t be a novice who hacks out his backgrounds.

It’s always a nightmare when you spend all day working on an article only to realize, too late, that it would be more appropriate for that article to be published a week later (you’ll see why that is, soon enough) – and there isn’t enough time to write a replacement. That’s what I’ve experienced today.

After scrambling through my “unfinished articles” file, and confirming my suspicion that none of them could be finished in time, I resorted to my “complete and unpublished” folder, wherein I retain articles written for other purposes.

I have to admit that I can no longer remember what the circumstances were that led me to write this article in 2011, or for whom it was intended. It’s possible that it was intended to be for Roleplaying Tips, or for another website – but an internet search failed to locate it anywhere. In the absence of any evidence or notes to the contrary, I have to assume that I just had it on tap for a rainy day – like today!

If this assumption is incorrect, if I have in fact assigned the copyright elsewhere, I sincerely apologize; no offense was intended, and I will be happy to add a prominent link to the site/product that contains it, or take the article down if desired.

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Plunging Into Game Physics Pt 2: Strange Mechanics


“Black Hole” by Laurence Diver.

As you can see from the title, this is part 2 of a series looking at the underlying principles and applications of Game Physics. The first part looked at exactly what the term meant, and found that it needed quite a lot of definition because it could be used to mean any of several different things. It could be a selective rationale for the differences between game “world” and the objective reality of the real world; it could describe the Essential Pseudoscience that rationalizes the fantastic; It could be “Ubermechanics” that add options to characters, and/or remove options, and/or simply add essential flavor. A “Game Physics” is potentially all those things at once, and more.

The Boundaries Of Game Mechanics

The abstract reduction of reality that is the game mechanics can only imperfectly reflect the underlying “game reality” described by the Game Physics. Push the game mechanics too far. and they break down. This is not a breakdown of the game physics, merely of the simplified description embodied by the mechanics, and that means that the game physics can and should be designed for use as a guideline when the game mechanics can’t cope.

The situation is not dissimilar to the relationship between modern physics and what is commonly referred to as “Classical” or “Newtonian” Physics. The latter is a basic description of the properties of movement embodied in Newton’s Three Laws of Motion; but these do not fully describe motion of very small objects like particles or motions at close to the speed of light in a vacuum. For those, Quantum Mechanics and Relativity are required.

The simplest Game Physics possible does little more than identify boundary conditions – “no characters are permitted Strength higher than 25″ for example – beyond which the results from the game mechanics are unreliable. That’s usually not enough, but it sets a minimum standard that should be part of every campaign.

The Creation Of House Rules

So, let’s talk about what else there might be, if you look beyond that absolute minimum, and how exactly you should go about translating an abstract game physics into one or more House Rules.

There are – superficially – lots of ways to do this, but when you look into them closely, they all embody the same basic process; some simply hide that process better than others. In theory, the process is actually very simple: you take an abstract principle, translate that into a Metagame Principle, and then convert that Principle into Game Mechanics, i.e. rules.

Is it that simple in reality? Sometimes, yes, and sometimes no. It depends on many factors, from the change that you want to make through to the game system to which you want to apply it, and how interconnected and wide-ranging the affected mechanics are. Let’s consider each step in the process independently and try to get to some specific advice and techniques.

Concept to Principle

So let’s say that you’ve got this wonderful idea for how the world works. It could be anything – perhaps magical effects are the result of four interacting forces being mixed in various ways, something that parallels the four classical elements of earth, air, fire, and water – or even the four elements of the ancient Chinese world, earth, air, metal, and wood, just to be different. Or perhaps there’s a metal that experiences increased inertia when moving at relatively slow speed – say the speed of the typical two-handed swing – so that smaller weapons can do more harm. Or perhaps – as was the case in the first part of my series on alternative healing in D&D/Pathfinder (All Wounds Are Not Alike – Part 1), you think that perhaps hit points should be a measurement of the gap between full health and incapacitation instead of health to imminent death.

All of these are Concepts. The first step in translating a concept into game mechanics is to convert it into a set of principles. These principles can be thought of as translating the general notion into a series of specific effects that you want and need the rules that you will create to encapsulate. Another perspective is to consider them a work order for specific House Rules.

So, how do you go from idea to plan of execution (which is still a third way to think of the process)?

In essence, this involves stating and restating the concept and its ramifications until you find at least one that can be related to some measurable or logical value present within the game system, or that can be created from the content already present.

It was no coincidence that I mentioned “All Wounds Are Not Alike Part 1″ a little earlier, because that provides a perfect example of the process. The paragraph (in the section entitled “The Healthy and the Helpless”, near the start) that starts “Another possible answer” states the concept. Ignoring the side-note that follows this paragraph, the next two (starting “We’ve” and “We have”, respectively) analyze the concept and spell out the initial ramifications, enabling the principle to be restated in terms that might be amenable to translation into game mechanics (in the paragraph that starts “Under this paradigm”).

Rather than make people read that article in it’s entirety, here are the paragraphs in question:

Another possible answer which I have seen in house rules from time to time is that hit points are a numeric index of the gap between healthy and helpless. This relates the damage that is inflicted upon a character to the impact that this damage has on his abilities, and his capacity to overcome that impact.

We’ve all experienced injuries in our time – abrasions, falls, nicks. Some have had more serious injuries like broken bones or surgical wounds. And a few unfortunates have even more serious injuries in their pasts. So we can all relate to the principle that being injured slows our movements, impairs our physical capacities for action, and saps our will to act. These are responses to the pain of the injury, which is the body’s reaction to that injury; if we heed these warning signals, we heal, or at least have the chance to do so, and if we don’t then healing is slowed, may not progress properly (bones fusing out of alignment and so on), or may not occur at all (cuts reopening, etc).

We have all also seen people, especially in desperate circumstances, ignore wounds that might have incapacitated them at other times, in order to meet the needs of survival (be those their own or those of someone else).

Under this paradigm, the increase in hit points a character receives as a result of a level increase can be described as an increase in the capacity to remain functional despite injuries that may have been received, and the condition of zero hit points remaining – helplessness – is tantamount to death, should any enemy remain in better condition.

Principle to Rule

The rest of the first half of the article, all the way down to the section entitled “Consequences: translating impairment zones into game mechanics consequences”, consists of proposing and analyzing three different ways by which that restated concept can be translated into actual numbers that can be used to implement new rules. The “Consequences” section, and the “Internal Injuries section that follows it, list the ramifications of the conceptual rules, completing the “work order”. That’s rather too lengthy to quote here – it would take us too far off-track – so suffice it to say that using the index derived from “% of hit points lost”, a modifier is discussed (leaving open the question of exactly what the numeric value of that modifier should be) and a long list of game mechanics values derived that should be subject to that modifier:

  • Attack Rolls – the character’s mobility is impaired, making his reactions slower in battle.
  • Damage Rolls – the character’s physical forcefulness is impaired, so he does less damage in melee.
  • Saving Throws – the character is impaired both physically and mentally, making it harder to shrug off environmental complications and spell effects.
  • Skill Checks – the character cannot move or think as freely as usual, making it harder for him to employ skills successfully.
  • Initiative – the character slows down in battle.
  • Hit Points – the character does additional damage to himself by acting forcefully while wounded (once per turn or once per attack).
  • Armor Class – the character’s mobility is impaired, making him an easier target in battle.
  • Movement Rate – the character’s mobility is impaired, slowing his movement.

…which is then followed by further discussion of the many game mechanics options open to the GM designing the house rules that implement the original concept, and which are really beyond the scope of this section of this article.

Isolation Of Variables

An essential part of the process of going from principles to rules is an isolation of the variables – in the example quoted, that’s the modifier and the things that it applies to – but it’s not a very useful example of that, because the analysis was all theoretical and never actually implemented into game mechanics – and it was a bit complex for consideration as part of this subject.

Instead, let me direct the reader’s attention to a different game mechanic, one that I did actually write up for implementation in my Fumanor Campaigns.

This combined several concepts:

  • Low-level targets in D&D are too hard for low-level characters to hit;
  • Different types of armor are too similar in value in terms of game mechanics,;
  • Well-armored foes are too easy for high-level characters to hit;
  • Different construction materials made no defined difference to the value of armor types;
  • There was insufficient incentive for characters to consider lesser materials;
  • and, finally, there was insufficient variety in armors once magic was taken into consideration.

These concepts were translated into several game principles, which then became five House Rules.

  • Armor Class was separated into three components: Base, Armor, and Refinement.

    • The Base was analyzed as having a fixed value of “10” in the existing mechanics.
    • The Refinement consisted of the shield modifier, any magical deflection bonuses, the Dex Modifier, and any circumstantial modifiers the GM chose to implement based on battlefield conditions and circumstances, such as “attacking from behind”.
    • The Armor value was defined as the Armour Class given by the official rules minus these two constituents. That meant that it comprised the base AC value of the armor type, and any other form of deflection bonus or AC enhancement not fitting the listed definitions.
  • Change #1: “Base” was reduced to 5, making it easier for poorly-armored targets to be hit by low-level characters.
  • Change #2: “Armor” was doubled in value. This made well-protected targets harder to hit, even for high-level characters, and increased the differentiation between different armor types.
  • Change #3: The base construction material for metal-based armors was defined as Steel. A set of modifiers to Armor value was defined for alternative materials, including a number of new “exotic materials” in addition to the ones already listed within the game system – some of which could only be used for specific armor types, such as “Dragonscale Leather,” which all had additional effects or benefits to the wearer – better saves vs. specific attacks, increased movement rates, or whatever. These were to be applied before the doubling described in Change #2.
  • Change #4: Some existing magic items had their effects amended to include an adjustment the “base” value up or down, some of the Exotic Materials carried the “benefit” of a modifier to Base Value. This was important because Base Value applies even when the character is caught Flat-footed, i.e. by surprise.
  • Change #5: The same list of materials modifiers also applied to Shields – but because a shield was only going to be useful some of the time, and because Shield Modifier was not part of the score that was doubled, this had less effect on the ultimate total AC. The combination of changes #3, 4, and 5 meant that the material an armor was constructed from had a significant effect on the ultimate Armour Class, while partially increasing the variety of magic items on offer, and the uniqueness of any given item.
  • Change #6: Each suit of armor was assigned an “Enhancement Capacity” of 25, each shield was assigned an Enhancement Capacity of 20. Some exotic materials added +1 or +2 to this, some subtracted 2. The deflection bonus of the armor or shield (if any) was subtracted from this total, as was the “Armor” AC rating. Some armor types further modified this adjustment. The remainder of this calculation defined the capacity for “enchantments” (called “Special Abilities” in the DMG, a term that seemed too prosaic to me at the time, however accurate it may have been).
  • Change #7: An “enchantment” listed on the “Special Abilities Table” reduced the capacity by the “+ bonus” shown, plus 1. If no such value was shown, it was assumed to have the first value listed above it on the table – so the first “enhancement”, Glamored used up 1 point of “enchantment capacity”, while Greater Sonic Resistance, the last individual entry on the armor table, consumed 6 points of capacity.
  • Change #8: The difficulty (DC) of adding an ability with an appropriate “enchant” skill was the % of already-used enchantment capacity in the armor multiplied by 50, plus the enchantment capacity to be consumed by the new ability. Fail, and the enchantment failed; Fail catastrophically, and either the capacity was consumed to no benefit, the capacity was “occupied” by a Curse that was as close as possible to the opposite effect of that desired, or perhaps the enchantment succeeded – at the price of permanently deactivating an ability already contained. On a critical success (a natural 20), and the capacity cost of the new ability was reduced by 1. Fifty was chosen because it made the calculation simpler.
  • Change #9: Taking additional time or using additional casters as assistants offered bonuses to success, as did various other factors such as having an appropriate workshop, manuals, etc.
  • Change #10: Similar changes were made to allow for limits to weaponry enchantment.
  • The net effect of changes 6-9 is that the lower the AC value of the armor, the more easily it could be enchanted, and the greater its capacity for “Special Abilities”. It also means that there is a lot more variety in magical armors and shields possible. (A further refinement allows the consumption of 1 enhancement point in each to “link” a specific shield or weapon to a suit of armor; this would subtract from the enhancement cost of any special power that was only in effect when the two were borne by the same wielder).
  • Change #11: For creatures with natural armor of any sort, the process is simple: subtract 10 from the AC in the sourcebook, double the result, and add 5.

This set of ten House Rules implements all six of the Concepts (i.e. things about the game system that I wanted to change) in a way that has minimal effect at character generation and none at all on the mechanics of game-play – you simply have a different AC to the one listed in the official rules. It might be higher, it might be lower. In effect, basic ACs (without magic being involved) now ranged from 5 to 26 (plus DEX modifier), and magic could boost those numbers by up to a further 10.

To be honest, the above synopsis of the changes was my second attempt – the first version had a far more complex and overcomplicated shield handling mechanism that simply didn’t work well in actual usage. Some of the above should be familiar to my players, some of it has not previously made its debut – I finished rewriting the rules for use in this article). Oh, yes – it’s also worth pointing out that a pre-existing house rule stated that armor and shield deflection bonuses stacked, because I couldn’t find where in the official rules it discussed the point.

Mathematical Processes

Almost any house rule aimed at the game mechanics involves mathematical processes of some sort. The above example shows these quite clearly. I can’t stress enough that any such process that has to take place during play be as simple as absolutely possible. Even taking the time to find a table can be enough to make combat unworkable in some systems. Even beyond that, the more complicated the math, the easier it is to get confused and make a mistake.

If you have to involve a mathematical process, don’t make anyone do it at the game table if you can help it; put it into a table if necessary (but this is very much a second choice to not needing one at all).

Algebraic Summaries

Where possible, expressing your changes as algebra can simplify a complicated process – if you are comfortable with this mathematical tool. I try never to implement algebra without converting the results into a table so that the results can simply be looked up, most of the time. This is a practice that I have learned the hard way. Your Mileage – and experiences – may vary.

Rule interlocking

I started making a change to the rules for calculating a character’s AC in the example above, and by the time I was finished I had House Rules for magic item construction and skill use. The significance of being caught Flat-Footed had changed considerably, as had the threat level posed by well-armored opponents – something that would have to be taken into account when determining XP rewards. This is an excellent example of Rule interlocking.

Changing one rule is like trying to eat one peanut: very difficult and ultimately not very satisfying. It’s far more typical for House Rules to breed like rabbits.

Consider, for example, a set of modifiers for Perception checks (or “Spot” checks, or the equivalent in any other system – this is pretty much a universal) for range and conditions. How long will it be before someone points out that anything that hinders perception should also affect combat – and vice-versa? And that ranged weaponry will need to be affected differently to melee? And how about tracking? And then, someone will point out that some modifiers will advantage both parties when attacking – but should that be by the same amount, regardless of their individual Perception/Spot scores. What else might be impacted by bonuses or penalties to a character’s ability to see things – an argument could be made that Riding should be affected (greater or lesser likelihood of recognizing treacherous terrain and obstacles). And how about Navigation – if it’s harder or easier to recognize landmarks (as opposed to the similar landmark that isn’t quite right) or even see those landmarks in the first case, should not that be reflected in modifiers to various Navigation skills? And hey, has anyone noticed how the land looks different from the air to when you’re at ground level – shouldn’t there be a navigation penalty for flying unless it’s a natural ability?

And this is just a simple change, a set of reasonable modifiers to act as guidelines for how substantial an effect the GM should apply – the GM would (if he was doing his job) have applied modifiers to the DC or the skill roll (depending on how the game system worked) anyway, this is simply quantifying some common values of adjustment for quick access!

Whenever you create any sort of House Rule, there are three vectors for Rule Interlocking, and the wise GM will actively look for instances of them all that affect the game mechanics beyond the initial rules change.

  • Direct Consequences
  • Alternative Applicability
  • Analogous Changes

Direct Consequences
Every rules change has consequences – otherwise, there would be no point in changing those rules. In addition to any desirable consequences that have been used to justify the House Rule, there are frequently going to be undesirable consequences. If these are too egregious, you may have no choice but to scrap the House Rule and start again; but if the preponderance of positives outweigh the negatives, it may be possible to mitigate or even eliminate those negatives with a second, more specifically-targeted, House Rule. These are sometimes described as a “Rules Patch”. Changes to combat systems are frequently and especially rife with this problem.

What’s more, it can be hard to see the thorn-bush for all the pretty flowers in the field. Quite often, the need for a “Rules Patch” won’t be obvious to the GM until after the House Rule is in service – so they should all be playtested in advance. I’ve also seen this described as “The GM being blinded by his own creativity”, and it happens to pretty much everybody. The more experience you have, the less you are prone to this – and the bigger the invisible barn-doors you walk into when you do overlook something.

Here’s a real-world game example: I changed the rules for the Zenith-3 campaign to a more D&D 3.x-like initiative system in order to speed up combat and distribute the spotlight more evenly, and it immediately achieved those benefits. The response, when the change was trialled, was overwhelmingly positive. But deeper inspection showed that the movement rules had to be modified because time wasn’t being handled the same way any more, and so did the rules for the Flight power, and the rules for maneuverability of flying characters and vehicles, and that then necessitated tweaks to various combat modifiers and combat maneuvers, changes to the tactical combat options available to characters, and alterations to Hit Point recovery (because time was being handled differently) and that affected how Regeneration worked, and the cost-effectiveness of various attack powers, which in turn altered the cost-effectiveness of various stats, which necessitated changes to the damage-capacity of various materials and inanimate objects…

I told part of this story in a two-part article, “Superhero Combat On Steroids” – Part 1: Taking the Initiative with the Hero System and more of it in Part 2: Moving with a purpose (the part that had taken place prior to the publication date). The rest was subsequently discovered the hard way, necessitating a mad scramble in the middle of play to slap a “Rules Patch” in place so that play could continue.

There’s an analogy to real-world science that’s worth pointing out because it ties this back into the primary subject of this series, Game Physics. When a new phenomenon is observed, science needs to expand to incorporate an explanation. Sometimes, whole theories need to be thrown into the scrap-heap as a result, no matter how accepted and cherished they may be; sometimes, it’s possible to simply “tweak” the existing theory and move on from there.

But changing one scientific theory is just as bad as introducing a single House Rule; every application of that theory then needs to be re-examined, and perhaps the process being described needs complete revision. For example, changing one of the laws of thermodynamics would have profound impacts on our understanding of everything from cosmology to cellular biology to chemistry. So great would be the change that the pressure to resist the change would be enormous, hence the general principle that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof”.

A large part of modern science is the active search for new phenomena that can validate one amongst a set of competing theories by virtue of the predictions made by those theories. Another is the identification of phenomena that were not predicted and are not explained by current theoretical models, forcing a subsequent enlargement of science itself. A contemporary example of the first was the search for the Higgs Boson; a contemporary example of the second was the discovery of “Hot Jupiters” and other unusual exoplanets, which necessitated a revision of the theories of solar system formation, and which continue to throw up unexpected challenges to existing theories – see this Wikipedia Page for a starting point if you’re interested in looking into the subject further.

Introducing a new concept to an existing game physics is akin to discovering a new phenomenon in traditional science. And, since the game mechanics are (fundamentally) defined as an attempt to model the most important behaviors of that game physics, all sorts of changes can (and frequently do) result from such new concepts.

Such phenomena fall into three broad categories:

  • something that was thought impossible, is observed.
  • something that was thought to happen, doesn’t.
  • something that was there all along is noticed for the first time.

The first is analogous to a House Rule that adds new options to the palette available to characters for exploitation; the second restricts an existing choice (usually to certain conditions or circumstances, though it’s often simpler to describe the exceptions); and the third simply replaces one explanation with another – indicating that the game logic used by the GM to guide his decision-making will follow a different course and take into account different factors, sometimes resulting in new outcomes that can be exploited, and sometimes preventing outcomes from occurring that were expected, once this new logic is applied to a given situation within the game.

Ultimately, this is viewing the game from an in-game perspective and applies the new Concept to see what should, theoretically, be affected if that Concept were real.

Alternative Applicability
Identifying a basic Game Physics Concept and developing that into game mechanics is all well and good – but quite often that Concept will also apply, directly or indirectly, to other in-game activities and the way the game mechanics have to simulate them – for example, in the perception changes example, the application of the modifiers to combat situations.

These are best assessed by examining other as many alternative activities that characters might attempt as the GM can think of, especially routine or common ones, and considering whether the Concept would also impact them. Such activities would include using a skill, making something, hitting something, interacting with an NPC, and so on.

This can be considered to be viewing the game from a metagame perspective and applying the new Concept to see what mechanistic consequences should or can result, while retaining a practical sense of priorities.

Analogous Changes
Game systems are frequently designed so that one game-mechanics process is replicated over and over. One of the most popular reforms to D&D with the 3.0 edition was the consistency in handling of attacks and skill checks in that rolling high became better in both; in prior official versions of the game, the two were inverted with respect to each other, making the rules more complicated and harder to learn. the consequence was that lower values of Armour Class used to be better than higher ones, resulting in the notorious “THAC0″ standard (To Hit Armor Class Zero).

Changes to the resolution system of one type of process invariably demand that all analogous processes be at least considered to determine whether or not an analogous change is warranted.

For example, if you decided that you wanted skill checks in your Pathfinder Campaign to be resolved by rolling 4d6 and discarding the lowest result, making successes at tasks of reasonable difficulty for a given skill level more probable but making success at tasks rated beyond those difficulty levels more unusual, you should at least check that every other roll a character might be required to make is not better handled in the same manner, for the same reasons. Either way, the GM should be prepared to defend his decision. Those “other rolls” include saving throws and attack rolls. Furthermore, each “skill” should be checked for the desirability of applying this change; some “skills” represent innate abilities (for example “Spot”) that the GM might decide should stay on a d20 basis.

This is viewing the game from a game-mechanics perspective – which, paradoxically, tends to put the rationale and underlying theory under the microscope, and hence make the “why” more accessible.

Quantum Entanglement Of Game Systems

I’ve tipped my hand in this respect in the preceding sections, but never mind. Quite often, as GMs, we are confronted with game systems in which most of the mechanics work just fine, but there is one part of the system that just doesn’t work as well as we would like it to in some respect. The most frequent response is to graft in some rules from another game system that does handle that aspect of the mechanics in a more satisfactory manner.

This process of selective infusions of other game systems has been going on for as long as I’ve been a gamer. One of the earliest examples that I remember encountering was an AD&D campaign in which the magic system was replaced with the one from TSR’s Empire Of The Petal Throne, but I have no doubt that the practice predated that exposure to it, and it continues to this day – I use a board game (Blue Max) for superhero dogfights.

The theory is that, instead of writing your own House Rules, you adopt a subset of the rules provided by an author who has far greater expertise and experience at game design than you. There are four principle reasons why one game systems mechanics might be preferred over the rules that are standard for your game system: Better Mechanics, Faster Mechanics, Better Simulation, or a Better Realization of the game physics and campaign concepts.

Justification #1: Better Mechanics

There has never been a game system or game supplement published that at least one GM didn’t think was partially “broken” for whatever reason. I find the spells in the Book Of Exalted Deeds and Book Of Vile Darkness to be seriously overpowered for their spell levels, for example. When the problem area is an expansion of some sort, the simple answer is to exclude them from your campaign. But sometimes, the part of the mechanics that simply doesn’t work (in the GM’s opinion) is part of the “Core Rules”, and not so easily dismissed – it represents a necessary part of the game system.

If something is needed to describe the mechanics by which game task X is performed, and what is official doesn’t work (in the GM’s opinion) – for example, the Grappling subsystem of 3.x is frequently criticized – the simplest answer is often to grab a set of rules that do satisfy in that department and infuse your chosen game system with an adaption of those mechanics.

Justification #2: Faster Mechanics

Some rules subsystems take more time to determine an outcome than the GM considers warranted or acceptable. The simplest answer often appears to be the incorporation of an alternative subsystem from a different game system. This is exactly what I did with the variant Hero System used for my superhero game: combats were taking far too long, the cause was identified as the time system in place (which works fine at lower character levels, but falls apart when characters get to act too often).

Justification #3: Better Simulation

Sometimes, a campaign is expected to emphasize a particular activity, and the GM wants a more sophisticated handling of that subsystem than is incorporated within the official mechanics. For example, if you have a Pathfinder campaign that is going to center on the concepts of death and undeath, you might want something more substantial than the basic “turning undead” system incorporated. You could try writing something yourself (probably based on the concept of “Turn Resistance” and based on “Spell Resistance”), or you might pull out a game that has the undead as a central element and infuse your rules with selected graftings.

Or perhaps Dueling with epees is going to be a common activity, and you want something that goes into more detail than the basic “roll to hit” of you game system.

Either way, the premise is the same: “this activity is going to be important and more frequent within my campaign than in most, so I want more detailed resolution mechanics or a better simulation (i,e. less abstract) of what happens in the real world, than is currently provided.”

Justification #4: A More Perfect World

The final justification is that an alternative set of game mechanics will more accurately describe part of the game world that you envisage. This is the reason that the GM in question offered back in ’81 when he infused AD&D with EOPT – his concept of the world was that all magic was really Psionics mislabeled, that it was far more realistic in terms of the physics of what could be achieved, and that Empire Of The Petal Throne ticked both of those boxes for him. In later years, he would continue with this concept, but the source system would vary from time to time.

Or perhaps you want to run a Pulp campaign set in the Babylon-5 universe – and want to add the ship-building and FTL rules from the Babylon-5 RPG to Pulp Hero in order to achieve this.

The possibilities, and diversity of combinations – even just taking them two at a time – are practically infinite, and increase exponentially with every new game system published.

Problems & Conundrums

All of these reasons are valid justifications for fusing one game system with another, and they all represent positives – if you get all your decisions right. Get them wrong, and you’re in deep trouble, of course. Choosing the wrong base system. Choosing the wrong source system to infuse into that base system. Not marrying the two together seamlessly. Choosing the wrong subsystems to integrate, or missing a game subsystem that you need to incorporate from source into base. There’s plenty of scope for total disaster.

But even if you get everything right, there are dangerous pitfalls and vexing conundrums to be faced.

Clash Of The Game Physics

There are always combinations that sound great on paper, but just don’t work very well in practice. In terms of the subject under discussion, that usually comes down to a clash within the game physics. Rules System A is strongly cohesive and has a consistent “flavor” at the game table; the infusions from Rules System B, unless you can somehow incorporate a matching “flavor” – or even something that’s complimentary – can simply feel tacked on. Or Game System A assumes that something is important, while Game System B assumes that it is not; so that some of the mechanics of play feel like wasted effort.

Even worse can occur because there are fundamental differences in the game physics that each system assumes to be in place. An example might be incorporating AD&D magic items into a Star Trek campaign as a way of simulating the benefits of advanced technology. While superficially, this might seem like a reasonable approach, the fact is that those magic items will interface with a whole bunch of rules subsystems that assume magic doesn’t work; and, furthermore, the inconsistencies and limitations of the magic items that are tolerable, even positives, when dealing with a neo-medieval society’s craftsmanship and limited understanding of the working principles behind their creation, these simple become intolerable silliness in a Science Fiction environment. There’s no scope for these flaws in a Star Trek game when the results are supposed to reflect a matured understanding of science and engineering.

Updates to Game Systems

But, let’s say that you have chosen rather more astutely and wrought a combination that works just fine. And six months into the campaign, one of the two game systems publishes an updated edition. Do you update the rules that you are using?

There’s a precarious balance between the base game system and your infused rules; such an updating can upset that balance, even though – on paper, and in a “pure” form of the game, the new rules are faster and “better” than the ones you have been using.

Failing to upgrade risks distancing yourself from players of that game system, making your campaign less acceptable. What’s more, if the rules upgrade is a definite improvement, fixing all sorts of problems from the older rules, players may come to see the rules you have infused as clunky and frustrating, or coarse, inelegant, and unrefined, or simply thin and weak. Even without adopting the upgrade, the new edition can destabilize the harmony you have established.

A Tool For The Expert

A Game Physics is a tool in the GM’s armory that can elevate a campaign to unparalleled heights in expert hands – but it can also be savage if misused. It’s not at all like real-world physics; it’s an abstract statement of principles and theory that can be contradictory and willful. Applied properly, it enables comprehensive customization of a game’s supporting mechanics to render an environment uniquely suited to the campaign being created; applied improperly or haphazardly, and it can be a campaign’s undoing.

Like some powerful genie in a magic lamp, it is so powerful a tool that every GM must at least acquire a working understanding of its essentials and the techniques of applying them, or be permanently less effective at the game table as they otherwise could be; but like the Monkey’s Paw, beware of its hidden sting, for it can hamstring the campaign in ways you have not yet begun to dream. Playing with the game physics entails thought experiments and creativity in it’s most pure of forms; incredibly satisfying and bags of fun, and occasionally just exasperating enough to keep things challenging. But it’s also playing with fire.

Sadly, there is only one real way to master the intricacies that it represents other than through hard and often unforgiving experience. The key to success is building up from the simplest manifestation – justifying a house rule that makes sense in light of the campaign and the game world within it, using that rule to validate such a house rule, exploring the ramifications and learning what works and what doesn’t – something that (to some extent) will be different in every individual campaign.

I still can’t tell whether this will be a three- or four-part series – I’m aiming for three if possible but there’s a lot of ground still to be covered, and I’m adding more even as I write this, which argues that four is more likely! We’ll just have to see what happens, together! Next up: Game Physics and Plot!

Comments (1)

Ask The GMs: On Big Dungeons

How do you make Big Dungeons interesting? It’s not a simple proposition; very dependent on your source material, you may have to dig far deeper into what you have been presented with in order to achieve success.

Ask the gamemasters

This question comes from Tom, who wrote:

I DM a Pathfinder game, where the module is coming to a point, where my players have to enter a HUGE dungeon. Neither them nor I like big dungeons (as it boils down to “we go right!”, “Now we try the left door.”). Now I wonder, how I can make a big dungeon interesting.

I tinkered with the idea of just using the most important encounters (which are necessary for further events), and just describe how the dungeon smells, and looks like – than throwing those encounters at them, without bogging the game down with one of my players having to draw a map.

I love short, little (10 or less rooms) dungeons, but those monsters are a pain to DM. All I want to ask is, how you would solve such a problem. Thanx for your help, and greetings from Germany.

This is one of a number of ATGMs where both Johnn and I sent replies by email to Tom, recognizing that a certain level of urgency existed in the question. This would later become our standard procedure when we began to fall seriously behind in publishing responses. In addition to my answer of the time, I have recently discussed the question with a number of my other GMs and had several further thoughts of my own.

So here’s how today’s answers are going to break down: First, Johnn’s original answer; Second, My original answer, which also contains a reply to Johnn’s comments; third, the subsequent comments of my fellow GMs and my own further thoughts.


Johnn’s Contribution from 2010

The fact that I had this answer on file to include just goes to show how far behind we got with ATGMs – and how popular a feature it was. Continuing to work through the backlog, and looking forward to being able to reopen the feature – even though there are now other sites that specialize in providing this sort of service as their primary focus.

Hi Tom,

I’m wondering why you don’t just make the dungeon short? Why are you stuck with the huge format?

I also do not like spending more than one or two sessions at a time doing pure dungeon crawl. My favorite format is mission-based. The purpose is not to crawl the whole dungeon, but to get in, get the mission done, and get out in as short a time as possible. Get the X, do the Y or learn the Z are my favorite types of missions.

Perhaps that format works for you? If so, it helps to have more than one entrance and exit, and to build the dungeon more like an ecosystem.


Mike’s Answer from 2010:

This is my original response, emailed to Tom:

Hi, Tom.

Aside from the obvious – replacing the dungeon with something smaller, or putting up with the huge dungeon that no-one’s enjoying, and aside from Johnn’s suggestions, there are a few solutions that come to mind.

  1. Redefine “HUGE” to mean something other than physical size. Instead of stone walls, for example, maybe some/most of the walls are insubstantial clouds – and the ‘locals’ know it, and pass freely through them. This means that everything that’s in the “huge” dungeon takes place in 4-5 encounters in 4-5 locations.
  2. Change the sense of direction. Instead of being a plan view, make the map that comes with the module a side-view. With featherfalls and various magic devices for flying, and the fact that every “door” is a pitfall or an elevator entrance, you can toss all the boring bits aside and completely change the nature of the dungeon into something both non-traditional and more interesting.
  3. Find some means of short-cutting the dungeon – a malfunctioning teleport device/effect that lobs the party from one key encounter to another, higgledy-piggeldy, and completely out of rational sequence.
  4. (possibly in combination with 2) Arrange for the PCs to get a map of the place that will lead them “straight” to where they need to go. This preserves the size but again avoids all the nonsense.

But, for me, the best answer is:

  1. Be smart about the dungeon. Explore the ecology (even if you have to create that ecology in the first place). Explore the society, so that encounters that are expected to be about combat are about roleplaying, and success can win the PCs an armed escort to the edge of one group’s territory, bypassing all the dangers and the exploration trivia. Think of a number of hostile societies, all of which have cabin fever. If necessary, up the intelligence of some of the creatures.


Mike’s New Thoughts (with comments from the floor):

I discussed the question with four other GMs (Saxon Brenton, Blair Ramage, Ian Gray, and Nick Deane) the other day because I couldn’t help – having reviewed the question and answers – feeling that something was missing or awry, without being able to put my finger on the problem. Eventually, the penny dropped…

Critique of the solutions offered

“Although bypassing small encounters and details may be obvious to the GM, it may not be all that obvious to the players, who may not appreciate the problem and the attempts to solve it.

Worse still, it may be obvious that the GM is cutting corners, and there may be encounters that the GM skips because he under-appreciates their significance at the time. Reinserting and (if necessary) relocating them within the dungeon may sometimes get you out of trouble when you’ve gotten yourself tangled up in this way, but it’s at best a hail-mary pass, and not something that you should be at all comfortable relying on.

The problem is far more difficult than the answers offered admit, and the solutions are inadequate. But [we] can’t see what else you could do.”

That’s the gist of the conversation I referred to, earlier, having read to them a synopsis of the question and answers. It wasn’t encouraging, effectively putting the problem back to square one.

The Penny Drops

Despite the confirmation that none of them could think of anything clever to solve the problem off the top of their heads that we had not already covered, I decided that I had to retreat back to the original question and attempt to think about it completely afresh. And that’s when the key word in the question that both Johnn and I had overlooked the first time around – and that the other GMs consulted had also overlooked – leapt out and bit me. That word: Module.

Everything we were offering was from the standpoint that Tom, our GM in trouble, was the author of the adventure in question. That’s what my subconscious was screaming at me to notice. I guess everyone can fail their “Spot The Blindingly Obvious” sometimes. I’ll never know whether Johnn’s Answer set the direction for my own thinking, or whether that thinking subsequently colored the way that I presented the problem and solutions to my fellow GMs, but we all missed it – right up to the eleventh hour.

I mention this because it highlights an extremely important, if only tangentially relevant, lesson: If something seems wrong with a solution or idea, there’s usually a good reason for it. Don’t stop looking until you find that reason!

The actual question needs an answer. So, instead of expanding on my original answer, as I normally would, that’s what I’ve provided. And guess what? It turns out to be relevant advice for the general situation, as well.

Why Is It So Big?

The starting point has to be the question, “Why is the dungeon so darned big in the first place?”

You need to find two, or even perhaps three, answers to this question. First, the in-game justification for the size; this is something that you will need to work with or even modify if you substantially change the size. Second, the author’s reasons for the size. And Third, what has been done with it? Has the dungeon simply expanded to adequately fill the needs of resolving all the plot threads that the author has brought together? Is there a logical reason why it should be this size?

Johnn is a big fan of the 5-room dungeon format, but if what we’re talking about is “The Lost City Of Zarg” five rooms just aren’t going to cut it. Similarly, in “Expedition to the Barrier Peaks”, the AD&D Module by TSR, the PCs were exploring a crashed spaceship – one that was either set up to terraform a lifeless world or act as an Ark or a Zoo-ship, that wasn’t made quite clear. But the point is that reducing this to a handful of encounters would have trivialized the whole module and not have made any internal sense; you could reduce the module by perhaps 50%, but not much further without compromising believability, i.e. that the vessel was fit for whatever it’s actual in-game purpose was meant to be. For a third example, the epic flavor of Tomb Of Horrors, another famous AD&D Module, would have been completely lost and the menace posed by its creator would totally evaporate, if it were downsized in any way.

On the other hand, I have seen innumerable modules where there is little or no connecting logic to the encounters, and absolutely no good reason for the adventure scenes to be any particular size. In many cases, one central chamber (or perhaps 2 or 3) are all that matters and the rest exist to do nothing more than make reaching those locations appropriately difficult.

The more modern development of Megadungeons is of concern to me in this respect – having a module which contains every monster and magic item in the book comes dangerously close to justifying its existence for no other reason. I must admit to never having looked closely at “The World’s Largest Dungeon” to assess its internal rationale, and most modern megadungeons do not posses this shortcoming – they at least make internal sense. But it’s a concern.

Only once you have clearly identified all these answers in reference to the large dungeon that is in place within the module can you identify whether or not cutting it in size is even possible.

What’s Essential?

Once you know why the dungeon is the size that it is, you are in a position to start considering a further question: what is actually essential to achieving that purpose? Is it expected that the PCs will explore every room, or does the module provide multiple alternative paths, only one of which needs to be chosen? What’s essential, and what is needed for verisimilitude, and what makes sense?

More to the point, what is not essential, what is not needed for verisimilitude (or is even counterproductive), and what doesn’t make sense?

Logical Sub-units

Even if you come to the conclusion that every room is needed to contain all the plotlines that are entwined within the module’s premise, that doesn’t mean that you have to follow the route mapped out for you by the designers. If you can break the module into individual plotlines or other logical sub-units then you have many more options. However, the best adventures will rely on the interaction between such plotlines to pose complications and conundrums that the PCs have to solve, and will not be easily separated. It’s entirely possible that doing so would substantially weaken the entertainment value of the whole.

Can you slice out subplots?

Assuming however that you can isolate plot elements into discrete packets, as I said a moment ago, you have options. One of the most obvious options is to slice out some of those subplots – provided that the set-up for them is not already a matter of record within the game, of course!

And that brings up a serious complicating factor in Tom’s problem – it may already be far too late. The time to perform such surgery on a module is before play starts, not once the first part of the story has already been played! Once a mystery or plotline is established, there is a logical necessity to resolve it, or the results will be unsatisfactory all round.

Revisiting Johnn’s Answer

Another option that becomes available once the dungeon is broken into logical sub-units is to isolate regions into multiple sequential missions – effectively, what was one dungeon becomes several. If you can view and organize the dungeon in this fashion, this is often the best solution.

The Logical Through-plot

The third option is to identify the logical through-plot. Again, this is a way of connecting separate plotlines that just happen to be in close physical proximity to each other.

The basic structure is as follows:

  • Problems A, B, and C are identified by the PCs.
  • Problem A leads them to the Dungeon, where complication D prevents immediate solution of the problem. But along the way, a clue is found to Problem B.
  • Problem B then becomes the plot focus, and resolving it overcomes complication D.
  • The party then resume working on problem A, and continue until complication E again brings progress to a halt. However, solving problem C will provide the tools to overcome this complication.
  • Problem C thus becomes the focal point of the plot. In due course, it is solved, overcoming complication E.
  • The party then return once more to problem A and solve it. However, they have been delayed so long that problem F has now arisen.
  • The party begin working on problem F…

Of course, the actual structure in any specific case may vary from this example, but you get the idea. In effect, the parts of the dungeon that deal with problems A, B, and C are separate from each other but they just happen to be geographically co-located. It is this co-location that creates complications D and E.

What you have here are a series of smaller adventures that are woven together into a larger narrative which frames these smaller adventures and gives them context, importance, and urgency.

Revisiting my original answer

A plot connection doesn’t have to be the only way these logical sub-units can combine. Metaphysics or Ecology are just two of the alternatives. One of my favorite D&D 3.0 adventures was “Deep Horizon” by Skip Williams; it followed the same basic structure described above, in which one problem led to another, which led to another, the solution of which led to a solution to the previous problem, which in turn led to a resolution of the original problem. While the action all took place within the one subterranean complex, each section took place in a physically isolated section of that complex; this wasn’t really one big dungeon, it was three connected ones – the first inhabited by Dwarves, the second by Desmodu, and the third by Salamanders.

If one relationship between these segments – the simple plot connection – doesn’t explain the interconnection, look at politics and ecology and metaphysics and any other way that they might be related.

The other side of the coin: Creating your own adventures

The same process that’s been followed above also applies to any adventure that you may be creating. If ever you create a space that’s more than, say, 10 rooms in size, apply the same criteria – why does whoever made the place need a space that large and complex? Why do you as GM need it to be that large? Can you subdivide it into smaller sequences that connect, physically or logically? Can you describe the contents as a sequential series of missions that simply occur within the same confines, or as a nested series of missions like the pattern I described earlier?

For the Pulp campaign I co-GM, a lot of effort has recently gone into designing the villain’s lair. I can’t go into too many details – we haven’t even started running the adventure yet – but we adopted a process-oriented design: Villain undertakes activity X (being deliberately vague); these are the manufacturing steps required in doing so; this is how much space they required; this is how many personnel are required; these are their physical requirements – accommodation, food, water, etc.

We then used these to define the layout of the lair in terms of the most efficient way to conduct this process while retaining a relatively natural look to the environment. Some rooms are natural caverns, some are natural caverns that have been shaped or expanded, some have been excavated by man. In some cases, we compromised the efficiency of his operation slightly to suggest that he has worked within the parameters of making the best use of the space as it “is” rather than how he might prefer it to be – but never so much that an alternative layout would be a better choice.

This has resulted in 15-chamber space (and I think we might add two to that) – but because each space has a logical purpose, has been adapted to serve a function in the villains plan, we’re entirely comfortable with that. In most cases, ten to fifteen minutes of play will be enough to “clear” that chamber; in the more extreme cases, perhaps 30 to 45 minutes of play will be needed.

But – and this is the critical point – because the PCs will be entering the “dungeon” with what we hope will be a clear mission, they will not need to, or want to, explore the whole complex; they will be looking for the fastest route to accomplishing that mission. They might only explore 4 or 5 of the chambers along the way – but those chambers will have rational content and clearly fit within a sensible and logical process.

Or, if the PCs make the wrong choices, they might end up needing to explore just about the entire complex before they find what they need to in order to complete their mission. We’re ready for that possibility, too – simply because there is no space that’s not being used for something, and that usage is sensible and logical – from the villain’s point of view, his agenda, and how he is going about accomplishing it.

The Wrap-up

Bigger is only bad if there is no binding logic that binds the spaces together. It’s when you start attaching kitchen sinks to electric motors just because you have one handy that things go off the rails.

Take a look at the layout of your house or unit. Each room has a logical relationship to those adjacent to it according to intended function and access to resources. You don’t attach the pantry to a bedroom, you attach it to the kitchen. Kitchen, bathroom, and laundry might share common walls to make plumbing easier. You don’t attach a walk-in closet to the living room – if you do, it’s a sure bet that it won’t get used as a walk-in closet!

I don’t use the master bedroom of my two-bedroom unit as a bedroom – it’s too inconveniently located for that. I use it as a combined library and games room, because it’s large enough to hold a table big enough for gaming, and is conveniently located between the living room and the kitchen area. Instead, the second bedroom is where I’ve put my bed. The function of each space is defined by my lifestyle and social pattern. If that lifestyle were different, so would the use to which those spaces would be put.

And, if a location needs to be bigger by definition – such as a lost underground city – the same essential logic applies. Look at how the people who constructed it lived, and each chamber will have a purpose. If the city was subsequently occupied by people with different social patterns, they will adapt the spaces to the most efficient way of enabling those social patterns and lifestyle, just like re-purposing a walk-in closet off the living room.

About the contributors:

I have to thank my fellow GMs for their time and their insights:


Mike is the owner, editor, and principle author at Campaign Mastery, responsible for most of the words of wisdom (or lack thereof) that you 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), Mike’s “Lovecraft’s Legacies” Dr Who campaign, 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.


Nick also lives in Sydney. He started roleplaying (D&D) in the mid-1980s in high school with a couple of friends. That group broke up a year later, but he was hooked. In late ’88 he found a few shops that specialized in RPGs, and a notice board advertising groups of gamers led him to his first long-term group. They started with AD&D, transferred that campaign to 2nd Ed when it came out, tinkered with various Palladium roleplaying games (Heroes Unlimited met Nick’s long-term fascination with Marvel’s X-Men, sparking his initial interest in superhero roleplaying), and eventually the Star Wars RPG by West End Games and Marvel Super Heroes Advanced Set. This also led to his first experiences with GMing – the less said about that first AD&D 2nd Ed campaign, the better (“so much railroading I should have sold tickets”).

His second time around, things went better, and his Marvel campaign turned out “halfway decent”. That group broke up in 1995 when a number of members moved interstate. Three years later, Nick heard about what is now his regular group while at a science-fiction bookstore. He showed up at one of their regular gaming Saturdays, asked around and found himself signed up for an AD&D campaign due to start the next week.

A couple of weeks later, He met Mike, and hasn’t looked back since. From ’98 he’s been a regular player in most of Mike’s campaigns. There’s also been some Traveller and the Adventurer’s Club (Pulp) campaign, amongst others. Lately he’s been dipping a tentative toe back into the GMing pool, and so far things have been going well.


Ian Gray resides in Sydney Australia. He has been roleplaying for more than 25 years, usually on a weekly basis, and often in Mike Bourke’s campaigns. From time to time he GMs but is that rarest of breeds, a person who can GM but is a player at heart. He has played many systems over the years including Tales Of The Floating Vagabond, Legend Of The Five Rings, Star Wars, D&D, Hero System, Gurps, Traveller, Werewolf, Vampire, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, and many, many more.

Over the last couple of years he has been dirtying his hands with game design. He was a contributor to Assassin’s Amulet, the first time his name appeared in the credits of a real, live, RPG supplement. Recently he has taken to GMing more frequently, with more initial success than he was probably expecting (based on his prior experiences).


Johnn is an RPG author and publisher. His Roleplaying Tips e-zine has amassed over 5000 DM tips and tricks since 1999. He also authored the Dragon Magazine column “DM’s Toolbox” for two years, and has written (at least) three DM advice books and numerous articles for various books, publications, and websites.

Johnn co-founded Campaign Mastery with Mike back in the day, and while he has moved on to other projects, many of the articles at Campaign Mastery were authored or co-authored by him. He asks every DM to have more fun at every game, and that’s what this blog is all about.

Next in this series: Writing characters out when players leave the game

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