Campaign Mastery helps tabletop RPG GMs knock their players' socks off through tips, how-to articles, and GMing tricks that build memorable campaigns from start to finish.

A Palpable Difference: 14 Points of Adventure Distinctiveness

Photo credit: / Andrzej Pobiedzi?ski

Photo credit: / Andrzej Pobiedzi?ski

I spent most of the weekend working on the next adventure in the Zenith-3 campaign. While this adventure mines territory that will be familiar to my players, it should not feel at all repetitive to them except in the very broad conceptual strokes, and that’s because I make an effort to make each plot different and original in its execution and presentation (you’ll understand that since several of my players read Campaign Mastery, I can’t get too specific about this particular example). In fact, most of what I was working on was in service to this principle, and that prompted me to explore the subject of “how to make it different” in today’s article.

I presume that there is no need to actually justify making each variation different. The advantages and necessity should be obvious.

So, what makes a plot different?

There are all sorts of ways in which one manifestation of a broad overarching plotline can differ from the next. The problem is that it’s all too easy to assume that these differences will do the work for the GM. They won’t; in fact, in most of the ways that count, the players won’t even notice unless you ensure that your point or points of distinction have some palpable impact. There are a number of different categories of distinction, and it’s worth taking a look at them. To guide you in this exploration, I’m going to use a classic plotline (that has absolutely nothing to do with the plotline in question for Zenith-3), ‘the bank heist’.

I’m not sure that my list is comprehensive, but it’s enough to be getting on with.

1. Different antagonist(s)

A gang of four attempt to rob a bank, but run up against the PCs. The last time this happened, it was Dusky Springhoarder and two sidekicks, this time it’s Lurker Marony and three flunkies. Is that a big enough point of distinction?

Treated superficially, no. So you use a different voice and say different things – but these are cosmetic changes only, making no difference to the overall plot.

With a little more effort, however, these differences in personality can manifest in a different group dynamic, which in turn manifests in different development of the plot from a superficially-similar starting point. Dusky liked live hostages, Lurker dislikes live witnesses – those differences alone would manifest in a completely different modus operandi, with a completely different approach to handling customers and personnel who happen to be present at the time. The different group dynamic means that the other NPCs will have different relationships within the group, and different ways of doing the same things. One blacks out all the security cameras, the other leaves one camera running and showing the hostages to the outside world – and communicates with that world as necessary via texta-written notes held up to camera. Perhaps one is clever and the other bullish and violent, solving problems with intimidation.

Sure, a lot of this stuff can be applied off-the-cuff – but it’s always more effective if you take some prep time to explore and codify the differences, so that the plotline will develop in very different ways from the common theme.

The differences in personality should manifest not only in doing things in different ways, but in doing different things in the first place.

2. Different motivations

This doesn’t make as much difference in terms of a bank robbery as it does on other forms of plot, like power grabs or oppressive local regimes, except insofar as a difference in motivation should manifest from differences in personality, discussed above. In reality, of course, this cause-and-effect relationship is back to front – it’s the implied differences in personality that lead to different motivations – but you can reason your way from the cart back to the horse.

Once again, though, having a different motivation is the kind of thing that doesn’t show, doesn’t make any tangible difference unless you find ways to manifest the difference in more concrete ways.

3. Different objectives

Ah, now we’re getting into more interesting manifestations. Group one are robbing the bank for the money (although that’s not a motivation in and of itself – the motivation is the need/desire for whatever they want to spend the money on, not the money itself), while group two are using the robbery as a means to gain access to the banks computers in search of evidence of a global conspiracy. Or perhaps the bank vault doesn’t interest you half as much as the evidence of another criminal activity that is being kept in one of the safety-deposit boxes?

The simplest approach is not again backtrack from the difference in objective to the differences in personality that could lead to them, and then expand outward. But even without that, the objective and the plan need to be in sync; it’s no good focusing on the bank vault if it’s the bank servers that are your objective, except as necessary for purposes of camouflaging that objective, or paying off the muscle that have been recruited to make the operation possible.

The differences in objective needs to make a fundamental difference to what happens or it is just a paper tiger to which you are paying lip service.

4. Different circumstances

If the PCs used to be “unofficial” but are now Deputized, or vice-versa, a great way to bring home to the players the difference is to deliberately re-run a plotline that they had encountered in the “old days” simply to showcase how differently things would have worked out because of the authorization. Where they were blocked and forced to circumvent authority, acting covertly, now they have the power to demand assistance from authority and can act overtly. Or vice-versa, as appropriate.

Or perhaps the circumstances are environmental. In the elemental plane of fire, combustible materials might be the legal tender – the more flammable, the more valuable. Changing the nature of what a “bank” is fundamentally alters the plotline – well, it should, anyway; sometimes, the more things change, the more they seem to stay the same, and that might be exactly the overall theme of the plotline!

Of course, it’s not necessary for the difference to be so radical. An “ordinary” bank robbery occurring in the domain of a repressive and violent regime would proceed very differently from one set against a far more just background. The reactions of the authorities to the crime-in-progress would be different, and would be expected to be different, and the plans would evolve accordingly.

5. Different resources

In the plotline that is about to wrap up in the Adventurer’s Club campaign, a criminal mastermind got his hands on a super-solvent which he used to dig tunnels most of the way across Manhattan in a bid to execute the biggest heist in history. Twelve targets – two Hotels, four banks, four Jewelers (one of which was a target of opportunity that would not otherwise have been targeted), a Museum/Art Gallery, and the International Currency Exchange, yielding a grand (estimated) total of 5.675 Million US$ – 1930s currency (multiply by 10 to get modern dollars) in one simultaneous strike. The presence of this super-solvent had a profound impact on most of the execution planning – in several cases, the gang were planning to simply slather the stuff on the vault hinges, wait, and pull the doors down. But not all of the gang were trusted with the solvent (it was too easily mishandled), and some didn’t trust it; the rest simply used it to bypass security. Since we didn’t know in which of the robberies the PCs would intervene, my co-GM and I spent several weeks of our planning time detailing each of the locations and each of the plans for dealing with those locations. In some cases, the gang scored a lucky break, in others they got unlucky; in some, they were smart and well-prepared, in others, flawed assumptions came back to bite them.

In every single case, the existence and use of the super-solvent made a concrete difference to how the gang was to execute this brazen robbery, to how long it would take, etc. But when we first outlined the adventure, none of these was taken into consideration; the solvent was simply a means of rapid-tunneling from point to point and getting into the basements of the various establishments. In fact, we thought we were more-or-less done with plotting the adventure, and started detailing the locations simply to work out some color commentary. Once we started adding details such as how many gang members it was going to take, and expected takes, and the reasons for targeting each of the establishments in question. it became clear that if you had such a resource as the super-solvent, you would look to use it in the commissioning of the crimes, and not just as a stealth mode inspired by the criminal plot in a classic Sherlock Holmes short story, The Red-headed League.

Having different resources on the antagonist side changes what they can do, which should in turn change what they will at least try and do. Having different resources on the protagonist side changes how they can respond to events (or even know about them), which should in turn change how they will respond and what they will respond to. As a result, essentially the same premise can lead to completely different plotlines – but it won’t happen if you don’t put time and thought into assessing the impact and preparing to take advantage of it.

6. Different protagonists

Group A (a strong man, a fast man, a spell-caster, and a priest) will experience a different unfolding series of events to Group B (a tough man, an acrobat, a spy, and a brainy guy) even when faced with the same identical situation. This is one of the central realities that is my primary take-way from limited exposure to convention gaming (anecdotal reports, some playtest, adapting some published convention adventures, and discussions with GMs who run convention games).

Fundamentally, this results from the PCs having different resources to bring to bear. Even if the GM seeks to limit the variables by providing pre-generated characters (and most do), differences in the players still qualify.

The same principle can be applied to the circumstances of a non-convention game. Even changing a single member of a group can be enough to make a fundamental difference to a situation because of the change in resources that they bring. This is dependent, to some extent, on each member of the party receiving a full share of the screen time, however; the more central they are to the plot, the bigger their potential impact. Some characters can made a difference regardless – adjusting Zenith-3 plots to accommodate the presence of a high-powered telepath, for example, is now a matter of routine (I’m sure it must sometimes seem like I’m picking on the character or singling her out for special mistreatment, when I’m only trying to prevent excessive short-cutting of the plot).

But you don’t even have to go that far. You could employ a plot device as simple and subtle as the PCs being sent undercover to investigate allegations of bank fraud – only for the bank to be robbed. Do they blow their cover? Do they let the robbery happen? This situation is fundamentally different to what would be the case if the PCs were on the outside when the robbery took place!

7. Different challenge

Changing the PCs objectives is also another great way of breathing new life into a stale plot. For example, putting the players into the GM’s usual shoes by requiring them to let the bank robbers escape while making it look like they are doing so, for some reason. This makes the bank robbery simply a stepping-stone to a larger plotline. Doing so covertly, and without damaging their reputation, and without putting anyone at risk, only makes it more challenging.

This works by changing the PC objective, which means that they will need a new plan in order to achieve that objective.

When I was much younger and more naive, I thought that plea bargaining and snitches were the only tools in the law-enforcement arsenal for getting to bigger fish by means of small fry. An excellent 1992 Australian crime drama, Phoenix – the Wikipedia page to which i have linked is rather short on plot description, I’m afraid – this page at Australian Screen Online gives rather more information – added awareness of undercover police operations to my repertoire, and shows like NCIS – especially NCIS LA and, more recently, NCIS New Orleans – have subsequently added to my awareness, so I now have a lot more tools at my disposal in this regard.

8. Different plan

If differences in resources lead to different plans in order to take advantage of the resource, why not skip the middle-man and simply have the antagonists behind the bank job come up with a different plan? There were a couple of very entertaining episodes of Numb3rs that started from this premise, and likewise CSI: Cyber. Heck, even Thunderbirds (the original puppet TV show) had a novel idea or two in this regard!

The big trick to this difference is that you have to think of the plan. It’s much easier in a novel, where responses are exactly what you want them to be; things get a little trickier when free will (in the form of the players) enters the equation. It’s often easier to proceed from a resource-oriented premise and simply work out how the change impacts a standard approach.

9. Different solution required

One of the simplest approaches is to look at how the situation was handled the last time it came up, and devise a stumbling block that prevents that solution from working, this time around. I tend to think of this approach as “the smart copy-cat” – doing the same thing that someone else tried without making the same mistakes as they did.

10. The Other side of the coin

Another way in which this iteration of the same basic plot can be to reverse the usual roles. Requiring the PCs to commit a bank robbery instead of stopping it, for example.

11. Different mood/tone

I’ve touched on this earlier, when discussing “Different antagonists,” but it’s worth highlighting in it’s own right. The same basic situation develops very differently if there is a different mood or tone to the adventure – comparing a relatively sanitized bank robbery from the comic books with one with a high (and mounting) body count, for example.

There is a perception in some parts of Hollywood at the moment that “Grim and Gritty” sells (thanks to success movies such as The Dark Knight trilogy), but recent developments have thrown that conclusion into doubt, raising suggestions that the “grim and gritty” cycle might be coming to an end, at least for now. The contrasts that are being highlighted in this respect are the success of Ant-man and Guardians Of The Galaxy and Deadpool vs. the comparative failure of Batman vs. Superman and the fading of the ‘grim and gritty’ reboot of the Star Trek franchise – once was an interesting experiment, but with the second movie the tolerance seemed to be wearing thin.

But I digress. In my experience, a different mood and/or tone is insufficient in and of itself to distinguish one example of a plot from another; but if that tone is then reflected in the planning of the bank robbery, it can be a springboard to a different experience from the adventure.

12. Different location

I sign-posted this item of potential difference under different circumstances. Sometimes, the plot is just a delivery vehicle for highlighting the uniqueness and diversity of a particular location by virtue of the differences in culture. This presupposes that there is a significant social or cultural difference from the location that the PCs are used to, and – to be really successful – that difference has to permeate the entire adventure in the form of different personalities, different expectations, different limitations, and different reactions on the part of the locals.

For example, think about a bank robbery in Venice. The means of reaching the bank, the bank security, the means of breaching the bank security, the means of escape, and the means by which the police attempt to prevent the escape, should all be affected. The location’s differences become the star.

13. Conceptually different

You can take the original “core” plotline as just a metaphor, analogy, or abstract description of something completely different. A “bank heist” is completely transformed if the “bank” is the well of unborn souls, for example. Or if you are stealing the radioactivity from a store of uranium.

Take a Rave – you can certainly consider such an event as a “bank” of youth. Steal that unlived lifespan from them, leaving the survivors as 90-year-old geriatrics…

14. A clever twist

Finally, you might have a clever twist in mind. I offered eleven different types of RPG plot twist in a two-part article in late 2014 (Part 1, ‘Pretzel Thinking”and Part 2, “Lets Twist Again’) to consider, after finding that the documented types of plot twist from TV and fiction don’t usually work in an RPG environment.

A plot twist plays on the similarity of the current occasion relative to expectations – until the moment of revelation, when the entire situation is transfigured, and what seemed to be ‘exactly the same’ is revealed to be something completely different.

A difference that makes no difference is no difference at all

To be effective, a difference has to infuse every possible aspect of an adventure, mission, crisis, or situation. It doesn’t matter if it’s a crime caper, a doomsday plot, a terrorist attack, a revolution, or whatever; find the point or points of difference and soak it up like a sponge.

Comments (2)

Looking into The Dark Eye, a guest article by Lena Richter

Viking Ship by Ben Maier

Illustration by Ben Maier, from The Dark Eye (English Version). Click the image to go to the Kickstarter campaign.

In the course of the 750th-post anniversary article here at Campaign Mastery (almost 50 posts ago, how time flies!), I became aware of The Dark Eye, an RPG that was more popular than D&D in Germany and had been around for over 30 years!

The fact that I didn’t know about the game greatly surprised Lena, aka Catrinity, and she immediately offered to write a brief introduction to the game. In fact, she wanted to use her Christmas Holidays to do so (now that’s enthusiasm!) I gratefully accepted the offer but insisted that she enjoy her holidays first.

As a result, it’s taken longer to arrive than she expected when the offer was made, but it’s here now, and the timing is fortuitous as there is currently a kickstarter campaign underway to raise funds for an English-language version of the game. Since they have already raised $80,000 against a $10,000 target, it is going to happen, and it’s only a question of how many stretch goals the campaign achieves in the next week or so.

So, without further delay, let me turn this page over to Lena:

“So you make haste through the Reichforst, hoping you will reach Empress Rohaja in time to warn her.”

“No, he is not one of the mages from the Shadowlands who sell their souls to demons for power. He is far more dangerous: He serves the Nameless One.”

Maybe some of you have already noticed the recent kickstarter campaign in the USA for the translation of a German RPG called “The Dark Eye”. It was made known to me by the lovely Mike who runs Campaign Mastery that almost nobody outside of Germany knows of this game – so this is my attempt to introduce you to the RPG I’ve been playing for 13 years and why I like it so much.

If I had to describe TDE really briefly, I would say it is a medieval fantasy world with lots of different settings, accompanied by rather complex rules and a TON of material to play and read – which is true, but I see nobody dropping their Pathfinder books and running to back the kickstarter yet.

When you tell most people about an unknown RPG, the crucial question is: “What has this game no other game has?”, which is kind of hard to answer for TDE on the one hand and very easy on the other.

The reason I like the game so much is that the setting it offers is no special-superfreaky-place that stands out from all the other RPGs, but a big choice of various fantasy settings the characters can easily travel between. In addition to that, I don’t know any other game that offers this amount of background lore, source books and modules.

The thing that really stands out for me is the living history of the world that you and your characters can become part of, and which makes your average adventure more than just a random story.

That’s the very, very short version. But let’s dive in a little deeper, shall we?

A small part of Lena's "Dark Eye" collection

A small part of Lena’s “Dark Eye” collection

Once upon a time there was a place called Aventuria

To keep the history lesson short: TDE was developed in Germany in 1984, as a German version of those surprisingly well-selling games like D&D, published by a large game company called Schmidt Spiele, who actually had the power to force stores to sell the game alongside the more traditional Schmidt products like board games and puzzles.

Yes, at that time you could find RPGs in classic warehouses, sitting right next to Monopoly and 1000-parts-puzzles of some 80’s airbrush motive. Those were the times!

Anyhoo: TDE was developed by Ulrich Kiesow, Werner Fuchs and Hans-Joachim Alpers, and started off with very simple rules and dungeon crawls, which basically every RPG in that stage of gaming did, right?

It was a big success, and so more products were developed, like a lot of modules, setting descriptions, an early attempt to item cards and also some rather strange things like board games (which had basically nothing to do with the game, but made the name TDE known to children – so, clever move, Schmidt Spiele!) and, as cherry on top of the “weird RPG stuff” cake, a bat-shaped mask the gamemaster should wear during sessions to create a sense of mystery.

Unfortunately I did not start to play early enough to see one of my friends put on that ridiculous thing!

The first edition of the rules was followed by a second, third and fourth one over the next 30 years, each adding more details to the rules and the world. During that time, the license was sold twice; the current publisher Ulisses Spiele has been in charge since 2007.

After Aventuria, the original continent, was known to players for years, other continents were described and made available to discover. There was, as I mentioned before, a ton of material that was published over the years. Like over 200 modules, more than 2 dozen books of background material (describing a region of the continent or special places like wizard academies, warrior schools or the wonders of the seas) and a lot of rule expansions (like a whole book on different kinds of zombies and undead – known to my group as “the book that will one day accidentally fall into a fireplace before it kills all our characters”).

While I have only mentioned four editions so far, a fifth one was released about a year ago, and that is the version that will be translated if the kickstarter campaign is a success.

This edition is the first that tries not to further expand the rules but instead attempts to make the game simpler and more playable. It is also the first one printed completely in colour.

The Dark Eye Setting

The TDE world is called “Dere” (an anagram of “Erde”, the German word for earth – yeah, innovation was running wild in the 80s. And nope, that is not the only anagram in the game! Actually, there are whole websites collecting them and other fun references! Ahem).

The most important continent on Dere is Aventuria, which is the one most groups use a setting, and for which the most books are written. Aventuria is basically a whole lot of settings stuffed in a rather small area. You can play in a Viking setting as well a Renaissance Italy one, or in a decadent slave-owning ancient Rome-like one. Or, if you feel more like classic Medieval, or oriental fairytales, or Pirates of the Caribbean, you’ll find that, too – within just a few days or weeks journey for the characters.

The other continents provide different settings, like the much more high-fantasy Myranor, which has a lot of inspiration by ancient Greece; Tharun, a high-level hollow earth setting with some really freaky stuff going on; Uthuria, which offers a place to explore and have some colony wars; and Rakshazar or “Giant’s land”, a very barbaric and grim place (which is published by a fan project).

Aventuria Map by Markus Holzum

The map of Aventuria by Markus Holzum, from The Dark Eye (English Version). Click the image to go to the Kickstarter campaign.


Aventuria offers, as mentioned, different types of medieval fantasy settings. Some of them are rather exotic, but most of them are classic fantasy. You have the typical human + EDO (Elves, Dwarves, Orcs) populations (accompanied by some lizardmen and goblins, which are playable characters as well). You have your knights in shining armor, evil mages, old ruins with treasures and dragons.

You can play a warrior; a mage; a thief; or the priest of a Deity. Like Praios, the God of Light, Truth, and Justice,? or Phex, the God of Thiefs, merchants and tricksters.

There is, however, some other stuff you can do. Like:

  • Preventing a demi-god from destroying the continent;
  • Playing a desert enchanter who works his spells by drumming;
  • Winning the right to rule a city for a year in the lottery;
  • Playing a really curious baker who wants to see the world;
  • Or, if that’s not your thing, a mage whose father was a djinn and who wants to learn how to travel in time;
  • Getting sucked into a deadly theater play; Or
  • Or selling your soul to a demon.

And lots of other everyday hero stuff.

To be fair – most of the modules are meant for rather good-hearted PCs and not all of them are great, but there is a lot to choose from and with the really detailed setting descriptions it’s easy to make up your own stories.

And if you ever get bored by present Aventuria (did I mention that there’s a 2000-page strong box that enables you to go 1000 years in the past and deal with all the cool sh*t that happened back then?), there are other places to go.


Myranor, or the “golden land”, is a different setting (published by a third-party publisher, Uhrwerk Verlag/Clockwork Publishing that has some connections with Aventuria – the latter being a former colony of Myranor), which offers a more high-fantasy approach to TDE.

If you want flying ships and submarines and huge cities ruled by an upper class of mages, or if you really want to play a winged human, anthropomorphic cat/lion/bear, or a party of five different kinds of underwater species – here you go, have fun!

The continent consists of a slowly decaying empire (with a lot of Greek/Roman inspiration), surrounded by some very different and somewhat exotic settings. Myranor is not described in the same amount of detail as Aventuria, so there is a lot of space for adventures and GM creativity. There are some modules available as well as a Monster manual and some background books.


Still not satisfied with the amount of freaky stuff? Okay, let’s take a trip to Tharun: A gigantic realm consisting of 9 island kingdoms, which is situated either inside of Dere or within another sphere (you can choose what explanation suits you best).

In any case: there is a strange colour-changing sun in the sky, which never changes its position. Ruled by some really nasty gods and their not-much-less-nasty servants, this is a setting where PCs can fight oppression and evil priests – or ally with them and try to rise to power. While using magic runes and riding on a giant dragonfly. Uh, yeah!


Uthuria is a setting that was created to use as some kind of exploring/Indiana Jones/colony war ?thing, a continent of fierce nature and strange jungle tribes, but it’s been a while since anything was published for it.


Rakshazar or “Giant’s land” was created as a fan project who wanted to provide a Grim & Gritty-setting for TDE.

Which they did, so if you want to dress in a fur skirt and swing a giant axe and sound your barbaric yawp over the rooftops – this is the place to go. Although it is not officially published, there are printed books available, but all of the material is also free for downloading.


There are some ground rules that apply to all the continents, which are: There is magic and there are gods. As well as demons and ghosts and unicorns and a whole lot of other supernatural stuff. But there are a lot of different approaches to all of it.

In TDE, magic is something you are born with. You cannot reach the ability to do magic later in your life. If you have magic potential, you have to be trained to use it – if you don’t, you may be able to work a few spells intuitively, but you will never be really good at it (in most cases – there can be exceptions).

If you do find someone to train you, there are a lot of different options, from the traditional mage academy, to the witch or druid who takes you as a pupil, to becoming a charlatan, a magic dancer, a magic-using alchemist, or a shaman.

There are even more possibilities – carving magic runes, gaining abilities of an animal by eating his heart or the before mentioned magic drum solo.

And that’s just Aventuria I’m talking about! In each of the continents, magic is just a little different, and you can do different things with it. In Myranor, for example, you can join your mind with a machine, summon spirits into your body and other fun stuff.

There are rules to magic, of course, which are different depending on the kind of magic tradition you have learned. Every one of them has its secret rituals and objects – like the staff of the mages, the magic bowl of the alchemists, the obsidian daggers of the druids and so on. Some of this knowledge is shared between the traditions, some of it is kept secret, like a witches ability to fly on wooden objects or bind familiars.

There is also a lot of unknown stuff to discover – lost spells, ancient rituals, newly discovered recipes for potions and so on.


While you can never become a mage (or Witch, or Druid – You know what I mean) unless you are born with the ability, you can always become priest to one of the gods. This provides you with some power, some respect, a lot of free meals/drinks, and a bunch of people who want you to solve their problems, woohoo!

There are quite a lot of gods in the different continents and cultures, most of them known to more than one species/culture under different names. The classic and best-known faith is that of the Twelve Gods, a greco-roman-inspired pantheon of said 12 Deities who stand for different virtues and crafts.

Some examples that are often chosen by players:

  • Rondra, Goddess of Fighting, Honor and Thunder;
  • Phex, God of Thiefs and merchants;
  • Hesinde, Goddess of Wisdom and Magic;
  • and Praios, god of Justice, Light and Truth.

This pantheon is accompanied by some demi-gods (like Aves, the god of adventure – after whom the continent Aventuria was named (write that down and gain some nerd credibility if you ever play the game!)), saints, holy entities, heavenly dragons… it’s really too much to name them all.

One who should, no, must be mentioned is the Nameless One, the classic bad guy.

He is the Fallen God who wanted to overpower and rule the other gods, and, because these plans never seem to succeed, was brought down by the other Gods, chained between the world and the sphere of demons, and robbed of his name.

So of course he has a few cults that try to free him, recover his name and bring the heavenly pantheon down. Usually, those are the really evil guys, and the most dangerous ones, because they often work in great secrecy and plan their actions over decades.

Mages vs Priests

I’m going to finish this section with a quick word about the powers of mages and priests.

They used to be very different, because the mages had a lot more spells that they could use, which were quicker and often more useful than the godly powers, so priests were first and foremost characters of big influence and social power who generally used their powers only if it really mattered.

However, the changed rules of the fifth edition provide more and faster working “spells” for priests, which makes the difference much smaller now.

Dark Eye character by Luisa Preißler

A character illustration by Luisa Preißler, from The Dark Eye (English Version). Click the image to go to the Kickstarter campaign.

There has to be something about that in the rules!

Okay, so let’s talk about the rules. They are often described as too complicated – and maybe they are, compared to other games, but I’ll try to explain them anyway.

Characters are created (and leveled up) by spending XP. Each character is defined by a species, a culture and a profession. Like Human / Desert Folk / Drumenchanter guy (damn, I did not know I would ever use that as an example as often as I have). Or Dwarf / Special Dwarven culture / Blacksmith.

So of course there are restrictions to how you can combine and mix those up – not all species offer all professions etc. – but, basically, you can create whatever you want as long as you can pay for it.

You also have to pay for your basic 8 attributes (like courage, strength, charisma etc.), and you can add advantages (which cost you XP) and disadvantages (which get you XP) to the mix.

There are abilities (like swimming, sword fighting, magic knowledge, stealth, empathy, survival, history, dancing… – so quite a lot, you get the point) which are also bought and raised with your XP, as well as spells or priestly abilities.

And you can buy special abilities – stuff like fighting maneuvers, special knowledge of an area or landscape, magic rituals and so on.

Die Rolls

Of course there are dice rolls, usually done with three d20s. Each ability is connected to three attributes and you roll on each of them, with the skill or ability points making up for shortfalls on the attributes.

The higher the attributes and abilities are, the better, because you have roll equal or less to the value.

A quick example: Let’s go swim. Swimming is connected to the attributes Agility, Constitution and Strength. Let’s assume each of those attributes has a value of 12 (which is quite average) and the ability value is 7.

So, we roll! First die: 10. Which is less than 12, so everything is fine. Second roll: 15. 3 points too high for the value of 12, but we still have the 7 ability points to make up for that – still not drowning, yay!

With 3 of our 7 ability points spent, the last roll cannot be higher than 12 (attribute) + 4 (rest of ability points) = 16, or we’re in trouble. So if you roll a 16 or less, happy times, but if you roll 17 or higher, something nasty makes your swimming attempt unsuccessful, perhaps a nasty cramp in the calf. I hope your party members rescue you, because you are going down toward the bottom!


When it comes to fighting you use only one d20 – again, rolling less or equal to your attacking or defending value is good, higher is bad. Yes, there is an active defense. And armor and stuff, so don’t expect to knock your enemy’s socks off with just one hit.

To be honest, fights can take a while in this game, although this also depends on which edition you play and what amount of optional rules you use.

Rules In Perspective

I could go on for ages about all the rules and possibilities there are, but that’s the basic stuff. In my opinion it is not too hard to understand the basics, but it can get really complicated when it comes to the detailed rules like special fighting skills or summoning demons or creating artifacts.

I guess it’s not to everyone’s taste to have so many and so detailed rules. On the other hand they provide a lot of options to make your character special.

And you don’t have to master any that aren’t in use at the time – so there’s always another combination to explore and master. This makes characters different from each other and keeps the game fresh, no matter how often you have played it.

Living history – the so-called Metaplot

One thing that distinguishes TDE from almost every other RPG is the fact that the world is not static, but the course of history goes on and is made available to the players through modules, magazines and novels. So if you read about the guys who saved the world from the evil demi-god, brought back the holy light of Praios or defeated the undead dragon? Those were probably your characters. Pretty cool, huh?

This concept means two things: The world is changing, history is written and you can be a part of it. And: Since there are so many modules, most groups play at least a few of them to catch up on the ongoing development of the setting, so you can chat about the same story, the same villain, the same epic battle, even with players you have never met before.

This whole idea is called the “meta-plot”, meaning that there is something like an official timeline to the setting that you can experience through the different modules. (Of course there are also smaller stories and modules that don’t add to this timeline and can be played at a place and/or time of your choice, and this timeline is only established for Aventuria, not the other continents.)

You can witness reoccurring NPCs grow up, rise to power or fall from grace, you can experience the war between an empire and its enemies and have your characters play a crucial role to its outcome.

Of course there is a downside to this: Some NPCs have “metaplot armor”, meaning you can’t kill them off whenever you like (if you want to follow the official timeline in which they still are alive and do important things later). Or you cannot save an NPC no matter what you do, if he is supposed to die at a certain point. When you play a module and your characters march to battle, the outcome of said battle is probably already written in the timeline.

And yes, of course that also means there are spoilers for the timeline you may want to avoid. (You should see me on conventions. I start every conversation with “okay, listen, my group is still stuck 15 years behind the recent timeline, so please don’t tell me anything about what’s going on later!!” – I should get that printed on a T-Shirt!)

There’s also the problem of not being able to play for a few years and coming back to the game to find the world changed a little (or a lot).

So the whole metaplot thing has its pros and cons and every group has to decide to which amount they want to follow that official timeline. You can of course ignore it completely and create your own Aventuria. Or you can choose a specific part of the timeline that sounds most interesting to you and play the modules that a written for this chapter of history. And whether you like it or not – the “metaplot” is something that makes TDE really unique.

The German love-hate relationship with the game

There is hardly a German gamer who has never played TDE at least once (I think), making it the German equivalent to Dungeons and Dragons (which is played much less than TDE here, actually). But if you mention the game, some will admit to loving it while a lot of players will instantly tell you that the game sucks, that they used to play it but found something better now, or that you’re not a real gamer if you play TDE. There really is virtually no middle ground.

TDE is often called “a game for players who just want to be read a story instead of making decisions” – this, of course, is a complaint about the meta-plot that determines the outcome of many of the modules to some extent.

You may have come across the term “railroading”, which means the characters can only follow the tracks of an already written story.

But there are other things TDE-haters despise about the game: The rules are often described as “way too complicated”, the background lore describes the world in “far too much detail”, the 3d20 rule mechanism makes it “too hard to calculate the success rate of a roll”, the number of NPCs who often play an vital role in the modules that “should be given to the player characters”, the fights that “can take hours”, the fact you can play rather unheroic characters like bakers and farmers (there even is a term for that called “Bauerngaming”, farmer gaming, as the opposite of “Power gaming”), and the setting itself, often being described as too fairytale-like, too nice, too clean (hence, the fan creation of Rakshazar).

Answering The Critics

To respond to all those accusations – because there are already some German players pointing out how bad the game is in the English-speaking forums (and because I really like the game, I would not have played it for so long if I did not): Yes, some of them are true – up to a point. But I think some of them also arise from a time when the whole RPG world was much less about player empowerment, sandboxing, and fate points, than it is today. I think many players remember TDE as “that crappy old system we used to play before we discovered modern gaming” don’t take into account that you can also bring that modern approach to TDE.

Farmer Gaming

“Farmer Gaming” – yes, you can play a character who is a farmer or a scribe or just a beggar, you can play a whole group of those characters or throw one in with all the mages and warriors. I like that. It’s fun, and challenging, and believable. And well, a lot of XP later, that farmer could be the priest of a powerful Deity, fighting epic battles against unspeakably evil forces. It just takes him a little longer to get there, so – more time to play your character before he becomes too strong for most challenges!

Too Light and Fluffy

The setting used to be rather nice and fairytale-like, indeed, but that has changed over the last few decades. With the biggest TDE campaign ever published (the return of the bad demi-god I mentioned before), a part of Aventuria fell to the shadows and in the hands of undead dragons, dark mages and cruel warlords.

There have been some darker places added into the setting, and even if the course of history takes away some of the most evil parts of it, there still are the so-called Shadowlands where you can confront your party with horror, undercover operations and hard moral decisions.

And of course a medieval setting itself offers a lot of space to swipe in some darker aspects of the time – poverty, cruel nobles not caring for their people, the horror of a war raging through a country… it’s really up to the group and the gamemaster to make the setting as dark or as filled with fluffy unicorns as they want.

Last but not least – the fourth edition of the game offers about 20 pages on “selling your soul to a demon and all the cool powers you get from that – and why it still is a BAD IDEA”. How much more can you ask?

Too Complicated

Concerning the “the rules are way too complicated” criticism: I can’t really argue that. The fourth edition consists of no less than 5 core books you need for playing, each of them containing 200-400 pages.

This is no problem if you can start with some experienced players who explain everything to you (like I did) and get to know the rules over time, but it might scare you off if you want to get started and don’t know where to begin, with all the many books and opportunities.

Speaking of opportunities: There is an up-side to these very complex (and, in some areas, admittedly too complicated) rules. You really can make every character unique. There are so many abilities to learn and special stuff to buy for your XP, you can play most of the PC for years without getting anywhere near to the point of asking “what else could I learn?”

The Edition War

With the fifth edition only being published for about a year and many rule expansions yet to come, there is also some kind of edition war going on right now.

Many players of the fourth edition (including me) are very fond of the complex rules and endless possibilities it offers, while other players stopped playing TDE years ago (for finding it too complicated and the rules way too much to comprehend) and are giving it another try.

While the discussion about which edition you should play might be useful in German – (no orcs or lizardmen or drumming enchanter guys (hi again!) in the fifth edition yet, How can you play such a game??) – it is rather pointless for this article, since the upcoming English version will be the fifth edition, which is probably the easiest one to use to get into the system anyway, at least if you don’t have an experienced player to explain it to you.\

Fandom and other media

Since The Dark Eye still is the most known RPG in Germany, and it is been around for so long, there are a lot of cool projects and fan stuff:

  • An online encyclopedia called Wiki Aventurica for the game, which is incredibly useful for research, and strongly needed to find things in the thousands of published pages. It contains almost 54.000 articles.
  • Dere Globus allows you to install the maps of Dere to Google Earth and so create an interactive atlas of the setting.
  • Avespfade is an online route planner for Aventuria, allowing you to calculate the time your party needs to get to their next adventure.
  • There are a few software tools that help you create characters and spend your experience points.
  • And there is Nandurion, a site only consisting of news about the game, reviews of most of the products published during the last years and free modules, stories and other stuff to download. (I’ve been a member of this site for over 4 years, but I think you can hardly call it advertising to mention a site only written in German, amIright?)

You can also find a ton of unofficial modules, stories and background descriptions in the various fanzines (off- and online) that have been published over the years. TDE even got an entry in The Guiness Book of World Records? for the biggest collection of books and memorabilia brought together by a single fan in his own museum.

The Dark Eye Logo

The Dark Eye has always been a game with a lot of involvement by the players – a lot of authors started by publishing unofficial modules or participating in writing competitions. There are some German-speaking forums to review books, discuss character ideas, solve problems with your ongoing campaign or just share funny stories. (Not saying those are a perfect realm of helpfulness and polite people, they’re still internet forums).

Computer Games

While The Dark Eye is still mostly happening as a pen-and-paper, there have been some PC games published over the years. Some of them were published in English as well, like the very classic Realms of Arkania (1993), a point-and-click adventure; Chains of Satinav (2012), another point-and-click adventure; or the rather dark RPG Demonicon (2013), which takes the player into the Shadowlands.

There were a few browser games and mobile games as well. Rumours about a movie have been going on for more than five years now, but that does not seem likely to happen anytime soon. There is, however, a long and elaborate fan-made movie called “Leuenklinge” on YouTube, where you also can find a lot of Let’s Plays, video reviews and interviews.

Why I like this game

When I started Pen-and-Paper gaming 13 years ago, I did so in one of those German groups who hardly knew any RPGs besides The Dark Eye. The fourth edition had just been published, I had just finished school, so there was a lot of time to dive right into the books and read.

I started with a simple character (a thief) and learned the more complex parts of the game (like high-end fighting and creating magic characters) later.

So as much I can understand the argument of the game being too complicated if you are working full time and just want to enjoy a few hours of gaming on the weekend without spending too much time reading rule books, that never applied to me. At the time I started working full time I had already been playing for so long I knew the important rules by heart.

What I also like are the many possibilities TDE offers, both in the rules and in the setting. As I said earlier, the character choices, and the ways to develop your character, are endless. And the setting offers so many cool places to visit without even leaving one continent, while the big variety of modules also offer a lot of different adventures in one and the same game. You can go dungeon crawling or get caught up in nobility schemes, fight against the evil forces or discover ancient mysteries, all without having to change the game system (or even the character).

But the main reason I still play TDE and love it so much is the way you can get caught up in this world.

There is this quote saying “no man is an island” and for The Dark Eye, when you play it during a long time and with the right people, this applies to every one of your characters and every story they experience. Most of the modules and important NPCs are part of a bigger story, so your characters can visit people and places more than once and really become attached to them, which serves to keep the players immersed in the story.

When the enemy attacks the city your character was born in, when the person your character idolizes as a hero commits treason and turns to the dark side, when your characters finally manage to kill an enemy who has brought pain and death to their allies for years, this means so much more than some random dungeon crawl in some random district that could be set in any universe.

You don’t have to play the way that my group does, puzzling out the perfect set of modules and campaigns for our various groups of characters, planning ahead the next years of playing. You can always take one of the smaller modules and just have fun for one or two sessions, but TDE really is a game where investing time rewards you with more fun while gaming, because things matter to you. And while I enjoy playing other games from time to time I always love to come back to Aventuria. It’s like coming home.

Random Fact Time!

The end is near! So here are some facts I could not squeeze in the previous paragraphs:

  • One of the distinctive features of the setting is a total gender equality in almost every part of the world. You don’t have to write a complicated back story of how your female warrior dressed as a boy during all her years of training or explain why your big strong male character became a healer or a cook instead of learning how to fight. You just grab your sword – or your frying pan – and you are good to go.
  • Because we Germans never had much of a problem with showing naked people in game illustrations (or commercials, or prime time TV), there are actually pictures in the rule book that will be changed for the US version of the game, covering up some skin.
  • Why is the game named The Dark Eye? Time for more nerd credibility points: The founder Ulrich Kiesow wanted the game to be called Aventuria, but the publisher wanted a more mysterious and fancy name – so they asked for it to be named for the most powerful artifact in the game, which are the Dark Eyes, highly magic orbs who allow you to see into the future, the past or faraway places (imagine Sarumans Palantir from Lord of the Rings and you get the right image). (Also, said founder Ulrich hated it when his name was pronounced in English, sounding like “Aaalrik” – so as a result of that “Alrik” ended up as the Aventuria equivalent to “John Doe” in the game).

In the end: What you might expect

After going on and on about much material is published for the German version of TDE, there is definitely an attempt to make this experience known to English-speaking players as well. When you scroll to the very bottom of the kickstarter campaign site you find the plan for publishing more books in the future, including setting descriptions, modules (adventures), sourcebooks like the bestiary and even short stories.

If you want to stay informed, you may visit the English facebook page or the English homepage, where you also can find more articles about the artwork, the different areas of the continent and other things.

There’s also an English Let’s Play on YouTube.

The kickstarter campaign will be going on till 3rd June.

PDF Icon

If you want to try a simpler version of the rules, you can do so with the quickstart rules PDF with pre-generated characters and a short module.

Whether I have interested you in giving Aventuria and The Dark Eye a shot, or just amused you with my rambling about this way too complicated monster of lore and rules, I hope you have enjoyed this article. Big thanks to Mike for giving me the opportunity to tell you all about my favorite game!

Lena by Lena

About the author

Lena, known to the internet mostly as Curima or Catrinity, is a 31 years old female gamer (yes, we exist!) living in Hamburg, Germany. She works at a boring office job and escapes regularly to the worlds of gaming (PnP and PC games), reading, watching a ton of TV shows, and taking care of her cat (of course I have a cat, what were you expecting?). She writes for Nandurion, Germany’s biggest “The Dark Eye” fanpage, and has written a few unofficial TDE short stories, scenarios and reviews, as well as one official module published in December 2015.

You’re welcome, Lena, and thanks for the great article – your enthusiasm really shines through. If anything, I have toned it down a little in the course of my editing! Lena also advises that she is very happy to answer questions about the game or setting (unless it’s metaplot that happens later than her gaming group is up to, lol) in the comments below.

Comments (9)

Engagement vs Involvement: The forgotten balance

street in Vilnius photo by Herman Brinkman

Image credit: / Herman Brinkman
If you only look at the buildings, you miss the street in between that ties them both together

Every player, and more importantly, every PC, who is participating in an RPG is a member of a team. That team can be constructed to form an idealized “machine” if the players collaborate on their character designs, but more normally, things are looser.

At best, you have the GM constructing a team model in which no one character treads on the toes of another PC – that’s what I did when setting up the Zenith-3 campaign. Importantly, I made sure that there were more archetype “slots” than there were PCs, so that there was room for the dynamic between team members to grow and evolve, as one member left and another joined. The team model was flexible. Within those archetypes, the characters that were created were entirely up to the players, and so was the archetype they were slotting into – the only requirement was that archetype selection was first come, first serve.

In most campaigns, there is not even this level of management. I have once GM’d a game in which everyone turned up with a Cleric – all worshiping different, and oft-times hostile, deities.

And so this disparate and diverse motley crew come together and work as a team to solve the problems that confront them in the course of the campaign. There are times when each takes the spotlight, and there are times when they yield the spotlight to another PC, and there are times when they are a team player and not an individual.

There is clearly a balance in every character of team participant and star, and that’s something that I talked about in Ensemble or Star Vehicle – Which is Your RPG Campaign? almost 4 years ago.

In retrospect, though, that article doesn’t go far enough. It takes the two hallmark positions – member of an Ensemble or featured player in a Star Vehicle with a rotating spotlight – and assumes that there is nothing in-between. And that’s a problem, because – as I’ve shown above – every character occupies some middle ground between the extremes from the very moment of character conception, through character creation, into all aspects of play – roleplaying, combat, and problem solving – and into GM’s encounter design, adventure design, and even campaign design.

What brought this train of thought on? An exchange between my brother Paul and myself, about the departure of Michael Weatherly from NCIS after 13 years. We were talking about what impact this would have on the show, and I pointed out that Sean Murray’s character of Timothy McGee had grown over the course of the 13 seasons (12 as a regular and 8 guest appearances in Season 1) and was now positioned to take up the lead agent role; in a way, this would bring the show full circle back to where it was in the beginning, or close to it.

I’ve been mulling over McGee’s career within the show and realized that this growth in utility has come at a price – unless they specifically write in a scene to show off his technological expertise, which they do once or twice a season, he has, by and large, shed his former role within the series as a Geek (see the “reception” section of the Wikipedia page linked to above).

I wasn’t entirely sure where the train of thought was going until I reached that point of revelation, and suddenly extrapolated the change of role outwards and propagated it into the realm of RPGs. I mention this just to provide some context to the article.

Every character has to have duel roles (if not more) on the metagame scale within a campaign: the team player and the character in the spotlight. At times, he needs to occupy a midway point – not the character standing within the spotlight of the current scene, but the dominant presence for the adventure as a whole.

And characters have to be designed for that – and they aren’t, generally. No-one really gives that even the slightest bit of thought. The focus is always on the individual spotlight, and when the character will qualify for it, and the team aspect of the design is at best incidental – even though the ‘supporting role” will overwhelmingly dominate in actual play.

Impact On Character Concept

There are three different imperatives in operation here – the capacity of the character to demand an equal share of the spotlight, the capacity of the character to link with the other PCs in a supporting capacity, and the way the character will mesh with those others in full collaboration towards a common end.

A good character (in a group environment – solo play is a slightly different story) will be able to tick all of these boxes. They will have a singular area of expertise in which they can take the lead; they will have areas of lesser expertise (probably thematically related to the first) which will permit them to assist, support, and contribute to the spotlight time of others, and at the same time will contain the capacity to be the focal point of an entire adventure; and they will be capable of meshing with the other PCs as a unified force, especially in combat.

When first thinking about what sort of character a player wants to create, all these aspects of the proposed character bear contemplation. Articulating how the character will function in each of these roles permits other players to build their characters around the interaction and dynamic necessary for success.

It’s my experience that players spend a lot of time thinking about the first (area of expertise), and might spend a bit of time on the last (function within a team), and generally assume that the middle one will develop naturally as a consequence of the others. And, to a certain extent, this is a valid assumption; but occasionally it will misfire. Never trust to chance what can happen by design with minimal investment in thought and effort.

Here’s another way of thinking about these three functions that can be useful, but oversimplifies and neglects a number of alternative solutions: The first can be described as non-combat things the character knows how to do, the second can be things the character knows about but has no practical experience in, and the third on the style of combat and how that can be employed tactically within the group.

Batman, for example, ticks all three boxes: He’s a driven detective with a depth of information in a wide variety of fields. Where the mystery dominates the plotline, so does the character. When the mystery is not the central aspect of the plot, but is a bridge connecting one scene to another, or where another character has an important decision to make that will be a more informed choice with information from Batman, the character takes a supporting role; and in combat, he can either identify an enemy’s weakness, employ surprise and athleticism (and weaponry) to take enemies by surprise, can provide cover where some specialized expertise (magic, super-science, whatever) is needed to win the central confrontation, or simply function as a distraction to buy time for others. In fact, in combat is where the character is weakest, though he is certainly versatile; he could almost be designed to function in a team environment, at least in terms of capabilities. Balancing these strengths are his personality (loner), obsessiveness, and – to some extent – paranoia and secrecy. Triggering these can either force him to fade back into the shadows, yielding the spotlight to someone else, or push him firmly into the spotlight to become the driving force in an adventure. It’s this particular assemblage of strengths and weaknesses that makes the character so flexible, a flexibility that is key to his ubiquity – and the sheer variety of plotlines that this opens up for the character has been a major contributing factor to his popularity over the last 77 years.

Impact On Character Creation

Choosing not only what a character can do, but what they can’t do, is far easier with a character concept to serve as road-map. I view character construction as more than simply assigning game mechanics numbers to various details; it is a defining of a personality, and selection of abilities, such that the personality influences and shapes not only what capabilities the character seeks out but how those capabilities will be employed, all held together and explained by a personal history.

The three functions of the character inform every choice that I make when designing a PC, but especially skill and ability selection.

Skills: behind-the-curtains theory

To understand the role of skill selection and choices about skill improvement requires a slight shift in awareness by the owner/operator of the character and the GM who interprets the game mechanics.

Let’s say that a character has a skill such that they succeed on 12 or less on a d20. The usual way of looking at this is to say that there is a 60% chance of the character being successful at any using the skill. I suggest that this is an abbreviated shorthand for the correct interpretation, which is both more interesting and more complicated: that the character knows 60% of whatever there is to know about that subject and is ignorant of the other 40%. In a perfect simulation of reality, once a subtopic is rolled, the results (success or failure) would be documented and the character would never need to roll for that specific knowledge again; this avoids the illogical anomalies of a character being an expert in some aspect of the knowledge one week and completely ignorant of it the week after. The more broadly the skills system defines its parameters, the more likely it is that such anomalies will arise. “I knew about the gang territories in Los Angeles last week, why don’t I know about it now?”

In reality, this is impractical, and the explanations that are usually offered to permit the ignoring of the occasional anomaly are that either the subject, or contemporary understanding of it, are dynamic and continually changing, or that there are always gaps in knowledge or its application, or that the character has simply forgotten or not absorbed the information when they were studying the subject. Systems that offer “eidetic memory” as a purchasable option stretch credibility by voiding the last and weakening the first (especially if coupled with “Speed reading” or equivalent). Nevertheless, we simply hide behind the euphemism “the character has a 60% chance” and ignore the actual significance of that statement.

This becomes more interesting when we consider two characters of equal ability discussing the subject. If they had exactly the same knowledge, there would logically be no reason for any improvement in their chances of accessing any given fact. In fact, the subject matter can be reduced to a common core that they both posses and a fringe that may have some overlap but is not required to do so.

If there were no central core, then simple probability based on the chance of failure would give the chances of success of the pair collaborating on a problem: 8/20 x 8/20 = 64/400ths = 6400/400% = 64/4% = 16% chance of failure, and therefore a 84% chance of success; the sum of their knowledge is 24% greater than either of them alone. Or, to put it another way, a second character with 12/- has 24% of knowledge that the first lacks, and vice-versa. Which could be expressed as a Venn diagram in which the area outside the overlap is 24% of the combined area and there is, therefore, a 76% overlap.

Things get more complicated when you factor in the concept of a “common core” of knowledge or ability that is central to the skill. Instead of having the entire breadth of the subject in which differences can emerge, there is only the “fringe”. In essence, this increases the likelihood of differences in knowledge within the two fringes – a lot of the “overlap” is consumed by the “common core”. How much, it’s impossible to say without defining this “Central Core”.

Most skill systems go a step further, defining layers or “shells” of knowledge, and decreeing some of them to be “more exotic” than others. This is frequently represented by increased difficulty levels for more obscure information. Although the mechanics are completely different, both my Zenith-3 game system and D&D / Pathfinder employ this construct behind their respective curtains.

Practical Application

These concepts enable the GM to “interpret” a skill level relative to a character’s experience and background; what might be a “fringe knowledge” question for one character can be an “inner layer” question for the one standing next to them; even though, in terms of mechanics, they have the same level of ability within the skill,

The clever player can anticipate or even mandate this differentiation by balancing specialist bonuses against broader ignorances, regardless of whether or not this is an official part of the game mechanics (if not, GM approval will be required). For example, a character with 12/- in “Knowledge: Underworld”, or equivalent, might suggest that due to his background he should have +2 or +3 in “Gangs of Los Angeles” in return for -1 in all other areas covered by the skill. So the character is effectively at 11/- to identify something about a gang in New York City, but is at 16/- to know that the leader of the LA Commancheros (to invent a gang from whole cloth) eats lunch at Willard’s Sandwich Joint every Friday.

This works by defining what is the “fringe” of random assorted factoids for the character and what is not.

If you want to institute such a mechanics subsystem for yourself, you should apply the following principles:

  • The more narrow a specialty is, the greater the bonus a character should get in return for a -1 in “everything else”;
  • Characters should be permitted only one specialty, or the penalty should be cumulative and possibly even larger for subsequent specialties, because the scope of the “everything else” of the first specialty is being reduced in scope by the second specialty.

A less formal approach is simply for the GM to apply ad-hoc modifiers based on the character’s background and experience; if the player can cite a valid reason for gaining an increased chance of success, grant it. This rewards players who put greater effort into their characters.

Getting back to design and the functional roles

By not taking a specialization within a sphere of knowledge or practical skill that is central to the character, the player is defining this as an area of spotlight expertise proportional to their skill in the subject. In the Adventurer’s Club campaign, because the Club organization is based in New York City, all the characters have spent time there, and consequently have some “Area Knowledge: New York City”. However, as a long-term resident of the city, the Priest character, Father O’Malley, has a far higher skill than the others.

Therefore, any time a knowledge of the city, or establishments and significant locations within the city, becomes important to the plotline, Father O’Malley has a spotlight moment. If he fails, or is not present, the others may resort to their “fringe knowledge” of the subject to see if this is one of the random factoids that they have picked up from their time there.

If one of the others were to look at significantly increasing their “skill” in the subject, we (the GMs) would probably discuss “capping” the increase or requiring them to take a specialty of the type discussed above – so as not to steal Father O’Malley’s “spotlight time”.

Although planning these was not something we had in mind during character creation for the campaign, it is something that we would consider in future. It’s a combination of blind luck and, once again, an application of the conceptual archetype approach, that each of the characters is developing their own niches of knowledge. We’re unlikely to leave such things to chance in future, and in the future development of the existing characters.


Abilities benefit from a similar mindset. A diverse application of an ability to different situations for spotlight time while not treading on other character’s toes comes relatively easily if they are all of different character classes, and with greater difficulty if this is not the case or the classes are too similar.

Again, the general observation is that considerable effort is placed on the spotlight abilities, passing consideration may be given to the character meshing into an effective unit in combat situations, and virtually no thought is given to the middle “supporting” role. There are more exceptions to this rule of thumb when it comes to abilities, however.

It is generally left to the GM to think of ways in which one PC can support or contribute to another character who is having a spotlight moment, and the general solution is the temporary yielding of the spotlight mentioned earlier, as a second character steps forward with a key contribution.

If the player were to give this question some thought during character construction, he might be able to choose an ability that is effective in supporting another rather than trying to be second-best in someone else’s area of expertise.

There is a PC in the Zenith-3 campaign who is relatively physically vulnerable. There is also an NPC that I have created whose primary abilities are supportive, protective, and secondary in nature; his ideal tactical role is normally to protect the PC. However, his personality is such that he has to continually resist the temptation to join in the front-lines, even though he is far less effective (most of the time) than the front-line specialist within the team. The PCs are slowly putting together prepared tactics for those occasions when he either goes “off the reservation” or is thrust into the front-lines by virtue of specific circumstances, involving one of the other characters falling back to protect the vulnerable PC.

Impact On Roleplay

Roleplay is often as much about the personality of the player as it is that of the character they are playing. Some people are naturally pushed into the spotlight under certain circumstances simply because they are better in certain situations.

In the Pulp Campaign, Father O’Malley is the most diplomatic and the best at speaking with higher authority, and is usually front-and-center when religion or the supernatural manifest; Captain Ferguson shines at organizing direct action and response; Doctor Hawke is the best at speaking to technical experts, Steffan is good at connecting with ordinary working men and women but is still evolving as a character, as is the last PC in the campaign, Eliza Black, who is most adept at dealing with law enforcement.

Some of these choices derive from character experience and expertise, some from player ability, and – most commonly – as a function of a combination of the two.

Again, a lot of this is the result of a confluence of the deliberate differentiation of archetypes in the concept phase, coupled with trying to get each character to play to the player’s strengths during that phase. These days, we would be even more aware of the significance of these attributes and how they operate within the three functions – individual, ally, and member of collective.

Impact On Problem Solving & Puzzles

Because the parameters of puzzles and problems are defined by the GM, it can seem that the player has no role to play in this area. I would beg to differ. Like roleplay, this should be a combination of player strengths and deliberate selection of capabilities on the part of the character during the design and construction process. The result is that situations that might have to be “forced” by the GM can occur naturally within play.

Consider the different types of puzzles and problems that might confront a character, and then determine which of these (a) the character should be good at, and (b) which of them the player is good at. The first is spotlight time for the character, but if the player is not successful at that particular type of problem/puzzle, it is an uncomfortable spotlight that can only be resolved by resorting to die rolls. This is less than satisfactory to all involved, but it is sometimes unavoidable.

Contriving a justification during character creation for the character to be gifted in those areas where the player is skilled yields a far better gaming experience. Even better is avoiding situations in which the character excels at something the player is, or feels, deficient in.

Word puzzles, Logic puzzles, interpersonal puzzles, solving mysteries, tactical problems, riddles, finger puzzles, social and political puzzles, quizzes and trivia games – the list goes on. In part, this all depends on how the GM is going to simulate the puzzle within the game – if the player can design a process that employs one of their personal strengths to simulate a strength that the character has but he doesn’t, it will go a long way towards replacing die rolls with interaction.

For example, I’m not great at word puzzles, though I can sometimes solve riddles. I’m not brilliant at Crossword puzzles, either, but I’m better at those – so if I were to create a PC who would be brilliant at word puzzles, I would either insert a reason for the character to be less effective at them, or simulate the word-game process by having the DM create a simple crossword puzzle for me to solve. Each success is effectively a riddle; so long as I get more right than I get wrong, I win the riddle contest or word game. By adjusting the difficulty of the crossword puzzle, or biasing the results (I need “X” more than half), the GM could simulate the relative strength of an opponent or difficulty of a problem.

One of the major benefits to these approaches is that any other player’s spotlight expertise can then become a source of supportive contribution to the problem. The Cleric or priest might have an answer to a theological crossword clue; the mage might know the name of a spell that is the solution to another; and so on. In this way, solitary activities can be transformed into group activities even as something that would normally be just a solitary die roll becomes an interactive group experience.

Impact On Combat

When it comes to combat, the normal (flawed) order of priority is reversed to some extent; players spend most of their effort assuming that they will be fighting in the company of others, give passing consideration to the idea of fighting on their own, and virtually none on how they could make others a more effective combatant and whether or not that potential contribution outstrips a more direct form of hostility – unless the specifics of the character class push the character in that direction whether the player likes it or not. And, as a rule of thumb, they don’t; there is a pleasure that derives from the visceral “crunch” for all that it’s soundless, virtual and imaginary.

Because of this, during character design, there is a tendency to neglect the supporting role simple because players find it unsatisfying. This is an incorrect mindset, because it is viewed in the wrong context; you don’t want a purely supportive role when everyone’s in battle, but that doesn’t mean that you should not plan for the times when you aren’t in an all-in fight.

I would point people at the Classic Star Trek episode, “Amok Time“, and the role of Dr McCoy. He was the one who decided the outcome of the fight, even though he was not one of the participants.

While a player cannot control when or under what circumstances his or her character will be reduced to a supporting role in a conflict, he can rest assured that at some point it will happen, simply because it is a way for the GM to make a combat different and challenging. For example, in a D&D campaign, I might create a monster that “eats” clerical magic, evolving new combat capabilities as it does so. It would attempt to engage the PC cleric, but as soon as its nature is appreciated, he would need to disengage from the fight; the character is forced into a supporting role when he successfully does so. Whether he is then helpless, or can participate by indirect means, is down to his design and how much preparatory thought the player has given to a situation resembling this one.

Similar tactics in innumerable variations can reduce any character into a supporting role. A monster that becomes intangible after it strikes can mean that anyone with a naturally high initiative score, like most fighters, become ineffective in terms of direct action. Certainly, the fighter can refocus (in D&D and, presumably, Pathfinder) to lower his initiative – but so can the monster.

As a GM, I try never to put characters into this position without designing something into the encounter that gives the sidelined character something positive to do. But that would be made a lot easier if the player had considered the possibilities during character construction, giving me the ability to make combats more interesting for everyone.

At the same time, while a character’s role in a group combat situation is considered during character construction, it is almost completely forgotten during subsequent character advancement, which almost exclusively focuses on the individual’s capabilities. To some extent, this is the fault of the game designs, in that very rarely are multi-character maneuvers explicitly handled by game systems, but players need to accept some of the responsibility as well.

The GM’s Responsibility

Nor is it fair to put the entirety of the blame on the players. It’s up to the GM to provide opportunities for the players to explore these alternatives, and to ensure that a character can contribute something to the game even when they aren’t in the spotlight, and to exploit the options that players do provide.

For every ability that a PC acquires, the GM should ask themselves “How can I build an encounter, or an adventure, around this? How can I make it matter to the game even when it’s not the ability on center stage?”

To put it bluntly – if the GM doesn’t use it, the players won’t bother creating it.

  • Every encounter should be planned so that every player can make a contribution to its resolution, or the advancement of the plot, if not every character.
  • Every adventure should give every character the spotlight at least once, even if another character is the central focus of the adventure. And every character should get his fair share of adventures in which he is the central focus.

The Impact On Campaign Planning

To some extent, this is a function of campaign planning. Ideally, each character has his own plotline, his own development arc, all taking place simultaneously or nearly so. This is a lot easier if the player is an active collaborator in the planning. Ideally, all of these plot threads will then come together at the climax of the campaign.

Every campaign plan should therefore be regarded as preliminary, needing customization to the capabilities, skills, and personalities of the characters who are going to participate. The best campaign plans are robust enough that this involves minimal alteration, but I don’t know of any that don’t require some attention in this respect.

The ultimate art form of GMing might be considered the eschewing of campaign planning completely, making the content of each adventure purely derivative of the unplanned but continuing growth of the PCs. Personally, I find that this leaves too much to chance and the wild hope of inspiration taking place at the right time, but not everyone agrees with that position.

Every GM gives some thought to the optimum balance between planning and spontaneity. In a perfect world, the preferences of the participants would be the only determining factor; but – as this article has shown – the way each character is to function within the campaign is a major determining factor in limiting the flexibility that the GM has available to him. It follows that everyone benefits from both sides giving a little more consideration to the functional roles of the characters, and especially the oft-neglected balance between those roles: individual, supporting player, and member of a collective group.

No character can ever strike a perfect balance between the three, and the needs may well evolve as the campaign develops. But a huge amount of improvement is achieved through simple awareness of the issue. The perfect PC strikes some sort of planned balance between all three, and the GM then exploits that balance to ensure that everyone participates equally, producing greater enjoyment for all concerned.

Comments (3)

Fun in all the right places

Rollercoaster at Port Aventura by Yarik Mishin

Image credit: / Yarik Mishin

This article was inspired by a question raised on twitter by Kevin Mason @jackmonkeygames, or more specifically, my response to the question:

Q: What’s Your Best Tip for creating a memorable character?
A: Enjoy the process of creating the character.

That touched on a thought that’s been tickling around the back of my head for a while now that I was sure would make a good article, about whether or not ditching the sense of whimsy that characterized a lot of old-school gaming back when it was contemporary has also killed a lot of the fun value of gaming.

When you first start generating characters for RPGs, the mechanics tend to be overwhelming, and so those are what you focus on. It’s often only once you have a handle on the mechanical essentials of your game mechanics that characters itself stops being a mechanical act that can be done by a game roller or spreadsheet and becomes a source of entertainment in its own right.

Because most really good characters come about not because of a brilliant insight into the workings of a game system, or the ability to min-max, but because they become a story in their own right, scratching the creative itch that’s inside all – or at least most – of us. It’s a story in two parts: the creation of the character and his backstory, or how he got to where he (or she) is when they enter the game, and the story of what happens to them once they are in that more dynamic environment.

‘Book’ One: Character Creation

“Book” one of the character’s story is created by the player as a mostly solo effort based on the game world, societies, etc, supplied by the GM. In theory, once those parameters are known to the player, he is then challenged by the GM to create an interesting character who has emerged from the different experiences that this premise provides.

Almost immediately, it becomes clear that the GM either hasn’t created everything that the player needs, or isn’t telling the players everything that he has created. So the player invents things to plug that gap in creating his vision of what the character will be, sometimes called the character concept. When he submits the character concept for GM review, the GM considers whether or not these additions supplement or conflict with the conceptual twists that he intends to offer as adventures and plot developments and in-game discoveries – all the things that he has decided and hasn’t said.

If the character offers an opportunity to highlight and explore some of those unsaid elements, especially some that no other character will focus on, and doesn’t conflict with any, it gets approved; this may or may not be before the character is generated in terms of game mechanics.

If the character’s concept conflicts in its assumptions with what the GM has in mind, then there are two options: negotiate some edits to resolve the conflict, perhaps tantalizing the player with part of the hidden story, or simply tell the player “this part doesn’t fit my campaign plans”, rejecting the proposed character in whole or in part.

Some players are prone to take this as personal criticism of their creative skills, but they should not feel that way; it’s often the case that they have been too successful at creating a character that ‘locks into’ their view of the campaign world.

Personally, as a GM, I try to find a way in which the player’s misapprehension of the game world can become a flawed understanding of that world on the part of the character. While there may still be the odd item that needs negotiated revision, this permits an awful lot of what would otherwise be rejected to pass, giving the character (and through him or her, the player) a stake in the revelations to come. It stops being just an intellectual exercise when you have an emotional investment in the world, and one of the big tricks is getting players to make such an emotional investment. The best conduit is for the player to have an emotional investment in the character and his life – for it to matter to them.

Through The Looking Glass

Once you make a character as a ‘simulated person of interest’ within a game for the first time, you never create characters the same way again. Even when creating characters using game mechanics for which you are unfamiliar, your first goal will be to make a ‘simulated person’ who is going to be interesting and entertaining to play. You have ‘leveled up’ as a player.

It’s also at this point that things can go horribly wrong. The player has one view of the sort of things that their character will be doing, and the GM has another, and if those things don’t mostly match, the character will NOT be as much fun to play as intended. I sometimes think that there should be a space on the character sheet for the player to articulate what they want to get out of playing the character in terms of entertainment.

If the player is looking forward to the character skulking down darkened alleys to clandestine meetings, the GM needs to know this – because he might be focusing on entirely different story opportunities for the character. But, all too often, the player himself can’t articulate this information, so it would frequently be a waste, or worse, would miscommunicate to the GM what sort of activities the player wants to roleplay.

There’s nothing worse for a player than for what he perceived as his big ‘character moments’ to be perpetually handwaved. It makes you feel as though all the effort put into creating the character in the first place is under-appreciated, and hence you are being under-appreciated as well.

For that reason, there needs to be an ongoing dialogue between player and GM about what was fun, and what wasn’t, and an effort on the part of both parties to try and understand why this reaction has occurred. It may be the GM’s responsibility to create an environment in which the player can have fun, but that’s hard to do if you don’t know what entertains them.

A broader life-lesson

One of my greatest assets in life has been the capacity to find something to enjoy in everything that I did – whether that was the camaraderie of workmates or the sense of satisfaction at seeing the work I had done each day, or the joy of playing with numbers. Even tasks for which I was not best suited let me enjoy the challenge of doing the job better than I thought I could. This has enabled me to put 100% into everything that I do, every position that I held.

I wish I could pass on that secret, I’m sure a lot of readers would want it, but I don’t know how I do it, or not completely. I can tell you that part of it is actively looking for such an enjoyment vector from day one.

I apply the same approach to my GMing, but with slightly modified targets. Instead of “the best that I can do”, the goal is “the best that I can achieve in the time available that will satisfy the need” – I’ve talked about how I prioritize prep tasks in past articles, most recently in Game Prep and the +N to Game Longevity.

Not only does this approach help you do your best for each element of your game prep, and improve efficiency leaving more time to both relax and smell the roses AND improve your game prep that little bit over the minimum that will do the job, providing some all-important polish, but it helps immensely in guarding against burnout.

When people read the “About” text that I’ve provided, many ask how I can stand to run the same campaign for what will be 35 years in September. I have three answers: first, I take time off as necessary to recharge; second, it may be a continuous history but it’s not the same campaign (not one of the players I now have were at the table when I started. Several of them weren’t even at school yet); and third, because I enjoy what I do, and the setting that I have created is vast enough to contain enough plotlines to endure for that period of time.

A related question is how I can plan a campaign to run for a decade or longer. The answers are the same. Or how I keep players for that long – ditto, plus I make it fun for them, month-in-and-month-out, to the best of my ability – and that has to be to a reasonable standard, because they keep coming back. Or how I can write two articles, usually containing a lot of substance and not much fluff, every week.

The Collaborative Approach To PC Creation & Maintenance

The collaborative approach to PC creation and Maintenance goes even further than the baseline that I described earlier. In this technique, players – with the encouragement of the GM – supply him with resources and game materials related to their character and the other people in their character’s lives. Once the player has submitted something, the GM is free to twist or spin it however he sees fit, and to use or not use it as seems appropriate. But GM prep time is always in short supply – so the odds are that if you supply something, it will get used eventually.

If you want your character to learn a particular skill, players, find a way to make it interesting (and fun) for the GM to enable you to do so. Create an NPC to do the teaching, offer a couple of plot hooks for how this education can be used to tie the character’s education into adventures, even toss in a line or two about what else the character might be doing with this time but won’t be if the GM lets the character learn/improve the chosen skill – you have no idea which shot will hit the bullseye.

But don’t overwhelm the GM, don’t bombard them with material – and the bigger your submission in terms of game world, the longer you should expect a response to take. Assuming monthly play:

  • An NPC artist with some fun quirks and some unlikely personal connections might see action in a game session or two.
  • A new arch-enemy, six months or more.
  • A new magic item, somewhere in between – or not at all, depending on how over-the-top it is.
  • A new character class could conceivably sit on the shelf for more than a year, depending on how much the GM wants to fiddle with it. I’ve also had situations in which a proposed character class was inappropriate for the campaign world as it was, but would fit in just fine with the campaign world as it was going to be in two or three years (monthly play, remember).
  • If you enjoy digging out maps or making maps, create a shared space in dropbox and every time you make something new, add it to the collection for the GM to draw upon as resources.

The more you, as a player, contribute, (1) the more fun you will have when something you’ve created gets used, (2) the more fun you will have when discovering whatever twists the GM has put on your creation, and (3) the more time the GM has for putting prep time into other things that will be fun and/or interesting in the campaign.

It’s CRITICALLY IMPORTANT that these be presented in a format the GM can use. If he doesn’t have the facility to print out maps, give him hardcopies. If he works electronically, as I do, DON’T give him handwritten material – it will simply sit on the shelf because he may NEVER find the time to type it up for you. Take the GM’s preferences into account, and – if in doubt – talk to him about it!

A lot of players think it’s enough for them to spend time tweaking their character, planning what feats and abilities the character is going to obtain next, and so on. But if you really want to take your character’s participation – and the fun you get from it – to the max, look beyond your character sheet. Make the GM’s job more fun for them, and they will have more capacity to make your job as a player more fun for you.

It’s not uncommon for players to do this sort of thing when creating their characters. Why not make character creation an ongoing process?

Comments (2)

When Genres Collide: Using Non-Genre Sources

planets colliding

Click on the thumbnail for a larger image

Some of the most fun that I’ve ever had as a GM was creating that down-elevator sensation in the stomach-pits of my players by taking an idea derived from one genre and importing it into another.

It’s not easy to do well, but I’ve figured out at least some of the ground rules to success, and today I’m going to share them with my readers.

There are eight steps to the process that I use:

  1. Reduce the inspiration to its core
  2. Reinterpret the inspiration core into a third genre
  3. Connect the reinterpretation with your primary genre
  4. Rebuild the rest of the source around the primary genre version
  5. Challenge the players conceptually
  6. Challenge the characters actually
  7. Connect the dots.

Following these steps may not guarantee that your combination works, but not doing so greatly increases the risk that your two big ideas – the campaign and the imported content – will collide and fly apart in disarray.

So let’s go through them in detail:

1. Reduce the inspiration to its core

So you’ve got this adventure module or game sourcebook or whatever that’s written for an entirely different game system, in an entirely different genre, that you think would be a fun fit for your campaign if you can just manage to pull it off.

There are two things that I can guarantee: You’re going to have to throw a lot of it away and you’re going to have to change a lot of what’s left to a greater or lesser extent.

To make a cross-genre infusion work, you need to strip away all the trimmings that have been built up around the idea to leave only the core, and then put them back, changed as necessary, one bit at a time, around an interpretation of that core that sits comfortably in your existing genre.

Take a D&D Module. You have the central premise – sometimes expressed in the cover blurb or introduction, sometimes not stated explicitly at all. You have a plot that is supposed to be an expression of that central idea, and that plot is enfolded into a series of encounters and challenges. There is also a whole heap of incidental content that wraps that plot and its constituent encounters and challenges in game mechanics and the trappings that come with the genre of the game that it is designed to plug into. You will probably have a map, and you will have slabs of color text and a number of hopefully interesting locations in which those encounters and challenges can take place.

If you’re running a game using a different set of mechanics but within the same genre, you only need to translate explicit mechanics and perhaps tweak some of the environmental assumptions to fit. Running a D&D adventure module using Pathfinder, or any other fantasy game, is not all that difficult.

But if I want to take that adventure and run it in a superhero campaign, as I did years ago with The Ghost Tower of Inverness and Danger at Dunwater, it’s not going to be so easy. Most of the encounters make no sense out of a fantasy context. Ditto most of the challenges. Certainly the rewards are irrelevant. The gamy dynamics are also different; there is an urgency in a superhero situation that doesn’t apply to most D&D modules – this adventure needed to be concluded in two or three game sessions of about 5 hours playing time. The campaign setting is also in a relatively modern-day time period; between that and the superheroes abilities (radically different and far more powerful than those of the typical D&D character) would mandate a hunk of reinvention, as well.

So the first thing you need to do is to identify the content that you have to incorporate. That might be the plot, it might be an encounter, it might be some color text, but it’s most likely to be the core premise or concept of the adventure. But whatever it is, the first step is to identify it and set everything else aside.

Its’ essential to be as ruthless as possible in this culling of content. Every component, every paragraph that gets retained at this point adds to the workload and the danger of later complications, though it’s not easy to explain why, though it’s clear to me. The clearest explanation that I can offer is by analogy.

The process of incorporating non-genre material into is akin to taking a jigsaw puzzle and rearranging the pieces to form a different picture by re-cutting the existing pieces and replacing some of them, building the new picture around a single “piece” that is virtually unchanged from the original image (which may in fact be several inter-related pieces). While you can trim a little bit around the edges, the actual image content has to remain unchanged.

The more complicated the shape of that ‘central piece’, the harder the task of creating the new image seamlessly becomes. This is the single most important piece of the new image; everything that is not critically vital must be trimmed away.

I’m afraid that’s about as clearly as I can explain it.

2. Reinterpret the inspiration core into a third genre

So here’s the first curve-ball, one that most people won’t have been expecting. What I’ve learned the hard way is that placing the core material into a new context that is neither the original genre nor the ultimate destination genre brings a number of unexpected benefits.

Perhaps the biggest is that it translates the core idea into a form that is more malleable. Consider that if you were to translate your retained content directly into your target genre and encountered a problem of internal logic, or a contradiction between adventure assumptions and established campaign “reality”, having trimmed and reshaped the puzzle piece that you’re keeping as your starting point – you would have no choice but to either throw away everything you’ve done already, or to abandon the idea entirely – or try and wallpaper over the hole and hope none of your players put their foot through the weak spot!

None of those options are particular attractive or conducive to success or efficiency, and GMs have to work efficiently because there is never enough time to do everything that we would like. The old woodworking adage applies, if only as a proverb: “Measure twice and cut once”.

Having made a big song-and-dance about keeping the central premise unchanged, it might appear that I’m now contradicting myself, but that “song-and-dance” is only valid within the analogy explaining why you should trim the idea down to its barest, most essential, minimum. In fact, I didn’t want to include the analogy – the first draft of this article didn’t include it – but it was the only way I could find to explain that principle. The alternative would have been to issue blanket directives – do this, do that, don’t do this third thing – without explanation, and I consider that unacceptable. If I don’t explain why I’m doing something, you can’t modify the process to suit your own needs.

By translating the core of what you’re adapting into a third genre, you are shedding any remaining assumptions that might trip you up and placing the core into a new context as an intermediate stage. “Danger At Dunwater”, for example, I translated into the genre of a political/spy thriller, with the Lizardmen recast as Russians who felt they had been attacked and were debating how to respond. There were multiple factions, each with their own agendas, and none of them were quite who they seemed to be. That was the core premise, post- translation into the interim genre.

The other big gain from this step of the process is that a fragmented concept – which you may be working with, if there is no explicit statement provided – becomes unified in the process. This makes it much easier to work with in subsequent steps.

There are other benefits as well, relating to mindset and how you perceive that central core. By defining – actually, redefining – the central idea, you are thinking about how it will eventually translate into your target genre from this intermediate stage. This works by distancing the concept from the source material, and ultimately makes it easier to import and translate the rest of the content that’s salvageable from that source material.

Selection of intermediate genre

To be successful, the genre that you use has to be one that fits reasonably comfortably within the confines of your ultimate target genre. If I were translating a science fiction adventure such as the Star Frontiers adventure Bugs In The System (available as a free PDF if you click the link) into a superheroic space opera – which I did for the Warcry campaign – I would not use Fantasy as an intermediate genre, because Fantasy is not an easy fit. Instead, did something a little more complicated, dividing the adventure up into three parts and then interpreting one part based on the movie “Alien”, one part based on Babylon-5, and one part based on Star Wars. But I could only be that specific because the genres were already a close match.

It’s essential that the intermediate genre be one that fits comfortably within your primary genre, while also not being too far removed from the original genre.

That can be quite a challenging prescription to fill. Sometimes you have no choice but to treat another source as though it were a genre unto itself, a medium for which you are adapting the source material, just as I did Bugs In The System.

As a long-time viewer of Dr Who, I can add that the TV series (which I have watched since the late 1960s/early 1970s) is a masterclass in this sort of adaption. Study it :)

3. Connect the reinterpretation with your primary genre

Having translated the core concept into a genre that will fit reasonably comfortably within our target genre, the next step is to do just that. That essentially involves applying any genre conventions that might be necessary, adapting the concept to fit the game world, etc. This should not take very long, but it’s important that it be done with care and thought, and with the intention that your PCs will be the ones trying to resolve the situation (whatever it is). Complications should come from who they are, problems and road blocks may need to be inserted to prevent an immediate solution, etc. In particular, it means creating any supporting material/content that is not going to come from the original.

In order to fulfill that last item of the brief, it is necessary to actually plan – at least in general terms – the next step. It might even seem that step 4 should precede step 3. There are good reasons why that’s not the case.

The next stage will translate the source material so that it connects with the revised core in the context of the campaign. Doing so now would leave holes to be filled, and it’s a lot harder creating content with a very specific “shape” to fit in those holes. It’s a lot easier if you do the new work first, making sure that IT is a snug “fit”, and use that to define the specifics of the next step.

In fact, that’s a general principle that’s worth highlighting even if it’s the only take-away from this article: It’s almost always easier to do whatever you need to do now if you’ve already given thought to what you need to do next.

Let’s look at Danger At Dunwater (and how I adapted it) once again, in order to illustrate what I mean and explain the process a little more clearly.

While the society of the enemy was to be loosely modeled on Cold-war Stalinist Russia (and I had made some notes on what that specific modeling would look like), and the core of the plotline was to derive from the D&D module, I didn’t know that much more about the situation. While I could start trying to translate more bits from the source material ad-hoc and off the top of my head, at the moment I didn’t have any specifications on what to translate that content to within the adapted adventure. So the right approach is to plan that, and then fill in anything necessary before actually doing that translation.

Lizardmen don’t make sense within the campaign world; I needed to give the population a reason to have stayed hidden all this time, especially since I needed a human community nearby. So they will need adaption. Most of the encounters would be trivially simple for the PCs to overcome by force – so they need to be either beefed up, which would undercut the need for secrecy, or I would need to scrap most if not all of them. It’s not the threat to the PCs that matters in a superhero adventure, it’s the threat posed to ordinary people. The trigger condition that sets events in motion described within the module also falls apart if the hidden population are to have been a hidden threat for a long time, so I will need a different justification for the situation – one that I will need to create. Most of the encounters through which the plot unfolds are also inappropriate and more like a dungeon crawl; since I need to accelerate the plotline three or four-fold (maybe more), scrapping those encounters would also help achieve this goal. And finally, I would need to work out who the factions were, what they really wanted, what attitude they were pretending to have, and why.

That’s got the basic outline of the next step planned – adapting what of the original source still fits – and in the process, it has defined what I need to do in this stage: a replacement for the Lizardmen, a replacement for the trigger that causes the plot to start, and a replacement plot to reveal the situation to the PCs. Finally, I always make sure that for any problem (especially one on this scale, i.e. a diplomatic problem that poses a significant threat that the PCs will feel the need to address) has at least one solution, on the principle that where there’s one solution there will be more than one – how the PCs actually solve the problem, and what the consequences will be, is up to them. Once I know that there’s at least one way out of whatever mess I’m putting them into, I can be an unbiased umpire, dealing with PC plans and situations on their merits. It’s one of my ways of avoiding railroading within my campaigns.


  • Lizardmen: In the superhero genre, its perfectly plausible for Atlantis to have been real (both DC and Marvel have at least one version of it, each). The PCs even found some underwater ruins at one point that they thought might have been it, but there were absolutely no bodily remains, and the ruins had been stripped of anything even semi-portable (a high-tech weapon had been overlooked that was found by a bad guy and used to create a brief spell of havoc for the PCs to deal with). This had been left as an unsolved mystery for years, waiting until I found a good solution. If the Atlanteans had used their science to become lizard-like water-breathers, and abandoned the ruins for fear of a repeat performance by the earthquake/volcanic eruption that had already done them in, ultimately settling in a deep lake somewhere (so that there was a human community nearby to be threatened by them), that would supply replacements. This also means that anything magical would need to be translated into higher technology, another item to add to the plans for Stage 4.
  • The Lizardmen described are primitives, almost barbarian tribesmen; that doesn’t jibe with the high-tech. Unless of course, the loss of so many citizens in the disaster and subsequent migration had devastated their civilization – so they had the tech, and used the tech, but didn’t know how or why it worked, just that it did.
  • That gave me the potential solution to the whole problem that I was looking for: if the PCs can demonstrate that they DO understand the technology, at least in broad principle, they would automatically be elevated in the eyes of the Atlanteans and could negotiate a peace in return for educational assistance and eventual alliance.
  • The shortage of numbers works for explaining why they need to stay hidden. But why haven’t their numbers grown, since? Perhaps they suffer from radiation damage as a legacy of the accident that greatly increases the rate of infertility? The PCs had access to medical technology that could mitigate or even undo that – another reasonable foundation for a peace treaty.
  • The factions:
    • the Priests would be directly threatened by either of these bargaining chips, but be bound by religious dogma that accepts the PCs as agents of The Gods in the eyes of the populace (and especially the throne). Base them on the KGB. That’s faction #1.
    • Faction #2 would be the military, who would demand retribution for whatever sparks the whole mess off, or reparations at the very least – but who are both proud and honorable, so this appearance of hostility is not fully heartfelt, or at least can be overcome.
    • For faction #3, we have the “Noble Rulers” of the Atlanteans, who would welcome the PCs with open arms (because the populace demand it) but be very stiff-necked when it came to sovereignty, almost xenophobic about the Atlantean culture being overwhelmed by these strangers from the surface world, and paranoid about their existence being revealed. To spice things up, let’s also state that they are chafing under the influence of the Priests.
    • Finally, as a fourth faction, some group of lesser nobles who see this as an opportunity to assassinate the King and cast blame on the PCs; they have wanted to make such a move for a long time, but so obviously would be the only ones to gain that they would immediately be suspect. Using the PCs as cats-paws finally gives them the opportunity to make their move. Again to make things interesting, lets’ suggest that they are young, ambitious, impatient – and far more progressive than the current rulers.

    So, a hidden enemy who is overtly friendly, a hidden potential ally who is overtly hostile, a second hidden enemy that are overtly neutral but open, and some ambitious types who are secretly hostile to everyone but who the PCs would be able to befriend despite that hostility.

  • The main points of the plot are also beginning to take shape: Incident, Reprisal, PCs Make Contact, Begin Diplomacy, Establish Factions, Attempted Assassination of a PC, Attempted Assassination of the Rulers, PCs blamed, Prove their innocence (getting the Military and Nobility on side but making the priests overtly hostile, Conclude Diplomatic Negotiations, sign Treaty.
  • That leaves only the triggering incident, which was where the one moment of genuine out-of-the-blue inspiration in this particular project arrived. Why not make the body of water Loch Ness, why not make Nessie a pseudo-biological submarine used by the Atlanteans as a diversion when humans came too close to their hidden habitat? I had an impression (vague now, in terms of source) that sightings were clustered around one end of the Loch, and also remembered hearing something about a controversial American plan to “force” Nessie to the surface by systematically dropping small “depth charges” starting at the end of the Loch where sightings were infrequent and working back. From what i recall, the proposal was quite rightly blocked by the Scottish, but what if (in my game world) he had gone ahead without getting permission? The Atlanteans would not be seriously hurt, but would have to wonder if they had been discovered, and could quite legitimately view this as an attack directed against them. The fact that this would be an illegal act by the monster-hunter would not reduce the fact that it could also be viewed as a diplomatic incident at best and an act of war at worst…

Notice how one piece of the adventure after another seems to fall into place? Those seven pieces of the plot provide the framework around which components of the original source material can now be fitted into place – key NPCs, personalities, bits of flavor text, capabilities, maps, etc.

4. Rebuild the rest of the source around the primary genre version

So that’s the next step – fitting as much “existing content” as possible into the new context, and then completing a more detailed writeup of the plot outlines. In fact, only one thing was missing – a hook to bring the PCs into the plot, something that was overlooked when listing the work to be done. On the basis of what had been decided, though, that’s not too difficult: The Military Faction take it on themselves to mount a raid in response. A remote Scottish township being attacked by lizard-like mermen, prisoners being taken for interrogation and intelligence-gathering purposes, more than enough reason to call for help, and more than exotic enough to get the PCs involved.

I’ve actually already described what happens in this stage in earlier sections, simply to place those earlier sections in context, so there’s no real need to go into it again. So let’s move on.

5. Challenge the players conceptually

No adaption is ever perfect. Stages 5 and 6 have two goals: first, they serve as defenses against the flaws being exploited, and second, with stage 7, they justify the effort of adapting the out-of-genre material to your own needs rather than creating your own adventure from scratch (in-genre source materials need rather less justification).

By incorporating a conceptual challenge, something that’s difficult to grasp, into the translated material, you leave open the question of whether or not a flaw in the translation and integration into the campaign is your mistake or simply a part of this intellectual challenge that the players aren’t quite “getting”. This encourages the players to come up with their own solutions to explain the flaw, which the GM can then appropriate, complimenting them on their success at grasping a subtle nuance of “what he had planned” (and rewarding them appropriately).

There is a secondary effect, which yields the second benefit listed above: by definition, a conceptual challenge makes the game world a broader and richer. In effect, the incorporation of the non-genre resource as a part of the campaign enlarges the campaign to fit.

For the “Danger At Dunwater” adaption, I was never completely happy with the destruction of Atlantis; while plausible, it simply seemed more catastrophic than any other event in the Mediterranean region this side of Pompeii. What’s more, making the Atlanteans high-tech raises the question of how they could be so totally taken unawares, and why they were unable to rescue the populace – why had they needed to take the drastic step of re-engineering themselves?

‘Well,’ I thought, ‘if that’s an conceptual challenge for me, it should work equally well for the players!’ – so that’s what I used to fulfill this part of the recipe.

There have been a few times where I have adapted material and neglected to include a conceptual challenge. The results have always been lukewarm rather than exciting, and predictable instead of challenging, and always left me with the feeling that the effort of the adaption was not justified by the results.

That brings up another general truism:
“Game Prep expands to fill the time available, plus 20%.”

As a general principle, this is gospel. Don’t expect to spend any less time because you’re basing things on a third=party resource; just expect to spend that time doing things differently to your usual practices.

I took a closer look at the differences between creating a bespoke adventure and using a published adventure in an article published in January 2014 here at Campaign Mastery, To Module Or Not?. It’s relatively short (for a Campaign Mastery article). so take a look if you want more of my thoughts on the subject.

6. Challenge the characters actually

Whatever the PCs have to overcome in order to navigate the incorporated material, it has to challenge more than their players’ ability to talk in character. The difficulties to be overcome have to be difficult enough to pose some sort of challenge to the characters.

Sometimes that’s easy – even too easy. Sometimes it’s difficult. It’s a near-certainty that an imported resource will either pitch too hard or too soft for your campaign – the likelihood of being “exactly right” is vanishingly small. Either way, this can pose significant challenges to the GM doing the translation from one game system / genre to another.

Pitched too soft

This is the case with which I am most familiar, because a lot of my adaption has been for my superhero campaign, and superheroes tend to be the most personally capable of PCs compared to any other genre. Take Iron Man – can you picture him popping up in just about any non-superhero movie and not being a match for the biggest bad, if not overwhelming?

  • Iron Man in “Alien” – no contest.
  • Iron Man in “Pirates Of The Caribbean” – no contest. Okay, maybe Davey Jones and the Kraken. But the East India Company? Rescuing Elizabeth from the Black Pearl?
  • Iron Man in “The Lord Of The Rings” – Sauron, and the Balrog, might be fair fights. No-one else stands a chance.
  • Iron Man in “Star Wars” – Darth Vader is hopelessly outmatched. Iron Man might not be able to defeat the entire Empire simply because it’s so large and has so many potential hostages.
  • Iron Man in “Independence Day” – if Stark can’t get through the force fields of the enemy ships, he is quite capable of devising the computer virus and uploading it. Once that happens, he becomes a one-man air force, more than a match for the big saucers, never mind the small ones.
  • Iron Man in “Armageddon” – the asteroid is toast, all they need to do is get him into orbit. The same goes for just about any disaster movie you can think of.
  • Iron Man in “The Hunger Games” – who needs a partner? Oh, all right, just don’t get in the way…

…the list goes on and on. Sure, some of these fights might be very exciting to watch, but the outcome of most is pretty much inevitable. It’s the human challenges that would pose the most difficulty, simply because Tony Stark is only human; if superior armament won’t solve the problem, the challenge is just as great.

The problem is that scaling up the enemy capabilities to match can create insurmountable logical problems. It won’t always happen, but it’s something you need to be wary of. There aren’t many James Bond adventures that a party of competent D&D adventurers wouldn’t breeze through relatively easily simply because they have capabilities that the opposition can’t match.

A concrete example arises in the “Danger at Dunwater” adaption – the Atlanteans can’t pose a significant threat to the PCs, because if they were that powerful there would be no reason for them to have stayed hidden; they would have conquered Scotland, if not all of the UK, long ago. They need to be just powerful enough to pose a threat to ordinary people, and just vulnerable enough for ordinary people to pose a threat to them – and that means that they pose no significant challenge to most of the PCs in terms of outright combat capabilities. To ensure that there is sufficient challenge, then, I needed to set up a situation in which the PCs superior combat abilities were not going to solve the problem. This was achieved by having the targets of the violence be people other than the PCs – either the town, the citizens of Scotland, or other Atlanteans. Challenges needed to be skill based and strategic.

“Danger At Dunwater”, as adapted by me back in the late 1990s, assumes that the PCs are superior, and that this fact won’t actually help them solve the problem. That means that it could be dropped into a Star Trek campaign, or a Star Wars campaign, or a Dr Who campaign, with mostly cosmetic changes. The problems are human ones.

Pitched too hard

It can be just as tricky to manage challenges that are pitched too high for your PCs to hope to succeed, because there are only two solutions: giving the PCs an advantage to compensate, or making the challenges easier.

The first is another step on the path that leads to Monty Haul syndrome; something to be avoided at all costs. Which leaves only the second, but that can raise problems of logical inconsistency if that means that the NPCs no longer have the capabilities to do what they have (historically) done or pose the threat that they are supposed to represent. Weakening the challenge by making the NPCs more vulnerable risks undermining the whole premise of the source material.

The best solution that I’ve found is to monkey with the capabilities of the NPCs so that they have an advantage that can be made unusable by anyone if the PCs do the right thing. This transforms the problem into a challenge that the PCs can solve. Sometimes this means incorporating a vulnerability that the NPCs don’t know about because the PCs have come from a different environment or background; sometimes it means basing their advantage on a piece of external technology that can be damaged or sabotaged; sometimes it means finding a way for the NPCs to be bluffing about their true capabilities, something that may or may not be the case historically. And sometimes it means that they had capabilities and lost them. Or perhaps there is some transient effect that will eventually wear off, and the solution is for the PCs to learn this fact – and then stall, for all they are worth.

The most difficult challenge

Quite often, adapting the challenges to an appropriate standard is the single most-difficult challenge in adapting an idea from one genre to another. You can mitigate against that to some extent by choosing source material of reasonably appropriate difficulty – level-based games, as source material, make this relatively easy. James Bond and Sherlock Holmes power levels? Around 3rd-to-5th level on the D&D / Pathfinder scale. Steampunk and Cthulhu? 5th-8th level. Relatively weak superheros, 8th-to-10th level. Experienced superheros, 10th-14th level. “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes”? Anything from 14th up to, and including, 20th level. As a general rule of thumb, the higher up the scale, the more difficult a challenge it will pose – so an adventure for characters around 14th level will pose a serious challenge for experienced superheroes.

These are only guidelines, of course; there will be exceptions. “Danger At Dunwater” posed a reasonable challenge for experienced superheroes because I was able to make it not about combat capabilities but about the internal politics of the Atlanteans – a human problem that transcends character levels. Even so, I was forced to boost the Atlanteans capabilities beyond those of their apparent technological expertise; fortunately, that was always the intention, because I had seen this problem coming. Another example of the general principle I enunciated earlier!

The bigger picture

But the combat capabilities situation is only the most obvious representation of a bigger problem. Whatever the challenges are that have to be overcome in order to complete an adventure, they have to be hard enough to challenge your PCs, and not so hard that your PCs can’t solve them, eventually. While you can sometimes incorporate the challenges from the original source material, perhaps after some tweaking, more often than not, you will have to completely replace them. This is so important that it’s been placed in a separate stage of the process.

7. Connect the dots

One of the hallmarks of most imported source material is that it tends to stand alone in glorious isolation from the rest of your campaign. The more poorly it has been adapted and incorporated, the more superficial it feels.

I’ve always been especially sensitive to this because of my background as a comics reader; whenever you got a “fill-in” issue, the only thing you could be fairly sure of is that it wouldn’t do anything significant to the continuity. There was a period when this was a defining characteristic of Marvel’s team up books in particular, something that was thrown into sharp relief by the Chris Claremont / John Byrne stint on Marvel Team-up (which united Spider-man and a different guest hero each month), because the creative team (starting with Issue #59) were not afraid to make substantial continuity-impacting changes, starting with a big power-up to The Wasp, which started the character down a development path that eventually led to her gaining so much credibility as a member of the Avengers that she became the team’s leader for a substantial period.

My response to that is to impose this seventh stage on the procedure for adapting an out-of-genre “fill-in” source: connecting the adapted work to the main campaign continuity at all possible points.

Let’s continue looking at the adaption of “Danger at Dunwater” by way of illustration of the principle. A little while back, I made mention of my dissatisfaction with the notion of a high-tech Atlantean civilization being wiped out by a natural disaster that seemed out of scale with just about everything else that had ever happened in the region. Even Pompeii – if the Romans had known enough about vulcanology, they would have recognized the danger posed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and they had enough time to evacuate the town. So it makes no sense for a natural disaster to have wiped out Atlantis so dramatically.

The keyword there is Natural Disaster. In my campaign continuity, though this wasn’t known to the players at the time, the Greek Gods had become the Roman gods when the latter civilization arose. They then succumbed to the same vices as the Roman Emperors. If the Atlanteans had succumbed to Hubris and challenged the Greek Gods with the intention of supplanting them and seizing Ultimate Power (a very supervillain-ish thing to do), the Gods could have smacked them down, Hard. This adventure was my first opportunity to make the players realize that the Greco-Roman deities were “real” – groundwork for their eventual appearance in the campaign as Villains, seeking to meddle in Ragnerok for their own “gain” (they wanted to harness its power to end their own existences, destroying earth as an incidental byproduct). Ultimately, this got into the big questions of who Deities are within the campaign cosmology and other such existential issues. Furthermore, knowing that Ragnerok was coming within the campaign, I planned to sink a substantial landmass (I had three choices: Japan, California, and Indonesia. Ultimately, I went with Japan) but wanted the majority of inhabitants to be saved by transformation into mermen; this adventure allowed me to lay the groundwork for that transformation. Finally, in the form of “lost Atlantean technology”, it gave me another mechanism for future threats and allies to arise – I haven’t used that particular one yet, but it’s still up my sleeve for when I need it.

That’s easily as great a level of campaign significance as any other adventure, and amply justifies the effort of adapting this particular source material.

Your effort to “connect the dots” has to be comprehensive.

  • If the source material has a backstory, that backstory has to connect with established campaign history. The bare minimum is compatibility. Ideally, you want to expand the background to incorporate something new.
  • The source material should add to the richness and diversity of the contemporary campaign. There should always be some consequence going forward as a milestone to say “this happened”.
  • The source material should provide some potential for future plotlines within the campaign, either as complications that weren’t there previously, or as springboards for new adventures.

That’s past, present, and future. Your adaption needs to connect in all three.

The bottom line

Done well, an adaption justifies itself, representing a collaboration between the original authors and the adapter. Done poorly, it can be a creative millstone. Most of the time, though, it’s just done passably-well, injected into the campaign because it looks like being fun. Well, there’s nothing wrong with that as a motivation; but it’s also not an excuse for not doing it as capably as you can. I’ve shown you how I do it; the rest is up to you.

Comments (3)

Not Like My Tribe – Sophisticated Primitives, Part 2

Map of the languages of Aboriginal Australia

Click this thumbnail to reach the full-sized map, © Aboriginal Studies Press, AIATSIS and Auslig/Sinclair, Knight, Merz, 1996.

In Part 1 (make sure you have read it before continuing) I made reference to a map of Australian Aboriginal Languages which contrasted so strongly with the media stereotyping of these peoples as a single collective population that it was revelatory and inspirational.

I meant to provide a link to that map, but ran out of time. But it’s just as relevant to this half of the article, so I have provided such a link below. The map was sourced from the Museums & Galleries Of NSW website. The map was created by David R Horton and is © Aboriginal Studies Press, AIATSIS and Auslig/Sinclair, Knight, Merz, 1996.

The first part of this two-part article told the reader how to construct the building blocks of a tribal “collective” view from known sources of information, and from your own creativity. Specifically, we have a list of “tribal elements” that collectively describe the “generic” member of the population; we have a very brief overview of the history of that population, and have used that to create a list of cultural contaminants and influences that have either operated directly on the population or that have caused a reaction in that population’s development.

Carved Boab Nut by Lin Courtney

Image Credit: / lin courtney

Extending the Tribal Elements List +

The contaminants and influences now have to be added to the tribal elements. Once again, this is to be more than just a list of things that have affected the population, it needs to explicitly state effect as well as cause.

If the race was once conquered and enslaved by Giants, or Bugbears, or Drow, or whatever, how has that experience influenced the population as they are today? What traces of the experience remain?

Encoding The Tribal Elements List =

The final step before we’re ready to begin using what we’ve developed is to encode the tribal elements list. This simply means preceding each with an alphabetic code so that we can refer to it easily. So the first one is “A”, the second is “B”, and so on.

If you run out of letters of the alphabet, start using 2-letter codes – AA, AB, AC, and so on, all the way through to ZZ. That’s capacity for 702, which should be vastly more than enough.

In terms of the number of Tribal Elements, there are two separate influences at play: you have variety of source material tending to inflate the list, but the practice of conflating cause and effect, and filtering out anything that doesn’t have a practical, observable, manifestation, both operate to condense the list. So, while I would hope that you would have more than ten or twelve items on your list of tribal elements, it would be rare to have more than 20-25. So I would not expect the “two letter” provisions to be required very often.

“I don’t have enough items. Now what do I do?” +

Game sources provide quite a lot of material on some races, especially those available for PCs. In other cases, there can be a pronounced dearth of source content. If you don’t have AT LEAST EIGHT entries on your tribal elements list, it can only mean that the race is insufficiently distinctive at present, and you need to supplement the source material with content of your own creation.

There are two directions from which you can work: You can go from “invented cause” to “logical effect”, or you can go from “invented effect” to “logical cause”. In practice, I would use both.

From “Invented Cause” to “Logical Effect”

This means adding something fundamental and original to the racial profile. It could be an ability that the race didn’t previously have, but that seems to make sense (given everything that you do know about them, or it could be a skill that they weren’t previously noted for, or it could be made from broader conceptual strokes.

The treatment of Ogres in my Fumanor campaign stands out as an example. I described these in detail in Inventing and Reinventing Races in DnD: An Introduction to the Orcs and Elves series, part 2, so I won’t go into too much detail here. In a nutshell: Ogres were quite intelligent, and naturally good civil and military engineers. Drow hand-picked some of the brightest, and taught them things, and twisted their worldview, creating Ogre Magi to rule over the rest of the populace. The Ogre Magi distributed an addictive Drow creation, Bluevein, which made the population docile, and much larger and stronger, giving the Drow the biological equivalent of a tank corps. The occasional resistant individual was taken away by the Ogre Magi and made one of their number. All this came to light when a tribe’s Ogre Magi was killed and they were cut off from Bluevein; most died from Withdrawal, but the rest got their higher faculties back and began figuring out the story. This adds a number of new ideas to the Ogre concept, largely inspired by the Jem’Hadar in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – with Drow in place of the Founders (aka Changelings), Ogre Magi in place of the Vorta, and Ogres for Jem’Hadar.

From “Invented Effect” to “Logical Cause”

Going in the other direction means adding some behavioral or social trait that fills an empty niche in the societal description and then inventing (through as long a chain as necessary) a cause for that trait, by continually asking “why is it so?”. Once you have reached whatever you judge as the “fundamental” why, you then start from that and look for more consequences. Better yet, you can start with some aspect of the racial profile that isn’t explained, or whose explanation seems inadequate, and fill in the blanks from that starting point.

I illustrated this process in inventing the extra sense “Commune With Earth” for Dwarves. This was a spiritual connection with Earth and the spaces beneath the surface which manifested in all the things Dwarves were supposed to be able to do from the Player’s Handbook / Fantasy Literature, linking them together. You can read about this sense and the profound impact that the concept has on Dwarfish society, in Creating Alien Characters: Expanding the ‘Create A Character Clinic’ To Non-Humans, which I revisited in Part One of this article.

The Other Reason: Uniqueness

The other reason for doing this is to make each race distinctive within your campaign. I’m not going to go into this in any detail here, having done so on many other occasions in great depth; but some mention is warranted. There are three basic principles: first, you might have a theme or central concept for the campaign that is not currently represented within the makeup of the race; it is therefore necessary to either add a connection to the theme or concept to the race’s makeup, if necessary replacing some established fact with a variant that suits your thematic needs; secondly, you might simply have an original idea that you want to explore just because it feels original or fun; or thirdly, you might want to make the race more reflective of a certain non-standard source. These are all good reasons to customize a race. The process is the same, except that you might be replacing, instead of adding, a tribal element.

The Common Core =

For any given collective population, there will be some Tribal Elements that are definitive and fundamental; if a population group has these Elements, then they are part of the collective population, no matter how significantly other tribal elements might vary. These are the things that define the population as a whole.

Before you can begin ringing in variations within the collective structure that you’ve defined, you need to know what you aren’t going to change, in other words.

There are two approaches to doing this, and once again I would employ both. The first is to define one or more Elements that you consider “conceptually central” to the racial profile, i.e. definitive; and the second is to generate the variations, and to select one or more elements with the fewest number of variants. As a general principle, I would recommend using the first, with ruthless self-restraint, and then using the second to pad out the list to the required number.

How Many Tribal Elements in the Common Core?

There should be a base number of three tribal elements in the common core. I increase this by one if the race still occupies its homeland. I also increase it by one each if any two or more of the overall geography, climate, and ecology match that of the homeland even if the race doesn’t occupy that homeland or it has changed since the population group came into existence.

The term ‘population group’ has been used because we could be talking about a race, or a civilization, or any other way of collectively defining a population.

So that’s 3-5 tribal elements that need to be considered ‘definitive’ for that population group.

Selecting the ‘Common Core’ Tribal Elements

As a general rule of thumb, the three ‘base’ items should be “fundamental” or “definitive” to the way you think of the population group; any additional items can be either definitive or can be chosen because they don’t lend themselves to easy variation. If part of the Common Core exists only because of similarities in environment, I would also try very hard to choose a Tribal Element for that part of the Common Core that derives from an appropriate environmental factor. But sometimes there simply isn’t one that’s appropriate.

Tribal Element Variations +

With the “core identity” of the population group identified, it’s time to create as many variations as you can think of for everything else on your Tribal Elements list.

For example, one of the differences between the 3.x description of Centaurs and that in Pathfinder is that Pathfinder describes their habitat as Temperate Forests and Plains, while 3.x only lists the Forests. D&D also emphasizes but doesn’t explicitly state that Centaur tribes have a central lair that is the hub around which all their activities orbit, abandoning these central lairs only in the event of a threat to the tribe as a whole, such as a Dragon or a Giant. Pathfinder provides for more variety, and explicitly states that there are “vast regional variations – from lean plains-runners to burly mountain hunters” – while also stating that they prefer to occupy the fringes of forests. Both emphasize the territoriality of the race but only Pathfinder explicitly uses the term.

That suggests to me that there are already three major variations predefined for the GM: D&D 3.x centaurs (Population A) for deep within forests, a Pathfinder variant (Population B) which occupies the forest fringes in mountainous regions (because those are where the forests are) and another Pathfinder variant (Population C) who live on the plains.

None of these yet meet the criterion of a tangible manifestation. For that, we need to look at what these groups do.

  • Group A strikes a balance between hunting and agriculture, with the suggestion that they are very good at the latter. The males hunt while the females control the central nest and the crops. The impression is left that the tribal populations are centralized because the females prefer stability, and dominate the males; if the females were less rigid about their nesting places, the males would range far more widely than they do. Because staying in the one location makes you vulnerable to that location being attacked by enemies and predators, the males have become far more territorial in defense of the females.
  • Group B: Pathfinder makes no mention of agriculture or tribal culture, but places greater emphasis on their hunting skills. Hunt-dominated tribal behavior is generally oriented around the food supply – the hunters follow the game – because you can’t count on game to come to you. Territoriality results from and is defined by a tribe’s hunting range. This is exactly the effect you would expect to see if the males dominated the females, and there was no agriculture to pin the tribe down to a singly location.
  • Group C is barely mentioned except as “lean plains-runners”. The only way to populate this group with any information at all is to take the differences between groups A and B and extend them. Group B are more mobile than group A, less centralized; extending that trend gives us a highly mobile population with virtually no reliance on agriculture. They have a far wider range – plains tend to be fairly open spaces relative to mountains – and that also favors a more nomadic lifestyle. What unifies tribes of this type? Generally, they centralize around a semi-domesticated herd of animals – less ala-carte hunting of whatever is available, more consistency of diet. They follow their herd, which is not penned up. We also have hints that they are leaner and probably fleeter of foot therefore, and that suggests that their herd animals also tend to be fairly fast. So, instead of animals that are fairly solitary, like deer, we’re looking for a herd animal that moves quickly. Impala meet that requirement, or I could get creative and look at smaller dinosaurs – it’s a fantasy world, after all!

Beyond that, I would think about the environments that aren’t mentioned. A smaller, slighter Centaur that climbs like (and hunts) mountain goats to live at the tops of the world. A camel-like centaur with a hump for more arid environments. Another small variety with long white fur that wears furred skins and hides on the human torso and copes well in cold and snowy areas. And for wastelands, perhaps a centaur that is half giant lizard instead of half-horse – but that retains the central core that we have defined as “Centaur”. Again, why not? It’s fantasy.

The Principle Of Variation

For each item that you have not selected for your Common Core, there are inherently a number of variations possible. These are:

  • Dominant trait
  • Significant trait
  • Marginal trait
  • Suppressed trait

…and that’s before you even begin thinking about changing the trait itself, as I did in the Centaur example above.

A Dominant Trait is one where the tribal element in question is the most important non-core characteristic of the group and is strengthened sufficiently to justify that prominence. Everything that is not a dominant trait else is secondary, and may even have to be adapted to serve a role in the dominant tribal element. Society and religion and the rituals of daily life all revolve around the dominant trait(s). Common core traits are only dominant to the extent that every sub-group of the overall population has those traits in common to some degree at least – they keep your centaurs being centaurs by defining what it means to be a centaur, or whatever, but nothing beyond that. That makes a dominant trait the central theme that pulls the one sub-group together as an identifiable characteristic, the thing that subgroup all has in common.

A Significant Trait is one that is stronger than in the average representative of the whole population, but not strong enough to dominate. It’s a point of similarity between two tribes or sub-groups, like a common language or shared heritage or attitude, but it’s not a point of tribal identification.

An Average Trait is a typical part of the makeup of a group, but not significantly stronger or weaker a constituent of that group than it is in the overall populace. Except in the limited circumstances described above, Common Core traits are always of “Average” strength, because that lets tribal diversity be prominent. This is the default strength unless defined otherwise within the trait.

A Marginal Trait is one that is weaker in a specific subgroup, while still having an influence.

And, finally, a Suppressed Trait is one that is virtually non-existent within this subgroup.

Let’s say, for example, that Goblins have a trait, Hatred Of Bugbears, due to some incident in the past of the race. In some Goblin Tribes, this trait is dominant, it’s the most central fact of their lives. In some, it’s a significant part of the tribal makeup, but only to a limited extent. In some, it’s no stronger than it is in the population as a whole. In some, it’s marginal and has little impact on that particular tribe; and in others, it’s ancient history and has virtually no bearing on the tribe’s activities. A member of the latter group might even speak Bugbear, or at least have adopted some Bugbear terminology, and might be accused by the first group of having been collaborators in the past – depending on the reasons for this particular trait, and on how the trait manifests at a cultural level. In this case, because I always equate Bugbears with bullies and bullying, I keep thinking of the cycle of domestic violence and how that form of bullying can be a learned behavior – so, because the Goblins were historically mistreated by Bugbears, some have learned the lesson that this is the right way for the strong to treat those weaker than them, while others have rejected that fundamental premise. This would manifest in how the different tribes treated the weaker members of their own society, assuming that there is no other race that the Goblins have managed to subjugate. This in turn would influence the roles of the genders, and the treatment of the young, and – to some extent – the treatment of those who are simply different.

What’s more, each of the content variations should also have it’s own set of intensity variations.

Differences Plus Consequences

In short, then, each variation is a “difference from the mean” plus the practical consequences of that difference. This is the most important thing to bear in mind: because a Tribal Element must have some overt manifestation, must have some practical expression within the culture or society or abilities of the population, each of these variations makes a practical and tangible difference from one tribe to the next.

Variations within the Elements List

Each tribal element is followed on the list with its variations. These may be variations of content or of intensity or even of manifestation. And each should be encoded with the alphabetic code of the tribal element from which it derives, plus a sequential numeral – so you have Tribal Element A, and then variations A1, A2, A3, and so on, and then Tribal Element B, and variations B1, B2, B3, and so on.

At least, that’s the theory

In practice, things don’t work out quite as neatly. It doesn’t much matter if there’s a difference in content or manifestation if the tribal element is very low in intensity. What we’re looking for are meaty, substantial differences that we can get our roleplaying ‘teeth’ into; “bland” is not an acceptable flavor option except when it leaves space on the palate for some other strong flavor to take center stage.

It’s also possible for some of the alternatives to lead to internal contradictions; if any of these occur, that particular combination has to be rejected. More importantly, if there is a contradiction between a variant and one of the Common Core elements, that variation has to be scrapped on the spot.

As a result, and as a general rule of thumb, no matter how many variations in content and manifestation you have, don’t expect any but the base set to have all four variations plus ‘average’ available. Sometimes you will have only the three most intense, and sometimes you might be able to squeeze a fourth.

In the final analysis, you might have some tribal elements with only 2, 3, or 4 variations, more with 5, 6, or 7, and only a few with more.

A Tribal Element Index: Organizing Your Variations =

Once you have all your variations, the hard work is done, well almost. There’s one step left before we can start using everything that we’ve created, and that’s creating a tribal element index.

This is nothing more complicated than a list of your tribal element codes across the page and, underneath, a list of the variant codes for each. It also makes life simpler if your selected Common Core traits are grouped separately to the rest. So it would look something like the image below:
Tribal Element Index

It’s easiest if you use a sheet of square-grid mapping paper or graph paper for this – half-inch or 1cm squares would be about right, turned so that the longer axis of the page runs across the top – or a spreadsheet. What you can see here is an example with four Common Core elements across the top, 15 non-Core elements, the first of which has 12 variations, the next 7, and so on.

What this is for:

As a variation gets used, it gets crossed off in pencil or some other temporary format change is made, so that the next tribe to have a variation in this respect – I’ll get into details of usage shortly – has a variation that hasn’t yet been used.

The Heartland Population =

In theory, the population of the heartland is the standard against which all others are measured. In practice, as discussed last time, it’s not necessarily that simple. Just because most Lizardfolk have a spiny crest doesn’t mean that those in the homeland do. It just means that in MOST characteristics they will fit the general pattern.

As a general rule of thumb, the more variations you have for a given tribal element, the more likely it is that one of those variations will apply to the heartland population.

If you have no variation pools that are larger than eight or nine entries, the expectation would be that the heartland would conform to the “standard model” described in the rule books, plus whatever content and internal logic you may have added.

Starting with a base of 5%, and doubling for every variation pool with 9 or more entries, you can – in sequence of smaller to larger – determine just how likely it is that the heartland has “drifted.” If the heartland is not also the original homeland, use pools of 8 and above and a base of 6% – which may not sound like a lot of difference, but it will add up.

In the index illustrated above, there are three variation pools with 9 or more members: A, Q, and S. A has 12, S has 11, and Q has 9. That means that there is a 5%$ chance of a heartland variation in Q (the smallest pool), a 10% chance of a variation in S (the second smallest), and a 20% chance of a variation in A (the largest). All told, that’s a 35% chance that there has been a drift somewhere in the heartland population.

If this particular example belonged to a civilization or race that had been driven out of their homeland (which, technically, would include most versions of the Drow), it makes a big difference. R gets added to the mix, with a pool of 8 variations, and – as the smallest applicable pool – is awarded a 6% chance of a variation in whatever the heartland now is. Q, as second largest, gets double that, or 12%. S is now third largest, so we double the 12 to get 24%; and A, the largest, gets double that again, or 48%. Add those up and you get 90% – so there is a virtual certainty of a variation.

If, for the reasons described in part 1, you want to make it a complete certainty, use a base of 7%. In this case, that would add up to a total of 109% chance of a variation.

The Neighboring Tribes +

Each tribe that neighbors the heartland will be somewhat different from the heartland population. How different? To determine that, we use something called the Similarity Rating.

Similarity Rating

The similarity Rating has a base value equal to 1/3rd of the total number of Primary Tribal Elements or the number of Core Elements, whichever is higher.

There are additions to that number for a number of factors, described below. The total that you end up with are the number of tribal elements that this neighboring tribe have in common with the population of the heartland, NOT COUNTING the Core Elements.

The Similarity Rating has an absolute maximum of 1 less than the total number of Tribal Elements – EVERY tribe needs to have at least ONE point of distinctiveness to it! It also has an absolute minimum of 1 – so there will always be at least ONE respect in which the neighbors are the same (in addition to the core elements).

Loss Of Homelands

Most of the time, each factor will add 1 or more to the total if there is a point of similarity between the environments of the two tribes. However, if the homeland has been lost a historically-significant period of time in the past, each point of dissimilarity will subtract one from the total instead. In this case, the base Similarity Rating should be increased 50%, i,e, to one-and-a-half times whatever it was.

Geography: Similarities and Differences

For each respect in which the geography of the two realms is similar, add 1 to the total, or for each respect in which they are dissimilar, subtract one, depending on whether or not the homeland has been lost.

Geography II: connections vs isolations

If there is a means of connecting the two tribes, i.e. a road, or a waterway, or a passable border, add an additional +1 to the Similarity Rating.

If they are geographically separated – a lake, a mountain range, a desert in between them, or whatever – subtract +1 from the total, even if you have already subtracted one for a point of dissimilarity. This includes otherwise passable terrain that is occupied by a hostile force – so two tribes of Orcs might both neighbor an Elven Forest but not be connected by it.


If the climates are similar, add +2 to the Similarity Rating. If they resemble each other but are still different, add +1. This applies regardless of any effect of Homeland Loss.

Cultural Infusions

If one of them has a neighboring race other than the tribal collective and the other does not, subtract two from the Similarity Rating. If the homeland has been lost, increase this change from a two to a three.

This adjustment can occur multiple times, but subsequent occurrences count for 1 less – so if both have odd neighbors but these are of different races, there is a 2 or 3 reduction in similarity from the first, and a 1 or 2 reduction in similarity from the second.

GM Intuition

Finally, the GM can adjust the total by 1 or 2 in either direction according to his intuition, provided that he doesn’t violate the maximum or minimum value.

Selecting A Variation

So, you now know the number of ways in which the neighbors are the same. That makes it easy to determine the number of ways in which they are NOT the same.

I use a simply random roll to select trait columns across the index. Whether or not I’m marking off points of similarity or points of variation depends on which one is going to be the least work. If I end up with only 4 points of variation, it’s a lot easier to roll dice four times than it is to make 12 or 16 or whatever-the-similarity-rating-is rolls. If I wind up with only 4 points of similarity, that’s the easier set of results to determine.

Next, I locate the variation on the column that describes the “known neighbor” – in this case, the heartland, but the same process can be used to go further out – on the index. Let’s say that we have a variation in Tribal Element F, and that the heartland has a value of F. Skipping over any that have already been crossed out as used, I count either one step up or down, or (if the homeland has been lost) two steps. That identifies either one or two possible variations for the new tribe. You must pick the one that provides the least contrast to the reference tribe – this is again a matter of judgment for the GM. Note this variation on the description code of the tribe – I’ll get to that in a moment – and cross it off the index.

If there are no uncrossed-out entries in the column, use one of your vertical steps to move left or right instead (again, ignoring crossed-out entries), overriding the random selection of column.

Put all the selected variations together with the selected similarities and the results describe the new tribe.

Only when every entry on the index has been crossed out can you erase those crossing-outs and start all over again.
progression of neighbours

The image to the left illustrates the process. First, the central population, i.e. the homeland or heartland, are defined. Then you generate tribe #2, ensuring that it has a mixture of commonalities and differences that are appropriate to their circumstances relative to home tribe. You then move on to Tribe #2, again using the home tribe as reference, but making sure of reasonable levels of similarity and distinctiveness to both the home tribe and tribe #2. Repeat with appropriate corrects for tribes #3, #4, #5, and #6.
progression of neighbours 2

Outer Tiers +

You can populate new rings of tribes in exactly the same way. This graphic illustrates a seventh tribe that is neighbors to both tribes #2 and #3. You can base the tribe on either but once again the comparison should be to both. Just keep adding tribes – of varying size – until you are satisfied that the entire area in which the collective population resides has been covered.

The Tribal Code

Every tribe that you generate can be defined by the codes that constitute it. If you look again at the sample tribal index, one valid tribe would be A3BC2DEF4GHI2JKL5MNO2P3QRS9. Which just looks like alphabet soup until you put dashes or fullstops in to separate the different components: A3.B.C2.D.E.F4.G.H.I2.J.K.L5.M.N.O2.P3.Q.R.S9 or A3-B-C2-D-E-F4-G-H-I2-J-K-L5-M-N-O2-P3-Q-R-S9.

But why go to so much trouble? Institute a policy that anything that’s not an explicit variation is presumed to be the core, and you can simplify the code to A3.C2.F4.I2.L5.O2.P3.S9 or A3-C2-F4-I2-L5-O2-P3-S9. If you keep a list of the variation combinations that you’ve used, you can make sure that you never repeat a tribal combination unless you want to – in other words, that every tribe is unique while still being definitively a part of community X.

Who Is This Tribe?

That’s all well and good if you’re creating a game world. What if you aren’t, or don’t want to do the whole lot in one go? What if you need a tribe – just one – right now?

Easy! All you have to decide is how many tribal “steps” away from the homeland the tribe that you need to create are. In the illustrations above, tribes 1 through 6 are all one step removed, tribe 7 is two steps removed.

Then adjust the Similarity rating accordingly:

  • One Step: determine the base Similarity rating. Adjust it half-way in the direction that would normally apply – so if the homeland is still viable, that would be be (1/3 + 1)/2 similarity, or 2/3 similar, and if it’s not you start with 2/3 and adjust back to 1/3 similarity. If there are 15 variable Tribal Elements, as there are in the Index Example above, that gives similarities of 10 and 5, respectively.
  • Two Steps: Every subsequent step reduces the similarity, but by a decreasing amount each time that allows for the possibility that a subsequent variation will occur within a Tribal Element that has already been modified. This is achieved by multiplying the adjustment (half the similarity) by the similarity and dividing by the total number of Tribal Elements that aren’t part of the common core. So: Half of 10 would be 5; 5 multiplied by 10 is 50; 50 divided by 15 is 3.333, which rounds off to 3. So the similarity drops by 3 to 7. Or, of the homeland has been lost, the similarity starts at 5, half that is 2.5, multiplied by 5 is 12.5, divided by 15 is 0.833 which rounds to 1 – so the similarity is now 4.
  • Three steps: perform the same trick. Similarity with a homeland is now 7, half of that is 3.5, multiply by the 7 to get 24.5, divide by 15 and you get 1.63 which rounds to 2. So the similarity is drops to 5. If the homeland had been lost, the similarity was 4; half of 4 is 2; 2 times 4 is 8; 8/15 is 0.53, which rounds to another loss of 1 point of similarity. The similarity rating is now 3.
  • Four steps: do it again. Similarity with a homeland is now 5, and we have already calculated that that results in the loss of 1 point of similarity rating, giving a result of 4. Similarity without a homeland is now 3, half of which is 1.5; multiplied by 3 is 4.5; and divided by 15 is 0.3. That rounds to zero, so the Similarity rating stays at 3, but we save the 0.3 to add to the next result.
  • Four steps: The similarity with a homeland at three steps was 4, and we’ve already calculated that this produces another loss of 1 point of similarity rating. The similarity without a homeland is 3, still, but with a 0.3 divergence carried forward from the previous step – so that will become 0.6 change this time around, which rounds to a further point of similarity loss, giving a rating of 2.

Just keep going as often as you want. Once you know how far removed from the base description (ABCDEFGHIJKLMOPQRS) the tribe that you’re creating are, it’s just a matter of selecting the variations and compiling the description of this particular tribe.

These calculations aren’t statistically rigorous; this is a relatively simple approximation that is “good enough” for game purposes.

Who Is This Tribe? =

I can’t speak for everyone, but a lengthy list of variations from which particular items has to be extracted each time in order to get a description of a tribe is both impractical and error-prone. If I were using this system (and I will be, in future), I would open my list of variations and “save as” [Tribename], or even just “Tribe #6” or whatever. That lets me delete from the text everything but the variations that are actually in force for this tribe.

I would then highlight the overt manifestations, either by making them bold or changing the font color, and sort them using copy and paste into six categories. When I had finished that, I would look at any of those that don’t fall naturally into that particular category and add a relevant manifestation if I could think of one. One of my early articles (actually, it’s a multi-part series, but the first one has links to the rest) can help: Distilled Cultural Essence – Part 1 of 4: Creating a different society.

The categories are detailed below.

1. Questions Of Culture

Culture is how the people live their social lives – their entertainment, their modes of artistic expression, etc, their languages, and their traditions.

2. Practices Of Society

Society is about who’s in charge, why them, and what their priorities are.

3. Issues Of Architecture & Domesticity

This is about the everyday lives of the members of the tribe.

4. Curiosities Of Ideology

This covers the tribe’s beliefs and how and when they worship.

5. Matters of Capability

This covers any unusual abilities that the tribe’s members have, and any usual abilities that they don’t have. It also asks why and why not, respectively.

6. Cohesion And Collision

Finally, there’s the diplomatic side of the tribe – who they get along with, who they don’t, who their neighbors are, and so on.

The Strength Of The System

This system works because it constructs diversity from generalization in a very structured and managed way. It’s extendable – you can add more variations whenever you think of them – but it also ensures that the “core” of each sub-population contains those elements that are definitive for the race or civilization. That means that you can invest whatever time you can spare in prep and supplement it at your leisure, making it very efficient.

It doesn’t waste a lot of time on things that make no difference, by deliberately focusing only on those things that have an overt manifestation, that make a tangible distinction between this tribe and the next. It goes beyond simple re-skinning but doesn’t involve much more work, and the dividends that can result are enormous.

While the entire article has been written from a D&D/Pathfinder perspective, it is systemless, and can be used with ANY game requiring primitive cultures – whether that’s pulp, or space opera, or whatever. And every time that you use it, the forces of xenophobia are reviled and mocked. That’s a bonus, but a good one!

Leave a Comment

Not Like My Tribe – Sophisticated Primitives, Part 1

Totem Poles by Elinor Gavin

Image Credit: / Elinor Gavin

A lot of people seem to have the opinion that Primitive is the same thing as Simple.

While I would hope that most GMs are better educated than this, that knowledge doesn’t seem to translate into their depictions of primitive societies within their games. Most Orcs, for example, are treated as being cookie-cutter representatives of a single society with unified belief systems, common social practices, and identical behavior given the circumstances.

Exactly why this is the case, I don’t know, but not only is it not good enough, it’s missing an opportunity to inject drama, realism, and adventure into a campaign. Those things don’t often come gift-wrapped in one package, so ignoring the opportunities they represent is almost criminal.

Perhaps there’s a conceptual problem insofar as the creation of all these variations would seem to be a lot of work for insufficient reward – after all, how much of the results would the players realistically get to see? The mere tip of an iceberg, at best.

Or perhaps it just seems too difficult.

I don’t think those reasons are sufficient, and it’s my mission with this 2-part article to take them off the table, in the most direct way possible: by offering a technique by which generating these variations becomes so easy that you won’t hesitate in creating a tribe or three every time that race appears in the game – and will never reuse one unless that constancy is necessary for plot reasons, and as a deliberate choice by the GM.

A note about Scale

It takes a lot more space and time to explain something than it does to just do it, so this article contains the barest minimum needed to demonstrate the principles and processes under discussion. This doesn’t impact depth in this particular case so much as it does breadth; where I might have one, two, or three of something in this article, if you were to apply these principles and processes in a real life situation, you might have eight, or ten, or twelve.

But that’s not true of everything in this article, so I needed some way to indicate at a glance “You need to scale this up in number” or “This part of the process does not need to scale.” I’ll be stating it explicitly within the text as often as necessary, but I think an “At A Glance” mnemonic is also necessary.

What I have chosen is to append either a “+” or an “=” at the end of each section where scaling is definitive. What does that mean?

If there is a ‘+’:

…it means that whatever I’ve described in the section needs to be done repeatedly.

If there is a ‘=’:

…it means that whatever I’ve described in the section only needs to be done as often as I have demonstrated.

If there is neither:

…then it means one of three things: either

  1. the question of scaling is not applicable to the subject; or
  2. the topic has subheadings which have different scaling parameters; or
  3. the heading relates to a sub-topic or stage within a broader subject which is where the scaling is specified.

All that might not be completely clear yet, but it will make more sense as we roll along and you see it in action.

The basic premise is this: sophistication comes from complexity, and complexity is best represented by, and generated using, iterations and variations on simplicity that, when viewed in aggregate, portray the primitive as a simple subset of a more complex social collective.

Sounds complicated, doesn’t it? It’s not that bad, trust me.

This system was inspired by a map of the native Australian aboriginal tribal dialects that I came across a month or so back when I started thinking about the way much of the media and even many Australians portray the entire racial population as a homogeneous whole. I realized that I also saw the same thing in American media when discussing Native Americans, and that some politicians (both Australian, American, and elsewhere) used exactly the same broad brush to describe Muslims or “Boat People” or Syrian Refugees – and there are many other examples. By labeling and collectivizing smaller groups as one larger group, it becomes easier to marginalize individuals within that group, dehumanizing them.

It was while contemplating this that I realized that by collecting these smaller groups and individuals under one monolithic label, what these people were inadvertently doing was creating and defining diversity under that collective umbrella.

In terms of application to RPGs, the broad strokes that most use to collectively describe any given race is effectively a racial profile, and most GMs realize that at best these racial descriptions have only a limited applicability to any given individual. What I realized was that there was an intermediate possibility, and that the process could be reversed to divide a monolithic group definition into smaller groups. I thought it would be ironic to use the weapons of prejudice to create, explore, and celebrate diversity within a collectivized population, and so here we are.

Tribal Elements +

The core instrument that we will use to generate different tribal groups within the one racial collective description is something that I am terming “tribal elements”. A tribal element is a single idea and all the ramifications and baggage that derive from it, but not just any concept nexus is suitable; only conceptual elements that have an overt manifestation, that make a clear and tangible difference in culture or behavior or society that the players will perceive or experience when they meet a tribe who exhibit that tribal element.

That’s what separates a list of tribal elements from a simple bullet-point summary of a racial profile. Not only must each time have a tangible manifestation, but each entry is a cluster of cause-and-effects, a compilation of related pieces of information.

That’s also what makes the results that I might achieve using the processes I’ll be describing in this article different from those that you might come up with, and from those that the GM down the road will achieve – very few racial descriptions connect cause with effect, and most don’t even state cause in the first place. Each GM will come up with their own concepts of how known piece of information “A” connects with known piece of information “B” by way of invented and inserted piece of information “C” – with the whole ABC package being a single Tribal Element.

The more tribal elements that you can identify for any given umbrella (usually, in fantasy terms, a single race), the better off you are. This article will be quite parsimonious in the number I will present as examples, but you should be as generous in creating them as you can be, based on the information you are provided by the game reference materials that you have available.

Fair warning: these might seem easy to create until you actually go to process a race, but they are not as easy as they seem when you go to do them for real. They aren’t hard, but they can be harder than they seem.

How To Generate Your Tribal Elements

There are a few tricks to generating tribal elements that will be useful in overcoming that difficulty. In general, the operational principle is to pair like with unlike. If the central component of your tribal element is a racial ability, find a way for that ability to manifest in a social behavior, for example.

Some pairings tend to “go together” more naturally most of the time, so I thought it might be useful to talk about the different element components that are most naturally derived from the most obvious sources.

Racial Abilities

Racial Abilities are the easiest to work with in many respects; all that’s necessary is to ask how having that ability would affect the lives of the possessors. The ability to resist poisons not only makes a character better able to cope with tainted or off meat, it means that this can become a food preparation technique. What other cultures might put into a stew, or salt, can be roasted or baked. Richer and Gamier meat would form a larger part of the diet. Further, the tendency would be toward weak sauces constructed from flavorsome herbs, flowers, roots, and fruits because the race have no need for strong flavors to disguise meat that’s past its best. Thus, Orcs, Half-orcs, and Dwarves might well make the best sous-chefs in the better kitchens – with appropriate training and ignoring other social factors, of course!

Racial Characteristics

Racial characteristics would be reflected in terms of the things that a race is naturally good at. A low stat could either mean that the race devalues skills based on that characteristic or that the occasional exception is praised and prized all the more highly. Elves, for example, are generally considered to have better reflexes and be more nimble overall because of their higher DEX scores; they are also keen-eyed. This combination means that they would not fish with nets, they would spear-fish: more challenging, more fun, better exercise, and their natural abilities mean that they can do just as well that way as a less-endowed race who uses nets. What’s more, that would make it relatively unlikely that they would kill any fish that were not intended; with a net, you get interlopers, and fish that are too small, all the time.

Racial Skills

Skills are a little harder, because not only do you need to understand why a race is better at a particular skill, you also need to appreciate how that betterment impacts on the society. The first might relegate this whole question to an ability- or characteristic-based tribal element that already exists, or you might get to create a cause all to yourself.

I have often gotten good value from considering all the different applications of a skill and selecting one at which the tribe are especially adept, in compensation for being ordinary (at best) in all the others.

Bugbears, with their natural strength, might well have a heightened climb skill. Why not restrict that skill to climbing rocks, swarming up cliffs, etc, and balance that by making them ordinary at climbing unnatural surfaces (like buildings and roofs) and worse than ordinary at climbing organic surfaces like trees? From that start you could get into the shape of their hands and the strength of their claw-like nails, which then leads you into thinking about their ability to grip things. Applying the basic principles from Ergonomics and the Non-human then manifests this in terms of their ability to use tools, which influences everything from food preparation to architecture/habitat construction – and those meet our criteria of a tangible manifestation.

Create A Character Workshop cover

Racial Flavor Text

Probably the richest source of tribal elements, though, is the flavor text that accompanies the racial description; you can practically break this up into bullet points paragraph-by-paragraph if not sentence-by-sentence, and each can then form the heart of another tribal element; all you need do is find practical implications or tangible expressions of each. I offered an example of how to do just that in the example that accompanied my article Creating Alien Characters: Expanding the ‘Create A Character Clinic’ To Non-Humans which looks at expanding the principles in Holly Lisle’s excellent “Create A Character Clinic” to non-humans. You can get the book from How To Think Sideways (it’s on the bottom row) or by going directly to the product page by clicking on the cover thumbnail, US$9.95.

Thumbnail History Of The Collective =

You need a couple of other tools to make full use of the system. Most of these can be summed up as “a thumbnail history of the collective”, where the collective is the grouping together of all the tribes to be created. Where did they come from? What is their shared cultural heritage? You need to know these (and similar) things, even if the race in question has lost the knowledge. This anthropology has a profound impact on the social morphology, i.e. the context that translates tribal element concept into practical manifestation.

It should be obvious that you can’t tell the story of the race except in the broadest possible strokes until after you have created the tribes; at present, you are missing at least half of the basis of the history. But you need everything that you can determine in order to create those tribes and ensure that the detail is consistent with the bigger picture.

There are a couple of things to specifically look for / decide at this point. Each of these is discussed in its own section below.

The Tribal Heart

Where did the race originally call home? What was the climate and the geography? What effects have those had on the foundations of the collective society, and what might linger as tradition from that time?

I am perpetually astounded at the myriad of subtle influences that these two factors exert on any given society, both directly and indirectly. Agriculture, Diet, Politics, Race and international relations, arts and crafts, capacity and willingness to explore, social practices – and those just scratch the surface.

I wish there was a single reasonably non-technical reference that I could point at for readers to fully assimilate the principles at play; unfortunately, all I’ve ever come across is an isolated reference here and another there, relating only to specific applications of the sociology.

Here’s a list of promising websites and articles, none of which I’ve had time to read (yet) that should at least get you started:

Homeland Or Resettlement?

One of the most profound questions to be answered as part of the history is whether or not the modern heartland is the homeland of the collective of tribes, or is the modern heartland the result of resettlement or diaspora.

Proposition one, the traditional homeland, provides a cultural touchstone that tends to keep diversity reigned in, similar to the Imperial model. Diverge too far from the acceptable standards and you are not only considered to be a less-than-“true” representative of the collective, but you may well think of yourself as being less than a “real” member of the collective, a phenomenon of Fringe Marginalization that can be embodied in social practices, religious beliefs and practices, evaluations of cultural value, economics, and isolationism. Distance from the central homeland defines how “civilized” you are perceived to be. A greater emphasis is placed on adapting an environment to permit traditional approaches and values, even if this is less efficient than adapting those approaches and values to the dictates and opportunities of the new environment.

Proposition two removes that central touchstone, stating that for one reason or another, the original homeland has been lost to the collective. This could be environmental (a forest, swamp, or otherwise fertile land becoming a desert, a terrible volcanic eruption, or whatever), disease, population pressure leading to over-farming and loss of soil fertility, invasion, religious schism, or conquest. Even if the details of these events are lost to tribal history, the effects of the cause will linger within the society, mythology, and theology of the populace, though they might manifest in different ways. There is no longer a point of central reference to dictate “civilization” to the collective, so there will be far greater diversification over time.

top row '.', 2nd row 1.1, 3rd row 21.12, 4th row ???-???, 5th row 21.1-2345, bottom row 542.2-3579

This illustrates the effect described in the text to the right. Rows 1, 2 and 3 show growth and diversification from one step to the next. Row 4 shows growth and the catastrophic loss of the homeland as a unifying force. Row 5 shows the new cultural “center” of the collective, the yellow square. Those tribes that were very similar to the original homeland remain closely related to the new center, and those that were moderately divergent are now either very divergent or much closer to the common community. But without a homeland, drift and divergence accelerate, the more removed from that center the more severely; the last row shows the situation a generation or two later. The heart of the culture is unchanged, and even those on it’s “side” (i.e. had drifted in a similar direction prior to the cataclysm) are no more divergent than they would have been anyway. Those that had drifted in the other social direction are almost unrecognizable in comparison, and their divergence is accelerating. In fact, unless something happens to bring them all back together again, the right-hand tribes are about ready to form a new common culture of their own, or engage the left-hand side in a Civil War.

There is a special case in which the civilization of the original homeland withers due to one or more of the causes listed above without being completely annihilated. It can thus still exist within the collective without being able to sustain a role as the central point of reference.

This encourages diversification in most areas of society whilst preserving through folklore an increasingly-distorted perception of the commonality and traditions of the past – with the nature of that distortion being another point of variation from one tribe to the next. One would retain “this” from the original, while another retains “that” – and neither are completely correct, depending on how far back in time divergences began.

Quite often, what will happen is that the strongest military or economic tribe will define themselves as the spiritual successors to the original culture, defining a new “normal” that – by definition – further defines other branches of the original society as more substantially divergent, and hence less “pure”.

Cultural Connections

Another critical component to note are any cultural connections or contaminations that have taken place, especially if the degree of impact over a number of the tribes differs. Simply being neighbors with someone is enough for at least a segment of the population to be influenced by those neighbors.

There are two more substantial forms of cultural connection that merit special mention. The first is trade, which is often a logical outgrowth of being next to someone – even if that trade is clandestine.

Imagine we have three tribes, A, B, and C. The first tribe trades freely with their Elvish Neighbors. The second tribe is rather more cautious about the Elves, and while they will also trade with them, they will also refuse any deal that doesn’t clearly benefit them without risk. Tribe C are even more paranoid toward Elves, almost Xenophobic. They will treat tribe A with suspicion because their thinking has been “contaminated” by Elvish attitudes, and would prefer to trade with Orcs simply because Orcs are enemies of the Elves. As a result, while tribe A is exposed to Elvish cultural influence, and tribe B accepts goods and techniques that are clearly of practical value, tribe C is exposed to Orcish influence purely as a reaction to what is happening with tribe A.

The other cultural contaminant is war. This can manifest in two quite separate ways.

During World War II, Australia provided R&R for Americans on their way to various wars in the Pacific, and while some Australian culture rubbed off on them, far more American culture found its way into the Australian Society of the time, especially in terms of the entertainment and fashion arenas. We were allies, and the American culture was the dominant member of that alliance. To those areas which were not directly exposed to this influence, it was only an assimilated and appropriated second-generation form of the influence that impacted locally; and in areas that were remote even to this, a very dilute counter-cultural movement arose in response.

The history of England provides examples of the alternative mechanism by which War can influence a culture. Conquest by the Romans had a profound impact, one that outlasted the actual presence of the Romans. Over time, most of the more overt impacts were lost, but others such as road building and social organization, were assimilated and absorbed. The principles remained and were retained, but the execution was replaced with a British way of doing those things. More recently, when the English struggled to resist the Nazis in World War II, the very act of resistance, and the necessities that it conferred on the society, had a profound impact on the society for the duration of the emergency. As usual, a generation or two later, this impact became opposed by counter-cultural movements; whereas during the war, subservience of the individual over the needs of the collective society was the driving principle of society, post-war generations elevated individual independence over all but the most demonstrably urgent needs, and British interests over those of Continental Europe as a whole began to take a stronger role in the politics. Even today, those two opposed movements – pro- and anti- EU entanglement – continue to play out in English politics.

I’m only about half-way through, and I’ve completely run out of time. I’ll bring this article to a conclusion later in the week in part 2! Oh, and it the title doesn’t seem to make much sense, that’s because it’s only relevant to the process as a whole. Be patient….

Comments (2)

All Wounds Are Not Alike IV – Accelerated Healing

Elixir by Alexandre Jaeger Vendruscolo, color-shifted green

Photo Credit: Alexandre Jaeger Vendruscolo, color modification by Mike

When I first started gaming, one of the hot topics of conversation was always Clerical Healing and how to stop Clerics being nothing more than “holy drip bottles”. Over the next 30-odd years, not much changed. At the heart of the problem are the “Cure” spells.

Over the years, there have been many proposed cures for the problem. But all of them come with baggage attached, ripple effects that can be more profound than the change to healing itself. The most commonly proposed solution is to make the “cure” spells more inconvenient and slower to cast and replace them with healing potions that anyone can use and administer.

This immediately presents the problem that healing becomes even more accessible than it was before. Clerics might not have had many limits on the number of healing spells they could cast, but they still weren’t an unlimited fountain of health. Those restrictions went away with this change, and the impact was usually more profound than GMs expected. And so it was with every other proposed cure for the problem; in every case, there was some complication that the GM needed to take into account.

In mid-2012, I wrote up a series of articles [links at the end of this article] outlining three alternatives to the normal damage-handling and recovery systems and the impact that the changes would have on the game. There are at least two more to describe, of which this is the first. It’s also the most obvious, the one that people tend to think of when first considering the subject – and that ubiquity is the reason I didn’t write about it at the time. Since then, a few people have pointed out that just because the idea is one that commonly occurs to DMs, that doesn’t mean that everyone grasps all the implications equally, and since I have a knack for in-depth analysis of such things, I should do this one as well. GMs, ready your best fiendish Hackles…

There is the popular impression of Healing Potions that they do their work instantly. Certainly having them do so is a boon to bookkeeping. Early healing potion descriptions didn’t actually specify, they just said “Heals #d8 HP” – at least that’s what my memory tells me. So: what if it were to take longer? What if you were guaranteed the healing promised, but it was going to take a week? Or a day? Or just an hour? And only if you didn’t get yourself killed in the meantime? What would that do to the dynamic of the game, be it D&D or Pathfinder?

Context: Why does HP go up by a dice plus bonus, each level?

Before we can get into that, there are some nuts and bolts of the game system that should be understood (which were also the subject of much debate back in the day, so your understanding might well be different to mine). The most important piece of housekeeping is understanding exactly what hit points represent, and why they go up when a character gains a level. After all, if a character only ever had their starting hit points (CON changes notwithstanding), you rarely need more than one or two “Cure” spells to restore full health.

If it was merely a matter of physical capacity, the differences would be relatively small – once adulthood is achieved, and ignoring infirmity, there are not many physical changes to take into account. You might, perhaps, earn +1 HP per level, or something. This might be increased a little if you had a high CON, but the changes would be minimal. Instead, going from 1st to 2nd level, your HP (on average) double (100% increase); from 2nd to 3rd, it increases by 50%; 3rd to 4th, there is a 33 1/3% gain, and so on. The variability that comes with the die rolls masks the regularity of the progression, but don’t fundamentally change it.

All the explanations that I have seen describe the hit point increase as an aggregate representation of four different contributing factors: Physical Capacity, Mental Capacity, Legendary Capacity, and (most important of all), Combat Capacity.

Physical Capacity

Characters should get a little tougher as they become accustomed to the hardships of the adventuring life. Part of the increase represents this increased resilience. In a purely Simulationist approach, this contribution to HP would be tracked separately, would also be a function of CON, and would certainly not occur at every character level; that none of this happens (except possibly adjustment for CON) indicates that this is a compromised reality for the sake of gameplay.

Mental Capacity

I have seen it suggested that the reason Physical Capacity increases do not phase out with increasing levels is because they are replaced by another form of enhanced combat expertise – Mental Capacity, the ability to keep better track of multiple combatants at the same time. Logically, this would also increase with time and with expertise (which is what gaining a level represents), but initial gains would be relatively small; only when the character achieved his physical peak would he be able to stay in a fight long enough to begin improving this aspect of his prowess. As a result, the combination of the two would be enough to make overall improvements more-or-less linear with character levels, and certainly not worth tracking the minor variations that might take place.

Legendary Capacity

It was quite a number of years before I heard this argument, but it immediately made sense to me. As characters advance in levels, it proposes, they become more famous, more legendary. In a realistic world, this would be a matter of reputation alone, but in a fantasy game where the perils become more and more epic, an increase in capability to “live up” to these demands should take place – and, in part, this is simulated through an increased capacity for combat damage.

Combat Capacity

By far the most common explanation, however, is simply that characters get better at combat with training and experience, and (in part) this is reflected in a reduction in the relative damage done by weapons, i.e. the damage done by a single typical blow as a percentage of total capacity for receiving such blows.

This could have been represented by an improvement in Armour Class, or by a penalty to attacker’s “to hit” values, or even by varying the damage done (low-level characters only doing a percentage of a larger potential damage total) but none of these offer the granularity or simplicity of a substantial change in Hit Point Capacity. From the point of view of game mechanics, a hit point change is the better solution.

Alternative 1: Bonus Only

That doesn’t make it the only approach, though, and I have seen several in my time. One of the most common is simply to cut out the increase in the number of Hit Dice that occurs when a level is gained. Instead, the character simply receives whatever bonus HP they are awarded as a result of their CON bonus.

I have also seen some very vitriolic rebuttals of the proposal, most of them couched in terms of “fighter vs wizard game balance”.

As I have remarked before, that’s the problem with House Rules: one necessitates another, and then another, and so on. In this case, the damage that magical spells can inflict is predicated on the existing HP progression, and needs to be altered if Wizards – above, say, 3rd level – are not going to be the most powerful characters in the game. If anything, goes the argument, there needs to be a change in the other direction in most editions of the game!

If you are willing to put in the hard work required, AND can convince your players to accept the change, by all means implement this change and all the ancillary changes that are needed in consequence – but don’t call it D&D / pathfinder any more, because (in several of its fundamental parameters and assumptions), it isn’t.

Alternative 2: dice to max

“…if anything, there needs to be a change in the other direction.” That usually gets House-Rule-minded GMs thinking, and it isn’t long thereafter that this simple change suggests itself to them. “Spellcasters get smaller hit dice than your up-front-and-brutal types, so if I do away with the variability and simply state that all the dice results are maximized, every time, all the time, it makes those combat characters just that little bit more effective, ironing out the inequities of the game system at least a little bit.

Everyone that I know of who has actually tried this has subsequently reported that the change over-compensates. That leads to consideration of various ways to cut back on the effect – perhaps it only kicks in at a certain level, or the ability has to be bought for X levels of advancement with a Feat, or they use average die results as a minimum gain, or whatever.

Once again, if you’re prepared to put in the hard work, and can sell your players on the proposition, good luck to you. There will certainly be more effort than you are expecting.

The Cleric Question

Having laid the groundwork, there’s a meta-philosophical question to answer: Are clerical healing spells as effective as potions?

In most forms of D&D, there are potions that are as effective as low level clerical healing, but for more serious wounds, the higher-level cleric is the better choice. Some GMs even reinforce this on the assumption that it makes clerics more indispensably part of the game by restricting the number of Healing Potions to X-per-day.

You often gain insights into difficult problems by turning them on their heads, and this is one occasion when that’s definitely the case. Rephrase the question: Should Clerical Healing Spells be as effective as Potions?

If yes, then you need to add potion forms of the other “Cure” spells to the list of magic items available, and start thinking about availability, manufacture, and treasure occurrence. But, if “no”, there are a couple of alternatives…

Clerical Healing less effective than potions

This is a cure for the problem of Clerics being nothing more than a source of healing, there’s no mistake about that! By making cure potions more effective than clerical spells, potions become the first resort. Immediately, though, there will be an effect: as soon as combat is over, everyone will be chugging from flasks. At the start of any combat, you will be able to assume that the PCs are at or near full health. For beginning players and kids, this “soft option” might be the ideal solution.

On the other hand, are beginners and kids more likely than more experienced players, or less, to complain that “all I ever get to do is cast Healing spells?” Or will any chance to act, to get involved in the storyline, and make a difference to it, be a positive? Will the effect of this change be “I never get to do anything any more!”, or worse still, “Nothing I do matters so just tell me what happens”?

‘Lying around recovering is boring’ – I’m sure that was the thinking of the designers when they first began introducing healing spells and potions. ‘Dying from a trivial encounter on the way to the adventure is both frustrating and boring’ would not have been far removed from the top of their minds, either. From virtually the moment that they did, however, games were locked into a standard configuration: trivial encounters to ‘soak up’ excess spells and healing potions and consume other vital resources on the way to the adventure became an integral part of the game, and an essential element of dungeon design, and the game began to devolve into an exercise in bookkeeping: gold for healing potions, consume potions, gain gold, repeat indefinitely.

Heck, I’ve even seen people quaff a healing potion before going into combat in the hopes that if they got wounded immediately it would still help!

Going into combat knowing you’re not at your best increases the drama and heroism considerably, and that gets lost if healing through potions becomes ubiquitous.

Clerical Healing more effective than potions

There are many arguments for taking things in the other direction, then. But that puts us squarely back on the path to the “Holy Drip Bottle”. And there are several questions about exactly how to increase the effectiveness of clerical healing relative to healing potions. Ultimately, these seem to come down to either limiting healing potions in some way, or boosting the effectiveness of Clerical Healing – while still retaining limits on what can be done.

healing table 1

One of the most effective techniques that I’ve seen is for characters to build up a tolerance to healing potions if over-used. Essentially, players keep track of the number of times they have been healed in the course of an in-game day’s play. Each one after the first imposes a -1 on the benefits received from a healing potion, to a minimum of zero healing. Clerical healing doesn’t count towards this limit. Moreover, this limit doesn’t reset to zero at the end of the day, but only improves by 1.

So the first healing potion of the day is at full strength, but the second is at -1 to the amount of healing done, and the second is at -2, and the third is at -3, and so on, placing ever-greater reliance on the party cleric. What’s more, if your penalty reaches -2 or worse, it won’t go away overnight, only diminish. Whatever the total penalty reaches is also a count of the number of days rest and recuperation the character needs to overcome the penalty.

The tables to the left show the effect this has. “I’ve lost 100 hit points, and a healing potion heals an average of 4.5 hit points plus one for caster level for 5.5, so I take 18 of them.” Not anymore, Binky!

In fact, you very quickly reach the point where taking another potion does minimal or even no healing, and only delays the interval until healing potions are returned to full effectiveness.

Now, I’m not actually recommending this approach, I present it here merely as food for thought.

The Paladin Issue

The second issue of metagame philosophy that deserves consideration is the healing ability of Paladins, the “Laying On Of Hands”. I’ve never been completely happy with this; it seems to serve no function other than to turn the Paladin into a second-rate cleric; there needs to be something about this ability that distinguishes it from both healing by clerics and by potions.

One option that I’ve explored now and then is for the Laying On Of Hands to cure things Clerical Healing and Potions can’t. This notion introduces the concept of Taint, which simply states that wound from certain weapons and/or enemies are “Tainted with Evil” and cannot be healed except by a Paladin’s Gift – and even then, it is quite difficult.

I freely admit that the concept is lifted directly from the Lord Of The Rings, where it was an effect of Nazgul Morgol-blades. Every 6 hours that a tainted wound remains untreated, it increases in severity by 1d6; this can be halved by a skilled healer applying an appropriate compress, and the 6 hour interval can be increased to a day by bed rest in a suitably blessed location. Clerical and Potion healing can do nothing for such wounds other than hide them and present the superficial appearance of healing. And that’s a problem, because nasty things happen should the Taint ever exceed the total hit points of the character – his soul’s purity is consumed and he will become a Taint-wraith, a fell spirit with loyalty to no-one and nothing, whose very touch inflicts Taint upon others.

When the Paladin reaches out his hands to cure the afflicted, he is engaging in spiritual combat with the Taint itself. The Paladin and the Taint make opposed die rolls; the Paladin adds his total remaining capacity for laying-on-of-hands healing AND his character level in Paladin AND his Wisdom bonus, the Taint adds the total damage that it has afflicted so far.

If the Paladin succeeds, the taint is held at bay for a day, and for every point by which he succeeds, one point of Tainted damage is healed, up to the maximum of his Healing ability – so it will become progressively easier to heal the Tainted wound. Nor can a succession of Paladins lay on hands; healing done by others counts as having already being done by the next Paladin to attempt it. Finally, battling Taint is spiritually exhausting; for every point of damage healed by the laying on of hands, the Paladin himself suffers 1d6 shock damage, and for every 6 points healed or part thereof, he also takes a point of Taint which he can only expunge after 2 hours of prayer and meditation per point of secondary Taint inflicted.

That quickly means that it becomes a choice between ridding oneself of the secondary taint or continuing to heal the character afflicted with the Tainted wound. If the Paladin is too generous with his efforts on behalf of others, he can succumb himself.

Again, this is not necessarily something that I am recommending, unless it fits your campaign; for example, it’s entirely too grim for my Fumanor campaign, though it was going to be part of my Shards Of Divinity campaign eventually; the players were lucky in that they never encountered a foe with Taint as an ability, because they had made enemies of the Paladin Orders!

The Skill Significance?

Finally, one consequence of the ubiquity of supernatural healing (via Clerics, potions, and Paladins) is that healing skills and medical knowledge are devalued within the game system, to the point where they are represented by a single skill that is often ignored, and whose benefits do not reflect the effort involved in becoming proficient. In reality, herbalism and surgery (including bone-setting) and medicine should be separate skills, and each should offer tangible benefits with expertise. But there’s no need for that, because healing is so ubiquitously available.

Picture a character discovering a rare tome on medicine in a treasure hoard, one with cures to previously-lethal illnesses. If this were to happen in any real-life situation, it would be cause for great celebration and rejoicing; healer who had studied the work would be very greatly in demand, and – in general – it would be a Big Deal. Now place the same reward in your typical D&D treasure haul, and the players will feel like they’ve been gypped, so devalued is medical knowledge in a D&D / Pathfinder game environment.

One desirable consequence of any changes to the healing subsystem would be a reversal of this situation, even if it were only partial. Any improvement would be a positive benefit.

Healing as an acceleration of time

With those issues all tucked away in the back of our minds, let’s look at what it actually means if one or more forms of magical healing are reinterpreted as an acceleration of time for the purposes of recovery from sickness and injury rather than an instantaneous “healing” of illness and injury.

What won’t heal naturally

The first impact should be immediately obvious but will have major repercussions, which I’ll be spending most of the remainder of this article discussing. Any healing that falls into the “accelerated time” category can’t heal anything that would not heal of it’s own accord, given an appropriate period of rest. If broken bones are misaligned, they will heal crooked. If wounds are not closed properly, they will leave a scar. If surgical intervention or medical treatment are required, the character may not heal at all. Worst-case scenario: death may be accelerated instead.

Healing Skills

That puts a premium on correct examination and diagnosis, as well as providing appropriate medical intervention prior to the healing. Recovery periods may be shortened, perhaps dramatically, but “healing” or “cure wounds” are actually misnomers. Having a character who has invested heavily in medical expertise is suddenly essential – so much so that the broadening into the three distinct skills mentioned (herbalism, surgery (including bone-setting), and medicine, is more than amply justified. The state of the medical art would need to be very carefully defined by the GM in all three categories to prevent characters bringing modern knowledge into play.

This sort of healing won’t prevent a character losing a limb if it is infected; it will speed the recovery after an appropriate amputation.

Better spells = greater acceleration

It can be argued, under this paradigm, that higher orders of healing spell represent a greater acceleration of the healing process, and that this is what is being simulated by the greater HP recovery. This simply means that the time for the healing effect to run its course remains fixed across all levels of spell, or perhaps is a function of caster level.

Let’s say, for example, that the time for the spell effect to run its course is 12 divided by the caster level in hours, and that Cure Light Wounds grants 1 extra day’s recovery in that time, Cure Moderate Wounds grants 2 extra days in that time, Cure Serious Wounds grants 4 extra days, and Cure Critical Wounds grants 8 extra days of recovery. Heal grants as many days as are needed in a one-hour time frame.

Or perhaps it’s one day’s worth per die of healing, and only the duration over which this healing takes place changes. Four options present themselves: a minute, 10 minutes, an hour, or a day. That means that a 3d8 Cure Light Wounds (caster level 3) gives 3 day’s worth of recuperation in a minute, in 10 minutes, in an hour, or in a day (respectively).

But it’s simplest to compare apples with apples – you can normally regain 1 HP with a night’s rest. So every point of healing rolled is one day’s recovery. The same time options present themselves – a minute, 10 minutes, an hour, a day. If you are getting 50 HP of recovery from the spell, that’s 50 days of recuperation in that interval.

If you are getting 60 days healing in one minute, let’s say, that means that every second that passes is one day of rest. If it’s 60 days worth in ten minutes, that’s a day’s worth every 10 seconds. If it’s 60 days worth in an hour, that’s an accelerated rate of one day per minute. And if it’s in a day, that’s simply a 60-fold increase in healing rate.

No matter how you work this, you end up with the same general principle: the higher the spell, the faster the acceleration of time. Whether that’s because some spells are capped, (Cure Light Wounds is capped at 5d8+Caster Level, for example) or because you have explicitly defined a specific healing rate, the result is the same – only the numbers vary.

But, and it’s a big but, those numbers matter, as you’ll see.

Potential re-injury

Anyone who’s ever injured themselves knows that you have to be careful while recovering or you can re-injure yourself, or even do fresh damage. The shorter the operational duration of the spell effect, the less likely this is to happen. When healing is instantaneous, it’s impossible; one instant you’re injured and the next, you’re healed.

That has a profound impact when you think about healing in the field. You’ve beaten the monster, and chugged a healing potion, or had the Cleric pray over your wounds, or whatever; if you only have to wait a minute, that’s not too severe. If ten minutes, you would want to post a sentry or two – restricting the number of characters who can be healed simultaneously. If an hour, you definitely need to post sentries, and there’s a fair-to-high chance that something will come looking for carrion (or real estate) unless you’ve completely cleared the entire Dungeon at least once in that period of time. If you’re going to be laid up for a day, or for 12 hours, or whatever, at the very least you would need to establish a fortified position before commencing the healing.

If you’re one of the front-line fighters and are getting healed when the party comes under attack, do you grab a weapon and try to help out (running the risk of re-injury) or do you leave the party at low ammo in dealing with the situation?

The entire dynamic of the game is affected. And the tension level definitely goes up a notch or two.

The Danger Of Infection

Some infections can be fought off, given rest. Others are far more serious. Medicine can help somewhat. Dungeons are rarely the cleanest of environments; Gangrene and Tetanus would pose serious threats. The longer the duration over which the recovery is spread, the more likely it is that you will be affected by a serious infection.

It might be that by increasing the natural healing rate in this way that the body can actually dedicate more of its resources to fighting off infection. so immediate healing might still offer a benefit. Or it might be that diverting those resources makes the body more vulnerable. Again, “mundane” medical preparations taken prior to the healing and inactivity in as clean and wholesome an environment as you can manage becomes absolutely essential.

When and How to heal become serious decisions of risk vs benefit.

Clerics or Potions or Both?

By now, it should be clear that if Clerical healing works this way and healing potions don’t, then Healing Potions are the way to go. If the opposite, then Clerical Healing becomes preferred. If both work this way, then neither would be preferred over the other. Healing spells are still seriously beneficial, but those benefits now come with price tags. There are many more variations possible: perhaps both are subject to this rules tweak, but Healing Potions are slower, and hence less effective. Other aspects of the risk/reward balance can be tweaked to make swallowing a potion neither better nor worse, but still different, to healing magic.

Laying Of Hands

What of the Laying On Of Hands by a Paladin? Perhaps this represents “old style” healing – purging the body of infections and toxins, aligning bones, etc. Rather than supplanting any of the other healing mechanisms, this now supplements them – even without introducing Taint.


If you can’t heal everybody at once of everything that’s potentially wrong with them – and that’s what this set of House Rules achieves, by implication if not explicit statement – then Triage becomes important. Who is most seriously wounded? Who can be helped? For whom is a potion the better answer, and who requires the personal attention of a Cleric?

Injuries and wounds become more than simply a loss of Hit Points.

The Advantage Of Regeneration

What’s the difference between healing that’s available on demand and Regeneration? Well, since Regeneration is capable of regrowing lost limbs, the implication is that it can heal things that – under this paradigm – Healing can’t. Trolls and appropriate magic items become a LOT more dangerous and valuable, respectively, and the surgical removal of a damaged limb becomes a viable treatment.

But this also brings up the potential for combination therapy – does this sort of healing also increase the effect of regeneration? Why not? It’s hardly game-unbalancing. Or perhaps this poses a new risk, akin to a combination of medications that are dangerous or even deadly. “Contraindicated” is the usual term of the medical community.

Heal vs Wish

One annoyance has been that Heal, from memory a sixth level spell, does it all. That’s always seemed too powerful to me. By explicitly placing it as “the ultimate Cure Wounds spell” and subject to the same restrictions and effects as we have been discussing here, it is no longer perfection in a single spell. It would still have a benefit yield appropriate to a 6th level (or whatever) spell, but for perfect healing, you need to unlimber the ultimate weapon against injury: a Wish.

Nutritional Needs and Pain

If people go more than about a week without food, they die. If they go more than about 3 days without water, they die. If they don’t inhale enough clean air, they either pass out, or die, depending on how deprived of oxygen they are. Are these needs increased proportionately to the acceleration of time? Or even part-way?

Picture it: you swallow a healing potion, and for the next hour you’re perpetually gasping for breath, choking down food as fast as you can get it into your mouth, and drinking like a fish – plus dealing with the resulting waste products. Nor have we suggested that the process is painless; you might be getting a week’s worth of pain in only a few minutes, making it agonizingly painful. Combat is out of the question! Even walking would be difficult, if not impossible. You’re at least partially incapacitated.

Or perhaps these are not accelerated, and the magic is drawing its power from some other source. That means that you can avoid starvation and death from dehydration or from lack of air by quaffing a healing potion. You might even be able to avoid drowning long enough to get back onto dry land and have your lungs cleared. Sneak attacks and infiltration might become possible that would require scuba gear in the real world.

Clearly, either option brings consequences – you get to decide which set of consequences you want to exploit in your campaign. And of course, it might be quite a while before your PCs figure out the latter one…

The world is more dangerous

Anything that makes injury and damage more significant increases the danger level that the game world poses. This doesn’t alter magical healing much, but the implications are profound, and represent a significant impact on those danger levels. You’re taking away one of the major safety blankets.

Arguably, you achieve a more “realistic” and “gritty” game. It’s less sanitized, less comic-book. If those traits match what you are trying to achieve in your campaign, this is an alternative worth considering; if it conflicts with the style that you want to adopt, don’t do it, but make that a conscious choice.

Going Further

It’s possible to go even further. This option is compatible with every other variant on offer in this series, and substantially enhances some of them, and is in turn enhanced by them. Wound Severity, and having some wounds that can only be healed by certain levels of Cure/Healing spell, for example, have an obvious impact on this rules variation, because those mandated minimum spells have consequential impacts through the accelerated healing process that they create within this concept.

Be careful not to go too far. Remember that if RPGs were completely realistic, you would never be able to defeat a Dragon and many people would not be capable of wielding a tool, never mind a weapon. You want the PCs to remain larger-than-life and heroic in their capabilities; don’t take away too much of their capacity to be exceptional.

Used appropriately, in its’ rightful place, this option can enhance a game. Used incorrectly, it can kill one. Have fun….

And now for something completely different – I’ve just been interviewed by Matt over at DiceGeeks, you can read the interview at this link! Stop by and learn something new about what I’ve been up to and what I expect to be doing in the future :)

Meanwhile, I have one more of the “All Wounds Are Not Alike” series but I won’t be presenting it for a little while – it promises to be a little on the involved and lengthy side…

Leave a Comment

In The Footsteps Of Footprints: how to document game events

Footprints by Stefan Villiger)

(image credit: / Stefan Villiger)

As part of the “interview” by Tracey Snow back in Campaign Mastery’s 750th-post celebration (actually constructed from a series of emails back-and-forth), I was ‘asked’ the question,

quote start 45

Is there an article where you discuss how you run a session and track information while you’re at the table? Do you use a computer at the table or do you make notes and incorporate them into your electronic system later?

…to which I replied, “I’m terribly disorganized in that respect, I’m afraid. I wouldn’t hold what I do up as an example of “Best Practice” to anyone! I never stop to take notes, and consequently often forget what’s actually happened after a campaign/adventure has departed from “the script” – to which I never adhere, and I’m often the most guilty party at letting plots “evolve” in the course of play. Sometimes that works to my benefit, sometimes it’s a train-wreck. Worse still, I’m usually too physically exhausted after a game session to make any notes while things are fresh in my mind. I’m going to try to line up an article for 2016 on what some of my fellow GMs do to solve these problems and will be as interested as anyone in the results.”

Well, the time has come to provide the promised article. And, as I’ve been drafting it, I’ve come to realize that my current practices and techniques aren’t quite as dire as the above reply indicate. In fact, they are a sophisticated set of techniques that have been refined over time to solve my personal needs with respect to past events in the campaigns that I run.

The likelihood that those techniques will benefit anyone else therefore rests on the question of how closely their requirements mirror my own, which have also evolved over time.

Every GM needs their own unique foundation

The chances that my particular requirements will be exactly the same as anyone else’s is vanishingly small, and the more I refine my solutions to suit my own needs, the more remote that possibility becomes. The odds of offering something worthwhile are greatly enhanced if I describe not only the way I do things now, but what I have done in the past, when my needs were slightly different. By presenting the solutions to the problem as a series of answers, eventually any GM reading this article would reach the point at which our needs begin to differ; in this way, they would be able to select the answer that best suits them, and to begin evolving their own techniques from that point forward.

Along the way, I will also discuss a few methods that other GMs and groups have evolved.

It’s also possible that there is a form of convergent evolution at work; one of my current techniques might be exactly what someone else needs, even though the reasons for that suitability may differ from my own. So read the whole article, and the many different solutions it contains, and then pick the one that seems most suitable for your situation – if it seems like it might be an improvement on whatever you are doing already, of course.

And, if I don’t mention your solution to the problem, please fire in a comment – you never know who it might benefit!

In The Beginning: early practices (or the lack thereof)

When I started out, I was running the same campaign virtually every week. This made it relatively easy to simply rely on memory, for two reasons: first, the gap between sessions was relatively short, and second, planning the next weekend’s play in the course of the intervening week served as a constant reminder. On top of that, there was a lot of social chatter between GMs about what was happening in their respective campaigns at other times, so there were constant reminders.

As my sophistication of campaign design and planning increased, and I began inserting pre-planned plot twists and other easter eggs, I started making notes about these things.

An “easter egg” in this context is anything that is planned to pay off somewhere down the track, for example the giant gemstone liberated from the cult that had somehow grown it and placed in party treasury because no-one could afford to buy it and because it was too flawlessly perfect to cut without drastically reducing its value, turning out to be the “egg” for a new and deadly dragon variant that the cult was creating, a Diamond Dragon).

I was still able to rely on memory and continuity to give me the details of what happened last time, and what had happened in the past to bring matters to that point, and the key turning points in how the PCs had come to be where they were now, and what they were doing. It was only things that were intended to lurk around for a while before becoming prominent that I needed a reminder as a safeguard. In reality, though, I never inserted an Easter Egg without thinking about how and when the big reveal would take place, so I rarely needed them.

The Adventure Log

When I created my Champions campaign (named for the group, who in turn drew their name from the game system), I started thinking about things in a slightly more episodic way, creating distinct and separate adventures connected by strong continuity. At this point, in fact, I had three simultaneous campaigns occurring at different time periods within the same game universe, all with different incarnations of the same master villain; what happened in one of those became game history within the other two, and what happened in the second also became game history in the third.

To keep things straight, and to add a bit of appropriate flavor, I started (retroactively) an Adventure Log. This simply gave each adventure a name (and an “issue number” as though it were on ongoing comic-book) and the sort of summary blurb that you might read on the back of a paperback, or in a sales catalog of “this week’s new releases”. These simply served to index my campaign notes, which were in bundles by adventure.

The Early Days: GM Binder Of Doom

After a couple of years of using the Adventure Log, I discovered that my memories of the early sessions were beginning to fade. I still remembered the key details, the important bits, but context and less important parts were starting to fade – and then a roof leak wiped out a lot of those early adventure bundles, which were mostly written in longhand.

More recent adventures survived, mostly because I had started collecting them into what other GMs have described as a Player Campaign Book. The best description of one, and how it should be used, that I’ve seen was in Roleplaying Tips #517 – “For Awesome Campaigns Build A Player Campaign Book” by Kit Reshawn (which had me scratching my head in bewilderment until about 2/3rds of the way through the article, when I realized this was a reference for Players that was being maintained by the GM.

But my version was a little bit different to that described.

Early Evolution: The Modular “Binder”

It had slightly different contents, and was far more modular in nature, permitting me to leave at home anything that I didn’t need to carry. You see, at the time, gaming took place some 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) away from where I lived, and while I could afford to take the bus to gaming, I either didn’t eat or I walked home afterwards – with the full load of everything that I had taken with me – about 50 kilograms (110 pounds) of books and references and notes. The trip took me between 3 and 4.5 hours. Every scrap of paper that I didn’t need represented a LOT of wasted effort.

Over time, this modular “binder” evolved; in 2011, more than 5 years ago, I described it rather more extensively in The failure of …urmmmm… Memory.

I developed the “modular binder” over time, and then abandoned the concept when my circumstances changed, only to resume it when normal conditions were restored – with a bit of evolution as a consequence of new work practices.

In Days Gone By (pt 1): Of Margins and Hardcopy

There came a time when I moved out of the city in an attempt to start my own graphic design business. For the next few years, I lived 565 km (352 miles) away from gaming. I would still write an adventure each week, and every 3 or 4 months would travel that long and wearying distance – a 9.5 hr trip each way – and for a week or so, we would binge on the campaign, playing all those adventures back-to-back. This permitted a broader narrative tapestry and greater interconnection between adventures, and in many ways, was a very formative experience.

Prior to this point, a lot of the gaming was spontaneous; now everything had to be pre-planned, all without railroading the players. My toolkit evolved. Specifically, I bought a portable typewriter, on which I would write the adventures, leaving liberal amounts of space between paragraphs, and left margins about an inch-and-a-half wide (and virtually no margins on the right). This left room for me to make notes – something that I only did when events diverged significantly from what I had anticipated.

It was also at this point that I began developing one of my biggest weapons when it comes to campaign documentation: layers of campaign planning.

layers of campaign planning

Vague plans get refined into detailed plans which are then used to create specific adventures. Or, to put it another way, the big picture is translated into disorganized sequences of events which become specific adventures when expanded, detailed, and arranged in sequences.

When I need to look back at past adventures, these (in order of decreasing detail) could also be described as “What happened, Explanations for what happened, and Why it happened.” And that means that even if the “what happened” layer is incomplete or incorrect, because the players wrote their own script (as usual), the other two layers give you what you need in order to make sense of the past.

In Days Gone By (pt 2): The Campaign Bible & The Nebula Tapes

Seven years or so after the campaign started (and two years after its’ spin-off campaign began paralleling it), I needed to revisit the campaign bible concept. For a couple of years prior, I had been running the campaigns almost completely improv, as I explained in By The Seat Of Your Pants: Adventures On the Fly and its follow-up, By The Seat Of Your Pants: Six Foundations Of Adventure, but over time the lack of documentation was becoming a problem.

The Campaign Bible

I decided that the right approach was to begin working on a campaign bible. It took all of my notes, and added to them all of Stephen’s notes (which I talked about in the “Failure of memory” article), and began to organize them. This was essentially an adventure log that was being constructed retroactively, using only one golden rule: to be consistent with the way things were now. The past was reinvented as necessary, and the results became the new “bible” for the campaign’s history.

I had some of the jigsaw pieces – most of the adventures from the period living in Nyngan that were written with the typewriter were pretty much complete; parts of the old adventure log, which seemed to have the darnedest omissions; big-picture discussions in correspondence with one of the players, but which were deliberately vague and coy; and lots of isolated bits and pieces – a page of notes here, a couple of notes there.

I was able to fill in a lot of the blanks myself, but not all of them. So I bought a couple of lapel mics and created The Nebula Tapes.

The Nebula Tapes

Nebula was one of the original characters in the campaign, who, after a while, spun off into a solo campaign. The character always had more going on than met the eye. Having organized my notes as much as possible, I proceeded to conduct an in-depth tell-all interview with the PC by getting the player to respond to my questions in character. The resulting interview was about 250 minutes long – just over 4 hours – and at the level of detail that you would expect to find in a serious autobiography.

This filled in many of the remaining blank spaces in the campaign bible and provided additional detail and context even for content that was already listed. What’s more it provided – and continues to provide – a resource for briefing players on what was going on behind the scenes and showing them just how malleable the adventures were going to be. The campaign, and it’s successor, Zenith-3, are built on giving players more latitude to be creative and demanding that they make use of it. I’ve found in the past that some players thrive on the resulting atmosphere while others wilt or simply have trouble wrapping their heads around the idea, and the Nebula Tapes are a great indoctrination tool.

In Days Gone By (pt 3): The Zenith-3 Newsletter

Once the Zenith-3 incarnation of the campaign got underway, play was taking place only once a month, a practice that continues to this day. The gap between game sessions began to work against recollection of past events. To counter that, I started writing up a Newsletter. The primary function was to synopsize the previous game session. But I also provided character backgrounds, discussed rules issues, and provided the campaign background for the next phase of the campaign (within which we are now deeply entrenched).

The biggest problem that we had with the newsletter was that these were viewed as regular columns and the newsletter as an electronic magazine. That meant that I often ran out of time, even with the players making contributions like first drafts of the synopsis. I should have made the decision that the synopsis had priority and anything else was included only if there was time enough to create it.

It was Campaign Mastery that finally killed the Zenith-3 newsletter; even writing one article a week, there simply wasn’t enough time left to do both. If CM had been better-established, I might have presented material that would once have gone into the Newsletter as an ongoing masterclass/example, exactly as I did do in later years; but I felt it was wrong to do so while it was still getting established.

Once again, of necessity, my techniques had to evolve, and they did. But, before I actually detail how I am handling this requirement these days:

Saxon’s Solution

I knew from past discussions that the other group in which Saxon plays & GMs used a rather different solution to any of those that I have used, and so I got he and his group to pen a brief description of their processes for inclusion. Now that I’m at the point of discussing contemporary solutions to the problem, I am giving that description the lead-off position. So, over to you, Saxon:


The following is a summary of the recording history and setup that we use for my fortnightly weekday group, which I emailed to the others and discussed with them last night (Dave S. complained that for a ‘quick summary’ it sure took up a lot of text, and while reading it on his iPhone he almost skipped over it).

This group has been meeting for just over two decades now. In the very early days there were so few people in that particular group that if one person could not make it on a particular day because of family, work or other commitments, then we would be under a nebulous ‘critical threshold’ of participants. In such cases we would simply reschedule for the next convenient week afterwards. However, even then there were times when somebody would not be present, and for a very long time our standard method of keeping players up to date with was the crude and not all-that-reliable method of memory-occasionally-supplemented-with-a-few-sketchy-notes. As more people slowly joined the group, the chances of someone not being able to play on any particular date increased.

But, as the joke goes, now that we live in the future, we have the Internet. About half a decade ago, the group began experimenting with audio recordings which we would make available as downloadable podcasts for absent members to catch up with. I have also sometimes found them useful to refresh my memory on events that have happened during adventures that I have gamesmastered.

Our gaming sessions usually run for two to two-and-a-half hours every second week, so providing that someone has the time and inclination, it’s not too difficult to catch up. That said, there have been a number of times when players who have been away have not had the inclination. So, no method is perfect.

There are some gaming podcasts that are heavily edited, including the post-production use of sound effects, to make for an entertaining experience. Ours is not one of them. Our recordings are made for catch up purposes only, have no editing, and the casual style means that there’s a lot of chatter in the background, especially between players who are waiting their turn to interact with the gamesmaster. Sometimes, therefore, it has been the case that the player who has been away was straight out not feeling up to listening to two hours of gameplay interspersed with random discussion.

Running parallel with the audio recording, one of our newer players also keeps his laptop on hand during gameplay that he’s participating in, using it to take notes so that he has a brief plot summary and relevant information such as NPC names. The two in combination make a more powerful tool than either alone, but his documentation is strictly from the perspective of his character’s experiences, so it is at best a supplement to the podcast from anyone else’s point of view.

Over time, our technical expertise has improved a bit, although we did not need it to improve very much to meet our very minimal standards. Basically, as long as recording can be done quickly and simply, and the resulting audio file is comprehensible, then we’re happy to call it good enough.

Our first efforts at recording involved setting up a single laptop and having everyone at the table use plug-in microphone headsets. This proved unwieldy, both in terms of the technical setting-up, and also having dangling cords get in the way of miniatures arranged on the gaming table.

After only a few sessions the headsets were eliminated and replaced with an omnidirectional snowball microphone set up on the table. In the early days the recording was being done on the laptop of one group member who was a music aficionado, using a software package that required the audio recording to be converted to .mp3 format (as well as compressed down in file size) after recording had been finished, then handed (or emailed the next day) to the member who handled the uploading of the recording to our podcasting website.

That process was eventually simplified when the member who did uploading brought in his own microphone setup, which records directly to .mp3. However, he’s made the observation that if he had unlimited money to throw at the problem, individual stand microphones for each person, or better yet individual cordless headsets, would greatly improve recording.

Hope this helps someone out there.

Personally, I was hoping for more technical detail like what software they used and whether or not it was free, and what the brand of microphone was (having seen several that weren’t effective more than a foot or two away from the sound being recorded if that), but this certainly gives a ground-floor introduction to their technique and how it has evolved.

Saxon and I also discussed the shortcomings of their technique, specifically that you either knew what you were looking for and where it was located within the recording or you had to listen to the whole thing. That conversation pointed up the use of the other participant’s laptop records as an approximate, incomplete, and completely relativistic index to what would be found on the audio recording in what order, which at least permitted you to “zoom in” on the relevant area of the recording.

This was not entirely a new problem to me, I had encountered the same issue with The Nebula Tapes. We then speculated on the difficulty of employing audio-to-text software when there were multiple voices to be recognized, concluding that such transcripts might one day be possible, but the technology wasn’t there, yet.

I have no doubts that recording your sessions is a viable solution if you have the right equipment, but it’s a solution with inherent problems. These can be overcome, but doing so makes this far from a trouble-free low-effort operation. You either live with the difficulties, or you have to find a different answer.

My Current Solutions

I employ different solutions for each of my different campaigns for a number of reasons, all of which boil down to efficiency, and the fact that each of the campaigns comes with different circumstances.

My Adventurer’s Club practices

The adventurer’s club is co-GM’d and that fact impacts virtually every aspect of the game. It means that there are two separate people involved in running the game, making decisions, designing adventures and characters, and so on. That could be a recipe for confusion and disaster if we were to run off in different directions – with, for example, me having some of the adventure and my co-GM having the rest of it, or characters that are half-documented in one place and half in another. Keeping the foundations of the campaign consistent has been a priority from day 1.

In play, a copy of the adventure is placed on a USB stick. One laptop is used to display images and maps and so on, while the other keeps a copy of the adventure open. If notes are necessary, they are made on a pad so that we both have access to them – and at the end of the day’s play, any that are still relevant are written into one master copy of the adventure and all other copies are deleted.

This effectively double-filters any notes – they have to be important enough at the time to write down, and then have to be important enough to the next period of play to get written into the adventure itself, which is generally kept in a fairly basic (and hence fairly universal) file format. Of necessity, they are the bare minimum. Most frequently, they document player decisions or variations on expected events and game prep to-do’s for next time. They are always inserted with some form of either color coding or other indication, like “TO DO FOR NEXT TIME” in big capital letters as a mnemonic.

In fact, though, the most common notation is “UP TO HERE”, which indicates how far into the adventure we have come; and that’s possible because (regardless of the complexities of whatever generation method we have employed), we always describe the adventure sequentially and from the PCs point of view.

Ultimately, what this approach means is that we’re betting that our game prep has been largely adequate or better – and we work hard on making sure that the game prep lives up to that standard. If we win the bet, little or no notes need to be taken, and the parts of the adventure that have already been played serve as a mnemonic device to any minor variations. We’re far more concerned with the current conditions and what is to happen in the future than we are with how the PCs got to wherever they are at the end of the day’s play.

My Lovecraft’s Legacies (Dr Who) practices

A substantial variation on that technique gets employed for the occasionally-played Lovecraft’s Legacies campaign. Internally, within an adventure, the same technique is employed; at the same time, Saxon, as the sole player involved, takes notes. At the end of each adventure, and having made sure that I have nothing left to hide, I email a copy of the adventure to Saxon, which he then uses to annotate and expand the notes that he has made. By making sure during the game prep that there is nothing in an adventure that I might wish to hide from him, I can use the adventure itself as a mnemonic to him, while I remain concerned only with the next adventure to come. I keep the continuity between the adventures strong at a character level and an overarching plot level – a consistent “big picture” – while firewalling individual “episodes” from each other. As a result, an individual adventure may have things happen without explanation, simply because the explanation is in a different planning document. How the PC interprets those events, and reconciles them, is up to the player.

This approach would not work well with more than one player, because each would have a different interpretation of events; but, because there are only the two of us, there is no duplication of labor, and consistency is maintained.

That also means that if there are significant variations, I can rewrite the rest of the adventure to take them into account in between game sessions – but, for the most part, I don’t have to bother.

My Zenith-3 practices

Zenith-3 is the largest campaign that I run alone. Unlike most of my campaigns, I deliberately took the step of breaking the big ideas down into smaller stages for the entire campaign in advance. This enables me to interweave one plot arc with another in quite complex ways. Take the most recent adventure (which lacks only its’ denouement for when next we play) – it advanced a political plot arc, a social plot arc, a religious plot arc, a technological plot arc, a character’s addiction plot arc, another character’s social-integration-into-the-team plot arc, drew upon revelations that brought a new level of complexity to the players’ understanding of the metaphysical structure of the universe, advanced a public-relations plot arc, advanced a who-am-I plot arc for the team’s psionic character, touched on another character’s creative-self-expression plot arc, added color and background detail to two more of the PCs, showed off the PCs’ parent team’s new headquarters and how it worked, and brought a former PC back from the dead while introducing two new villains and a mastermind lurking in the shadows in back of them. In some cases, these developments consumed only minutes of game time, and appeared trivial, but the cumulative effect is that the world around the characters evolved considerably.

I’ve written before about how I make sure that the outcome of a particular encounter doesn’t matter in the long run, and especially how it is resolved; whatever big-picture work that encounter is there to do happens as a byproduct of the encounter taking place in the first place. That means that so long as I keep the Big Picture(s) straight, all I need to do is tick off the watershed developments as they occur and keep my focus on what is going to happen next, not what has happened in the past.

Notes and annotations therefore fall into three categories:

  • NPC developments (where that NPC will reappear at some future point) which can be noted in the documentation of that NPC;
  • Immediate plot developments and variations that will make a difference to the next game session, of the “UP TO HERE” variety, which are made directly into the adventure in question; and,
  • Big-picture changes that may occur as a result of unexpected events during the adventure, which get noted in an ongoing list of things to take into account when developing subsequent adventures.

There aren’t very many of the latter, because one of the priorities in running each adventure is to insulate the grand plan from such effects. I showed how that works when I presented Mortus at the start of the year, and discussed it further in the more recent article, Who Owns Your Campaign?.

In other words, campaign planning is my weapon against needing to remember the details of past adventures, which either don’t matter, or were documented before play even started.

What’s the right answer?

There isn’t one – only an answer that is right for you, now. Or close to it. There are a lot of alternatives discussed in this article; if any of them suit your needs and circumstances better than what you are doing already, try it. If not, don’t change – unless whatever you are doing at the moment is inadequate, in which case you will need to invest time and effort into changing those needs and circumstances into something that does match the solutions on offer.

Evolution will occur naturally

Once you have a foundation, it will evolve naturally. Unnecessary elements will get discarded and refinements to the parts that are useful will take their place, and ultimately a unique solution will be achieved for your campaign – which will last until circumstances within that campaign change, as they are wont to do without notice.

As sophisticated as your tools permit

As a general rule of thumb, I plan an approach to this problem as part of my campaign development cycle; it’s part of making the campaign something that’s practical to run. That plan is as sophisticated an approach as my tools permit, and is built on whatever I’m taking to the game each and every time. I try NOT to add a substantial piece of kit for just this one purpose.

That means that if I have a laptop at the table, I’ll use it to take notes – in a way that is non-intrusive with respect to play. If I don’t, I’ll use something else. One approach that I planned but that was superseded by laptop use before ever being put into effect, for example, was to employ the very small post-it notes, which would be attached to hardcopies of the adventure as necessary. Anything that I had to say had to be succinct enough to fit on that post-it note. Three different colors – yellow, orange, and green – would be used for local, big-picture, and NPC notes, respectively. At the end of each day’s play, these would then be integrated or archived as necessary; the primary objective was to restrict the impact on ongoing play.

Time spent Looking back is dead prep-time

While a certain amount of it is necessary, in general, I feel that every minute spent looking back on what has already happened is a minute that could have been spent on game prep for the future. It’s a necessary evil, a mandatory waste of valuable time. The trick is to minimize losses of this sort, and that means minimizing the impact of the past on the future except within the channels that you can implement into future planning. In other words, maximizing the efficiency of those retrospective activities to getting the most developmental “bang” for your “buck”.

It’s a question of communication

If you don’t have a clear purpose in mind, expect to get into a muddle. If you can articulate to yourself exactly what objectives your solution has to achieve, you can assess the effectiveness of that solution and look for ways to improve it. Ultimately, it’s all about communication – from yourself to your future self, from you to absent players, or from yourself to posterity. Each of these imposes different standards and restrictions, and they aren’t fully mutually compatible. If you know why you need to worry about the past, you can limit your time losses to those that are relevant to that purpose – which achieves the objective while giving you the maximum scope for working on the next session of play, and the one after that, and so on.

My techniques – past or present – won’t work for everyone. In fact, they will probably only be useful to a minority. But they can provide a foundation upon which to build an effective solution to meet your own particular needs; so, unless they score a bullseye for you, do as I say, and not as I do, and we can both be right.

Comments (1)

The Best Of 2014 Pt 1: January-June


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Best Of 2014 Pt 1: January-June

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

Scoring 10/10:

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

Scoring 9/10:

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

Scoring 8/10:

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

Honorable Mentions: Scoring 7/10:

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

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

Leave a Comment

Review Roundup: Three products of interest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is a lot of cursing, though.

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

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

The ‘My Cousin Vinnie’ experience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Examples from ePic Character Generator

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

The ePic Character Generator

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comments (1)

The Gilligan Tools for better characterization

sunset behind a tropical island

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

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

Gilligan’s Island

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

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

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

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

The Theory

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

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

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

The Second Theory

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

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

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

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

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

The principle concept

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

The First Tool: Weakness

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

Working with the tool

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

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

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

Delving Deeper

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

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

The Second Tool: Resistance

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

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

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

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

It’s all a matter of personality

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

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

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

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

Comments (3)