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Ask The GMs: The Passage Of Substantial Time

Ask the gamemasters

Last time around, James Senecal posed a double-question. Because it was the easier of the two, and I was flying solo, I chose the easier question for ATGMs #27. But now it’s time to bite the bullet…

How can you have substantial time pass within a campaign?

“If death is to have a consequence, if a PC dies (permanently), are there any ways to quicken the generation of a new character, and might you have any tips to integrate those new characters into the party? I’m not using DnD, this is purely from a roleplaying point of view.”

and, in a clarifying follow-up, he explained,

“The campaign recounts the development of a world that is in constant change. But because things like cities being built, Empires going to war and technologies being developed do not take place within mere days or weeks, I feel it’s only logical for years to pass. If not 2-3, then half a decade or even a full decade. At which time, the PCs will likely age. At the very least, these time skips will only happen every couple of sessions. Kind of like playing the Sims and once things are settled, you press fast forward.”

Naturally, the players will have a good idea of what’s going to happen to their characters. They’ll also likely take back their characters for one last spin before starting the next session as their character’s children (if that’s the case, or new characters entirely if that isn’t the case).”

The problem is trickier than it might seem, because it intrudes into a lot of areas that most standard rules systems cover poorly, if at all. So let’s get this party started…

Blair Ramage contributed to this article.

Blair Ramage contributed to this article.

Ask the GMs - Mike

The First Law

Whenever you are contemplating a radical campaign – one that doesn’t follow the usual regime of the same characters having adventure after adventure – the first law, the unbreakable law, has to be making sure that the players know what to expect before they start character generation.

Even if it means revealing part of the plotline, this law must be adhered to. Failure to do so will potentially spike the campaign from game one.

Players become attached to their characters. They lavish attention on them, and make plans for them, All that goes out the window in any campaign that is going to have long time gaps between adventures. Just as a player is getting really solidly into a character, they have to hand him over to the GM to control in the period between adventures, knowing that there’s at least a 50% chance that the character has now hit the high point of their lives, that – at best – their characters will experience mixed fortunes until the next adventure – and that the character may even be too old or too aged to even participate in that adventure, depending on the time frames involved.

You can’t spring that on players by surprise. The campaign premise has to be explained at least clearly enough to forewarn the players of what to expect and excite them enough about the campaign that they will accept the sacrifices required. Without that informed consent, that commitment to the campaign, it will flounder.

A key element in securing that commitment is convincing the players that the GM is prepared to meet the challenges that the campaign premise is going to pose. Some of those challenges are conceptual, some exist at a metagame level, and some are rules challenges. The remaining sections of this article will address each of these issues, before I wrap up with some sources of inspiration and reference that I would recommend to anyone contemplating this type of campaign.

Conceptual Issues: What is “Substantial Time”?

Just what is meant by the term “Substantial Time” anyway? Of course, James explained what he was planning in his campaign, but I want these articles to be useful to a greater range of people than just the person asking the question. Well, in a normal campaign, it’s not unusual to have a few days or even a couple of weeks between adventures. “Substantial Time” can be anything more than that. I’ve broken the range of likely possibilities down into four options:

  • Months between adventures
  • Years between adventures
  • Decades between adventures
  • Centuries between adventures.

Each of these poses slightly different challenges and complications, so I’m going to look at them individually in just a moment.

First, though, it should also be noted that having a long gap – even one of years – is not completely unheard of in a normal campaign, and for the most part, games can cope without the special preparations with which this article is concerned, or at least with a selective adoption of them. It’s even more frequent when you plan a sequel campaign, but once again, few special preparations are needed under these circumstances for this particular issue.

Unless you plan to run an unusual campaign, as James was, feel free to cherry-pick from the advice herein whatever is relevant to the problems you actually encounter, as you run into them.

Months between adventures

This is obviously the easiest of the alternatives. You don’t expect radical and sweeping changes to occur in just a few months, and – unless the GM has been very careful to build trends into the background of each adventure – it would even strain the credibility of the entire campaign for such sweeping changes to occur with any regularity.

In fact, it’s so straightforward that players are likely to ask, “Why bother? – just drop in another adventure or two to cover those couple of months in between”. The only rebuttal can be on metagame terms – “I don’t want your characters gaining levels in between” for example – that won’t go down very well.

However, “Months” doesn’t have to mean one or two – in fact, up to 18 would not be out of the question, and that is a substantial period of time. If you plan to run ten adventures, with about 18 months in between, that’s a fifteen- to twenty-year (game time) campaign (or more, depending on how long the in-play events take). And there certainly can be enough change in an 18-month period to be significant. By way of example, consider the events of this six-year period, broken into 18-month slices:

  • Jan 1 1923 – Jun 30 1924: Tutankhamen tomb was discovered. Lenin creates the first forced-labor camp. Germany defaults on its Versailles obligations and the French occupy the Ruhr coalfield. German inflation goes out of control. Harding dies suddenly and Coolidge becomes President. There’s a coup in Bulgaria. The USSR becomes a reality. Mussolini becomes Dictator of Italy. An earthquake and resulting fires destroy Tokyo and Yokohama. Adolf Hitler stages an attempted putsch in Munich, which fails; he is jailed. Lenin dies and a triumvirate takes power.
  • July 1 1924 – Dec 31 1925: A New Mark is issued to try and end the currency crisis in Germany and a deal was worked out to resolve Germany’s WWI War Debts. France began reinforcing the Maginot Line. Hitler is released on Parole after serving just 9 months of his 5-year sentence. Stalin moved to consolidate his power in the USSR. Chiang Kai-Shek succeeded Dr Sun Yat-sen as leader of China. Just over three months later, the country would enter a state of Civil War. Tennessee banned the teaching of evolution; the Scopes “Monkey Trial” would follow. Blacks were banned from holding skilled jobs in South Africa. Mein Kampf was published. The Charleston craze swept the world. The mummy of Tutankhamen was discovered and revealed to be a 15-year-old boy. The first successful heart surgery took place.
  • Jan 1 1926 – Jun 30 1927: Television was invented. Saudi Arabia came into existence. The first liquid-fueled rocket was launched. Hindus and Muslims clashed in rioting in Calcutta. A new dynasty began in Persia. There was a general strike in Britain, the first there in history. A Plane flew over the North Pole for the first time. There was a revolution in Poland. Rudolf Valentino, Harry Houdini, and Monet died. The British Empire became a Commonwealth. Bauhaus made functionality the dominant design style, eventually affecting everything from furniture design to architecture to music and art. Cancer began to attract headlines as a serious illness. Campbell set his world speed record. Britain sent troops to China. There was a failed coup in Portugal. Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic, solo. The soviets executed 20 people they alleged were British spies.
  • July 1 1927 – Dec 31 1928: Vienna experienced revolutionary riots, leading to a renewal of calls in Germany to annex the nation. Talking pictures arrived. Stalin further tightened his grip. The Uncertainty Principle was announced. The Thames flooded. The Chinese civil war continued. Kingsford-Smith became the first to fly from the US to Australia, while Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly across the Atlantic. Fifteen Nations signed the Kellogg-Briand pact, banning war, including the US, France, and Germany. Penicillin was discovered, and Stalin issued the first of his 5-year plans. The first signs that Prohibition wasn’t working were recognized. Herbert Hoover became President. Stalin, having expelled or murdered his opposition, began a purge of former supporters of that opposition. Hirohito became the Emperor of Japan.

Still to come were the St Valentine’s Day Massacre, the death of Wyatt Earp, revolutions, the first Academy Awards, the invention of color television, the Hindenburg, the Great Depression, and the beginning of that minor event known as World War II. By the time a fifteen-year span was complete, it would be December 1938; Mao would rule China, England would have a new King, the US would have another new President in FDR, there would have been the War Of The Worlds radio scare, and the Nazis had marched into Czechoslovakia. Another three months sees the pledge to defend Poland, the end of the Spanish Civil War, and two months after that, the Pact Of Steel. Half-way through what would have been the eleventh 18-month period of this mini-history, Germany invaded Poland and World War Two formally began – though the Japanese had been invading China for quite some time already.

A lot can happen in 18 busy months.

That means that this is right on the cusp between “Substantial Time” and an insignificant gap, which is why I chose it as the first time-scale to be discussed. In fact, the 18-month span is just enough to virtually ensure that the seeds of what will be happening next are present “right now” and will have matured before the next 18-month span starts.

Years between adventures

Now we’re definitely into the significant time gaps. This timescale accommodates anything up to about 15 years between adventures. A ten-adventure campaign with 15 years between adventures that ends on Dec 31, 2000, would kick off in 1850 – The Crimean War and the American Civil War haven’t happened yet, and Refrigeration and Neanderthal Man are yet to be discovered. The American west is still well and truly wild, and it’s the time of cowboys and indians.

But let’s look at things another way. Let’s say one of the characters in the first adventure is 20 years, another is 30, and a third is 45. Now add 15 years – plus a year for the actual adventure. These three characters would now be 36, 46, and 61, respectively. There’s a reasonable chance that the`eldest of the three is an invalid (by adventuring standards), given life expectancies and medical care in the middle 1800s. If still alive, he is probably a grandfather, and be expecting to become a great-grandfather in the next decade! Factoring in Wars and other such incidents, there’s a fairly good chance that at least one will have been killed.

This is the time scale at which generational replacement of characters and character aging becomes important, but in which characters who were young in the previous adventure might still be able to recruit and lead a new generation. Older characters will have children or grandchildren who might know of the adventurous exploits of their forebears. It is thus almost a certainty that there will be continuity between adventures.

But unless you’re going up against a Sci-Fi or a supernatural threat of some kind, continuity of enemies is almost certainly about an organization of some kind, or an enemy nation. At best you would have a Dallas-style generational conflict. The same aging impacts on the characters would also apply to the enemy – unless age is irrelevant to them for some reason.

Equally, this could also describe a gap of two years or five years between adventures, which is short enough that an awful lot will have changed, but there can be quite a lot of continuity of characters – provided there are adequate rules for managing the intervals. So this scale carries us to the point of being right on the cusp of losing continuity of characters after at most an adventure or two.

Decades between adventures

This time interval range brackets anywhere from 20 years to maybe 80 years. That’s long enough that adventures will begin to take place in distinct eras, even at the short end of the range. It’s also the point at which relatively small increments in the average interval can accumulate greatly.

If the gap is twenty years, then a ten-adventure campaign would run something like: 1820, 1840, 1860, 1880, 1900, 1920 (WWI), 1940 (WWII), 1960 (Vietnam War/Cold War), 1980 (Reagan years), 2000.

If the gap is twenty-five years, a ten adventure campaign would start in 1750 if it were to end in 2000.

If the gap is forty years, we’re talking (working backwards) 2000, 1960, 1920, 1880, 1840, 1800, 1760, 1720, 1680, 1640.

These intervals are big enough that the world has changed fairly significantly each time around. Character aging is now a major factor; while it might be possible at the lower end of the scale for one character to participate in two adventures, three is really pushing it. Take the 25-year intervals, and start with a 15-year-old (PCs are unlikely to be any younger). In the first adventure, he is 15. In the second, he is 40, probably has children aged anywhere from young to adult, and may even have young grandchildren. In the third, he is going to be about 65, and great-grandchildren may be on the horizon or even already underfoot.

At forty-year intervals, starting at 15, he would be 55 in the second, and 95 in the third – and probably not physically capable of adventuring, even if he has survived that long. Not many people do, even today. Consider these numbers from the US Census: in 2010, the total US population was 308 million. Of those, 1.9 million were older than 90 years, or 0.62% of the current population. At the time these people were born, the total US population was 106 million (1920 census) or lower, so 1.8% of the population from that era lived to age 90+. Depending on whose figures you use, the number of 90+ citizens is expected to triple over the next decade or two, but no-one knows for sure.

How many people born before 1625 (15 years old in the first adventure) would have lived to be 95? I don’t know, but I’ll be it’s a darned sight less than the 1.8% of modern times. Probably less than the 0.62%, too. Maybe 1 in 250 or 500, maybe less.

This interval, in other words, spans the range at which generation continuity goes from possible to improbable to not-going-to-happen.

Centuries between adventures

The most extreme range category that I’m willing to contemplate is measured in centuries between adventures. It might be one, two, or nine. We’re talking about different historical eras here. 112 years is enough for the first adventure to take place in 0 AD and the last to take place in the year 2000 – in a ten-adventure campaign. At this interval, we really do reach the point at which it’s easier to think of each adventure being an entire campaign in its own right, and a series of sequel campaigns then taking place; even at the short end of this range, the weapons tables (for example) would change so radically from one era to the next that you may as well treat each as a separate campaign with separate rules that have been optimized for the era in which this particular game is set.

Metagame Issues: Interlude Detail vs Pace – a tricky balance

The amount of change between adventures poses the first challenge for the GM of a… well, I guess we need to coin a term to describe this sort of campaign! “Discontinuous Campaign” will do.

The question of how much background to provide, how much detail is needed to describe the changes that are occurring in the campaign setting, is usually something that arises only once in the life-cycle of a normal campaign. With a Discontinuous Campaign, it recurs with every interval. In part, this is a conceptual issue, because it depends on how large the intervals are intended to be, and how they are to relate to one another – what the connecting plot thread is that ties the adventures together – but there are also the metagame issues of how much the players can absorb, and how much will be relevant to the next adventure or the adventure after that, and so on.

One very heavily-metagame solution might be to measure your intervals not as a certain time-frame, but by the length of this background briefing material. You update the world until that ‘briefing paper’ reaches one, two, five, ten pages in length – whatever you feel comfortable producing and that your players will be able to absorb – and when you hit X pages of material, you pull the pin and start the next adventure.

Personally, I think that’s probably going too far, but certainly the issue that this proposes to resolve is something that the GM is going to have to grapple with.

An alternative approach, just as extreme in its own way, would be to set the intervals at whatever points the overall narrative requires, based on the connecting threads that bind the adventures together, then use a roughly-fixed number of pages to contain your synopsis of the events, employing more or less detail to fill out the space. That’s relatively easy to accomplish with a word processor, but I would not like to have tried it in the bad old manual-type or handwritten days.

Every gaming group will have different thresholds, and every GM has a different amount of time to invest in preparing this information between game sessions, so there can be no one-size-fits-all solution; this is a challenge to which each GM will have to find their own solutions. If the game is to be manageable, though, he will need to have chosen such a solution – before play starts, because it will influence what the intervals are between adventures.

The Montage Analogy

One thing that the example offered above should make abundantly clear – to be at all practical, there needs to be a threshold of significance that determines whether or not an event is important enough to get mentioned in any such background synopsis. The greater the interval period, the higher that threshold should be set.

It can be useful to think of the interval as a montage sequence in a movie or TV show, compressing time to a few key moments. The more closely the game worlds history mirrors that of the real world, the greater the shorthand that can be employed. A single iconic image or event can symbolize an entire era, if it is well-chosen. You need to hit the high points, not relate the day-to-day events, in general.

There are two exceptions to this general rule: at the start and end of an interval.

  • At the start of an interval, you will want to deal with the immediate aftermath of the adventure and the fates of the key PCs and NPCs who participated in it. This necessitates a greater level of detail.
  • Similarly, at the end of an interval, you are looking to establish the key figures and attitudes that will be relevant to the next adventure. This will also necessitate a greater level of detail.

Rather than being a flat, linear function, the threshold of significance should follow a dumbbell curve, like the familiar 3d6 results curve – though the shape may vary a little from this ideal. It can help to actually think about the interval as being in three unequal parts: the wind-down, the gap, and the build-up before the next adventure.

My GM’s intuition says that 1 page of wind-down, two pages of build-up, and no more than 3 pages covering the gap in between, would be roughly the right mixture for most groups. To be honest, though, I’m not at all sure that I could stick to those ratios myself – it would be far more likely to be 3 pages wind-down, five-to-twenty pages of gap material, and five-to-ten pages of buildup. But I’m a very literate GM – more-so than is good for my campaigns, at times. So try to do as I say, and not as I would probably do!

Conceptual Issues: The Patterns Of Change

It would be most unusual, of course, for the intervals between campaign “episodes” to be uniform in length. History isn’t like that.

Most Change comes in clumps

More often, History is lumpy, with periods of low changed interspersed with periods of rapid development. Each realm, be it a Kingdom or a Nation, has its own such rhythm, and it’s only when these are aggregated that an illusion of continuous history emerges. If these realms lived in total isolation, History would be simple to manage. They don’t; they contact one another, and rapid social, political, or technical change in one corner of the world causes ripple effects in many others, accelerating or delaying instability elsewhere. World War II wasn’t just the biorhythms of the world synchronizing, it was a avalanche rolling downhill, a chain reaction.

Some Change is a continuous stream

But some changes do occur in a more continuous stream. Although the rate of such change can vary, it never entirely stops. People keep getting older, for example. Books keep getting written and published. Music and Fashion and Politics are continuous human activities. There’s weather every day, even if that weather is notable most of the time.

The Evolution Of Language

One key item that the GM should manage, understand, and employ to help establish the distinctiveness of different eras is the evolution of language.

The way we communicate is continuously changing. Slang terms tend to be the most responsive. Its not at all uncommon to be able to recognize the era in which a TV show is set from the language alone. Fashion tends to nail it down. High School Students tend to struggle with Shakespeare because the language has changed so much. The language employed in the original Sherlock Holmes stories, and in books such as the War Of The Worlds, is still comprehensible, but is clearly different to that of the modern day.

It’s also easy to go too far in this respect.

Consider Star Trek: The Next Generation for a moment. I think that the writers deliberately tried to put a slightly different “face” on the language in the first few seasons, especially season one, as a means of instantly identifying the show as being set in a different time. It wasn’t just inserting technobabble, there was a formality to the structure and phrasing of the dialogue. Unfortunately, this often came across as stilted and clumsy; it was too far removed from the ordinary speech patterns that we were used to. I would even go so far as to suggest it was jarring. In subsequent seasons, this was slowly relaxed and people began to speak far more casually. Part of this may have been self-consciousness on the part of the actors and actresses, but it was too consistent across the entire cast for that to be the entire story, and rehearsals and script readings should have solved the problem in short order if it was inadvertent. That’s why I think it was a deliberate choice on the part of the writers and producers that misfired.

So this tool must be employed sparingly, but is too powerful to completely ignore.

The Evolution Of Infrastructure

It takes time to build things. Electricity grids, telephone lines, highways, railroads, sidewalks, street lighting, indoor plumping, cable TV, mobile phone antennas, high-speed internet, skyscrapers, mount Rushmore, whatever. Keeping track of the state of play of infrastructure is generally a fairly easy task because you don’t need to worry about it in the intervals in between games, you simply need to know how far these things have reached at the start of the next adventure.

The Evolution Of Society

Social attitudes are a similar situation, but can be infinitely more complex. What’s permitted and what isn’t has a way of being a whole heap of little rules that apply in some places and situations and not others, and there are often subtle differences between what’s supposed to be allowed and what is considered acceptable by society at large. There can be a world of difference between theory and practical reality. These things can take a long time to explain, and a lot of very wearying detail. At the same time, they can be absolutely essential.

The most practical approach to social change is to keep your briefing content on the subject as general as possible, and include specifics as appropriate in the narrative descriptions of locations. As a general rule of thumb, there are six main issues that need to be monitored closely: Women’s rights (including abortions & contraceptives), Racial Prejudice and Civil Rights, the Poor, the Working class, vices/social problems, and Crime & Punishment. Attitudes to these can and have changed markedly in a relatively short span of years, but contemporaneous attitudes are always different locally to the national trend.

You may need to do some research to understand the state of affairs at the time and place of the adventures. Some compromise may be necessary in order for the campaign to be palatable to a modern audience; for example, you can permit the PCs to have modern attitudes, but then have to decide how the NPCs will react to those attitudes. It wasn’t that long ago that being respectful to a Black Man or Woman was enough to get you beaten up, sentenced to a prison term, or illegally assaulted at night and hung – in some parts of the world. Heck, it wasn’t that long ago that teaching members of some races to read and write was considered subversive behavior – in some places. (Notice that I’m giving such places the benefit of the doubt and not suggesting that these attitudes still prevail, even though I’m sure in some backwaters and some parts of more modern locales, these attitudes endure; they are simply better hidden and more subtle).

The acceleration of populace

Change in anything never just happens. It takes people to make history. The more people you have, the more rapidly change occurs.

Take the law. If you have just one lawmaker, change will be very slow. If you have a dozen or so, change will still be slow, but progress in selected issues will be more rapid – from time to time. It will be “lumpy”. If you have a couple of hundred people making new laws, change becomes far more rapid. If you have a thousand, or ten thousand, no matter how conservative the legal system might be (and it is frequently the single most conservative force because it is bound to work within the laws that already exist), responsiveness to changing attitudes will be relatively fast.

Every case that is heard by a judge or a court sets a precedent or reinforces an existing one. Appeals to verdicts either mean that the case was mishandled by someone, or that the law itself is out of step with current attitudes and needs to be changed by a higher court. The Judiciary and the legal system in general are concerned with what the law is, not what it should be; the latter is generally left to politicians and lobbyists.

And for every lawmaker, there are thousands of people trying to find ways to benefit from those laws, seeking any imperfection that can be exploited, any loophole – and others who simply look for a way not to get caught, or to get away with it if they are caught. The more laws you have, the more loopholes you create. The more loopholes are exploited, the more laws you need to close those loopholes.

Or take technology. If you have one person researching a particular subject, you get very slow progress. If that person gets distracted by some other problem, you get no progress. If there are dozens of researchers in a field, there will be measurable outcomes generation by generation; that was the story with the early days of steam power and electricity. If there are hundreds, progress can be reasonably rapid – that’s what happened in the history of aviation in the first thirty or forty years. If there are thousands, or tens of thousands, each only has to make a very small contribution to achieve a measurable change in the world – that’s the story of the first twenty years of the personal computer. There are hundreds of thousands of people thinking of ways to use the internet, up from perhaps ten or twenty thousand when inter-computer communications was only new. That’s why the internet today bears very little resemblance to the internet of ten years ago, and is almost unrecognizable compared to the internet of 15-20 years in the past.

History proceeds at a pace dictated by the number of people that are making history.

Let’s say that one in a thousand people will have a bright idea about how to do something better every decade (I suspect the real number would be higher). Let’s say that nine times out of ten, someone else has already had that idea (I suspect that number will also be higher). Of the ideas that are left, nine times out of ten the person can’t do anything about it, and can’t communicate it to anyone who can do so. Of the remainder, nine times out of ten, the idea is blocked by someone else for what seems like good reasons, because almost everything is a compromise. Given the current US population of 308 million, that’s 308 ideas that change the world every decade. Those changes can be small, or they can be radical shifts. Now add in the potential for someone else to take an idea and add it to their own to create something more dramatic in effect. And now factor in the capacity for communication of ideas afforded by social media and the internet in general, which drops one of those nine-in-tens to something closer to one or two in ten – a five- or ten-fold increase in the rate of progress.

If the problems with which we were grappling in the modern world were the relatively simple ones of the past, such as “why do you see lightning before the thunder” or the basic principles of geometry, we would expect them to be solved in no time flat. But all the simple problems have been solved; what’s left are really difficult and tricky problems. Human problems, abstruse theoretical issues that most people can’t even understand, economic and social problems with no perfect answers, only movable lines of compromise.

People aren’t the only factor, though. You need to have the right tools at hand to solve the problem – there are problems that cannot be solved without calculus, for example, and even more that can’t be solved without algebra. You can’t discover the heavens without a telescope, and you can’t build a telescope without the science of optics. And you need a society and political infrastructure that’s willing to listen and not block progress or your idea will rest on barren soil for years or longer.

It happened to Galileo, it happened to the idea of continental drift, and it’s now happening with Climate Change science – denying Climate Change by human agency is “politically incorrect”, any research in that direction doesn’t get funding and it doesn’t get published. Recently on twitter a big deal was being made about the fact that of the last almost 4000 peer-approved papers on climate change, only one was skeptical; the climate change lobby was citing this as proof of the premise. To me, it was a statement about the effectiveness of political correctness manifesting as a form of censorship within modern society; it’s utterly meaningless when you have to be on one particular side of the issue to do the research and have your paper approved by a true believer before it gets counted. What I want to know is how many papers were rejected for no other reason than denying that basic assumption; science should never be about peer approval, it should be about what can be proven. Anything else is dogma at best and a new religion at worst. I don’t trust the reviewers to be unbiased because they all have a vested interest in pushing the party line.

That doesn’t mean that I don’t approve of limited actions to protect the environment; I think the world will be better off as a result of the heightened awareness and accountability being forced on industry. But it does mean that I am only willing to pay a lower price for those benefits. By nature, education, and experience, I’m skeptical about most end-of-the-world doomsday scenarios.

Perhaps it might be better to say that “History proceeds at a pace dictated by the number of people who are permitted to make history”.

Either way, it means that life in the 21st century inevitably changes at a faster rate than life did in the early-to-mid 20th century.

Describing the state of the art in technology, and its impact on the lives of the citizens who have access to it, inevitably becomes a much bigger headache as a Discontinuous Campaign progresses. That’s another factor that needs to be allowed for when creating such a campaign. It might be that your adventures need to become larger and lengthier as the campaign progresses, simply to give you the required prep time for the next interval!

Metagame Issues: Describing The Passage Of Time

Having looked at the sort of things that need to be included in any description of the passage of time in an interval, the next issue is how to approach the description itself. I have three basic techniques to offer; the first is purely literary, the second is more visual, and the third is more interactive.

None of them are perfect, and some blending of two – or even all three – in combination might be a preferable solution.

The Succession Campaign approach

I’ve hinted at this approach already – treating each adventure as a separate campaign and issuing a “briefing book” for the players to read. This might be electronic, or it might be hardcopy. The style should be a blend of literary prose and bullet point lists of key events – use the prose to discuss things like social attitudes, the spread of technology, and so on, while using the bullet points to list actual events. Use the prose to break up the list of bullet points when you can, a short list is far more easily assimilated than a long one. Beyond those pointers, there isn’t a whole lot to say about this technique that I haven’t already covered.

The Cinematic Montage Approach

The movies have had to grapple with the passage of time on any number of occasions, and the approach that has worked best has been the montage – a succession of iconic images that describe one key facet of the story. Replicating this using a powerpoint presentation or a home-made movie with still images presents two tremendous advantages: visual cues, which people are used to interpreting and responding to (thanks to all those movies), and auditory – you can include an appropriate soundtrack.

Going one step further, and actually producing a YouTube-style video – even if you don’t upload it – enables the use of dissolves or wipes to connect each image with the next. Use the same technique every time so that the audience – your players – don’t have to fight their way through interpreting the special effects to get to the meaning.

A single 5 or 10 minute presentation of this type can be worth a solid hour of GM narration, if you get the presentation right. That’s a huge economy in terms of time at the table. Remember that an image only has to be on-screen for 2 seconds – allow 3 to be on the safe side – and you might use 1 second for a transition between images. So 4 seconds per image – 15 images in a minute – that’s 75 images in a five minute presentation, almost 50 in a three minute one.

If you aren’t adept at such things (I’ve never had the opportunity to even investigate them), consider a slide show over the top of your own narrative, read to the players. There’s lots of software out there to let you display one image after another on a computer, no special prep required beyond getting them in the order you want.

This approach works through the power of association. Show one image and it implies everything else that was going on at the time. A headline, “wall street crashes” is enough to imply the great depression. One image of Hitler or the swastika is enough to imply all of World War II. An image of a mushroom cloud not only punctuates that war but implies the beginning of the cold war. Finding – and choosing between – the iconic images is the trickiest part.

Copyright issues can be a real problem if you post this work online, unless you have very carefully restricted yourself to public domain images. Ditto the soundtrack. If you don’t make it publicly available, not only do you have a far greater range of images available to choose from, but copyright holders can’t complain about your private use of their works (Legally, they can if they consider it a public performance or display of their work, but first they have to know about your having done so).

The Egg-timer Trick

I can’t take the whole credit for this idea, I first read about it in Roleplaying Tips, but I have modified and adapted the technique for this specific purpose. To use it, you need two three-minute egg timers. (If you players aren’t the types to interrupt this sort of presentation with questions or side-chatter, you only need one).

Take the length of game time that you want to spend describing the changes that occur during the interval between adventures in minutes and divide by four if you expect your players to interrupt or three if you don’t. Round this number up.

Now divide the span of time, in-game, measured in weeks, months, or years (as may be convenient) by the result. That gives you the period of time that you have to describe in each turn of the egg timer.

If your players interrupt, stop the first timer by laying it on its side and start the second – that’s how long you will permit the discussion to continue.

You might want to allocate an extra three-minute window to each of the players telling them about the fortunes of their PCs in the intervening years.

Remember that reading something aloud at the game table takes a lot longer than reading something aloud in the privacy of your home (up to twice as long, more typically +50%), which in turn is a lot slower than simply reading something (two or even three times). Make allowances accordingly when drafting what you have to say.

Remember, the goal is not to teach the players history, it’s to tell them what they need to know to adjust their characters or create new ones and to play in the next adventure. At least half of what you include probably won’t end up being necessary; the trick is determining which half!

Metagame Issues: Player Expectations

All the commitments players have made toward the campaign premise might go out the window as soon as the first interval starts. The GM will start describing what’s happened to the PCs after the adventure and the natural instinct of the player will be to say “He/She wouldn’t do that,” or “I want to…”.

Equally problematic will be players who are too clever by half and want to take advantage of the interval. You know the type – investing in savings accounts to get years or decades of insurance, or trying to hide their money under the mattress because they know the great depression is coming.

Both of these problems relate to how the players will connect their characters to the adventure intervals, and the GM has to be prepared to deal with them.

Player Interventions

Arguably the biggest difficulty will come from players who can’t or won’t let go of their characters. It’s incumbent on the GM to make sure that the actions of the PCs once they are in his control are reasonable, given the personalities that they have displayed. The easiest way of doing that is to make sure you get to know the characters before writing the first interval – by running two adventures back to back. This not only gets the campaign off to a flying start, it means that the GM can spend the entire first adventure discovering the personalities of the PCs, and customizing the interval events to fit.

There are certain assumptions that can always be made. PCs (even former ones) will never roll over and play dead – they will fight against any reverse or adversity. They will generally sign up (or try to) in the event of a military conflict. They will generally behave in an honorable fashion – or behave in a very dishonorable fashion, there’s little in between. They will need to be ground down over time if they are to become corrupt. They will tend to take calculated risks rather than being conservative. They get lucky at the darnedest times, are frequently at the center of events, and tend to come out on top – but only after facing massive adversity. They are usually above average physically or intellectually, or both. They will tend to do something incredibly clever or incredibly stupid – again, there’s not much middle ground.

Rort Dangers

More easily dealt with, or at least so it would generally seem, are attempts by one or more players to give their characters an advantage. Where these are obvious and overt, they are easy to smack down; but players are sneaky sorts and inclined to take on challenges just for the intellectual thrill of beating them.

You can’t even use the simple test of considering anything that does not contribute to the immediate in-game problem as suspicious as a way of detecting these threats, Players can be smart enough to choose an action that both works to mitigate the current problem and yields a future benefit or advantage.

The solution has to be two-fold: First, a warning pre-game that any attempt to draw a benefit from the interval will be caused to fail during the interval by the GM – with prejudice. If a player tries to hide his bundle under the mattress before the Wall Street Crash, his home will burn down – with the money still inside. Insurance will rebuild the home, but not replace the cash. If a player tries to invest money so that it will grow inordinately during the interval, that investment will fail and be worth less at the end of the interval than it was at the start – unless it suits the GMs plot purposes.

It’s perfectly fine to railroad the game during an interval so that it goes exactly where the GM needs it to go in order to set up the next adventure, especially if the personalities and abilities of the characters is respected. And this is even more deserved if the GM detects an attempt to rort the game by taking advantage of its unique structure.

Of course, the players should be warned in advance of this, as a way of discouraging attempts to get too clever.

Metagame Issues: The Life Of A Character

The longer the intervals, even cumulatively, the more of a character’s life will be in the GMs domain. That means that he will need some sort of metagame guidelines or system for him to employ to map out those unexpected life events. There are two aspects of life that particularly need attention: the events that comprise a family history, and the occasional need to ensure that there is a new generation of character available to be the next PC.

Family Histories

The first requirement is some sort of “family history generator”. Fortunately, there are a number of such going around, some better than others. I outlined one in The Accumulation Of Mundane Events that I personally consider better than most because (a) It’s manipulable by the GM; (b) It’s fair, despite this; and (c) It’s a little more comprehensive and, at the same time, more general than most of the others that I’ve seen.

The need for a new generation

The other requirement is the need, periodically, for a new generation of adventurers. These may come from within the same family, or be members of the same organization, or be completely independent. To some extent, certainly more than will usually be the case, the GM and the Player will have to collaborate on the creation of backgrounds for these new characters, if there is any continuity within the campaign beyond the period recruitment of independent individuals to solve a short-term problem and who will be briefed completely afresh for each adventure.

Permit me to expand on that collaborative process for a moment. The Player creates the initial character; the GM then takes post-adventure charge of that character, and navigates his fortunes through the interval, before either handing the character back to the player for updating to reflect the changes that they have experienced (if they are to participate in the next adventure) or handing the player the resulting slice of continuity to become the background for the a character.

The GM has no say over how the changed character / new character will feel about the events and circumstances that surround them; a son or grandson may be respectful, or dismissive, or cynical, or even resentful of these circumstances. To some extent, his life is not his own; it belongs to the legacy of the last adventure. During the course of the second adventure, his attitude may change, or be reinforced. He may discover that the old man wasn’t crazy after all, or find a kindred spirit, or that this is what he was born for, or be sucked into events unwillingly. These reactions should be different with each successive generation. It may help if the player tells the GM what direction he would like to take with the next character in terms of this reaction so that interval events can be influenced accordingly.

But one thing that the character should feel most strongly (if he becomes reconciled to “the family business”) is that – if the threat has not been ended for all time – the future will need a new generation of heroes to fight it, and it is up to him to make sure that at least one will be there to take up the cause when the time comes.

Some people marry for love, others for heirs; the lucky few get to do both. But for the characters in a Discontinuous Campaign, the second of those options takes absolute priority.

All this goes out the window if the connecting thread is a secret society conducting a hidden war with new recruits each time, of course – though even in this circumstance, dynastic trends will emerge.

Either way, the implication of this mandate will be an imperative to make sure that the next generation is better prepared than the adventurer was – if that’s possible. But this sort of thing can put added strain on relationships, something else that will shape the family history. Mothers are often protective of their young, and may not understand their husband’s obsessive behavior with respect to his child’s education and training.

Of course, once his successor is born and has commenced his training, the need for the ancestor within the campaign begins to fade…

One final word on this subject

I cannot recommend strongly enough that, however the GM proposes to construct the “family plotline”, he communicates this process clearly to the players so that resentments and the feeling of being “picked on” don’t manifest. Make sure, too, that the GM is steering events not for the comfort of the previous PCs but in whatever direction he feels is required to make the next adventure as entertaining as it can be.

Rules Issues: The absence of direction

I stated at the start of this article that one of the difficulties that the GM of a Discontinuous Campaign would have to face is that they will need rules that a lot of game systems don’t have, and that a lot of those that do have them don’t do particularly well.

These rules generally deal with four topics; family histories, which I’ve already discussed at length, and:

  • Aging Rules,
  • R&D/Manufacturing Rules, and
  • Investment Rules.
Aging Rules

What happens to people as they age? More to the point, what happens to PCs when they age?

They start out (generally) being fitter and healthier than the common populace, but they put themselves in harm’s way with monotonous regularity, accumulating wounds, nicks, cuts, and other forms of harm.

Even if there is such a thing as healing magic, or healing super-science, it might deal only with the superficial harm and not the deep tissue traumas that characters will accumulate.

This is as complex an issue as you will come across in RPGs, and as divisive. You can get a “gentle” introduction to some of the issues through perusing The Age Of An Elf: Demographics of the long-lived.

Related issues are discussed in the “All Wounds Are Not Alike” series:

Don’t neglect the discussions in the comments sections of these articles, either.

Before this problem can be satisfactorily resolved, you’ll be hip deep in the differences between Intelligence and Wisdom, and does the latter increase with age, and what’s a Hit Point, and Demographic profiles, and Insurance assessments, and a host of other headaches.

But, to make any moderate-to-large-interval Discontinuous Campaign work, you will need to know how aging is going to work – and you will need your players to know those answers, once again to avoid any allegations of bias or of picking on the aging adventurers. Your logic will need to be clear, and your systems for expressing that logic in game mechanics will need to be succinct and reliable. Or you’re in trouble.

R&D/Manufacturing Rules

To some extent, this can be covered under the discussion of Rort Dangers previously, but I’ve learned the hard way in multiple campaigns that these are very easy to get wrong and those errors are very easy to take advantage of. I’ve encountered infinite-XP generators in both my own rules systems and in D&D 3.0, and those were picnics compared to the complexities of simulating the process of manufacturing something on an industrial scale without giving the character effectively-unlimited wealth and resources.

Why buy shares in INTEL before the PC Boom when you have the expertise to design your own processors and become a third player in the INTEL-AMD war? Or write your own Browser and take market share away from both Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator (which eventually became Firefox)?

These are harder to police than outright attempts to rort the system because any character competent to do these things would have sufficient understanding of the state of the art to realize that they were possible, no out-of-character knowledge necessary. In fact, arguably, such characters would only be doing what came naturally to them.

Even harder to police are attempts to manufacture tools that experience has taught the PCs are often necessary to defeating the bad guys, whoever they may be. Who knows what availability and access might be like next year? The player might know that attempts to regulate firearms will fail, but the character doesn’t. Players will be prone to becoming the ultimate Survivalists if they know the enemy has only been stopped, not defeated – and arguably would only be acting in a reasonable way, given what they know.

There are only two things that can keep such things in check: Economies of Scale unavailable to a small group of PCs, and R&D/Manufacturing rules that control this sort of endeavor.

“It’s the 1950s and my character has scientific and engineering expertise 30 to 59 years in advance of everyone else out there. I want him to build a prototype color TV transmitter and receiver, patent the results, and then approach the largest existing manufacturer of black and white TVs for investment in commercial-scale manufacturing.” Believe it or not, this is a real-life example from my Warcry Campaign.

When something like this happens, you either rule that key manufacturing techniques and tools don’t exist, that the manufacturer isn’t aware of the scientific basis for such a device because the papers have not yet been published and so will dismiss it as a trick, or that color TVs would be too expensive in real dollar terms for the world of the 1950s – or you roll with the punch and let color-TV transmission start in the 1950s instead of the 1970s.

Or you have existing rules to control and contain the situation.

This wasn’t the first time that I had encountered this sort of problem, which exists anytime you have a PC who can be described as an Inventor.

Behemoth’s Energy Batteries
The first time was when a character named Behemoth invented an “ionic momentum energy battery” which stored energy by increasing the spin rate of ions suspended in a magnetic bottle at cryogenic temperatures. This device came in three sizes – 10 Megawatts, 1000 Megawatts, and 1 Million Megawatts capacity – and would release these charges as quickly or slowly as the device being powered demanded. I threw in some teething trouble because it was a new technology, but the character had paid for the prototypes with character points as Gadgets under the Hero System, so eventually he got the devices to work. (To be honest, Steve had no idea of how the device would translate into pseudo-physics, he left it entirely up to me; I came up with the explanation, and Steve approved it).

Then he decided to manufacture these batteries commercially, as well as using them as he had been, to power various high-tech gadgets he designed for the PCs. For this there were no rules, and the character was not paying anywhere near enough character points to support the industrial output of the factory that he had inherited from his father, and fortunately, I knew more science than the player did. So I ruled that under certain circumstances – exposure to strong magnetic fields, being violently handled, etc – the “revved up” Ions storing all this energy could strike the cryogenic material, imparting a huge amount of spin on both, and sending one ion crashing into another. Some of these cases had spins in the same or similar direction, others were in the opposite direction relative to the first. Behemoth had used a mixture of low- and high-atomic-mass Ions because, the larger ones could store more power but charged up more slowly, while the lighter ones could store less power but charge more quickly; this was the secret of the different battery capacities. Some of these collisions were enough to initiate nuclear fission in the heavier materials, which in turn was enough to initiate fusion in the lighter ones, which in turn was enough to liberate all the stored energy within the devices within a fraction of a second, which was enough to cause total conversion of the battery into energy. This was discovered when a 1 Million Megawatt battery went critical in central Australia, cracking the continental plate and creating an inland sea. While Behemoth continued to use the devices for his personal projects, the inherent design flaw forced a recall of the product and the abandonment of his manufacturing scheme. No-one else ever trusted the devices again. Furthermore, the devices were too unstable to be used as weapons.

Because the player had not deliberately tried to rort the system – it wasn’t his fault that rules to handle the mass-manufacture of new inventions didn’t exist within the game system – I went easy on him. He was able to recall and safely dispose of the entire inventory with no other big explosions, and some of his other gadgets – ones that would have had a smaller impact on the campaign environment – were permitted to be small successes.

The second occasion also involved Behemoth, and isn’t all that relevant here.

The third occasion is another pertinent example, however.

The Nebula Campaign
I talked about this campaign in my recent gaming biography. Here’s how I described it:

…the Nebula Campaign that resulted was completely different from every campaign I had run before. Everything was cinematic, there was almost zero interaction with the game mechanics; it was a dialogue of ideas and responses that placed a premium of the ability to think quickly and clearly, and it was a lot of fun.

Mike W, Nebula’s player, a Min-Maxer my nature, he always looked for a shortcut or a price cut, something that I was able to exploit time after time to maintain a reasonable game balance. When personality clashes, and some dubious in-game practical jokes led to Nebula being dropped from the line-up of the main game’s roster, he was not all that unhappy at departing.

A few years later, and he was itching to explore the broad conceptual palette that my campaigns offered, especially after learning that I had written up a game physics to describe the way things worked, but didn’t want to rejoin the main campaign. Instead, he wanted to roleplay what the character had done after leaving the main team. I had a bit of free time, and thought it worth trying, because when Mike was playing well, he was a great player.

The campaign was a fun one that could turn on a dime and go just about anywhere, without warning. A business problem could lead to investigating a Martian ruin that held a mysterious gadget that was the last surviving weapon from a war that had millennia earlier; its discovery might attract the attention of some alien sorcerers who were allied to the dead society, but who were secretly even worse bad guys than the enemy, and who would attack to try and gain possession of the weapon, which might then turn out to inhabit a psychic pseudo-realm virtual reality to which the dead people’s minds had fled, escaping the destruction of their star system when they employed their ultimate weapon in the war… that was very much the breakneck pace of the campaign. Neither of us could ever predict exactly where things would go, we were both living on our wits.

Mike’s biggest flaw was that he had studied the game physics that I had supplied and thought he understood the way the world worked better than I did. Time after time, he would do something, like placing a Charged Janus Crystal in a Mana-saturated field, confident that he knew what would happen (or simply curious), only to have it blow up in his face, sometimes literally, more often metaphorically. An adamantium scalpel, impervious to anything Nebula could do, was still subject to the reality manipulation of magic (just because Nebula couldn’t affect it, Mike W assumed that nothing else could, either) and transformed it into an out-of-control golem which rampaged through the surrounding Interstellar Empire; to defeat it, Mike had to define and locate a reality in which the super-material was vulnerable, which meant understanding why it was so tough in the first place, then create an appropriate warp field and suck the golem into it.

In general, this sort of wishful thinking – that the world would work the way he expected it to, which is the way that he would have designed it if he were in charge – got him in trouble with great regularity and was a cornerstone of both the campaign and the predominant personality flaw of the character. But most of the time, these problems were no more than interesting challenges and diversions, unless he carried his min-maxing to the point of trying to rort the system.

For example, there was the time he had spent 50 character points on an organization, and then forced each of the employees to undergo weekly psionic loyalty checks – which also implanted the compulsion of total loyalty to the organization – which justified each of the 500 or so employees so purchased-and-programmed donating 5 character points each back to the organization. Half of the resulting 2500 points was used to recruit another 10,000 employees, while the rest was used to purchase infrastructure for the organization. Those 10,000, programmed in exactly the same way as the 500, then donated a further 50,000 character points for Mike to use to build anything he felt his character needed – whether it was a starship, a lunar base, or whatever. And if he needed to, he could always go out and recruit some more staff. This completely overlooked the fundamental game principle and number-one metagame rule, “you get what you pay for”. Mike’s psionic meddling left these staff completely vulnerable to a type of psionic tapeworm which threatened to turn the entire organization against its founder… especially since a psionic parasite believed destroyed, and against whom Mike thought he had provided defenses, was able to use the tapeworm as a bootstrap to evade detection and bypass Mike’s prepared defenses. (Actually, the campaign wrapped up before all of the above could be discovered by Nebula, but it’s still absolutely typical of the campaign.

More to the point, no matter what resources the character justified in terms of in-game developments and then purchased using “manufactured” points, he ended up with what the player had really paid for. Sometimes, I let him have a little more, and paid for it by adding additional Disadvantages that limited the usefulness of whatever the resource was, or the profit that could be yielded from it. This is exactly the sort of control that the GM of a Discontinuous Campaign may have to exert if a player gets too clever by half – which is why I’ve brought the subject up.

Inventors will want to invent things. Engineers will want to build things. Scientists will want to discover things. Industrialists will want to manufacture things. The GM has to have a way that permits the retired PCs to continue to operate within their professional scope without damaging the campaign infrastructure that will be needed for subsequent adventures. In particular, anything that might give and advantage to the PCs – whoever they will be – who participate in the next adventure, no matter how plausible the preparations might be from a logical standpoint.

Investment Rules

When the adventure is over and the characters return to “real life”, they are going to want to invest in things – buy a house, buy a farm, buy a business, or improve those things if they already have them. That’s what people do with their time and their money. While a certain amount of hand-waving is possible when it comes to determining the outcome of these investments, the larger the inter-adventure intervals in a Discontinuous Campaign, the less work that the GM needs to perform to deal with these things, the better.

To some extent, it may be that the “family history” already has these things covered. Adopting the system I referred to above or something similar would do so, leaving these prosperity vectors as simply another variable, a lever that can be pushed around by the GM to interpret the overall outcome determined by the system, whether it be boom, bust, or something in between.

If the “family history” system that the GM selects is more focused on specific in-game outcomes, though, this gap will need to be plugged with some principles or guidelines at the very least, if not an actual investment Rules sub-system.

These are trickier to craft than they might at first appear, because they need to be responsive to external events within the game world in a realistic way while possessing the randomness of the real world, without requiring the GM to determine each of those external events if they aren’t relevant to the overall plotline connecting one adventure to the next, and to protect from the utilization of out-of-character knowledge.

Even that last is more complicated than it appears. If a character decides to invest in Microsoft Shares, is it because it’s blue-chip stock or is it because they know Windows 98 is about to hit the market? The GM could prohibit the purchase on the basis of the latter reason, meaning that the PC is not permitted to do something that a standard NPC is allowed to do (NOT good), and ignoring the possibility that the motive is reason number 1. This decision would therefore be patently unfair of the GM, because the character is arguably not doing anything unreasonable. The GM could permit the sale and then delay the launch or acceptance of Windows 98, playing around with the game history to marginalize the benefits of any player-knowledge – but this unfairly penalizes the character who made the same purchase because it was a good investment, and risks monkeying with the building blocks that come together to form our familiar history, essential background for the next adventure and points futureward.

It’s situations like this example that show that some form of simulation system is required that takes such decisions out of the GMs hands while still permitting him the input of events that did not transpire in our world and their impact on the relevant financial markets. It’s a sure bet that even a thwarted demonic invasion (if publicly known) – or whatever the previous adventure was – would have a noticeable impact on Wall Street, and that in turn has repercussions for every aspect of life in the game world.

Of course, if such a system were practicable and reliable, every investment bank in the world would be running projections 24-7 to choose the best strategy, and governments would be using Economic Simulators to plan their fiscal policy. The real world economy is too chaotic to model anywhere near realistically. And even if you could, it might take 1 year to model a month’s transactions – so that by the time the prediction was complete, it was eleven months out of date. At best, in the real world, such a system would be a tool for retroactive analysis. To make forecasts timely, you need to take some of the realism out and substitute assumptions – so that if it took a year to generate a prediction, you would start by describing the situation you assumed would exist, eleven months from now.

At the present time, we don’t even fully understand the many modes of interaction between the varieties of market events that occur. More assumptions are required – and so you end up producing not an economic simulation, but an economic model that is only as sturdy as your ability to predict the future course of events that you aren’t even aware of.

Fortunately, a GM is not going to be all that interested in realism and accuracy. He doesn’t need the system to actually enable him to plan his investments – he just needs it to offer a reasonable description of an approximation of reality. Such a system can be devised for use in an RPG that would never be considered robust enough for the real world, and it is an absolute necessity just for dealing with situations like the one described a few paragraphs ago.

Sources Of Inspiration

There are some places that the GM can look for techniques and tools, and the information that would help to make a Discontinuous Campaign practical. Here are just a few of them that are worth investigating.

Original Traveller

The character generation system in Original Traveller included a career-modeling system. Riddled with flaws when applied for its intended purpose – like the prospect of a character dying in mid-generation – and not nearly comprehensive enough to deal with everything that needs to be addressed for the intervals of a Discontinuous Campaign, it could nevertheless provide the foundations of a set of appropriate game rules. One of the key changes that would be needed would be to take some of the randomness out, giving the GM the capability of matching the simulated progression of life to the external events that he (or history) dictate and that lead to the situation that would obtain at the start of the next adventure – but it would be a start.

Tarot Readings

The “family history” system that I linked to earlier was derived from an idea from one of my earlier campaigns, in which a Tarot Reading was made for each character in the game to determine the approximate shape of their future lives – not the outcomes, but the challenges that they would face. Such a system could easily be implemented to assist in the GMs handling of ex-PCs during Intervals.

Who Do You Think You Are?

This is a set of TV series – I know there’s an American one, an Australian one, and a British one – that have been running for several seasons in some cases. Wikipedia tells me there’s also a Canadian version, an Irish version, a Danish Version, A Swedish version and a Czech Version.

Each episode takes a publicly-known figure and traces their family tree to reveal their roots and the stories of their ancestors, especially the events at key turning points in the lives of those ancestors. Each of these key events and personal decisions adds up to producing the life and circumstances that led the individual to be the person that they are, and provide a key understanding for how history intersects with the lives of ordinary and extraordinary people to produce a personal circumstance.

I would recommend anyone contemplating a Discontinuous Campaign to watch as many episodes of this series as they can get their hands on, from every country they can find (and whose language they speak) as the best possible foundation for handling life events in the Intervals between adventures.

A campaign can be considered a series of extraordinary events separated by mundane periods of life, and that is the correct perspective to employ when creating those extraordinary events as adventures within a Discontinuous Campaign. But equally validly, such a campaign could be viewed as a continuous stream of ordinary lives punctuated from time to time with an extraordinary event. Who Do You Think You Are provides a framework of understanding how those periods of ordinary existence put people into the right places at the right time to become part of those extraordinary events, and how the repercussions of those events then shape the subsequent lives of the participants. This is must-have information for any GM contemplating a Discontinuous Campaign, and the greater the Interval Length contemplated, the more important and useful these television shows are.

Leaving out the ones that aren’t in English:

This show – and anything similar you find – makes history accessible. That’s always useful, but for a Discontinuous Campaign, it’s essential.

Radical Continuity Campaigns: The Wrap-up

The prospects offered by the concept of a Discontinuous Campaign are exciting ones. It’s an innovative idea that immediately intrigues. It’s more akin to a series of standalone novels, such as the Lensman series by E.E.Doc Smith, the Harry Potter Series, etc, than the one-big-story paradigm of The Lord Of The Rings and series by David Eddings. There are some practical difficulties to be overcome, but none appear insuperable on closer examination, no matter how difficult they might appear at first glance.

This answer has probably come far too late to help James with his campaign, which I hope did not flounder on any of the difficulties that I’ve outlined, but I’d like to thank him for the question and the intriguing concept that he proposed.

Next in this series: GM Joel takes me out of my comfort zone with a request concerning running a game for a large group of players…

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The Heirarchy Of Deceipt: How and when to lie to your players

This irregular column resurrects lost blog posts about RPGs from Mike’s 2006-7 personal blog on Yahoo 360 and updates them with new relevance and perspective.

One of the decisions every referee has to make is how much NOT to tell the players. To be blunt, the referee has to decide when to lie to his players.

There are lots of ways of concealing material that you want hidden, but ultimately they boil down into variations of the time-honoured themes:

  • Outright Deception,
  • Half-truths,
  • Silence, and
  • an outright refusal to answer.

Outright Deception

I have to admit that I’m not very good at this a lot of the time. Sometimes I manage to completely hoodwink the players, but its always a struggle. In part, that’s because I’m a fairly honest person, a good quality; but, to be honest, in part it’s because I can’t always resist admiring my own cleverness when I come up with an interesting twist to the storyline, which is hardly a flattering attribute (Shrug). My players have learned to pay close attention to these little slips, as they can often be used to give them advance warning of events that will take place months or even years later.

Before my players got wise to my little flaws, I used to be able to employ this technique with a great deal more effectiveness.


Half-truths come in many interesting varieties. There’s wrapping a nugget of truth in layers of myth and legend, or telling a piece of the story in a misleading way, or taking a nugget of truth out of context and inventing a false story out of whole cloth based on that misinterpretation, or – my favorite – telling a blend of fact and fiction without having decided yet what the real story actually is, just what it isn’t. You can’t drop hints if there’s nothing to hint at!

This enables me to avoid my vulnerability. The real power of this technique – if not overused – is that it can take advantage of players attempts to exploit failures of the first type, just by deliberatly dropping a hint or two about the false story.

Obviously, once my players began to figure out my weakness for dropping hints and listening intently for them, this technique became far more effective. But there is a downside that manifests if this technique is employed too often: it leaves the players less inclined to trust anything I say as GM. It took me a while to recognize that, and for a while I was actually harming my campaigns as a consequence. In time, I learned the lesson, however.


Another technique is to keep quiet. Just don’t mention it at all, and hope no-one notices. Again, I’m not great at this, but I can manage it by carefully preparing something else to talk about – in advance. This is the technique that is most sensitive to the personal character flaw I mentioned earlier, but when you can manage to simply present the raw facts and let the players come up with their own interpretation, there is always a good chance that their explanation will be related to the truth only in passing.

Sometimes, their ideas can be better than mine; on a few rare occasions I have completely thrown away the facts that they weren’t aware of that contradicted their interpretation of events and reinvented the adventure on-the-fly, especially if I could percieve a plot twist that they weren’t allowing for, with which I could surprise them.


The final method – an outright refusal to answer – is the one that I resort to least-often. It can sometimes mean “I havn’t decided yet,” or “I ran out of time,” or “There are possible implications that aren’t fully thought out yet,” – but it can also mean “I ran out of ideas,” or “There’s a contradiction that I havn’t resolved,” or even (rarely) “I couldn’t be bothered.”

The last is rarely the correct way an outright refusal should be interpreted, but it’s also one of the easiest conclusions to leap to, and it damages one thing that the referee needs for a successful game – the player’s trust.

Okay, that sounds contradictory, doesn’t it? Here I am talking about all the different ways that are referee can lie to his players, and yet the trust of the players is an absolute essential to a game’s existance.

Even employing specific interpretation that justify a silence is inadequate, because the players are always free to disbelieve.

The fact is that this involves a whole different hierarchy of deceipt. The players have to be able to trust that the referee will interpret the rules as honestly as he can; that he will put in the effort required to prepare for the game as best he can; that he will only lie to them when it enhances their enjoyment of the game, and that there is no malice involved. In other words, that the referee’s lies are white lies, and that the truth will eventually be revealed, and that the consequences will be important enough to justify the deception in the first place.


A fifth approach is a variation on the half-truth: refusing to decide on the right answer until the last possible minute. This is an approach that I have employed and even recommended from time to time, and deserves its place in the GM’s armory; but it is not always the best answer for a number of reasons. Consistency is hard to achieve, and it can bog the gameplay down as the GM struggles to integrate the morass of clues that have been arbitrarily thrown out, and worse, I have found that if players realize that you are making things up off the cuff it can also damage their confidence in the game, not to mention its quality.

It’s as though a novel suddenly broke into a number of unrelated short stories without resolving the main plotline that got the reader hooked in the first place, and showed no prospect of ever returning to that main plot. In comics, this happens with out-of-continuity fill-in issues, and these are always jarring, no matter how good the story might be in isolation; and, worse still, there can be plot holes as a result of the broken continuity. Peter Parker’s girlfriend leaves him in the previous issue and he doesn’t even think about her once in the fill-in issue that follows? But the issue after that, he’s angst-ridden about the break-up? Okay, so that’s an extreme example to get the point across, but more subtle character and plot inconsistencies are harder to spot, more likely to occur, and just as disruptive when the players notice them.

Retroactively inserting an explanation can sometimes work, but it means drawing attention to the inconsistency – and, in effect, bets the plot credibility of the campaign on the quality of the explanation. It can be better to accept and ignore the flaw rather than using a lame or half-baked “explanation”.

In general, then, it’s better to have a good reason worked out in advance for behaviour and in-game events. Knowing why people are doing what they are doing, and therefore where that particular plot arc (or plot “loop” as some describe it) is going, at least in general terms, is usually far better and less damaging to the campaign.


These days, I most frequently employ another variation on the half-truth, one that empoys the techiques I developed for the “silence” approach. I learned those techniques as a deliberate way of avoiding the subject so that I could not be tempted to drop hints.

I come up with two plausible explanations for what is going on, based on what the players know so far – one is the truth, and one is a fiction. I continually update the fiction as more information is provided within the plot; I assume that NPCs are employing lies and deception for their own purposes as necessary, and will even introduce NPCs into one of the false plot that never appear in the real one to justify those deceptions as necessary. Whenever I am describing events or the results of PC investigations within the game, I focus on the true story; the rest of the time, I focus on the false. That means that any hint that I drop relates not to the true story but to the deception; and I am very careful to phrase my hints (when I can’t resist dropping one) in the form “It might be that…” or “Have you considered what [NPC] might be doing if he knew about this…” or something similar.

I equivate, and never come right out and announce a hint as a solid fact – not until the point at which the false story becomes completely untenable and the PCs figure out the real plotline.

It’s called “Misdirection”, and it’s been at the heart of stage magic and good mystery stories since I don’t know when. That’s because it works.

And, just to confuse the issue, I will still occasionally employ one of the other techniques described. I will still appropriate an explanation when the player’s version is better than my own. I still drop in the occasional deliberate half-truth or outright deception, or refusal to answer.

Preserving the suspense

I’ve been GMing some of my players for thirty years. I’ve been GMing Most of them for more than a decade. In that time, they’ve come to know me fairly well. They can read my body language, and my facial expressions. They’ve noticed that I sometimes get this knowing, cat-ate-the-canary half-grin when one of my plans is working, or when they guess the truth of a situation – so I practice wearing that expression at other times, too.

They are only just starting to figure that one out.

My players know that I can be counted on to lie when that’s what’s called for – and not to do so when it’s not.

Hey, would I lie to you?

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Lessons Learned: A change of perspective brings plot rewards

When you strike plotting trouble, a fresh angle can pay unexpected dividends.

This article relates to the way in which plotting problems in an upcoming adventure were resolved. If some of the details seem a little vague, it’s because I don’t want to reveal those details before we play it. I’m going to try and get away with using generalities in the important spots. The fact that you’re able to read this now means that I think I’ve succeeded – otherwise I would have held this article back until after we ran the adventure :)

The situation in-game is this: there is going to be a mystery plotline with four possible suspects and matching lines of inquiry. The victim will be… a person of importance, let’s say. For various reasons, investigation of this situation is to be handed to the PCs – a Canadian, two Australians, and an American.

The First Time Around

This is an Adventurer’s Club plotline, so I was working with my co-referee for that campaign, Blair Ramage. We had a wonderful plotline mapped out in which each PC would take one of the four lines of inquiry and keep finding clues and leads to each other’s cases until eventually they had the opportunity to resolve each of the plotlines and discover the guilty party.

This plotline had evolved from an initial seed of an idea that I had put forward, with both of us throwing ideas into the pot, inspiring each of us to come up with new ideas as we bounced things off each other – the usual pattern when we collaborate.

It was written in a very non-linear manner; we would add something to the next stage of the plotline, go back and insert something into the initial set-up, let that lead to a new event in the plotline, go back and remove something from the initial setup and reveal it in a new scene if we thought of a way to have it happen in-game… There was a very organic growth of the plotline as we continually revised the initial setup and rearranged plot elements to keep the narrative coherent.

While working on a subsequent part of the adventure, about which I really can’t get specific, a computer crash in the middle of saving the document (an event to which I think I’ve referred in other articles) destroyed the. whole. darned. thing. Three months work vanished in an instant, and defied all attempts at recovery. It would have to be completely re-created.

The Second Time Around

Well, it’s very hard trying to capture lightning in the same bottle twice. The second time around, some of the plotting was easier. We were aware that we had already resolved every plot problem we were going to encounter (and so knew that there were solutions if we looked hard enough. We even remembered some of those solutions, but those memories served to get us only part-way in the recreation process, and from that point on, we were stuck.

We had obviously reached that sticking point the first time around as well, but had solved it almost instantly through a confluence of our prior discussions, our mindsets at that precise moment, and a flash of inspiration from one or both of us – and this time, one or more of those critical elements was missing-in-action.

Change Of Perspective Number 1

We then tried to map out each of the lines of inquiry individually as separate plotlines, planning to integrate each of them into the final plotline only once they were all complete. This enabled us to get a little further, but we were still a long way removed from a total reconstruction.

Change Of Perspective Number 2

The next thing that was tried was looking at the individual plotlines from the points of view of the PC we thought most likely to end up investigating that plotline. Once again, we made progress, but still fell short of a comprehensive reconstruction. Heck, we didn’t even get half-way there – and time was beginning to run out. We’re supposed to start running this adventure at the start of February, and that’s not far away.

Change Of Perspective Number 3

Over the Christmas break, I started to think that perhaps we should concentrate not on recreating what we had done before, but on creating a new adventure from the point that we had been able to get up to. To facilitate this, I started thinking about the circumstances within the adventure as they appeared from the point of view of the antagonists in each of these plotlines.

Right away, ideas started coming to me, and I realized that in the entire original version of the adventure, the NPCs had been completely static with respect to the overall evolving picture of events. Sure, they reacted to a PC whenever one involved themselves in their plotline, but suspects in Line Of Inquiry A never reacted to what was going on in Line Of Inquiry B. This was for two reasons:

  • It was hard to predict exactly what the outcome of each scene was going to be. Quite often, we simply specified an encounter with someone and what that someone was doing at the time, and would want to do when the encounter took place. In some cases, there was evidence that would be produced by the encounter, whether the PC won or lost – and a lot of the encounters couldn’t even be assessed in terms of winners and losers.
  • Because the original crime was a closely-held secret to most of the people involved in these unrelated plotlines, they would not react to the investigation of that crime; they would see only what was going on in their own little bubble of plotline. We made the mistake of generalizing that to mean that they would not react to events occurring in the other Lines Of Inquiry because these events were not directly impacting on them.

This completely ignored the fact that if an event occurred, even if it did not appear directly relevant to the confrontation between the suspect and the PCs, the NPCs would nevertheless examine it for possible connections to their own activities, possibly making assumptions of greater or lesser paranoia (depending on their personalities and the nature of their activities), and would then react accordingly.

Plot Rewards

The plotline that has started to unfold bears a reasonable resemblance to the original in parts, and is wildly different in others. Because of the new perspective that I describe above, it is also far better than the original in parts; more tightly integrated, and with far more plausible justification for one Line Of Inquiry giving a clue to another one.

Recreating the missing plotline was a bit like reconstructing a jigsaw with more than half the pieces missing. We had a fragment here and a fragment there, and had to try to reassemble them into a coherent plotline. We had various clues, in the form of game props and illustrations, which we had been gathering and creating as we went. (We also identified a player handout that had been overlooked in the writing process the first time around, the absence of which would have been a major hole in the plot).

While the narrative descriptions, and much of the notes regarding motivations and personalities, and a large hunk of the internal logic and flow, were all obliterated in the crash, and the recreated adventure (due to deadline pressures) was far less delineated than the original, what we have ended up with – so far`- is a stronger plotline. And a valuable lesson or two.

Lessons Learned

Aside from the obvious, like “save work more regularly” and “create regular backups”, the combination of which would have minimized the damage from the computer crash, there were three valuable lessons to emerge from this disaster.

  1. A change of perspective can help you get past difficult plot problems;
  2. Always consider how the antagonists will react to events that they become aware of, even if those events don’t directly involve them; and,
  3. Always consider how third parties of note will react to events that they become aware of, even if they are not involved in the events – especially if they might (erroneously) think that these events are directed at them.

It doesn’t matter if what an NPC does is directed at a PC. A rival will still consider the possibility that it’s aimed at him, and even if it is not, will ask themselves how they can turn it to their advantage. That makes every unrelated menace an information resource acting on behalf of the PCs, even if they don’t realize it.

And that’s worth thinking about. Plots don’t occur in tiny little bubbles; they are complicated, hairy, fuzzy things, that tend to get stuck to everything else that’s going on within the game, sometimes in very odd ways. Don’t make your plots too self-contained, and they will be far more interesting – and, perhaps, easier to recreate in a time of urgent need.

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The Soundbite Of Tomorrow is 140 Characters Long

Photo by Alton courtesy of Wikipedia Commons, used under the terms of the Creative Commons 3.0 License

Photo by Alton courtesy of Wikipedia Commons, used under the terms of the Creative Commons 3.0 License

Something of a change of pace, today. This article was drafted for Campaign Mastery, but didn’t quite fit; was then revised to make it suitable for a blog about Social Media, where it was rejected at the eleventh hour (no hard feelings, it wasn’t quite “on message” for that site, either); and has now been re-revised to make it relevant to gaming again, even though it’s still not quite “on message” for Campaign Mastery, either. It’s offered here more in the spirit of “food for thought” than direct applicability to gaming.

Last night (as I write this), I was carrying on three separate conversations with the same person at the same time while having several other conversations with other people. That’s the sort of thing that happens when you combine a chat room with the concept of threaded statements to get Twitter. As I was ruminating over that fact in the light of morning, I found myself asking whether or not social media were changing the nature of conversation itself.

To a perhaps surprising extent, RPGs are all about communications. They are a spoken game, with various aides-memoir in the form of character sheets, GMs notes, rulebooks, etc. The Players have to communicate with the GM, they have to communicate with each other, and they have to communicate with any NPCs that they engage with. The GM needs to communicate with the players at a rules interpretation/refereeing level, at a narrative level, and in the guise of those NPCs. There’s a lot of scope for misinterpretation and miscommunication involved, and that makes the nature of communications itself a subject that should be of interest to GMs and players alike.

This has long been recognized, and many articles exist about adapting techniques from the writing of fiction, plays, television, and movies to facilitate the special needs of good GMing. I’ve written some myself – see, for example, Good Storytelling Technique Or Bad? – Chekhov’s Gun and RPGs and Adjectivizing Descriptions: Hitting the target.

Literary style 101 is to communicate clearly, to avoid the passive voice, and to make your statements clear and direct. One of the eternal struggles that Gamemasters face when writing Roleplaying Games and adventures is to resolve the conflict between accessible narrative and dialogue and providing players with the information they need for the formulation of a view of the scene or situation. It’s not like a novel, where you can spend a page or two describing the wonders of the landscape, after all.

The Soundbite

Clear and Direct are often best interpreted as short and declarative. When this approach is employed in a press release or a statement to the media designed to get maximum coverage on the TV news, it’s called a soundbite. They are employed a lot in politics and business because they reduce the communication to a blunt, easily-digestible statement without room for foundation, equivocation, or nuance. The very best find ways to incorporate depth, subtlety, and humor into their soundbites – added value that makes the soundbite more likely to be broadcast.

Over time, this practice leached into business communications – press releases, product descriptions, brochures, and websites. So there has been a trend for a long time in the direction of shorter, more direct – and, it must be said, less substantial – communications. It was when it moved into advertising that it gained serious momentum.

Texting and Txtese

Then came texting, and with it the advent of txtese (also known by many other names including chatspeak). By making it more difficult to employ formal language and punctuation, mobile phones encouraged shorter lengths in social communications. Because an older generation, more schooled in the formalities of language, found this hypercompression harder to decode and employ, a “coolness factor” came into the equation and pushed short messaging to new heights of popularity.

Social Media

It was into this environment that social media evolved from the existing concept of the chatroom. Dialogue between people on social media has some of the quality of a flurry of emails back and forth, in that the conversation can be disjointed and interrupted, with the most recent exchange waiting until a reply is made.

There are two platforms that are dominant in the field, and each has its own singular characteristics. Facebook permits longer, more substantial communications and more closely resembles a publicly-visible email service; and it also offers old-style person-to-person chat facilities. By facilitating a more traditional format for messages, it actually minimizes the impact that it has on the language itself.

The same can’t be said of the next most popular platform, Twitter. The hard limit of 140 characters places a premium on concision. You would expect twitter to perpetuate txtese, and yet for the most part it doesn’t. I think that there are three reasons for this, and they are worth examining.

The first is the popularity of Facebook. It has twice as many registered users as any other social media platform, and it doesn’t encourage txtese. The second is the popularity of Twitter. It hasn’t just attracted users from the younger generation, there are people of all age groups who use it regularly. And the third is that phone technology has improved, removing much of the imperative towards txtese.

The net result is that txtese, like most fads, has largely run its course. The best of it – emoticons and a few particularly expressive shorthand notations like LOL – have entered the mainstream language while the rest have been discarded.

The Length Of Tweets

And so we are left with a situation in which an existing trend toward short, declarative statements in reasonably plain English have become something of a standard form of communication. Corporate websites, tv advertising, statements to the press, and social dialogue are all being pushed in this direction.

One of the earliest utilities to twitter was a way around the 140-character limit. It’s a simple proposition: use a piece of software to store the tweet in a database with a web interface, then combine the start of the message and a link to the rest of the text as the tweet. Combining this with a URL-shortening service makes it feasible for the 140-characters capacity to contain enough of the message to make it clear whether or not a user is interested in reading the full tweet.

There has been a lot of speculation in recent times that floating Twitter on the stock market may cause the social media service to extend the 140-character limit, which was originally established because that was the maximum length of a mobile-phone SMS message. The latter limit has long ago been abandoned, so the 140-character limit is largely viewed as a dinosaur, a hold-over from a now-extinct era, and extending it is thought to make the service more attractive to business users – see

For every analyst who moots an increase, there’s an expert who defends the 140-character limit. It forces concision, some say. It is part of the character of the service, others state. This discussion dates from almost three years ago (950 days at the time I accessed it) but the essential talking points have not changed. It’s worth noting that the final complaint about the absence of a built-in link shortener is no longer relevant, though.

(BTW, don’t be fooled by a couple of spoof articles out there claiming that Twitter have already announced plans to extend the limit. They haven’t.)

Personally, I feel that it’s the presence of a limit that is often encroached upon that defines the contribution to the ‘character of the service’, and a change to 160 characters would not make a substantive difference in that respect. YouTube has a character limit of 500, and that is rarely insufficient, so any increase to that length would change twitter substantially.

There is added pressure to extend the length with the advent of the capacity to simultaneously post a message to multiple social media platforms. The essentially-unlimited capacity of Facebook and the 500-character limit of YouTube both make extending Twitter’s limits more enticing, and some increase is commonly seen as eventually being inevitable. Not many people seem to appreciate that there is an equal amount of pressure going the other way – the smallest common denominator dictating shorter Facebook and YouTube posts – and that this equality means that external factors will make the decisive difference. External factors like an existing historical trend – and the potential need to woo advertisers following a stock market flotation.

The Impact On Conversation and Narrative

The longer that the 140-character limit persists, the more adept people will become at breaking their communications into small, more easily-digestible slices. The restriction will enter the mindset and become more habitual and will then flow into other forms of communication even where no limit exists. More text will be broken into bullet points or short, declarative sentences.

This is the literary equivalent of the shortened attention span that has been afflicting visual media for quite some time.

Conversational Smear

Another phenomenon that can be observed with any breaking news story or development is something I call ‘conversational smear’. When the first news breaks, everything is relevant and current, all announcements and opinions are current. Fast-forward a day, and you still have people discovering the event for the first time and retweeting the initial statements, which – in a fast-moving news story – may be out of date, and people responding to the early news. Go forward a second day, and almost half the commentary is reaction to or re-announcements of, old news. The conversation has become smeared, polluted with its own past. By the third day, it has become so hopelessly entangled with past updates that those interested in identifying updates have to winnow through ten or twenty or more responses to old news to find anything current. It’s almost impossible to track, and so the story slides out of the immediate awareness of the public, to resurface only when there is a significant new development which can be treated as a news item in its own right. Anyone who has used Twitter for any length of time has observed this phenomenon.

This requires a new conversation initialization protocol, which develops spontaneously. Whenever two people want to discuss the issue, the first thing they need to do is synchronize exactly where their awareness of the issue stops – “what’s the latest you’ve heard about [the subject]?”. Only once they have brought each other up-to-date can the conversation itself move forward.

I can’t speak for anyone else, but I have noticed this conversational habit intruding into conversations outside twitter. I’ve seen it in television and print journalism and in face-to-face conversations: the need to precede a discussion with a brief recap of past events. When news was slower-moving, people had time to synchronize their understanding of situations; in modern times, the discussion moves as fast as events.

This becomes significant when the conversation itself is important. If a decision needs to be made, for example in response to an offer of some sort, both sides have to have an understanding of the context within which that offer is put forward, or there is too great a risk of miscommunication.

In the context of this conversation, contemplate this: the shorter and more direct the statement (within limits), the more it can carry its own self-evident context, and the less susceptible it is to Conversational Smear.

Deeper Analysis

Conversational Smear is a phenomenon that occurs because of the propagation rate of information within a closed environment. Before this, the only phenomenon deriving from this source was the game of Chinese Whispers, which I used as the foundation of a reader’s tip about the handling of rumours in Roleplaying Tips Issue #322, and which I have referred to several times in other articles, such as Ask The GMs: Giving Players The Power To Choose Their Own Adventures, and A Monkey Wrench In The Deus-Ex-Machina: Limiting Divine Power.

The delays are not in the broadcast medium itself, but in the readers/audience awareness of the event and rebroadcasting it as though the event was precisely contemporaneous with their awareness of the story. Cognition of the timeframe is the critical factor. In other words, someone is always becoming aware of the story/event for the first time, and reacting as though it had just occurred – and then reacting to the reactions of others, which in turn prompts still others to react to those communications, and so on. Awareness of the event spreads like waves in a body of water, and those waves reflect and refract and interact with each other. What was initially a clear wavefront of initial awareness becomes muddled and tangled; and the bigger the initial wave, the longer these reverberations persists.

Another good example of this phenomenon is the propagation of both information and misinformation in the wake of the Tsunami and subsequent nuclear emergency in Japan.

Conversational Smear At The Gaming Table

This phenomenon also occurs at the gaming table whenever one person doesn’t hear another properly, or wasn’t listening, or arrives late, or even simply has to relay information they have received in a side-conversation with the GM. I’ve lost count of the number of times a player has heard part of what I’ve had to say, has interpreted only that part, and has filled in the rest with his own interpretation or assumptions even when clearly contradicted by the information they have not absorbed and retained – and then reported the whole melange as fact to the rest of the table. Even when spelt out in a written summary or transcript, this occurs.

There are times when it doesn’t alter anything significant, times when its comedic, and there are times where the player’s misinterpretation of information they received quite succinctly risks leading the other participants down the garden path, with potentially dangerous or even deadly consequences.

This is something that can be tolerated at the game table only within limits, or it risks damaging the entire campaign. Whenever it occurs, I employ a three-step process:

  • Is the miscommunication a miscommunication on my part? If so, correct it immediately.
  • Is this a mistake that the character would potentially make? If not, correct it immediately.
  • Is the miscommunication of vital importance to the campaign (or, to a lesser extent, the adventure)? If so, correct it immediately.

Otherwise, I generally let it go but start dropping hints that events are not matching the developments expected by the PCs whenever it’s appropriate. Misunderstandings and mistakes happen all the time in the real world; the limited safety net I offer is to protect everyone’s fun – anything more is unwarranted interference.

Entrenched Misinterpretations

Sometimes players fall in love with these misinterpretations so much that when recalling the events at a later time – when the incident in question becomes an important and relevant factor to some current situation, they will remember and act on the misinterpretation even if it has already been shown to be in error. The conversational smearing has become entrenched in their minds.

There is always a difference in the world as the GM sees it and the world as the PCs and Players perceive and interpret it. When one of these worldviews contains factual errors of relevance, it can disrupt the adventure or even the campaign. The best way to combat this is to make sure that the correction of the interpretational error is not just a matter of a die roll and some narrative, but pivots the entire adventure in such a way that it becomes a memorable event – and to make sure that this occurs before the misinterpretation can become entrenched.

Nevertheless, occasionally something will slip through the cracks. A player will remember the wrong interpretation and not the subsequent correction. Whenever that happens, I apply the same three-step analysis of the situation described above. Eventually, one of the other players will realize the flaw in their understanding of the current situation and correct the misinterpretation, reinforcing the correction by making it a significant turning point in the current adventure, or the situation will become of critical importance, warranting more than a vague hint by the GM.

But it’s always better to prevent these misunderstandings in the first place, and the key to doing so is always clarity communications.

The Wrap-up

Success in communication of any kind continues to be measured by how well the information that you are offering is absorbed and taken on-board by the audience, whether speaking to someone face-to-face, tweeting to someone, posting to a corporate website or a facebook page, or employing narrative or dialogue in a roleplaying game, documentary, or TV drama. Such success always comes from an optimal use of language, which is not easily achieved; the goal posts continually change as the language itself continues to evolve. Those who are most effective at mastering the nuances of language in its most contemporary and ubiquitous form will always have an advantage. And so will the campaigns that they game in.

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To Module Or Not?: A legacy article

This article grew out of discussions between Johnn and myself concerning the Q&A in issue #300 of Roleplaying Tips. Johnn happened to mention that he was currently running a campaign based on published modules, and I was interested in comparing the approaches to handling them to best effect in terms of the difference to a custom-written scenario. I wrote my part promptly, back in 2006 – and it’s just been sitting around ever since, waiting for Johnn to write his. Once we started Campaign Mastery, the idea was that Part 1 would appear in one place and Part 2 in the other, cross-promoting both.

Well, Johnn no longer writes for Campaign Mastery, and I rarely have time to write for Roleplaying Tips. So I doubt part two will ever get written.

But that’s no reason to throw away a good article. So here’s “To Module Or Not?”, an article about incorporating Published Modules into your campaign, freshly updated for Campaign Mastery.

I should start by admitting that I write 90% of my own scenarios, or more, and find it necessary to substantially rewrite any published scenarios that I integrate into my campaign. Which of course raises the question of why I feel the need to do so? What are the different ways of using “canned modules”? What advantages do they offer over custom-written scenarios? And what might you be giving up to reap those rewards?

The Differences: So exactly how do published modules differ from custom modules, anyway?

There are a lot of ways to consider scenarios. There’s the linear model, where event A follows event B – whether that be the PCs following a trail of clues (or breadcrumbs); there’s the reactive model, where the goal is always to let the PCs do as they will and just to throw opposing forces into the mix to make their lives interesting; and there’s the situational model, in which things are happening all over the place and the PCs can either get involved or not, as they see fit. Nor are these the only choices; there are variations and combinations and subtypes of all of these. Rather than get into a debate about the best approach, lets just say that all campaigns consist of these elements in different proportions, and move on.

Most published modules are very strong in the linear plot elements. That can be very beneficial to the time-pressed GM, because he only has to focus on one small subsection of the overall plot at a time. The module will give some idea of what encounters might result, will (usually) give characteristics for the NPCs, will have area descriptions and pre-placed treasures, and so on. The GM can concentrate on tweaking those encounters, thinking about issues of presentation, and so on.

All this is work that the writer of an original scenario has to do for himself. He might be able to lift inspiration – rooms, NPCs, whatever – from other sources, but he has to put them all together. Even more important – and sometimes more difficult – is the need for inspiration in the first place. Published modules may have only one author, but they will have been edited by someone, and playtested a number of times, and most of the likely courses of action – and their impact on the overall scenario – will be spelt out. All of those voices contribute to a deeper and more polished product.

On the other hand, published modules do not cope well with house rules. They may not fit with the power level of the characters – too weak, too strong. The background might not integrate with your campaign world, depending on the level of detail and the degree of difference between that world and the published settings. They often don’t fit well with each other – its often much harder to follow one canned module with another. They can make assumptions about what the PCs can – and can’t – do. They can be conducive to railroad plots. And there is always the risk that the players will have read the module themselves.

Custom modules can focus on what your Players’ characters are actually capable of. They are fully integrated with the campaign background and house rules from word one. That permits one to follow another more seamlessly. They can go in any direction desired – which is to say, they don’t have to be quite as linear in the design. They are (in theory) exactly as tough as you want them to be.

So there are a number of important differences to take into consideration.

Time Requirements: How long does it take you to prepare for a session relative to the playing duration of that session?

This depends on how much work you have to do – trite, but true!

Homegrown Custom Adventures

With custom, home-grown, adventures, I’ve had sessions where the NPCs and settings had all been established in prior scenarios, and only the situation confronting the PCs was different. That took 5-10 minutes per hour of playing time to write. I have had sessions where I had to detail and populate an empire, its politics, economics, history, major characters, geography, etc etc etc. That took about 25 hours for each hour of play – and most of the results weren’t even noticed by the players until several sessions afterwards. So the time requirements are generally a lot more variable from week to week with custom scenarios. You have a massive glut of work, and then quite a lengthy period without much work to be done.

If you have good time management skills, you can spread the heavy workload out, doing lots of advance preparations that won’t see the light of play for weeks or even months. But that also gives you the advantage that if you don’t have much free time in any particular week, you can pick up the slack the following week – which can be useful when Real Life bites. Overall, I would estimate an average of perhaps 3/4 of an hour for every hour played is needed.

I’m not going to get too specific about how to write scenarios, that’s entirely too big a side-issue for this article! But in general, the process is one of breaking problems and plotlines into smaller pieces. When I first develop a campaign, I’ll work out some overall theme or story arc. This is big picture stuff; the PCs may have input into the outcomes, but overall events are going to take place relating to this big picture whether the PCs get involved or not.

As PCs are proposed by the players, I’ll look at each in terms of bringing some unique perspective or contribution to that overall plotline. I’ll also develop a specific story arc for each PC. I’ll then break each of those story arcs down into individual steps, each of which then forms the basis of a scenario. I’ll also look at the consequences of the events in each step and try and tie them into a later scenario, or (if necessary) add in another scenario. Then I’ll add whatever is needed to give those “key events” a context to operate in, and to give the other characters something to do. All that preparation gives me a synopsis of the campaign, broken down into scenarios.

Each scenario is then broken into locations needed, key developments, key NPCs, and so on – making a list of what’s needed. Then I’ll add in anything that’s needed as a consequence of those items being in the scenario – a Noble implies a retinue, and the typical possessions of a noble, and so on. Once I have detailed the location to whatever extent is necessary, and the NPCs, I will then write any specific dialogue & descriptions that are likely to be necessary; I’ll look at whether or not a prop will be needed; and so on. That’s a lot of work – but because you don’t have to detail any given plot element more than is going to be needed, a lot of it can be glossed over or ignored entirely.

Once I have the basic framework, I’ll consider where and how the PCs could change the direction of the adventure by doing something unusual or unexpected. I’ll consider modes of failure, where a PC may fail at a critical task, and look for ways to get the adventure back on track if that happens. I’ll make sure that any major NPCs who aren’t involved but who might have an interest in whatever is going on are either distracted by something else, or think about how they would get involved – and how that might complicate the situation, and how the characters who are supposed to be involved would react.

Canned Adventures

With packaged scenarios, you have to read it; you have to understand it; you have to appreciate the relationship between the different sections and the overall plotline; you have to look for any house rules issues; you have to modify part or all of the background and encounters to fit the campaign background and concepts. You have to get a handle on the significant NPCs, their personalities, and relationships.

You have to consider the long-term impact of the goodies and events within the adventure. You have to identify the assumptions on which the adventure is based and make sure that the campaign doesn’t violate any of them – and vice-versa. You have to make the same checks for script departure points, modes of failure, and outside interference.

You have to contemplate the abilities, personalities, and quirks of your PCs & Players as opposed to the generic types that the module might assume, and may have to modify the entire module to accommodate the characters of your campaign.

All of that often adds up to a lot more time than writing a custom scenario, but the less of that list that you have to worry about, the more attractive canned scenarios become as an alternative. Again, much of this can – and should – be done in advance and not left to the last minute.

Let’s take a typical 20-page scenario; it will take perhaps 4 hours to read it, 2 hours to digest and analyse it; probably a similar amount of time spent on house rules issues (but that might be zero for your campaign); anywhere from 8 hours to zero on background; plus a couple of hours on the major NPCs, and anywhere from one to eight hours on everything else – usually towards the lower end of that range.

From that, you will typically get 45 minutes per page of play – sometimes more, sometimes less. That’s 9-28 hours of work for 15 hours of play, so the level of house rules and existing background to be integrated makes a BIG difference.

On top of that, if you want to convert it to a different power level, or change it’s style to a less linear format, you’re looking at substantial rewriting and modifications – probably the same amount of time that it would take to write a custom scenario. So IF you follow the standard rules USED FOR THE MODULE, and don’t bother too much with background issues, and can play the module more or less AS WRITTEN, a published module takes about half an hour to prepare for each hour of play. On the other hand, if you have all of these complications, you can expect to spend roughly 2-3 hours of prep time for every hour of play.

Preparation Requirements: What do you do to prepare? Any advice or best practices for any of the preparations?

Much of this has been already answered, in discussing how long it takes to make the preparations. But two vital elements in the process were only briefly mentioned and deserve further amplification: Analysis and Planning. These are especially important because they are common to both types of scenario.

Analysis comes in three flavours: Campaign level, Character Level, and Event Level.

  • Campaign Level considers what effect the module, its events, and its setting, are intended to have on the campaign overall. With a published module, there will usually be a synopsis on the back cover, but that talks about the plot within the module, not the effects on everything else. How will the established power structures of the campaign react to the events in the scenario? Before you can answer that, you need to make a quick list of the events within the scenario. Use less than a line for each and be as brief as possible. (Keep this – it makes a handy “road map” for the overall scenario). In less linear scenarios, use small boxes instead and draw lines for the relationships between them. Then jot down some quick notes on those reactions – remembering that the authorities can’t react if they don’t know about something!
  • Character Level considers the major characters of the scenario and how they will interact. The best way of handling this that I’ve come across is a table – possibly a large one (I use A3 pages and a word processor). List the characters evenly down the page and across the page. Label the top row “Subject” and the column “Opinion Of”. Where a character carries out an action in the scenario, you might have a subdivision, a before and after. So the first row of table cells will have all the opinions of and relationships to the first named person (starting, obviously, with how they think of themselves). Try to describe each relationship or opinion in only a single word or two at the most. Again, this crib sheet can be invaluable when running the scenario, so once you understand the relationships, don’t throw it away. I like to include the PCs on this table as well, and summarise their likely reactions in pencil and their actual reactions in pen. If there’s something a character feels strongly about, that helps in the next stage of analysis.
  • Event Level analysis is all about predicting what work you need to do – if PC#1 is a diplomat, they will tend to talk more than act, so you should give thought to speech patterns and perhaps even to preparing additional dialogue for the NPCs to be encountered in the next session’s play. If they have exhibit violent paranoia about Drow motives, you might need to consider alternatives to the encounter with the exiled Drow Merchant in chapter 3, or whatever. These basically consist of keeping a running list, by PC, of the “actual reactions” (and expected reactions) from past scenarios, and comparing them with the list of events and NPCs that you created in the first two analysis steps.

The other factor to be discussed here is planning. If you know what you have to do, you can schedule the time needed to get it done in advance; leaving it all until the night before you play can be a recipe for disaster! I like to plan what work needs to be done as minutely as possible, but I’m from a computer programming background. The truism in that line of work is that of the wedge – every ten minutes spent planning and organising the work to be done saves an hour part-way through and a week at the end of the project.

It isn’t quite so severe when you’re talking about an RPG, but the fact is that knowing what needs to be done, and prioritising it, always means that you are better prepared to referee when the time comes. I try to break the work down to the point of having a number of 10-minute tasks listed, then prioritise them. And remember that if a priority-1 task can’t be started until a priority-2 or -3 task is finished, that priority-2 or -3 task is actually priority-1 (or the priority-1 task should be rated as less important!)

In Play – using the scenario: What surprises occur during sessions, what curve balls are thrown at you? How does the scenario source play into these twists, and how do you cope?

It doesn’t matter where you get the scenario, they players are going to throw curve balls at you from time to time. The two types of scenario have different risk levels in that regard due to their natures.

In theory, the risks are smaller with custom-written scenarios because you can specifically prepare for the most likely responses of your particular players; but that also means that when they do take a trip into the left field, it tends to be a major and significant departure. Published modules, on the other hand, carry a greater risk of departure from the script, because they are more tightly bound to their built-in script; but at the same time, those departures tend to be smaller in significance and are (hopefully) minimised in frequency by the playtesting.

Recovering from those unexpected turns of events is also likely to be very different because of the nature of the scenarios. With a published module (if you’ve done your homework), you will have a clear idea of what is supposed to happen next and how it all ties together, so you have a better opportunity to get things back on track. With a custom-written module, there is often no clear road map to follow, certainly none as clearly delineated as in the published module. On the other hand, you are in a stronger position, because your destination can change while never letting the players know how thoroughly they had screwed your plans. So long as the overall objective at the campaign level is achieved, you don’t care about the intervening steps – you just want everyone to have fun.

In other words, the less prone to plot-trains that you are, and the better you think on your feet, the more suited you are to running custom-written scenarios. (But if you’re too good at coming up with answers on the run, you can nevertheless be accused of plot trains – it’s happened to me!)

The most important advice – regardless of the type of scenario – is to work out the significance of the diversion in terms of the overall scenario goals. That lets you focus on the important consequences and “go with the flow” for the rest. I always like to have the opposition’s plans worked out in advance – if the PCs stop interfering for a while, they will see the consequences of those plans as they come to fruition. If you know what the NPCs are doing and why, you can adjust to any tricky ideas the players have. The plan might change, the goals won’t.

I also make sure that whenever I insert a difficult situation, puzzle, or problem, into the PCs lives, I always make sure there is at least one way out of it – and where there’s one, there will usually be 20. Those two principles have gotten me out of many problems – my players still remember both times I was totally gobsmacked by an unexpected twist!

Does one format appeal to you more than the other – and why?

While both have their strengths and weaknesses, I prefer custom modules for four reasons: Customisation, Integration, Investment, and Ease.


You can make the scenario exactly what you want it to be. Well, almost. You always have the independence of the PCs taking you places you didn’t expect to go, and there’s always the question of how well you can write your scenarios. DON’T expect to be as good as a Published Author straight out of the starting blocks!


The more extensively-developed your campaign world, the more your scenarios can grow out of that development, and link back into it. Letting the PCs make a visible difference to the course of events – even if only through the ripple or domino effects – strengthens the campaign.


Every hour of preperation time that you spend working on a custom scenario is an investment in the campaign world, because it usually relates to the history and culture of that world. That means that the work is not just useful for this scenario, it can be reused again and again. Published modules are relatively self-contained – so once you’ve finished playing it, most of the work involved is gone.

And finally,


Because I usually have such detailed worlds, with house rules etc, there is a lot more work involved in adapting a published module to that world. So for me, its much less work to write a custom adventure than to deal with a Published Module. This is, of course, a self-fulfilling prophecy; as indicated, the more you develop your world, the more suited to custom modules it becomes, which further develop the world.

Does that mean that you don’t use canned adventures?

Yes and No.

As I said at the start, most of my adventures are custom-written. I have no plans to utilize any canned modules in any of the campaigns that I am currently running – with one exception, which I’ll come to shortly. Without having done so, I would not have any basis for the prep numbers that I quoted earlier.


I have integrated, and run, “The Grave Of The Prince Of Lies” as part of the Fumanor: One Faith campaign, as I explained in On The Origins Of Orcs, Chapters 5-10, virtually without change – but that was because the module background fitted into and expanded on the campaign background virtually perfectly.


More significantly, in the Champions campaigns (before they became the Zenith-3 campaign), there were a lot of canned modules used to comprise the major campaign event, Ragnerok. Some of these were in one campaign, some in another, but – with suitable modification – they came together into a seamless whole (in conjunction with some custom adventures) to describe the leadup to the big show.

Contemplate this list, if you will:

  1. Operation Fastpass (Top Secret)
  2. Rapid Strike (Top Secret)
  3. Lady In Distress (Top Secret)
  4. Force (Villains & Vigilantes)
  5. Assassin (Villains & Vigilantes)
  6. Executive One (Top Secret, I think)
  7. Thunder Over Jotunheim (Marvel Superheros)
  8. Dr Apocalypse (Villains & Vigilantes)
  9. Death Duel With The Destroyers (Vllains & Vigilantes)
  10. Flight 412 (?)
  11. Breeder Bombs – break into 6 adventures – (Marvel Superheros?)
  12. Danger At Dunwater (AD&D)
  13. Havoc adventure I (Champions)
  14. Havoc adventure II (Champions)
  15. Havoc adventure III (Champions)
  16. Heros (?)
  17. Terminator (?)
  18. Revenge Of Professor Terror(?)
  19. Dawn Of DNA (V&V?)
  20. Snake Pit (Champions?)
  21. Preemptive Strike (Champions?)
  22. Fault Line (?)
  23. Pharoah (AD&D)
  24. The Keep (5 adventures)
  25. Crisis Of Champions (Champions?)
  26. Primus / Demon (Champions)
  27. Target Hero (Champions?)
  28. Preemptive Strike (?)
  29. Circle / Mete Adventure I (Champions)
  30. Circle / Mete Adventure II (Champions)
  31. Circle / Mete Adventure III (Champions)
  32. Circle / Mete Adventure IV (Champions)
  33. Circle / Mete Adventure V (Champions)
  34. Ragnerok & Roll (Marvel Superheros?)
  35. The Great Supervillain Contest (Champions, Multiple adventures)

That’s 45-plus-the-GSVC adventures, all rolled into one big plotline (with some cherries on top).


In the Warcry campaign, I have integrated a number of Space Master, Star Frontiers, and Gamma World adventures. But I can’t say which ones because a number of them haven’t happened yet and I don’t want to warn my players.

Publication Rights

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: If you ever intend to publish your work, be VERY careful about what canned modules you even look at. It’s entirely too easy to accidentally violate copyright.

Homegrown Originals are a lot safer.

How do you choose?

Once the decision has been made to integrate a canned module into a campaign, there are really only two criteria:

  • Does it add to the campaign? and,
  • How much work will it be?

Value, and Price. What more is there to say?

Is your way the “right way” or the “Only way?”

Absolutely not. It’s the way my campaigns works and hence, the more your campaigns resemble mine, the more likely it is that it will also work for you. I know a referee who ran an AD&D (later 2nd Ed AD&D, then D&D 3.0) Campaign for over a decade using nothing but canned modules and an established, published campaign setting. He rarely changed anything in the modules, had little-to-no house rules, and had very little action taking place outside the Published Modules (and most of that described off-camera as “after last time, X did this, Y did that, and Z did the other. Now you’re all gathered….” and into the next module.

In fact, the whole point of this article is so that you can compare and contrast my methods of working with your own – not because there’s anything wrong with the way either of us run our campaigns, but because the techniques and approaches that we’ve developed might help someone else – or might inspire someone else to tell us how THEY do it!

On a completely unrelated issue, it seems the spammers are back, running the same spambots / DoS attack as they did last year – from the same servers, believe it or not. Having recognized the pattern, I am once again selectively blocking the Internet Addresses from which these attacks are originating. As before, if no attacks occur in roughly an 8 hour period, the block on an IP will be lifted – unless one returns a second time. And yes, I am documenting the addresses involved. In the meantime, if you have trouble commenting or accessing the site, that’s the reason – and all I can suggest is that you try again in a few hours.

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Ask The GMs: Fresh Meat In A Hurry

Ian Gray contributed to this article.

Ask the gamemasters

Anniversaries have a way of reminding you of the promises on which you have yet to deliver, and so does the start of a New Year. “Ask The GMs” is one of the cornerstones of what got Campaign Mastery to it’s 5th anniversary. It’s now 2014 and for two years I’ve been promising to tackle the mountain of accumulated Ask-The-GMs questions that have accumulated; It’s time to start delivering on those promises.

Of course, there’s rather a large problem: The site is now one person, not two. I could rename the series “Ask The GM” but if there’s one thing that I learned through the preceding entries in this series, it’s the value of bringing multiple voices to a question. The number of times that Johnn covered something that I hadn’t thought of was both astonishing and educational.

So here’s the plan: Of the players in the Zenith-3 campaign, only one is not a GM. Of the players in the Adventurer’s Club campaign, two are non-GMs – but one of them wants to change that. There is some overlap between the two groups, but that doesn’t matter. What’s going to happen is this: I will write up a primary response to each question. When I get the opportunity, I will then put whatever question is next on the list to whichever group I happen to be in front of at the time, and let them debate the question while I take notes. These notes will then form the basis of a second response. If I’m talking to one of them about something else in the meantime, I’ll drop in the question and discuss it with them then.

Will it work? I don’t know. If it doesn’t, I’ll try something else. One way or the other, I am going to end 2014 with a lot fewer ATGMs pending than I started the year with. There are 52 weeks in the year. That’s roughly 104 posts. I want to try and deal with an ATGMs question more often than once a month, but don’t want them to become the dominant type of content – so no more than one post in three, and probably more like one in four or five will be the target.

In some cases, Johnn and I answered by email, and were careful to CC each other, so I already have a second answer to post. All told, then, the goal in 2014 is to publish answers to between 20 and 30 ATGMs questions. I’ve updated the ATGMs page, so that it shows the true scale of the backlog. This plan will only do away with about half of it. But if I can keep it up through most of 2015, the Backlog will get cleared eventually.

Which is all well and good for the future, but it’s still early January and those groups won’t get together until later in the Month. So this time around, you’ll have to make do with whatever I come up with, and anything the readership cares to contribute.

Which brings me to the question posed this time around. James Senecal wrote:

“If death is to have a consequence, if a PC dies (permanently), are there any ways to quicken the generation of a new character, and might you have any tips to integrate those new characters into the party? I’m not using DnD, this is purely from a roleplaying point of view.”

and, in a clarifying follow-up, he explained,

“The campaign recounts the development of a world that is in constant change. But because things like:

  • Cities being built,
  • Empires going to war, and
  • Technologies being developed,

do not take place within mere days or weeks, I feel it’s only logical for years to pass. If not 2-3, then half a decade or even a full decade. At which time, the PCs will likely age. At the very least, these time skips will only happen every couple of sessions. Kind of like playing the Sims and once things are settled, you press fast forward.

Naturally, the players will have a good idea of what’s going to happen to their characters. They’ll also likely take back their characters for one last spin before starting the next session as their character’s children (if that’s the case, or new characters entirely if that isn’t the case).”

There are two questions there, and since I’m on my own this time around, I think I’ll tackle the easier one first: How do you parachute new characters into place within the campaign? How can you accelerate the introduction of new and replacement characters without damaging verisimilitude too badly?

Ask the GMs - Mike

Mike’s answer:

The problem is more complicated than it initially appears because as a GM, you have two conflicting objectives. The first is to introduce the new character as quickly as possible, and the second is to introduce the new character as seamlessly and naturally as possible.

The Question Of Player Knowledge

Before you can make any decisions, you need to define the problem, not in generalities, but in specifics that apply to this particular occasion. The place I always start is by considering how much the player knows about this particular campaign and immediate events therein, because that knowledge will need to be explained – a much better approach than having the player try to disregard his player-knowledge, if you can pull it off; I realize that this step won’t apply to James’ specific question, but I want to address the general problem and then fit his situation into that framework.

Explaining how the character acquired his knowledge of the PCs can redefine the character, changing the answers to subsequent questions. That’s why it has to be the first question, posed (if possible) before character generation even begins.

The Question Of Location

Secondly, where are the PCs now, and where will they be in the immediate future?

The Question Of Co-Location

Thirdly, another character-defining question: Taking into account the answer to question one, do any unusual circumstances need to obtain in order for the proposed specific character – class, species, race, whatever – to be present at one of the locations listed in answer to question 2?

The Metaplot Question

Finally, one more character-defining question: Can the new character advance a plotline that’s underway within the campaign, or better still, one that has become moribund and stagnant?

The Specific Question

Having considered the option of designing and constructing the new character in such a way that its introduction to the campaign is facilitated by the nature of the specific character itself, you are now ready to pose the specific question, “What is the best way to introduce this specific character at this specific time within this specific campaign?”

Answer: Chance

Once you have posed the specific question, you can start to choose between the answers to find the one that best fits the circumstances. Of them all, the weakest – because it is so clichéd – is Chance. The new character just happens to be staying at the same inn that the PCs are using, or just happens to be nearby when they are attacked and gets caught up in the melee, or whatever. It’s a cliché because it works – but because it is a cliché, it strains verisimilitude when it happens for the umpteenth time.

I don’t like using chance. It smacks of weak planning on the part of the GM.

Answer: Confluence

A much better answer, but one that won’t work in every circumstance, is Confluence. The new character has the same objectives as the party, and that leads them to seek out the party; or is working toward the same end independently, and an alliance occurs to prevent the two from tripping over each other.

Answer: Inevitability

If there is some reason why it can be made obviously inevitable that the party and the new character will end up working together, that inevitability can be employed to justify confluence. Inevitability can also be used to put some teeth into the “chance” answer – the two parties can be co-located through chance, but the alliance between them happens as a result of inevitability rather than simply because the new character is a PC. Having the rest of the party get blamed for acts committed independently by the new character, for example, or having the party attacked because someone thinks it’s too big a coincidence for both the new character and the party to be at the same place at the same time. Having both locked up in the same prison and needing to work together to escape is another good variant on the inevitability concept.

Answer: Rescue

A variant on confluence can be achieved when the new character rescues the PCs from some situation, or vice-versa. This only needs two things to work well: a reason for the party in need of rescue to get caught in whatever situation traps them, and a reason why the new character can rescue them. This approach works well in D&D when the characters are in the middle of a dungeon, a circumstance that excludes most solutions to the problem.

Answer: Recruitment

If the PCs are down a character, they may decide to seek out a replacement, and end up recruiting the new character. As a twist, I will sometimes give the player an NPC to play who is clearly better-suited to the needs of the party, and who beats the new PC out of the job, only to betray the party, and letting their rejected prospective member come to the rescue.

I’ve also used the approach where an NPC recruits the PCs and supplements their number with the new character.

Answer: Conversion

One of my favorite approaches is to have the new character working for the PCs enemies, either out of ignorance or reluctantly, by force. This makes recruiting the new PC a reward to the characters, helps tie something that could be disruptive back into the ongoing plotlines, and gives the new character a solid characterization opportunity with which to establish themselves right from the start.

Answer: Inconvenience

Another good idea is to create a need in the minds of the existing PCs that only an individual of the race/class/abilities of the new character can fill. Make the absence of that type of character an inconvenience to the characters, then give them an opportunity to redress that need. This creates a situation in which the players will do all the hard work themselves.

Answer: Successor

Another approach that I have used successfully from time to time is to have the new character appointed the successor to the character that he is replacing (even if that is a self-appointment).

Answer: Promotion

Is there an existing NPC – a henchman or hireling – who can be promoted? If established details don’t match up, can you find a reason for the new PC to have lied about who he is?

Answer: Improbability

Then, finally, there are the improbable solutions. An accident with a teleportation spell. Finding the new character frozen in an iceberg. A hot-air balloon that comes to earth right in front of the PCs. A magic mirror that transforms the old character into the new.

Old Plot, New Plot

If the existing plotlines don’t accommodate your needs in terms of introducing a new PC, don’t be afraid to interrupt with a mini-plot designed purely to be a vehicle for the introduction of the new character. It’s always better if you can fold the new arrival into the existing plot, but don’t sweat it too badly if that won’t work.

Do you want it fast, or do you want it good?

They aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, But too often, a GM will choose speed over quality. That’s how the clichéd introductions became clichés in the first place.

The more long-term the character’s involvement in the campaign is to be, the more a good introduction should be prioritized over a quick introduction, if you have to make the choice. Especially if warned in advance, the player will usually be quite happy about it. I’ve even run a partial solo adventure on the side for an incoming PC, stopping the action at the point of introduction to the main party.

The golden ticket to quality

There’s one simple rule to follow in order to achieve a quality introduction: avoid contrivance. Reject anything that has even the faintest tinge of appearing to occur purely as a means of introducing the new character, even if – at a metagame level – that is the sole purpose.

To answer James’ Question

Having dealt with the generalities, I’m now in a position to take a closer look at James’ situation. His is (or was) an unusual context, it must be said from word one.

The key point that has to be borne in mind is continuity. You can’t replace the whole party, or that continuity is placed at risk; though having some organization that provides a “spine” connecting the different game eras might solve that issue. Another solution might be to have the too-old PCs actively recruit in-game their replacements.

With that aspect of the situation resolved, most of the techniques listed above will work. Even in the “Improbability” category, a time-traveller from the future who has lost most of his memory (or is paranoid about changing history by revealing too much of what he knows) might work. Variety will be the key.

This answer has probably come too late to help him in that particular campaign, but so long as there are RPG campaigns, there will be a need for GMs to parachute new characters into their campaigns. The guidance offered will, therefore, be of value to someone, sometime.

In the next ATGMs: I’ll tackle the other, more difficult question that James has raised: How to have substantial time pass within a campaign. Look for it in a few weeks’ time.

In the meantime, do you have any more ways to integrate new players or new characters into your campaigns in a hurry?

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Dice And Life: Bio of a gamemaster (A 5th Anniversary Special) Part 2 of 2


Introduction to Part 2

This post – or maybe it was the last one – marks Campaign Mastery’s 5th Birthday (I don’t really count the articles that were posted before the public could read them). CM is the culmination of all my experience and expertise both as a GM and in life; I try to apply everything that I have ever learned about the art to every article.

So I thought it appropriate to commemorate that Birthday with a look back at my personal history, and at my Gaming History, and how it – in retrospect – made something like Campaign Mastery inevitable.

And along the way, I’m hopeful that some of the experience and some of the wisdom that it has engendered, will be passed on, sneaking into the prose, to benefit other GMs out there.

The two parts were supposed to be of equal size, but my PC problems put the kibosh on that. So it’s been a case of playing catch-up to get it finished in time – and even up to last night, I didn’t think I’d get there. Anyway…

My story is one that encapsulates two principles: determination in the face of adversity, and taking every experience that comes your way and folding it back into your gaming expertise.

So far, I have described a very turbulent early period in which I changed residence, on average, every 6 months, and in which I was continually at the mercy of events rather than in control of them. While I can say that I seized my opportunities when they came, I had not done very much in the way of creating those opportunities for myself. With my return to Sydney in Late 1985, that changed…

The Wiley Park Years

My new apartment was located in Sydney’s inner west, in a suburb named Wiley Park. I was to live there for more than 18 months.

The NRMA Counter

I spent three months in training as an counter clerk for one of the largest insurance companies in Australia, learning the products offered by the company, how to use the decidedly user-unfriendly computer systems that linked every branch, learning how to sell and how to deal with unhappy, disgruntled, or hostile customers, and so on. I then entered a standard three-month phase as a relief Counter Clerk, moving from Branch to Branch as a substitute for staff members who were ill or on vacation, and supplementing my training with real-world experience.

At the same time, this enabled the managers of the Branches where I worked to take a look at my growth and capabilities, and essentially scout me as a prospect for a permanent position amongst their staff. While not every posting ‘clicked’, there were some where I knew that I had made an impression because they asked for me, specifically, to return the next time they needed relief staff. In particular, the Manager of the Bondi Junction branch seemed impressed, calling me in on two or three occasions, and telling me outright that if he’d had a permanent vacancy to fill, I would be at the top of his list.

It was on his recommendation, and an accumulated track record of satisfaction, that another Branch Manager offered a permanent placement even though I had never actually relieved for him. This took me to a part of Sydney that I had never visited before, but I fitted right in with the people, and the personalities.

They must have been happy with my efforts, too, because over the next 15 months or so they kept adding to my training and expertise. Vehicle valuations, the Accommodation Booking Service, the Stock Room, Life Insurance products…

At the same time, my Campaigns had picked up right where they had left off. In addition to the Project:Vanguard campaign and the Champions (parent team) campaign, two more were added in the same game universe: Project:Vigilant, to train and protect the Generation after the Next Generation of hero, and Team:Neon Phi, a group of Super-Agents in the James Bond mould.

Running four simultaneous campaigns in the same universe, each once a month, was a whole new challenge, but one that also brought new storytelling opportunities. I could hint at a coming situation in one campaign, thread that through to the situation becoming significant in another, resolve it in a third, and show the aftermath and consequences in the fourth. Only one of these would be the central element of an adventure; in the other campaigns, it was a subplot at most. Events in one campaign could transform the circumstances in another, without warning. Unexpected guest starts could drop into a campaign at any point.

Nor were these the only campaigns I was running at that time and in that game universe; one of the original players had dropped out after a disagreement with the others, but wanted to continue in solo-play mode. This was fine with me; the Nebula Campaign that resulted was completely different from every campaign I had run before. Everything was cinematic, there was almost zero interaction with the game mechanics; it was a dialogue of ideas and responses that placed a premium of the ability to think quickly and clearly, and it was a lot of fun.

These campaigns continually attracted players. There was a waiting list 14-names long to join! I have to admit that I didn’t realize at the time just how special that was. But they also brought three people into my immediate orbit who would be significant to my future, though I didn’t know it yet – in chronological order, Dennis Ashelford, Andrew Johnson, and Graeme McDonald.

What only one or two people knew was that in the course of those 21 months I fell head-over-heels in love with one of my Co-workers – the first real romantic feelings I had felt for anyone in five years. In one of those soap-opera twists that you never think occur in real life, though, she had no feelings for me beyond those of a co-worker and casual acquaintance, and had her own boyfriend outside of the workplace.

That didn’t matter to me at all – while I never ruled out the possibility of a miracle, it was enough to me that she was happy. If it was with me, so much the better, but her smile meant everything to me. (You may be able to tell that I still have a very soft spot for her in my heart).

It was only with the aid and advice of a mutual friend and co-worker that I avoided putting my life and new career into a terminal tailspin. To this day, more than 25 years later, I don’t think that JH knows how I felt about her. I hope she’s had a good life :)

I.T. At Last

In September 1987, the chance to finally achieve my dreams was held out before me. As part of a co-venture with the State and Federal Governments of Australia, the Internal Audit & Security department of the Insurance Company began to search for two staff members to participate in a new IT recruitment and training program.

The qualifications required were brutal and unsympathetic. Participants had to be in the top 10% of the population in IQ, to be in the top 5% in clerical aptitude, and likewise in numeric aptitude. I scored in the 95%, 98%, and 97% brackets, and to this day I’m not sure how I managed it – I am quite sure that I’ve never even approached those standards since.

The reason for the severity of qualification was that the course was even more brutal.

Take a four-year bachelor’s degree. Squeeze it into 16 weeks. Then deduct four weeks for the final exam – the design and construction of a real-life computer system. If your part of the system worked, you passed – further compressing the scholastic part of the training into the time remaining. Then deduct another day each fortnight for real-world real-life on-the-job experience in the employ of the company that was sponsoring you to the course.

Now allocate half of every day to practical exercises. Half of the resulting deficit would be accommodated by further intensifying the study component, and the rest, the student had to make up on his or her own. There were also intermediate exams every four weeks – with a 90% pass-or-fail mark – which were to be conducted in the “practical” periods.

In effect, you had to earn a cutting-edge degree in the equivalent of eleven weeks of full-time study – achieving a 90% minimum standard, which alone would mark you as a front-runner in any field. My technique was to try and incorporate whatever we had not been able to cover in class into the day’s practical exercises, so that if I got stuck, I could consult the supervisor/tutor looking after the class that day, killing two birds with one stone.

Afterwards, you were to be treated exactly the same as any other new graduate coming to work for your employer. They guaranteed employment for a year, but beyond that no special favors would be shown – you had to earn your employment beyond that on merit, in the real world, working on real world computer systems.

Even with the harsh qualifying standards, only 60% of the class of thirty-two candidates

In some ways, I was even more handicapped, because achieving this dream came with a huge price-tag – I had to leave JH behind. In hindsight, though, perhaps this was the best way for that to happen – not only was I going to be too busy to become depressed and maudlin, but the knowledge of how much I had sacrificed in order to realize this opportunity made me all the more determined to succeed. It wasn’t until the post-graduation Christmas party that I had time to reflect and become depressed.

Almost immediately, I was caught up in the investigation of a significant breach of security rules that could have been disastrous, but hadn’t been, and that had seemed necessary at the time, which had occurred while I had been a counter clerk. The details aren’t important now, suffice it to say that the working day after my graduation, my entire career was under threat. In the end, because I had been a minor participant, I was let off with a warning – but the incident cost me the confidence of my direct supervisor and a couple of key managers in the I.T. department. For the next five years, I was going to have to prove myself, over and over, again and again.

As a result, I was transferred out of the I.T. Audit department, where people had to be seen to be beyond reproach, and transferred into the Systems Development department proper.


I joined a small sub-department that looked after a number of PC-based systems that were written in a computer language named FOCUS. At the time, there were something like 22 people in this department. Over the next few years, these people left, one-by-one, or transferred out, until I was the only person left looking after these computer systems.

Eventually, I was promoted from Trainee Programmer to Programmer and then to Analyst Programmer. It was only with the latter promotion that I was to learn the real impact of the Security Scandal on my career – It came a year after it should have done, and didn’t bring with it the full increase in Salary that it should have. But that’s getting a little ahead of the story.

The Burwood Years

In late 1990, a friend struck difficulties; his rent was being increased catastrophically, and he could no longer afford to maintain his residence in Wollstonecroft, one of the cheaper suburbs located in the inner city, but still quite expensive. Dennis was an Engineer, a Hardware guy in the same way that I was a software person, and had become a close friend over the last couple of years. I immediately offered the use of my spare bedroom until he found somewhere else, even though it was smaller than some closets that I had seen, but he had a more permanent solution in mind.

If we went in together, he pointed out, we could afford to rent a full house close to Gaming – close enough, in fact, that we could have additional game sessions after the venue in which we were now ensconced closed its doors for the night (or, more accurately, after we had closed and locked them). While the rents would be higher than we were already paying, his share would be smaller than the outrageous sum demanded by his existing landlord, and shared utility costs would compensate. We had been friends for long enough to have some idea of each other’s habits, and was sure that we would be able to get along.

The advantages seemed clear, especially since I was confident that I would soon get either my full title or at the very least, the full wage that my current title entitled me to receive – at minimum, an extra $400 per week. I was Secretary of the National FOCUS User group, respected by my peers, and was coming up on my fourth anniversary of employment as a systems development professional. I agreed to the proposal, and with the help of a rented truck and a mutual friend to drive it, we made the move.

What I didn’t know was that the real reason Dennis couldn’t afford the rent increase was that he had lost his job, and was living on his savings. While they lasted, things worked just fine; but when they began to run out, it became increasingly frequent for the bills to be paid at the thirteenth hour. He had some casual work at a game store to supplement his income, but not nearly enough to cover his share of the costs, and slowly this began to erode the relationship.

My existing superhero campaigns had splintered during this period; the graduation of the characters in the Project:Vigilant campaign was imminent, and the need for them to undergo some sort of graduation exercise prompted changes. At the same time, I decided to close up the Project:Vigilant campaign, in which I had never managed to find the right balance of “letting the kids be kids” and traditional early-teen/childhood super-heroics, and the Team Neon Phi campaign, which simply wasn’t the same after the trouble between Dennis & Myself (his character being central to both of those campaigns). What I had decided to do, inspired by “Big Events” in the comics, was a series of “mini-series”, one for each of the major characters, which would overlap and stretch over just a few short months of game time. The implication was going to be that these side-adventures had been going on all along without coming to prominence, and would continue to do so in the future. These would also serve as the introduction to the big game event that I had been edging toward for some time in the Campaign, Ragnerok.

This was also the time when I commenced the most substantial rules update for my Superhero game that there had been to date. The basic rules that we had been using were approaching a decade old, and the source rules had been completely revised with the arrival of Hero System 4th Edition; the time seemed ripe. I was using a Commodore-128 at the time, and had found some Word Processing software for it, that (unfortunately) required a Dongle to make the documents and file architecture system-readable – and the`dongle had a habit of failing. I had bought myself a printer, and had even written my own custom device-driver with a number of hard-coded font extensions built in.

Corporate Politics

I had been doing the work of an Analyst Programmer for 18 months before the promotion was made official. For the last two years of my employment, I was doing the work of a full Systems Analyst, as was acknowledged in my annual reviews time after time, with neither the title nor the rewards, nor the recognition. I still have the annual reviews which showed that someone in position, according to the Department’s own regulations, should have been paid a minimum of $49K a year (rising to $63K p.a. if the job title reflected the duties that I was performing) when I was on $43,000. (I find it amusing that the average wage has now risen to something close to that pay-scale; back then, the average was about $12,000).

Every time there was an interdepartmental shuffle, my sub-department of one would come under the supervision of a new manager, and most of them had been biased by the past, and would have to be won over. I succeeded somewhat with some, and was able to convert others into enthusiastic supporters.

In addition, there were corporate-political turf wars going on all over the place, and what had once been viewed as the future was being slowly sidelined and marginalized – something I’m sure played a part in the slow erosion of the FOCUS sub-department. Ironically, I’m also sure (in hindsight) that the cost-efficiency that I represented, being under-payed, also helped keep my specialty alive within the IT Department.

But eventually, management were seduced by one of the buzzwords of the early 90s – outsourcing – and became convinced that they could save money with outside contractors, called in as required. That meant that the FOCUS department (me) was to be wound up. In recognition of my years of service, I was offered a transfer to another position within the department – but this coincided with another departmental shuffle, and the appointment as the manager within my section of probably my most strident opposition. Completely ignoring the occasional task that I had performed in the computer language that the rest of the department employed, COBOL, the offer that was made was insulting both personally and professionally – I could start all over again as a trainee, on a trainee’s wages, or I could leave.

This was a choice that was easy to make under the circumstances. I walked, and expected to have no trouble at all finding another job – one with a much better pay scale. I was astonished to discover that the pay scales at the NRMA were in fact substantially lower than the going industry rate – within the week, my name was under consideration for 10 positions, the smallest of which paid $85K, most $100-$120K, and two paying $535K and $1.125M, respectively. They all represented promotions, which bothered me – I knew that I didn’t have the expertise in staff supervision to qualify for the positions; what I wanted was the title to which I felt entitled. Technically, that would have been a promotion, too.

One week after I was forced out of my position by corporate politics, one of the four biggest banks released their entire FOCUS programming division, crowding 100-plus people into a small niche market. To say that it was over-saturated was an understatement. Nevertheless, I managed to reach final three in six of these positions, but in all six cases the final result was the same, and under the circumstances I saw the writing on the wall. After another three weeks in which I didn’t even get that far, I reentered the general employment market. (About six months later, the NRMA tried to persuade me to return; the contractors were insisting that the hardware be kept state-of-the-art, were taking eight times as long as expected, in part because they could only work one day a week, were making noises about increasing their fees in the next contract when it came up for renewal in a few weeks, and were already costing ten times as much as budgeted – or about 4 times what the corporation had been paying me. Their end-customers were up in arms, What would it take to get me back?

I have a streak of stubborn pride that manifests only rarely, but this was one such occasion. I demanded everything that I wanted – salary, title, office space – and a two year contract, with retraining options for a future management position. I had been caught out once, and if I took their offer, I wanted to be sure it was not a dead-end. These were impossible conditions, far beyond those they gave to any other employee in the department, and I knew it; part of me wanted to punish them in such a way that they would be reminded of their mistake with every six-monthly budget. While I would have been prepared to negotiate on some of these terms, we were miles apart, and both knew it; in effect, I was refusing their offer, to the relief of both; it would have been awkward returning to work in the same department, and they knew it. To this day, I still can’t decide whether or not I made a mistake, but either way I have long-since learned to live with the decision.

But that was some distance into the future. Before I reached that point in time, there was another crisis to resolve. Dennis had been robbing Peter to pay Paul for some time without telling me; when I would ask about the bills, he would simply state that they were taken care of. I had no idea that the rent was now four weeks overdue and would soon be six. On top of that, he had personal problems of a Romantic nature about which I knew nothing at the time – he had fallen for the wife of another mutual friend and had not handled the situation well at all, making a public announcement of his feelings, She had shot him down in acute anger and embarrassment, humiliating him, and sending him into a state of depression. At the time I knew about none of this; I simply knew that it had been two, going on three, months, and that my savings and termination pay were starting to run out, and that the lease of the house was just about up.

The first warning I had of the true situation was when he announced that he was going to be moving into another house which would be shared with two other people, and that we had been given two weeks notice to depart the premises, and that our bond was forfeit for the back rent owed. I would have to rebuild my life, starting from scratch, all over again.

Things were going well in the Game hemisphere of my life, at least.

The solo mini-campaigns were doing well, and at the same time, I had kicked off a new campaign using the TORG system. This drew lessons and inspiration from my past successes, commencing a full year before the “Possibility Wars” and would initially tell that story from the point of view of just one realm, the Fantasy world of Aysle. I took the Realm Background and expanded all the precursor events – the alliances and the betrayals, the trials and tribulations, the final victory over the forces of evil – into a one-year-long campaign, which would lead into a larger plot-line weaving between all the other realms and touching on the relationships and the struggles for superiority amongst them. These worlds had all been isolated and independent, and now were forced to coexist in the one multiverse. Some sought to take advantage of that, others sought to isolate themselves. I was particularly fascinated by the way one realm could combine its ethos and concepts with those of another – how the Cyberpapacy might seek to involve itself in the world of Kanawa, how the Pulp Superhero universe would respond to the fantasy heroes of Aysle, and so on. Dinosaurs with Cybertech Implants! Creatures Of Horror finding themselves “Tainted” with the Ayslish sense of Honor! How the Theology of the Cyberpapacy would integrate with those Horrors, and so on.

By taking that step back into the historical precursor, I was able to present the Possibility Wars from the perspective of “ordinary” heroes who had no idea of what was really going on, or why it was happening. There was a bigger picture driving the villains than the Heroes had any conception of. This campaign was never completed – it would get about half-way before my players persuaded me to set it aside – but we had an awful lot of fun along the way. The players never got to discover that the Gaunt Man, who was believed to have been overthrown and destroyed by one of his Subordinates, had actually survived and reinstated his original plan from behind the scenes to drain all the other realms of their Possibility Energy through the point of intersection, Earth, not into his realm but into himself, an act that would have made him – in theory – all powerful – except for that plucky band of PCs who had learned, bit by bit, the applied science that over-arched and unified all the realities, and who would realize that in the process, the Gaunt Man had become subject to ALL the rules that governed all the other Realms – and that they could take advantage of this to undo him at the 13th hour and ending the Possibility Wars – at least for now. (It was Orrorsh, the Horror Realm, that really did the players in – I had decided that the existing rules did not do an adequate job of conveying the fear that the horror should engender. It felt superficial and insubstantial and not scary at all. So I had rewritten the entire sourcebook, and my players were frankly terrified of the result. They never got the chance to discover the flaws and vulnerabilities that the rules of that reality now encompassed, and which could be used to fight back against the Horror. Anyway, once again, I’m getting ahead of myself.

This was also the period of the failed Asteroid Mining game (where the PCs solved the alien invasion by blowing up their own ship), which I described in my New Year’s article of 2009, Lessons From Yesterday.

The Petersham Years

I had visited Mike M – who had put a roof over my head following the Robbie/Trish shared household collapse – a couple of times over the preceding months. I described, when writing about that situation, about how generous he could be; he was the type of person who could be a great friend or an enemy for life. This intransigence had cost him both personally and professionally, because he was constitutionally incapable of admitting to a mistake unless he was the person to discover it. Wed that to a growing paranoid streak and you had as complicated a person as you will ever find.

His current location was a room in a two-or-three story house, or maybe it was a split-level apartment block. Other residents included a comic artist, the artist’s wife (girlfriend?), who was a singer in a covers band, another female (also a singer), and another guy. [I'm afraid I no longer remember all their names, and rather than insult anyone by remembering all except them, I'll name none.] Some of these were modern-day hippies – there’s no other terms that really applies, while others were simply innately generous. Mike’s idea was to turn the place into an unofficial artist colony/commune, I think; certainly he had no trouble persuading the others to take me in, to occupy one of the spare rooms. I do know that he felt I had been seduced by “the rat race”, been chewed up and spat out by it – but was being given a second chance to discover my artistic “inner soul”, free from commercial ambitions or constraints.

I connected with virtually everyone in the house on one level or another – I could talk about my interests in art or sci-fi or music or spirituality or comics, depending on who I was talking to at the time. The block was located directly across the road from Petersham railway station, within a two-block walking distance of Mike’s old place – and was situated over the top of a bakery. Quite often, we would slip down at 2 AM or 3 AM and buy fresh bread hot out of the oven, or fresh-baked custard pies.

While the place could work with as few as five of the rooms occupied, it was at it’s most affordable with all seven rooms occupied; I made everything a six-way split instead of a five-way split, so everyone was happy with the arrangement – it put money into everyone’s pocket. The big issue was always making sure that the personalities were compatible, and for the most part, we were.

Much to Mike’s disappointment, I didn’t drop everything to become an artist 24/7. Instead, readopted my second career strand as a clerk/bookkeeper, and began looking for work. Government obligations, and my own diligence, consumed one day each week, usually Wednesdays, that being the big day for job placements in the paper at that time. Fridays I spent preparing for gaming on Saturday. The rest of the time, I occupied myself not with art, but with becoming a writer.

The Writer

Each morning, I would write a short story. Each afternoon, I would edit the story written the previous day. Each evening, I would revise and re-edit the story written the week before. I had discovered a short story competition that promised a substantial payment for good stories – something along the lines of US$2500, which would have been the equivalent of about 20 week’s income at my then-current bare-bones expenditure levels. I had hopes of being able to get a literary grant from the Government, which was on a promote-local-talent kick at the time, which would have given me another two years income. I was quite certain that if I could get support for even half that time, I would be able to locate an agent and start making professional sales.

I still have those stories tucked away in a manila folder somewhere. Actually, I know exactly where they are – on the 5.25-inch floppy diskettes they were saved to with the C128-word-processing software I was using, but I don’t think the dongle works any more; I was referring to the hard copies I made when I was finished working on a story.

After four weeks of this routine, I had twelve stories that I thought were of publishable standard, and was beginning to put the final polish on the one I considered best for entry into the writing competition, when the kaleidescope shifted again…

Jack Of Many Bookkeepings

I had applied for a casual job at a Newsagency in Balmain, then, as now, one of the arty, trendy suburbs of Sydney. For the benefit of my American Readers – and perhaps those in other countries – I should explain what a newsagency is. Take a large newsstand, selling newspapers and magazines, and move it indoors. Increase the variety of magazines three or four-fold to take advantage of the additional room. Add greeting/Christmas/birthday cards (etc), and lottery tickets, and sidelines in stationery and sweets and soft drinks, and a limited range of mass-market paperbacks, and then make them the local distributors to newspaper subscribers. These days, you can add bus tickets and photocopying services to the product lines of many newsagencies. It’s a melange of many specialty stores that I consider unique to Australia.

I knew the region only because at one point I had done a one-week training course in graphic design – back in ’82, I think that was, though I didn’t talk about it in part one of this article because I wasn’t sure. I knew the newsagency in question, right beside the bus stop. I didn’t get the job, because they really wanted someone local or who had their own car, but the manager, Roy Snr, told me that if he had let me walk out of the office without a job, he would never have forgiven himself. And so I found myself in a job that was going to change my life forever.

This was a complex combination of three family businesses all owned by the same family and with the same senior manager. One branch unloaded fruit and vegetable trucks arriving at Flemington Markets, the fresh-food hub of Sydney; another part of the operation was freight-forwarding, having the contract for handling Queensland Bananas (amongst other produce); and the third, and most Independent of the operations, was the newsagency.

The offices were located in the basement of the Newsagency, down a double-flight of wooden stairs, which led to the back room of the newsagency, where the newspaper subscriptions were prepared for daily delivery. Beyond this back room, another staircase led up to the rooms where the five family members lived – father and four sons.

Roy Snr’s biggest failing was that he expected employees to work as hard as family members, each of whom had a stake in the businesses. So long as you did all the work that he put on your plate, and did it reliably and within the time frame that he dictated, and put up with his bursts of incandescent anger, he was quite a generous boss. Several times, I attended family parties, and I was a guest at his son’s Wedding, and it was not at all uncommon to share in the family meal when working late. When I slipped on a stair running one of his errands and sprained an ankle, he insisted that I take a week off, with pay, to recover. But he was also a whimsical and merciless slave-driver who demanded everyone (including himself, to be fair) work themselves into the ground.

Anger & Recriminations

It was the arrival of a musician to occupy the seventh room in the shared residence that ultimately brought about its collapse. Mike M and this person did not get along. He very much desired peace and quiet, while the musician was a thrash metal guitarist, who set about transforming the downstairs room across from Mike’s into a jam studio. Previously, this space had been used as storage by the other members of the household and`sometimes as an art studio. Despite efforts to soundproof the room with egg cartons and thick shag carpet on the walls, and ceiling and floors, it was never going to be enough to satisfy Mike.

He began to complain to the landlord, and became explosively short-tempered. He interpreted every attempt to make peace between the two of them as people conspiring against him. With Mike, you were always in total agreement with his position or you were an enemy. Eventually, it reached the point where other members of the household started leaving, the atmosphere had become so poisonous. Then Mike made the mistake of issuing an ultimatum to the landlord, claiming to speak for the rest of the household. Predictably, the landlord – who had repeatedly stated that this was a private matter for the residents to sort out, and something he didn’t want to have to deal with – was not impressed. When he came around to look into the situation, it was with the view that one of the two had to go, possibly both. After speaking with both of them, and with the other members of the Household – who felt that Mike was being unreasonable and were angry at him for going behind their backs and claiming to speak in their names, he came to speak to me. Despite repeated requests, Mike could not bear to have people speaking about him behind his back, and had insisted on angrily interrupting every conversation. I started to say something along the lines of “While it’s true that Mike and [name] have reached the point of being irrational, petty, and childishly stubborn toward each other, I think that they can sort it out if they are just a little more considerate of each other”; I already knew what the Landlord’s position was going to be, and my sympathies were (mostly) on Mike’s side, and I felt that I owed him my loyalty. Unfortunately, Mike was listening from behind the door, despite being asked to leave us alone for a private conversation, and only let me get as far as ‘childishly stubborn’ before charging into the room screaming all sorts of accusations of betrayal. At that point, the situation became unsalvageable, and the Landlord evicted Mike on the spot.

Mike, of course, blamed me, and since that time never let an opportunity to badmouth me pass him by. Despite repeated attempts to explain myself to him, he didn’t want to know. I had joined his list of enemies for life. It was all we could manage to ignore each other whenever we crossed each other’s trails in the future, such as at the funeral of a mutual acquaintance.

It poisoned what had been a harmonious atmosphere. I began making plans to move out myself – I could afford to, now that I was working – and resolved never to live in shared accommodation again. Two weeks after Mike was forced to leave – and having angrily refused all offers of help from me with his packing or moving – the landlord gave us all four week’s notice. He had decided to refurbish the entire building and turn it into accommodations for a large family.

The Lakemba Era

To be honest, if Mike had held off for just a couple more weeks, until I had the finances to get my own place, under the circumstances I would have felt honor-bound to offer to let him share, at least until he found somewhere of his own, no matter how volatile the atmosphere might have been. But he could not contain himself that long; if he could have done so, I have no doubt that a peaceful compromise could have been found between the two antagonists. Several neutral parties within the household were working to try and achieve just that. So there was a sort of horrible inevitability to the course of events. From the time the two began sharing a household, catastrophic meltdown was inevitable.

While my average residency in any given location had gone up slightly over recent years from the 6-month average that I had initially set, I had no idea of what lay ahead of me. It wasn’t as though I had taken a huge amount of time to find a new residence; on the contrary, I had worked out a budget, and I stuck to it. I had learned from my past experience, though – this was not a budget based on what I could afford while working, it was based on what I could afford if I lost my job and was forced back onto government support. I’d more than had my fill of being caught in emergency situations. Coping with a loss of employment was stressful enough without throwing economic catastrophe and forced relocation into the mix. Problems are easier to solve when they come at you one at a time.

As a result, I would end up residing in this location for a solid twenty years, outlasting not one but two owners. I actually became a selling point for agents leasing the other apartments, proof that management would not be intrusive and that the basic property was sound. It’s not without good reason that I describe this as an “era” – think about the changes that I saw in that twenty-year period. Heck, some of my players hadn’t been born when I moved into the ground-floor unit in mid-1990. I went from being one of the most unstably-resident to one of the most settled members of my family – and, considering the challenges that still lay before me, that was definitely a good thing.

The Injury

After the bosses son was married, he moved out with his wife, prompting a reshuffle amongst the residents at work. I arrived for work one Monday to find that Roy Snr had decided, overnight, to relocate the office from the basement to one of the vacant upstairs rooms.

There weren’t enough of us to do the job. At one point I had to manhandle a large photocopier – one of those ones with built-in cabinets underneath, about 4′ wide and about the same high – and, of course, about 18 inches deep – up those two flights of wooden stairs. I can never prove it, but I believe that this was the cause of my later back problems, which I will detail in due course.

I was becoming increasingly run down, the result of the excessive demands placed by Roy Snr on all his employees. In one especially difficult period, I clocked unpaid overtime of 80 hrs, 107 hours, and 120 hours in successive weeks – all while working for the minimum award wage. Over the course of the previous 18 months, most of the rest of the office staff had left, and their duties – because the work had to be done – kept landing on my desk, and Roy kept adding to the workload. I was doing the work of three or four people, and was continually exhausted. I demanded a pay raise and that some additional staff be recruited, or exhaustion would lead to mistakes. In response, Roy outlined a plan to computerize the operation, something he claimed to have been considering since I had started working for him. He wanted me to assist`an outside consultant to select and customize the hardware and software to automate my manual bookkeeping. As for the pay rise, he would see what he could do – but the business had been on a razor’s edge for a year, robbing Peter to pay Paul, struggling at times just to pay the staff; I knew that there was not a lot of wriggle room. I would have actually foregone the pay increase in return for a ban on unpaid overtime, or even a reasonable limit. That didn’t happen.

He did give me a 10% pay rise, but did not reduce my workload, and from that time on, relations between us were a little strained. Nor did these plans work out exactly as he had described them. The next week, it transpired that the hardware had already been bought (fortunately, it was suitable) and the software had already been chosen – attache 5.0. Given the likelihood of Roy wanting numerous ad-hoc and custom reports, I personally thought FOCUS would have been a far more suitable, but was never given the chance to make my case. In short order, it also transpired that the data entry was not to be a replacement for the manual methods that took up so much time, but to be in addition to them. As a result, the work began falling further and further behind, as whatever task took precedence on the day crowded out everything else, despite my continuing to work ridiculous hours. Still, an additional clerk was hired, and that plus the computerization enabled us to at least start making headway – but not quickly enough.

Inevitably, and exactly as I had forecast, something slipped through the cracks, and a carload of Queensland Bananas worth on the order of $100K was not unloaded. Of course, so far as the boss was concerned, it was all my fault. I was sent home to rest on two weeks paid leave – Christmas was about to happen in any event – but was assured that I still had a job, and to call back once the two weeks was up. When I did so, I was informed that I had been replaced with two 17-year-old girls, whose combined salary was less than mine had been – and that I no longer worked there. I subsequently learned that to mollify the other party to the Banana contract, Roy had blamed it all on me, and insisted that I had been fired as a result. He kept the contract, but I knew that this choice spelt the end for the business; there was no way that these young girls would do anything like the overtime that I had been putting in. Within six months, unable to pay its annual and mandatory worker’s compensation insurance, the business had folded.

It might have proven that sacking me was the worst mistake that they had ever made, but that was of little comfort. My sympathies were firmly on the side of his sons, who had been caught in the middle of an impossible situation. I understand that they managed to salvage the situation by working out a deal in which their father was kept at arms’ length from the day-to-day running of the business, and I hope that this was actually the case. They were all firm but fair, at least reasonable in demands and expectations, and I neither had nor have anything against them, and hope that they can say the same.

But, in the meantime, I was out of work again, and now it was that my careful budget calculations saved my bacon. If I had left the job voluntarily, I would have faced eight or maybe ten weeks without income while waiting for government support; because I had been retrenched, I could skip that waiting period, and the government support was enough to pay the bills.

My gaming had suffered enormously during that two-year period, as overtime completely consumed any prep time I might have wanted. I often had to go in on a Saturday morning and put in extra hours before going to gaming, or to work until 2 or 3 AM at night. Those who know me well might recognize these as the hours that I work to, even today, but there’s a big difference between doing so and being able to sleep in, and doing so knowing that you have to be up at 7AM to go back to work – day in and day out.

The superhero campaign was somewhat floundering as a result, and while it picked back up after I was let go, it was too late; the players lost interest and I put it on hold. My plan was to restart the campaign post-Ragnerok, telling the story of what had happened in the intervening period as a fictional background to the relaunched campaign. Writing this campaign background took a lot longer than I had anticipated. The TORG campaign was still going strong, and persisted for another year before it began to flounder with the PCs first visit to the Horror Realm of Orrorsh looming on the horizon.

Rather than start another campaign right away, I decided to go back to being a player for a while (except for the TORG campaign), enabling me to devote the time that a new campaign would have consumed in Prep to working on a new revision of the rules, and writing the Campaign Background I described previously.

I joined a GURPS Superheroes Campaign, but it didn’t last very long. I joined Ian Mackinder’s new Traveller Campaign, this time playing a Hyver – a psionic paranoid starfish, basically – and rewrote the Hyver supplement to fill in a lot of missing details about their society and life cycle. (Within 6 months, it joined the list of alien species which Ian swore to never, ever, let me play again. A young guy who wanted to start his own campaign and wanted experienced players to teach him the ropes had a go, but it didn’t last very long. I’m fairly certain this was also when I had my Directionally-challenged Orcish Tracker in Phil McGregor’s Roman Campaign.

Forensic Bookkeeping

Meanwhile, I set about looking for work as a casual bookkeeper, but I soon found that I lacked one fundamental skill for most jobs – I had zero experience at Payroll, and that was THE number-one requirement of a casual bookkeeper. It was easy for a business to pay the bills that were due and take care of the paperwork later, but working out the amount people had to be paid was not something that could wait from one week to the next.

It was at this time that I went to work for Andrew Johnson. If you recognize the name, it’s because he is one of the gamers that I mentioned a little while back – a former player in the Champions Campaign. It wasn’t actually the first time that I had worked for Andrew; some years previously, I had been part of a project involving fonts and a universal character block idea that he wanted to develop. In essence, this was all about drawing individual characters in high resolution. I don’t think that project ended up going anywhere.

Andrew had his own business, Affordable Solutions. He also had a few bad habits when it came to keeping his records straight – once a bill was paid, it would dissapear into a pile of no-longer-relevant documents. Pages would become separated or lost. He needed someone to get his accounts in order so that his accountant could work out his tax situation.

I describe what ensued as “Forensic Bookkeeping” because a large part of the process was identifying and re-creating missing papers. Most regular invoices, for example, will show an opening balance and any payments received since the issuing of the preceding invoice – which permits the reconstruction of the amount of an invoice if you have the ones to either side of it. There was also a lot of reconstruction of cheque butts that had not been adequately completed – some had amounts but no date or payee, some had payees but no dates or amounts, and a few had dates but nothing else. Some, remarkably enough, were complete.

Complicating this situation was that multiple chequebooks were in use simultaneously at various times – when one had been misplaced, for example, or left in the car, or was at the accountants. Once the “forensics” was complete, the information had to be entered into an accounting package. The Accountants had provided a list of three that were compatible with their systems, which we considered to be an important selection criteria, since it meant that we could provide more than just the printouts, we could provide a copy of the data itself. From memory, it took about 6 weeks. Towards the end of that period, a new hiding place was uncovered, revealing a new bunch of invoices, which we were able to use to validate my reconstruction. It was very pleasing when every item checked out!

This was helpful not only in the immediate sense that I was paid for it, but also that it gave me another entry on my resume, which would hopefully help me find work in the future. It didn’t, in that it did nothing to redress the glaring hole in my expertise, but it kept it current and growing, which was better than nothing.

It also introduced me, for the first time, to the internet. One of the perqs of the deal was that I was able to buy from Andrew a second-hand PC running Windows and a 56K modem. This was actually to enable me to enter the accounts information from home, which was essential if we were going to meet the legal deadline for getting the accounts information in at the accountants. But, when it wasn’t being used for work, it was all mine.

And this led to my next step towards Campaign Mastery, through a Magazine named Australian Internet Directory.


A.I.D. was basically a magazine which reviewed websites of interest, publishing the URLs. It started with my writing a couple of letters to the editor, which got published and resulted in some correspondence between the two of us. That was followed by my writing a couple of articles for the magazine – the first about compression artifacts in the jpegs used to illustrate the magazine, and a second about Microsoft and its attitude towards freeware. There may have been one or two others as well, but those are the two that I remember.

All were published. In fact the editor, himself a professional journalist, described them as ‘of sufficient quality to be published in the Sydney Morning Herald as feature articles’ in one of his emails – and as a former editor of that newspaper, he was in a position to judge. This was quite a caveat for me, which is why I still remember it, even though the email itself vanished long ago. He actually began to encourage me to consider a full-time career in journalism, but I was fairly certain that in the modern world, a degree would have been necessary to even get my foot in the door.

Nevertheless, his comments certainly encouraged me along the literary path.


The other thing that I was increasingly getting into at that time was composing music using the MIDI system (Either a letter to A.I.D. or another feature article was on the subject). For a long time, these were for my own entertainment and enjoyment only; but I eventually submitted one to a website specializing in such things, and was awarded their MIDI-Of-The-Day, which meant that it was the best music he had received that day, and was therefore shared with a hundred or more other enthusiasts. Over the next few years, I went on to win that award a grand total of 103 times. (I still compose music, when my PC is working. I recently completed work on my 500th idea. One day, I’ll put a CD out – or several).

Between these various endeavors and activities, and the ongoing search for work, a year or so slipped past. Before I knew it, the date was September of 1995.

IT Again!

That was when a door that I had presumed closed forever swung back open. With every passing year, my qualifications in IT had become more dated, and the early 1990s were a period of especially-explosive growth in computers and software. My problem-solving and analytic skills were still functional, and always would be, but the computer languages being used, like Visual Basic, were completely alien to me. What I did have going for me was knowledge of accountancy and bookkeeping software, and how to get it to do things that the designers had never thought of. Little did I know that this combination would be enough to land me a contract as an independent systems development contractor.

The job was actually offered to Andrew Johnson first, but it was neither up his alley nor something he was interested in pursuing. Instead, he put forward my name as someone with the right skills and attitude to get the job done right.

The position was computerizing the invoicing and inventory record-keeping for a manufacturer of roofing materials and other building components like balustrades. The problems they faced were two-fold; first, they had a number of different prices for every item, and consequently mistakes were being made in invoicing; and second, they had a large inventory of very similar items, and this also permitted errors to be made. In a nutshell, they had no idea exactly what inventory they had on hand at any given moment.

The system requirements, hardware, and operating system, were all being looked after by another guy, but he had neither the time nor the bookkeeping expertise to be able to handle integration of business practices and software, and the training of the staff. For that he needed a software guy, and I got the gig.

The notion was that hand-held scanners would read bar codes and automatically add the items to an incomplete invoice, which would subsequently be completed by the office staff. At the same time, inventory would be automatically adjusted to reflect the fact that the product was no longer on the premises for sale. I know, every supermarket chain has something similar these days, but this was in the mid-90s, and it was all cutting-edge at the time.

It turned out to be a much bigger job than anyone expected. At the end of the day, it turned out that the “few thousand” inventory lines that the business kept was actually in excess of 100,000 product lines – which astonished everyone involved, including the General Manager. I had to completely reinvent and rationalize their product classification system and simplify it before the software would be up to the job. What was initially estimated to be three month’s work ballooned into an estimate of about a year. Partial implementation – a functioning inventory system and the ability to create manual invoices and track payments into the bookkeeping software – was achieved after three months, enough to get a full handle on the real scope of the project. During this time, the manager who had persuaded the other partners to go down this road of automation left the company, and the General Manager decided that the manual system was good enough. After a couple of months dotting I’s and crossing T’s, mostly in the form of documentation (which always takes longer to write than expected), my part in the project was wound up.

The General Manager in question, Mike Hume, and the direct contractor, Gary, gave me some great references which acknowledged that the project was not wound up because of any dissatisfaction about my work, but because of a change in management policy and direction – something that can befall any project.

But it gave me the confidence that my abilities were not so dated as to be unusable, expanding my parameters when searching for future employment to things like Help Desk and Y2K preparations – and I continued to get onto shortlists in those roles, which surprised me and gave me further hopes for the future.

Data Entry Revolution

My next employment was with the Australian Bureau Of Statistics, processing the Census of 1996. I’ve written about my experience there in a past article, All The World’s A Suggestion Box, because it has lessons and relevance to gaming, too. The math of the situation speaks for itself: each week saved times hundreds of staff times hundreds of dollars per week paid to each staff member adds up to a lot of dough – between $10,000 and $100,000. In the course of this period of employment, I made suggestions that were later credited with savings approaching two months work – and that will undoubtedly continued to save the government money in each subsequent census – 2006 and 2011, so far. Even at a reasonably conservative estimate, I get a number of at least half a million dollars, and possibly quite a lot more. It certainly made me memorable to the supervisors and managers, and resulted in a number of glowing references.

It also added government employment as a serious prospect for future consideration.

But there was a downside, as I soon began to hear a word that no job-seeker should ever hear: “Overqualified”. It was a word that I was to become very familiar with in the months that followed.


My next employment was once again working for Andrew Johnson, who would never consider “overqualified” to be a relevant factor, this time on the Ausworld project. I’ve told this story in detail before, in a lengthy sidebar within Value For Money and the Pricing of RPG materials part 2 of 2. In a nutshell, we were bringing broadband to the masses in an era of 56K dial-up modems – with costs so low that potential customers were sure there was a catch, and profit margins so obscene that 100 customers would have made the company a viable operation.

This ended up being a project that drew on every skill that I had acquired (except musical composition) and pushed me to expand on them in every direction. I was involved in everything from Logo design to Website design, construction, and content, to network structure. Andrew and I were very much learning as we went, of necessity.

During this period, I had a number of gaming articles published here and there – there was a thing or two at Barrock’s Tower, and another at… well, I forget exactly where, and can’t access my emails to check. Burning Void? Twilight Time? Not sure.

It was also around this period that I started getting serious about finishing the superhero “campaign background” for a rebooting of the campaign. New players were arriving at the Gaming Group and they wanted to play it. At times, the anticipation was growing faster than the word count!

In contrast, the TORG campaign was definitely on its last legs at this point, despite a last-minute reprieve when a couple of new players joined it, but there was also growing interest in a new D&D campaign. Things were about to get busy again…

Independent Webmaster

My experiences with A.I.D. and Ausworld had convinced me that the internet was going to be a game-changer for business in more ways than people could possibly forecast, and I was in a position, skills-wise, to get myself in on the ground floor, or so I hoped. I decided to have a go at starting my own business as a Web Designer. With little-to-no money to launch the business, I started a door-knocking campaign at the nearest major shopping district, and managed to uncover a few operations who could be convinced to at least consider it. All I really needed, I felt, was one satisfied customer whose site I could point others toward, and I would be off and running. Three potential customers had second thoughts after seeing a written estimate of the development costs, even at the cut-price rate that I was charging ($5 an hour) to try and make a start of the business, and the fourth didn’t like the design that I submitted.

The Government of the time permitted little leeway in what they defined as “job searching”, and trying to line up customers for a new web-design business didn’t qualify under their guidelines. Despite attempts to obtain an exemption, they insisted that I put this ambition on hold until I could pursue it on my time, not theirs.

Data Entry Evolution

So my only choice was to go back to doing all the things that had been failing prior to the Ausworld Project, knowing that under the status quo, I would not be in gainful employment for a while.

It turned out to be about three months. That was when I received a letter from the Bureau of Statistics advising that they were again in need of staff to process the Census, and inviting me, as an experienced member from the previous one, to apply for a position. This proved to be one of the easiest interviews I had ever done; many of the managers and supervisors that I had known five years earlier were back on board and recognized me immediately. It was as much a reunion with old friends as it was a formal interview.

That was when I learned about the impact that my suggestions on that previous occasion had made to the expected duration of the processing of the Census this time around. My previous section manager was the I.T. Manager this time around, which is how the discussion of online processing that I described in All The World’s A Suggestion Box came about.

It’s really gratifying when you can see that you’ve made a difference in the world, and even more gratifying when others recognize it too.

One of the persistent rumors during this project was that the Melbourne City Government was trying to lure the ABS into processing the next Census there instead of in Sydney with promises of a CBD location and subsidies that would cut costs dramatically. Consider the economic impact of a multi-million dollar project every 5 years on the local economy, and you can see why they would be interested. Nevertheless, no decision would be made for at least another two years, when they began to plan for the 2006 Census.

Towards the end of the project, a junior management vacancy arose, and I was persuaded to put my name forward. Truth to tell, I didn’t need a lot of convincing; a lack of supervisory experience had shown up more than once in job application notices. Once again, I got to the short list, in fact I was told it came down to a coin-toss, or close to it. The project managers felt that I was a marginally bigger risk in that role, whereas I was superb in the position I already held, while the person who got the position was a safer bet as a team supervisor, and only “satisfactory” in their current role.

On such small margins can fate hang, sometimes. With my skillset, experience, and the addition of supervisory experience, I would have been a dead certainty for a number of different jobs in the future, and my life would inevitably have been different from that point onward. Needless to say, it didn’t happen.


It was sometime in the next twelve months, while I continued to look for employment, that I picked up the 100th award for composition against increasingly stiff competition; the site behind them was beginning to acquire a reputation in the field (small as it might have been), and so was I. It was a rare month that one of my pieces wasn’t the most downloaded track, and also usually the highest-rated. In fact, you can still find some of my work floating around the internet, especially “In Remembrance Of The Fallen”, composed in the hours immediately after the attack to capture my feelings and reactions to the 9/11 attacks – for example at this page run by long-time supporter Jack Snead. I treasure the emails I got from the families of some of the victims who told me that my piece had enabled them to start to put their own feelings into perspective, and begin the healing process.

It was also somewhere around this time that the Zenith-3 campaign started, and that I first sent an idea to Roleplaying Tips, introducing me to Johnn Four. More reader tips followed, and then some full articles. A few got poor reviews but most were very well received, and I even got a few pieces of fan mail. (A quick Google search, limited to the Pre-CM time-frame, finds 31 distinct references – and at least one from the early days was mis-attributed, as I recall).

The Trouble Begins

I’d been experiencing growing back pain for a while, but x-rays didn’t seem to show anything wrong. I had started using a walking stick for additional stability and support, but even with this assistance, my mobility was increasingly impaired. At first, all the talk was about pulled muscles and the like.

…and worsens: The Crippled Year

My back pain slowly became crippling; whereas I could previously walk to and from the shops in Lakemba in ten minutes or so, I was now reduced to a very slow shuffle; it was three hours hard work to walk to the shopping center, an hour of rest before I could do the shopping and another afterwards, then another four hours or so to shuffle the 1.25 kilometers (a little less than a mile, or about 5 city blocks) back home – and spend the next 24 hours flat on my back, recovering.

When there’s a problem and your doctor can’t identify the cause, you tend to look for a second opinion, especially when the treatment doesn’t produce any improvement. One doctor consulted compared my mobility with that of the typical 101-year-old – unfavorably.

Finally, in January 2004, I was sent for a CT scan of my lower back, which showed pronounced compression between two vertebrae and what I can only describe as a “flange” on the vertebrae above this unusually-narrowed gap. It looked for all the world like a garden stake that had been pounded into the ground which was subsequently exhumed and turned upside down. (I’d provide a picture but my scanner is connected to the PC and won’t plug into the laptop, which doesn’t have the software to interface with it in any event).

The diagnosis was that at some point in the past, I had carried a load that was more than my spine could support, squeezing one of the lumbar disks out between two vertebrae – a “slipped disk” – and crushing the bottom of the upper vertebrae against the top of the lower one. This was resulting in pinched nerves, which in turn led my core back muscles to try and do the spine’s work for it as a reflex response to the pain; the more I walked, or stood up, the more these would ache.

In nine cases out of ten, or more, this problem will fix itself with a mixture of core-strength exercises and physiotherapy, plus a little anti-inflammatory medication. That, then, was the prescription in my case – and a lot of rest. For the next 6 months, maybe longer, I was relieved of my job-search obligations. Although I was crippled by pain, my application for a disabled status was not approved because the doctors anticipated an eventual recovery.

Webmaster: CLAN

I seemed to make a full recovery, though I was still prone to occasional bouts of back pain, especially if I walked too much or stood up for too long, or bent over the wrong way, or used public transport for too long; this was explained as my back muscles having learned “bad habits” that would eventually subside if I avoided re-injury.

Eventually, I was deemed well enough to work part-time, and hence was back on the job-search trail, though some allowances were made for physical impairment, which qualified me for additional support. By this time, the government that had earlier decided trying to start your own business as`a webmaster was not an ‘appropriate use of time’ had instituted a program that forced those who had been out of work long enough into retraining. Since the tools had changed since my initial foray in that direction – dreamweaver and photoshop were now the industry standards – I managed to persuade the job placement service with whom I was registered that undertaking the class that they ran in those software packages would be useful training.

It took only one afternoon of my playing around with these pieces of software and asking detailed technical questions for the tutor to realize that I wasn’t the complete novice that he usually had to deal with, and after scrutinizing my resume, he recommended me for a work-for-the-dole position acting as Webmaster for an organization called CLAN.

C.L.A.N. is the Care Leavers Australia Network, a support, advocacy, research, and training group for people who grew up in Orphanages, Children’s Homes, and in Foster Care. To quote from their website,

Close to half a million children in Australia in the 20th century were brought up in ‘care’: as state wards, foster children or Home children raised in orphanages, Children’s Homes, and other institutions, and in foster care. Many of these people are now middle-aged or older but still carry the burden of unresolved issues from this past.

Many are afraid to tell their friends, even their children, that they were in the care system because of the stigma it carried. Many were cut off from all contact with family members, and are still looking for them.

Most left the care system without any preparation or assistance for adulthood or for parenthood. Many are left with the scars of emotional deprivation and neglect, and of physical, sexual and psychological abuse.

[They] are the forgotten survivors of a past child welfare system which deprived [them] of a sense of identity, of self-worth, and of a rightful place in our society.

My initial duties were all about organizing the Library of books on the subject that the organization had collected over the years (plus many self-help books, etc.) Most of these were not entered in the register of books available for members to borrow, and most of those which were listed did not have an image of the cover, always useful for people to recognize the books that they had already read. In addition, many members had made photographs of the institutions within which they had been raised available to the organization, which had to be put online; many of those institutions were not listed in CLAN’s database, although they had information on them. So they needed a combination of data entry, graphics scanning and editing/restoration, and administration of their website, which held barely a passing resemblance to its current appearance.

Eventually, the subsidized period of employment ran out, with the task nowhere near complete. With still another notch in my professional belt – I returned to the search for permanent employment. The date was December 2008.

CLAN Again

About two months later, I was offered a part-time position at CLAN, doing exactly the same things as I had been doing previously, as well as updating other aspects of the web site – posting news bulletins and the like. I gradually became aware that bugs in the website implementation, and especially within the customized Web CMS, were a growing issue. Discussions with the programmer who had done the customization revealed that it made the website incompatible with an upgrade to the CMS but eventually the decision was made to revise that customization and upgrade the software. This made a huge difference not only to the efficiency and functionality of the site, but to it’s overall look and feel. Some repetitive functions were reduced from substantial fractions of an hour to mere minutes, and some were reduced from minutes to seconds.

This was an exciting time for the organization, as they slowly began to achieve official recognition of the problems its members faced – culminating in the November 2009 National Apology to the Forgotten Australians. I believe they would have achieved this without me, as it was the culmination of superhuman efforts by a lot of people over many years, but I am proud of whatever contributions I made towards the event and anything I was able to do to make the burden easier for the victims of the situation in the meantime.

CLAN operates through a combination of membership subscriptions and donations, so funding is always in short supply and has to be carefully allocated to immediate priorities. It was not an entirely unexpected development when, in December 2008, after a grand total of 23 months work for the organization, it was decided that they had to let my position go. More than half the task for which I had been employed remained incomplete, as the more responsive CMS enabled more and more of my time to be consumed in home page updates and other dynamic content; if not for that, it would probably have been nearing completion by that point. Nevertheless, something on the order of 5000 updates to the databases had been achieved, and more than 1000 images – many of poor quality due to age – uploaded.

It’s important not to underestimate the value to the Care Leaver of having recognition of their institution in the form of an image. It validates their experience, and offers recognition that it really did happen to them; it showed that while they may have been Forgotten by mainstream Australia, there were those who did remember them. Of course, similar social practices existed throughout the western world during the era in question; children’s Homes and orphanages were hardly a uniquely Australian solution. It’s a sure bet that if there was ever such an institution in your part of the world, there are people who suffered because of it, and who continue to suffer, even if it is through second-, third-, or even fourth-generation ramifications. (This is the reason why the issues of compensation are so complex and difficult, and one of the reasons it was an uphill struggle to get anyone to commit to an apology that would have opened the door to such compensation).

Be that as it may, I knew from early November that my time with CLAN was coming to an end. But this time there was going to be no interval of any substance between this job and my next; on November 28, Johnn and I began rolling out Campaign Mastery, and one month later, on December 28, the site went public.

The Road to Campaign Mastery

Johnn and I had started corresponding about two years earlier concerning a plan to update and reorganize old issues of Roleplaying Tips. No content remains evergreen forever, and some of it was looking very dated. None of it was cross-indexed by subject. At the same time, we began talking about doing some collaborative e-books and articles together. Over time, a 5-year plan was crafted – at least, that’s how long it would have taken by my estimates – to turn Roleplaying Tips into the centerpiece of an RPG publishing mini-empire. Johnn, on the other hand, was very much feeling the press of time, and needed to see substantial income flows long before that endpoint or he would have to look elsewhere for his financial independence.

Lest he be judged too harshly, I should hasten to point out that Roleplaying Tips and related endeavors were very much a second job for Johnn, and even workaholics doing something they love burn out eventually.

We spent almost a year working on the Taxonomy and internal structure of the planned websites (yes sites – there were to be five of them, including the rebuilt Roleplaying Tips. We even got as far as purchasing the domain names). We valued the business plan that we came up with at US$100,000, we were so confident of success. I’m not going to go into a lot of detail, as parts of that plan – however delayed – are still in place, both here and at Roleplaying Tips.

Part of that plan was a blog to focus on presenting new material from the two of us – and that part became Campaign Mastery. But the real world is full of surprises and twists and turns, just like a good campaign.

This is a Wikipedia Commons image, my back injury is more extensive and pronounced.

This is a Wikipedia Commons image, my back injury is more extensive and pronounced.


My back pain had never gone away, and in Mid-2010, it was again becoming severe. It had not yet reached the point of being crippling, but the trend was unmistakable. In addition, for the preceding decade I had been suffering from pain in my knees when climbing or descending stairs and slopes, which had never been successfully diagnosed, and which was increasing in frequency and severity. Finally, my Doctor located an Orthopedic Specialist who bulk-billed through the government Medicare Scheme, and referred me for examination.

Dr Habib ordered MRI scans of the spine and both knees, having verified the symptomology that I reported to him.

From these scans, the knee problems were diagnosed as Chondromalacia Patellae, a condition in which the cartilage between the knee joints has softened or become inflamed, or, in may case, been forced out from between the joint, pushing the kneecaps up and away from where they are supposed to be. Whenever they receive a jolt or other stress, the bones of the leg impact with each other, and pinching the nerves in between.

The scans revealed that my back problem years earlier had not been merely a slipped disc, but a disk that had burst completely, releasing the cushioning material within, and that the disc had somehow managed to turn itself inside out in the process. Part of the inner lining of the disk – which has a texture not unlike sandpaper – was rubbing against the spinal column, while part was abrading the muscle wall of the back. This is a rare outcome from a herniated disc.

It meant that every time I walked far enough, or stood long enough, or bent incorrectly, or experienced unusual motion, I would suffer short-term, long-term, and permanent consequences. Severe back pain would be the short-term outcome, severely limiting my mobility for a period of minutes, hours, or days, depending on how far over the line I had gone. Not all that lost mobility would be or could be recovered; some of it would be lost for periods of months or years. And some of it would never return. Eventually, significant spinal cord damage would accumulate, potentially resulting in eventual lower limb paralysis. In addition, sudden jolts would cause pinched nerves, which would inflict pain anywhere from the hips down.

Surgery was possible, but not recommended; part of the damaged disc was entwined amongst the spinal nerves, and there was at least an 80% likelihood of permanent paralysis if it was attempted.

The condition is chronic, which means that it is untreatable and lingering, but can be managed. With due diligence and care, I might be able to avoid a wheelchair for twenty years or more – from the date of diagnosis. The two problems operate in combination to form an especially difficult problem. Most people can avoid back injury by bending from the knees; this option is not available to me. I have to bend and lift in exactly the wrong way.

Every step that the Government had forced me to make since my initial back trouble had caused permanent damage. Although unhappy about that, I did not resent the government regulations for it. What I resented was that they still did not qualify me as disabled. My condition – and quality-of-life for the rest of my life would have to worsen before I would qualify – and that I do resent.

I am in near-constant pain, but it is usually at a relatively “tolerable” level. I can count on one hand the number of days that I have been completely without pain in the last two years.

Compromising With Reality

Over time, I have learned to manage the problem, at least most of the time. I avoid bending and lifting. I can’t cook as much as I used to, because I can’t continually stand and stir, nor can I keep getting up and down, so my diet is impaired. I have trouble cleaning, and have even more trouble feeding the washing machine. I have learned to stop and rest as soon as I feel pain from excessive walking. I do most of my banking online, because I can’t stand up in the queue at the bank. I use online shopping and home delivery options as much as possible. I can tolerate about ten minutes bus travel, or about 30 minutes train travel – longer if I can get better seating with more leg room. I avoid rush hour travel, because I can’t stand up in a bus or train at all. I now run most of my games from home; once a month, the Pulp Campaign still happens at the old location (about 20 minutes bus travel), but I usually get a lift home with a friend in his car – and have to stay in bed most of the following day. I can’t do a full day’s work, I can’t sit for that long – but I can manage about three or four hours a day from home, most of which goes into Campaign Mastery, or a fuller day – followed by a day of bed-rest.

Two years ago, I could walk roughly four-to-six blocks before feeling acute back pain. Then my brother and his fiancée came to Sydney to visit – she had never been to a city of this size before – and the family took her on a tour of the place. I can now walk just three blocks before the acute pain sets in – the sign that I am nearing the point of permanent damage. For most of the last two years, that range has been just two blocks.

That one day cost me half of my mobility. Will I recover the rest? Maybe.

I relate these details not to engender sympathy, but to point out a simple fact: Self-employment from home is the only work that I am physically capable of performing. Campaign Mastery fits that prescription to a “t”.

With A Little Help from My Friends

Throughout my years, I’ve been helped by friends many times, and I have done my best to help them, when they needed it. Most of those friends have been made through gaming. It has shaped my professional life, my employment history, and me as a person. And, in many ways, that professional and personal life has all come together to give me the skills and qualities that I employ every week in producing Campaign Mastery. Whether it be the analytic abilities that were honed by my time in I.T., or the communication skills that I have learned, or the ability to function as a webmaster, or the graphic design and illustrative capacities that I employ from time to time – it all funnels into this particular occupation.

In a great many ways, Campaign Mastery is the culmination of my entire life. Gaming has given me the life that I’ve had – warts and all – and this is my way of returning the favor. And that’s what makes this two-part article an appropriate way to commemorate the 5th Anniversary of the website.

It’s become traditional for me to share some vital stats with the readers on landmark occasions like this, so here goes: in its 5 years, CM has racked up:

  • 444,000 visits
  • 283,000 unique visitors
  • 800,000 pageviews, and
  • 37% returning visitors.

Life Mastery

It’s impossible to condense a life of 50 years – going on 51, now – into one or two essays. I’ve done my best to hit the high spots along the way, but of necessity, things had to get left out, either for reasons of brevity, of relevance, or of privacy – and most of them are the accomplishments that I am most proud of. I don’t know about anyone else, but I keep a list of those personal achievements; they cheer me up anytime I’m feeling down. No-one knows the circumstances of all of these; in some cases, promises made will prevent me from ever divulging the details.

I thought it fitting to end this article by reciting that list. These are the things that I can look back on with pride when the final judgment comes – and since Gaming has shaped my life, these are the true rewards that gaming has produced. In no particular order, then:

  • Prevented 3 suicides
  • Saved 1 person from homelessness
  • Saved 1 marriage
  • Got 1 person off heroin
  • Reunited 1 family
  • Helped at least 1 person recover after 9/11
  • Gave up one romance for a friend
  • Was a good Samaritan to a stranger at personal cost at least once
  • Helped the police identify and prosecute a home invader
  • Helped those in need as much and as often as I could

That’s a track record that I, and Gaming, can be proud of. And oh yes, one more item:

  • Gave the gift of gaming to others.

Thank you and best wishes to every reader and contributor, past and present. Campaign Mastery is as much your achievement as it is mine. Have a Happy New Year, and may 2014 bring brighter days to us all!

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Dice And Life: Bio of a gamemaster (A 5th Anniversary Special) Part 1 of 2



It’s hard to pin down a beginning for Campaign Mastery. The idea had been in development for three or four months before the first article was posted, and had emerged from protracted discussions between Johnn and Myself about the future evolution of Roleplaying Tips, where I had been an occasional – almost semi-regular – contributor for a few years. I told some of that story as introduction to the 500th article not very long ago.

The first article was posted by Johnn as a test on December 18th, 2008. A couple more were developed and posted over the next couple of weeks for four reasons: First, we wanted to get a feel for how long it would take to create and maintain the site; second, we wanted to try and get ourselves into a rhythm before going public; third, we wanted to make sure there were no bugs in our administrative processes; and finally, Johnn thought it important that we actually have a couple of articles available as soon as the site became public to establish the tone and approach that we would be taking.

The site itself went semi-public on the 28th of December, 2008, with no fanfare. The approach was deliberately low-key to give us the chance to work out any bugs before they became catastrophic, and we very much wanted the site to be an ongoing resource that simply had not been noticed before – the sort of discovery that you brag about to your friends. On the 1st or 2nd of January, 2009, we told Google to start indexing the site, and began a program of getting ourselves noticed, starting by tapping into Roleplaying Tip’s existing subscriber base.

By my count, that makes the 5th Anniversary somewhere around… well, Now! Occasions like these tend to be self-indulgent to some extent, and this article makes no pretense of being any different.

From the very beginning, Campaign Mastery reflected the different styles of it’s co-owners. Johnn’s articles tended to be short, tight, the sort of things that would fit on a page or two in a magazine, and very much the sort of thing that he was used to producing and publishing for Roleplaying Tips. My articles aimed for depth and comprehensiveness, the sort of thing that might make a feature article in such a Magazine. Over the next couple of months, we began to absorb elements of each other’s styles, and some unity of style began to emerge.

Right from the start, we exhibited the hallmark duality that has become synonymous with the site, a sort of compromise between a typical GMing Blog and an online Magazine with Blog Structural elements. We always recognized that our chief assets were the experience that we had as GMs – something on the order of 50 years, between us – and our capacity to analyze, encapsulate, and articulate that experience.

So that’s what this article is all about – my experience as a GM. It’s the story of how my life has shaped and been shaped by the hobby – well, part of that rather lengthy story, anyway.

And along the way, I’m hopeful that some the experience and the wisdom that it has engendered will seep into the words, to benefit to other GMs out there.

It’s a story that encapsulates two principles: determination in the face of adversity, and taking every experience that comes your way and folding it back into your gaming expertise.

In The Beginning

I discovered gaming while at University, about mid-way through my first year. This was the first year that the institution had offered a degree in IT, and to be brutally honest, they hadn’t quite figured the curriculum, so they dumped us all into a heap of general science, math, and engineering foundation courses that held little or no relevance to the world of computers.

At the same time, I was dealing – badly – with a failure in my romantic life. While I did my best to put on a brave face and pretend that everything was fine, it destroyed what little enthusiasm I could muster (under the circumstances) for my “studies” – that being exactly what I didn’t do very much of. I was further handicapped by the way that everything in High School had come easily to me, so I was more than a little overconfident. So I was in a state of deep depression, indulging in self-destructive behavior, and blindly certain of my ability to cope with it all.

I had become involved in the university Science-Fiction society, and they were the people who had first introduced me to gaming. I’ve told that part of the story in these pages before, in Bringing on the next generation, Part One: Player Peers, which describes how I was taught to be a good player, and its sequel, Bringing on the next generation, Part Two: Gamemaster Mentors which described my introduction into the world of GMing.

When I was gaming, the weight of my personal problems was lifted from my shoulders, and I finally began to heal as a person, and to make an effort in my studies. But by now, more than half the year was gone, and my renewed enthusiasm was inevitably too little, too late.

Did that mean that I was forced to give up my deep desire to become a computer programmer? Not on your life! It just meant that I needed to find another approach.

While I returned home to await the results of my exams, hoping for the best but fearing the worst, I introduced my family to my new hobby, in particular my two brothers, and that’s also a story that I’ve told before: Gaming With The Family – Lessons from yesteryear.

The Year In The Snowfields

I also needed to find employment, so a practical approach to both issues was to get a job with an employer who made extensive use of computer technology and work toward promotion and training from within. I found the largest Bank in Australia, and became a Bank Clerk.

This meant relocating to the Snowfields, because my employment was as an additional staff member to cope with the usual winter demands. Cooma is a largish town, but during the winter season it had eight-to-ten times the usual demands in the form of tourists on their way to the ski slopes.

This stint in ‘the gateway to the snowfields’ might have spelt the end of most games. It was certainly the time when I really grew up as a person – as much as I ever have, anyway. I finally was able to put the failed romance behind me, for a start, and I finished coming out of my shell. I had always been shy as a child; I had started emerging from that cocoon through gaming, and camaraderie I found at the Commonwealth Bank completed the job. I would never have had the nerve to speak up through these pages without that experience.

Being eight hours of train travel away from the game would normally spell death to a campaign, but every long weekend I would travel to Sydney and stay with a friend – once every two months or so, on average – plus I was often able to use my Rostered Day Off to create a long weekend where there wasn’t one. Between these factors, I was able to GM roughly once every three weeks or so.

The gaps gave me lots of time to think about the game, and the rules, and the direction of the campaign. I had time to refine the adventures, and was able to prepare lots of game in advance – more than enough for the time available.

It was entirely normal in those days to start at 10AM on the Saturday morning and play through until 3 or 4 or 5 or even 6 AM. It was also entirely normal to play in two, three, or four campaigns in the course of a “day”. You could never be sure of how many hours of play your campaign would get, so it became normal for me to prepare enough game to be able to GM for 13 or 14 hours straight.

It’s not easy doing that. You need to be able to get inside both the players’ and the PCs’ heads, work out how they are likely to react to whatever circumstances you are going to throw at them, and make sure you have enough developments to keep the game interesting. A lot of my GMing style and work ethic, which I also apply to Campaign Mastery, was developed in this period.

My AD&D campaign was not the only one I was involved in at this point; I had joined Ian Mackinder’s Traveller campaign as a Newt, a cowardly, even paranoid species but terrific bookkeepers and accountants. Employing these talents, I was able to convince the Captain of the ship that several of the crew were in two separate factions that were plotting against him, building 16 pages of airtight circumstantial cases against several of the other PCs, and then setting forth a plan that would lead them to fight it out with each other while we watched from the sidelines. [When this conflict became inevitable, Ian ended the campaign (when he could stop laughing long enough) and swore to never, EVER, let me play another Newt in one of his campaigns as long as he lived... ]

When the Winter came to an end, so did my employment. This was not entirely unexpected, nor was it all that unsatisfying in professional terms; I had learned that while a lot of their IT staffing had resulted from promotion from within up until 5 years earlier, this was no longer the case at the Commonwealth Bank. With no prospects for advancement within my chosen career – no prospects even for a start in it – I was ready to move on.

The Beach Year

I was also quite desirous of moving back to the city. One of my players had told me about a set of one-room apartments with shared kitchen, laundry, and bathroom facilities that was extremely affordable. The only vacancy, when I inquired, turned out to be the third-floor (or was it fourth floor?) attic. The roof leaked a little, the pipes in the laundry were full of rust, the hot water in the bathroom was a coin-operated system that dated from World War I (you had to buy “old currency” from the landlord to feed the meter), and the kitchen – which also used the same coins to feed the gas meter – was cockroach-infested. On the other hand, my room was two or three times the size of most of the rooms, the rent was only $10 a fortnight, and I was only 250m away from one of the most famous beaches in the country, Bondi.

I was also able to return to a relatively normal gaming schedule. We still played from 10 AM until 1 or 2 AM the next morning (sometimes later), but we did it every week. Having learned how to plan and prepare long-range within the game, but having effectively unlimited prep time to do so, I now had to learn to compromise with limited prep time. The key development was that I retained the ability that I had developed to make long-range plans within the campaign.

Being unemployed, I was on a very tight budget at the time. Despite a heavy burden in reference books, campaign materials, and the like – between 30 and 50 kilograms (65-110 lbs) by my estimation – I could either walk to gaming or walk home afterwards, I could not afford to take public transport both ways. I’m no longer sure of the exact distance (that’s the sort of information I have come to rely on the internet to provide – which becomes a problem when the internet is no longer available). My best recollection is that it was a 10-12 km walk (6-7.5 miles), and that it used to take somewhere between three and five hours, which seems about right given the load. I actually used two leather belts to create some straps so that I could carry the load on my back and shoulders, then obtained a backpack that was too small to contain everything, but was large enough to hold the school case that was large enough to hold it all.

It wasn’t very long, in fact, before I had a couple of on-the-side weekday campaigns as well.

After about six months in these almost-beach-side accommodations, I was given a copy of the Champions Rules and my superhero campaign started – a campaign whose descendants are still continuing today.

For 13 weeks, I found part-time work as an assistant to the local council; most of my duties involved walking down every street in the district, checking that the House Numbers met council regulations, in the mornings, while I assisted as a filing clerk in the property development office in the afternoons.

In fact, there were three superhero campaigns set in the same game universe. The first was a purely solitary affair, used to teach myself the rules and create a campaign background for the other two. The second was set in the 1950s and a family of runaway slaves who hid out on Earth for most of the next half-decade. Even though this campaign was still ongoing, it also formed the background to the third campaign, which was set in the early 70s – set (deliberately) one decade prior to the contemporary date. This was because, while we all had different interests at the current time (I refer to my players and myself), we at least had that much foundation in common.

But it’s the second of these campaigns that became significant in terms of life developments, because it eventually resulted in a change of address.

The Lidcombe/Ryde Years

I had found a job working for the owner of a couple of McDonald’s restaurants as a Bookkeeper. The Manager was one of those visionaries who could see the shape of the future a long way in advance, and had foreseen the potential of the personal computer to manage a small business, and wanted to employ someone to create something along the lines of the Accountancy Software that became common about five years later – Quickbooks or MYOB or Attache. What’s more, he didn’t make the mistake so many others did of expecting such software to increase the efficiency of the office-work; it never does, in fact it’s usually more work than a manual process. What it improves is accuracy and management control. However, he seriously underestimated the difficulty of the task and the time-frame expectations that he had were totally unrealistic. Like all of us, he had his flaws, in other words.

Making things worse, the computer that they expected to use was not capable of running MS-DOS (then the most ubiquitous operating system). It had its own OS that most people had never heard of before and which required machine-code programming and not a more modern programming language. If he’d bought ab Apple-II or even a Commodore-64, I would have been able to cope and provide him with something close to what he wanted, but he’d bet on the wrong horse.

Nevertheless, he took me on as a bookkeeper, and as an assistant to the marketing and promotions manager for the company, enabling me to build on the experience that I had acquired during my Bank Service, and I set about making myself indispensable.

As a result, I had money in my pocket and a reliable income, and was open to the invitation when one of the players in that second superhero campaign offered to let me move into their spare bedroom.

Robbie, the player in question, was an incredibly generous guy. He would give a stranger his last dollar, give a hungry friend the last scrap of food in the house. In many ways, he was a child who had never had to grow up. He also had his faults, I’d be the first to admit, but one the whole a lovely human being, and one who shaped my personal philosophies in many ways.

His biggest flaw was that he was totally enthralled with his partner, who was an acute diabetic, and suffered wild mood swings as a result; but she was also manipulative, jealous, and spoiled rotten. She continually exaggerated the effects of her illness to twist Robbie around her finger. At the same time, I think she genuinely cared for him, but saw him as a child who needed to be protected from his own generosity. She always saw my presence in the household as a necessary evil, useful for sharing the household expenses and keeping Robbie amused, but never someone whose feelings or opinions were to be taken into account – and she resented it any time the game took Robbie’s attention away from her.

Around this time, my AD&D campaign wrapped up, and was replaced with a spin-off campaign from my superhero campaign – this was the Project:Vanguard campaign, the direct forebear of the current Zenith-3 campaign. Both were about training, protecting, and developing the next generation of Superheros.

After about six months, we found ourselves adopting another stray puppy into the household. A friend, and player from my third superhero campaign, simply showed up on our doorstep one day, seeking refuge from his abusive father. He wanted a piece of carpet to occupy for the weekend, he got a roof over his head; both Robbie and Trish insisted that he move in, right now, and would accept no argument in opposition. Technically, Peter wasn’t yet old enough to leave home, but he moved in anyway.

Given his character, Robbie’s insistence that Peter stay with us was not surprising, and I had learned that part of my own character (in part) from his example, but – given my earlier description – you might be surprised at Trish’s immediate agreement. It took a long time for the truth of that to come out; she had three reasons for her decision. First, she knew Robbie well enough to know that he would insist, and – because Robbie himself had been physically abused by his father – this was one of the few times when he would have stood up to her if she had insisted. Second, she wasn’t an inherently bad person – so long as she got what she wanted. And third, she hoped that Peter would keep me busy, so that I could not steal as much of Robbie’s attention from her.

In any event, Peter began to share my room. It didn’t take much longer for us to discover that the half-house wasn’t quite big enough for the four of us – but that between us, we could probably afford a larger place elsewhere.

And so we moved – for the first time, into a house with the lease and utilities all in Trish’s name. She was pregnant at the time, which eventually became significant. Around this time, my employers made the decision to let me go, since the original purpose for which I had been employed had never been possible.

Within three days, they were back on the phone, asking me if I wanted to continue with them on a casual basis. It didn’t take long for this to become regular part-time employment – at casual pay rates, which normally meant that I was bringing home almost as much pay for fewer working hours. But it was enough to unsettle Trish’s confidence in my continuing ability to pay my way. Adding stress to that situation was that she and Peter had a real knock-down drag-out argument which led to him leaving, and that Trish and Robbie were starting to experience marital difficulties, the stress of the pregnancy and the financial burdens it entailed contributing to the situation. With the birth impending, Trish finally convinced Robbie to ask me to move out to make room for the Baby – on virtually no notice. She let the lease expire and moved back in with her parents; Robbie was absolutely shattered and I only saw him a time or two more.

The Lewisham Year

Maybe I should have seen it coming, but the whole situation took me by surprise, too. To make things worse, the casual work began to dry up and become more and more unreliable, also unexpectedly.

When you have few options, you take whatever you can get. In this case, Kevin, an old friend from the University Science Fiction Society stopped by at Games – unlike a lot of people in the US, most of my gaming has been in public, as I discussed in my article The Arcane Implications of Seating at the Game Table – and he happened to have a friend (also a passing acquaintance of mine) who happened to have a room available. He didn’t need to rent out the space, and didn’t really want the company – but Mike was a good guy and decided to give me a chance and see how it worked out.

Around this time, my life began to get very busy with various activities outside gaming. Social life, doing art for Kevin’s APA, and an increased level of obligation to Centrelink, the government agency which handles unemployment benefits and job-searching within Australia.. Between all these outside activities, I found that I had very little time left for game prep. Because this was reasonably close to his drive to-and-from Gaming, I was able to get a lift in. In effect, I had gone from low prep time to virtually no prep time; this was when I started developing my techniques for zero-prep GMing, such as those described in By The Seat Of Your Pants: Adventures On the Fly.

The Nyngan Interruption – Phase 1

I had always been a graphic artist of sorts, but by now I was starting to get reasonably good at it, and had been without work for some time. My Aunt and Uncle decided to back me and see if I could make a career of it. They offered to build me a Granny Flat in the back yard of their home, where I could live rent-free while I tried to get a graphic arts business off the ground. The only catch was that the back yard was back in my home town – a place that I recently told everyone about as part of the October Blog Carnival in Location, Location, Location: Nyngan. I didn’t have very long to decide, but I didn’t need very long – everything except my gaming had more or less stalled over the last six months, I was going nowhere where I was, and I knew it.

I gave it a fair shot. I did a couple of adverts for pay, I got a number of pieces in the Aussiecon II World Science Fiction convention and began to develop a fan following, I improved my techniques, and even had a commission or two.

Drawing on my experience from the Bank Years, I knew that the move didn’t have to mean the end of my games. Because it was farther away, travel would take longer and be more expensive, so instead of averaging a game session every 3 weeks, it was every six to eight weeks – but I was able to stay in Sydney for the best part of a week. With gaming happening every day or night for three-to-five days at a time, we achieved the same average amount of play as if I had been in Sydney the whole time.

In fact, my guideline was still to write one adventure for each of my campaigns per week that passed – plus to have one or two extras up my sleeve in case the players didn’t take as long as expected. This pushed my skills in planning and anticipating the PCs to the very limit. I would not have dared try it if I had not had the previous experience in doing so – or, if I had, it would have ended in disaster.

After about 6 months, it had become clear that while I had attracted a number of fans of my art, I wasn’t attracting anywhere near enough commercial prospects to make the business viable. But something else had happened that was going to be relevant to everyone reading this: I had discovered a love of not just reading, but of writing, especially the writing of game products and reference material. In addition to the many adventures and associated NPCs that I was preparing, I wrote the first draft of my campaign background in a mere three days (using a manual typewriter) (and then spent another week preparing illustrations for it) – including a thirty-odd page explanation of the campaign physics which is still referred to, today – and the charter and bylaws of the superhero organization in about a week (because it was fiddly and technical). My campaigns would never be the same again – and if the first step towards Campaign Mastery was my becoming a GM, this was a definite second step!

The Nyngan Interruption – Phase 2

Having decided that Nyngan could not support a full-time graphic artist, even one who did not have to pay rent and had most of his meals catered free, the question was what to do next. The city was clearly where all the employment opportunities were going to be – and I still had not given up on the idea of getting into what was now being referred to as I.T.

Moving would not be cheap; I would need finances to sustain me while I looked for work and searched out affordable accommodations. This residence would need to be near Public Transport (increasing the rental). Saving up enough money would require two years or more under unemployment benefits, or perhaps three months if I found work.

And so, through a government program, I became a Field Assistant for the State Department of Agriculture, working on a study of the effects of bush-fire and the use of Fire and Herbicides as a means of clearing weeds. Ideally, I would have had a driver’s license, but candidates were few thin on the ground; I was one of only two applicants, and neither of us were ideal for the position. It was a close-run thing but my previous experience as a clerk was just enough to tip the balance in my favor.

Because this was specified from the very beginning as a 6-month temporary contract, I was able to structure my budget from the very beginning to achieve my ultimate goals. I was forced to cut back on the Gaming Trips in the meantime, but I knew this was going to be strictly temporary – and I had Christmas and Easter in the middle of this employment stint, which could still be used for the purpose, so there was only a small cutback in the end. Even better, I was able to use Rostered Days Off and take a day without pay to bridge the gap between Christmas and New Years, giving me almost a week-and-a-half at the Gaming Table.

I actually used another RDO and my accumulated annual leave, when the time came, to travel to Sydney in search of Work; my belongings would follow when I had accommodations. I had, once again some careful plans using a Sydney Telephone Directory, listing several institutions who were (a) likely to hire & train new recruits, and (b) who had separate IT departments. I approached the first two of these the day I arrived, and while one did nothing but hand me an application form (and warn that they did not have many vacancies), the other was sufficiently impressed by the initiative and determination that I had shown to both interview me and recruit me on the same day. Training was to commence in three weeks, when they had accumulated enough recruits to fill a class.

With an accumulated reserve of cash to use as a deposit, and a certain income, I actually found it very easy to locate a two-bedroom split-level apartment that met all my needs – that took another week. I moved in a week later, and two days after that, my furniture and belongings arrived in Sydney. The Wandering GM was back in town, and he was there to stay! The date was December 1985, and four years of instability were about to be replaced with years of stability and progress, with only occasional intervals of anarchy…

As you can tell from the length of this piece, I’m slowly getting on top of the Laptop’s over-exuberance. It only took about twice as long to write as usual! Part two (if I get it finished in time) will wrap up this nostalgic look back at how everything has been leading to… Campaign Mastery!

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Lessons from the Discworld of Terry Pratchett


There are a number of valuable lessons for any RPG that can be observed in the looking at how Terry Pratchett achieved the success of the Discworld series of novels.

Introduce the Key Concepts Early

In the first entry in the series, he introduced the Discworld itself, established its basic physical and conceptual parameters, and began to explore what made the world unique. He introduced the basic rules of the world – everyone, no matter how trivial or mundane they might be within the society is a larger-than-life personality, for example (even the luggage)– and he tolled a rollicking story that was greatly entertaining. This story ended on a cliffhanger, which is always a great way for a first adventure to end.

Make sure you tie up loose ends quickly

When you have a world shaped like a disk, it logically begs the question of what happens at the edges, and that was a key part of the focus of the sequel, which also picked up on the incomplete plot threads from the first novel, and brought them to a satisfactory conclusion. None of the many other novels would end that way, each would henceforth be self-contained.

Heighten the ‘Magic’ at the beginning

You see this all the time with new TV shows these days – the first episode is a “double-length blockbuster”. So ubiquitous has this practice become that when Marvel’s “Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.” premiered on Australian Television, the network responsible back-to-backed the first two episodes and promoted them as – you’ve guessed it!

“Sapient Pearwood” hardly appears in the series at all beyond the first two novels, which feature The Luggage, but that’s all right – it was just a plot device to justify the over-the-top character of The Luggage. For that matter, The Luggage doesn’t reappear that often either, and neither does the initial star of the Show, Rincewind, though he does rate a mention from time to time.

Have an anchor

In the third novel, Pratchett either introduces or begins to focus on one of the central characters around which almost all the remaining novels will pivot, in one way or another – the all-too-human Death. Even when Death is not central to the story, he remains a focal point.

Death is the anchor which grounds the rest of the series in the somewhat-tilted reality of the Discworld for many reasons. First, he’s a fun and interesting character. Second, his position within the Plenum makes him the perfect exposition delivery vehicle, one who understands almost everything about the nature of reality or who can set out to investigate whatever key aspect is central to the story. Thirdly, he himself is, by his nature, an instigator of change, enabling him to become the driving force behind many subsequent novels, starting with Mort. And finally, he us someone who can be expected to interact with just about anyone who is anyone, or who is doing something interesting – even if it is simply by being the victim, as at the start of Hogfather.

As the anthropormorphic representation, symbolic of the entire Discworld Universe, Death makes the perfect character to anchor all the subsequent stories to that universe, creating a unification that would otherwise be far less substantial.

Build On Your Beginnings

Virtually every story thereafter adds something new to the equation, a new ingredient that can be drawn upon time and time again as fits the needs of the story. Each and every one of them adds something imaginative to the mix, building up the world narrative brick by narrative brick.

Continuity Ties It All Together

Even though the stories stand alone, many are outright sequels to a previous story. In fact, virtually all the stories beyond that initial trilogy can be extracted into one of three ongoing plot-threads: the Three Witches (especially Granny Weatherwax), The Watch (especially Captain Vimes and the eventual-Captain Carrot), and the Death Family story (especially Death, Albert, Mort, and Susan.) Ingredients from any of these can appear, when relevant, in any other story – a role often reserved for the Wizards of the Unseen University – without being the central focus of the story. There are a few stories that stand independent of these three plot threads, but they are isolated exceptions.

Characters Remain Consistent

No matter how much they may learn and grow, the personalities of the characters remains the same. The situations they encounter may differ, but this consistency of personality makes them somewhat predictable in response – the key is always the “X factor” of how these plot elements will come together to solve whatever the basic problem may be, this time round.

When you stop and think about it, this is exactly the way PCs should be in an RPG. No matter what they learn to do, no matter how powerful they become, their central personalities should remain fixed and consistent; each adventure is the story of how the ingredients of their capacities and personalities combine with the circumstances and opportunities provided by the GM to resolve or advance the plot. This is true whether we’re talking about a strongly-interwoven style of campaign with strong continuity, or a more episodic structure such as that of the Discworld series.

Take these principles to heart

These hallmarks are shared by just about every successful RPG campaign that I can bring to mind. The implication is that if they are not true of your campaign, you may be missing a bet – something to improve the campaign still further, to take it to the next level – whatever that may be.

Until we meet again, give that some thought…


A relatively short article today, largely due to the fact that I am still working to resolve my computer-related dramas, and trying to get used to an altogether too-”helpful” laptop, which likes to jump up and down lines in the middle of words, making typing excruciatingly difficult… Hopefully, those problems will be resolved soon, but in the meantime, I hope this is of value!

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The compounded interruption of basic services


The West Wing said it very succinctly:

“The costliest, most damaging, disruptions occur when something we take for granted stops working.”

We depend on the mundane and everyday aspects of life to function seamlessly at least most of the time in order to be able to cope with the occasional extraordinary disruption or Act Of God. Modern technology and social infrastructure are so complicated, interlinked and interwoven, that the occasional minor disruption generates ripple effects that are felt throughout the entire system.

Our computer systems, to anyone who has any sort of education in the history and development of them, are miraculous ballets of synchronized dancing electrons. The ultimate in icebergs, far more than 9-tenths lie below the surface, hidden from view – it’s more like 9999 ten-thousandths – at least until something begins to go wrong. For some reason, this subject has been occupying a lot of my thoughts lately. Along with things like “Why Me?”, “What Now?”, and “Okay, a new problem to solve. Life would be dull without the challenge – but I could really do with a bit of ‘Dull’ in my life right now.”

The compounding of multiple problems, such as the challenges I face at the moment, are a relevant issue to RPGs in four ways.

The First Point Of Relevance: Campaign Mastery itself

First, and most obviously, there’s the disruption to this blog / online magazine. I’m reasonably convinced that I, and the combination of Johnn and I previously, have made a contribution to the hobby, and have still more to give. The number of new series that I have launched over the last few weeks are indicative that I’m nowhere near played-out yet. The disruption being felt because of the difficulties currently being experienced threatens the stability of regular twice-a-week servings of gaming insight that Campaign Mastery delivers, so that’s a primary consequence – the splash of the stone hitting the pond, if you will. The immediate ripples of that impact will be felt by every reader we have. Sometimes they won’t even be aware of the impact – if it means that an article, that might have been exactly what they needed, at exactly the time they needed it, does not get written and published.

I was planning a shake-up in how I organize the ongoing writing of series to ensure that none of these ne series – nor any of the old ones that are not yet complete – end up forgotten, abandoned, or incomplete, but those plans were still in the early stages of development – and have had to be set aside for a while, because other matters have been occupying my time. So that’s at least one ripple.

Any hint of irregularity tends to scare off advertisers, which are essential if the site is to remain at least revenue-neutral, so the problem itself makes it harder to recover from the problem: that’s one heck of a ripple, and one that compounds other problems as well – so it can be said to be generating secondary ripples in at least my life, and placing the stability of Campaign Mastery under still more strain – which affects every reader we have, in some degree – whether that’s great or small.

Then, too, I’ve been somewhat neglectful of the business side of the operation for some time – I have only so much physical capacity, and publishing an article that’s up to my self-imposed standards twice every week has consumed all of it, and at times, more. I was hopeful of at least and at last making a start on those issues in the New Year – but those ambitions may have to be set aside (again) in favor of trying to resolve more urgent problems. Another ripple.

And of course, there’s the disruption in my thought processes. I’m not as sharp as I used to be – starting to feel the ravages of time, I guess, having marked my 50th Birthday much earlier this year – and such disruptions become progressively harder to cope with. You notice it in little ways – mostly, in not being as flexible and able to to react quickly as you used to be – and evolve strategies for coping, often without noticing. Which is all fine when it comes to small disruptions and surprises, but makes catastrophes and disasters of any scale that little bit harder to cope with.

In a nutshell: anything that affects my life, affects my capacity to continue writing Campaign Mastery – and that affects every reader we have, or might have in the future.

A minor aside to bring up a point that some blog writers might not have realized: The momentum of success. The better the articles that you write, the more audience you attract (I’m very proud of, and grateful for, the readership that Campaign Mastery has attracted). The more audience you attract, the greater the statistical probability that whatever you write – provided that it’s up to the same standards that you used to attract that reader in the first place – will be exactly the right thing at the right time for someone. Reliability and quality of content bring success, it’s that simple – the trick is always to maintain both, together with regularly being at least interesting or relevant to each reader you might have.

I take each unsubscription as a failure – it means that I haven’t written enough of whatever that person was looking for. Again, some failures are inevitable – the standard they expected, or the focus, may not be what you’re aiming to deliver. You can’t please all the people, all the time.

But each one also is justification for some soul-searching on the part of the site owner / author / editor. Every new reader carries a responsibility to do your best to deliver something to them that is worth the time and effort of their reading it. Just a little food for thought.

The Second Point Of Relevance: Game Worlds

It must always be considered that to a certain extent, every RPG attempts to simulate a “virtual” society, and a “virtual” ecology, and a “virtual” environment. To keep the difficulty of this task within practical limits, we necessarily simplify the simulation, and take various shortcuts:

  • We may start from the basis of an existing third party game setting, so that a lot of the work has already been done for us;
  • We don’t try and do it all at once, starting small and adding to the simulation incrementally, a little with each adventure, each game session;
  • We do our best to “wall off” those parts that have not yet been developed, hopefully unobtrusively;
  • We draw inspiration and ideas from elsewhere, especially when we’re stuck;
  • We routinely simplify and abstract complex systems like weather and climate and social interaction. There’s a continual battle between accuracy of simulation and functionality of abstraction.

There are undoubtedly more entries that could be added to this list, but that’s enough to make the point.

How many of us have thought about how that society could be disrupted, or would be disrupted by the consequences of some relatively trivial failure?

It’s human nature to appreciate the importance of our own roles in society more than those who don’t occupy that role. That is what makes the saying “walk a mile in the other person’s shoes” so insightful. When we feel undervalued and under-rewarded, it’s also human nature to demand attention. Inevitably, someone is always going to be pushing or pulling at the wrong social lever for what seem like perfectly valid and justifiable reasons. Of course, if such disruptions occur when there is not a heightened demand for the services being disrupted, they won’t have as much leverage, and these inequities are not felt as keenly; so it’s inevitable that this pushing and prodding will always happen at the worst possible time. It doesn’t take much for this practice to become systemic and entrenched; one labor union demands a pay rise, and gets it, so others demand it also. Each time the union succeeds in getting what they have demanded – even if it’s effectively through extortion – it strengthens the case of the next. Wages go up, so the costs of whoever pays those wages go up, so the price they demand for their goods and services has to rise to pay for it, so the cost of living for every other member of society rises, giving everyone a case for their own wage increase. Eventually, everyone is back to the parity relative to everyone else, ensuring that the basic stability of society remains intact. That’s the real meaning of inflation. The system breaks down, at least a little when one group receives a disproportionate increase – either too large or too small – becoming more fragile.

Then, too, it at the time of peak demand that providers of any given service are stretched most thin; the demands leave them tired, even exhausted, and tired people make mistakes.

It follows that the time of greatest demand for a particular service is also the time when that service is most likely to be disrupted. This is easily simulated with a simple die roll whenever a service is required, and most GMs handle this without a second thought. If there is a fire, they roll dice to determine how long it takes the fire department to respond, and they automatically increase the demand for such services during the hot months within the game world.

Where a lot of GMs fall down on the job is in considering the secondary impacts of the reason for the demand, and the ripple effects of the increased demand or incidental disruption of the satisfaction of the services in question.

Example: It’s the hot season, so the fire department is overworked and slower to respond, and less able to respond effectively. Because of the heat, people run air conditioners far more than they do at other times of the year. This puts an increased load on the electricity supply, so you get more electrical failures and disruptions in summer than in winter – or you would, if the electricity suppliers weren’t aware of the fact and prepared accordingly. For those who maintain the electricity grid, Spring is the season of peak demand, because they are rushing around trying to ensure that everything is ready for the peak demands of summer. Overloaded electrical systems are more prone to fail, sometimes causing fires – further boosting the demand for fire department services, but that’s a minor feedback mechanism. More importantly, electricity suppliers have to ration out the available electricity when demand exceeds capacity – and industry generally uses a lot more electricity than domestic consumption. A small cut to industry supplies is more than enough, usually, to cope with the increased domestic demand (heat wave conditions are another matter). So manufacturing capacity is more often impacted by periods of peak demand – the evening hours in particular. During the day, more people are at work than are at home, so the domestic demand is relatively low – lower, in fact, than anytime except very late at night when most people have gone to bed. It follows that the most efficient time for manufacturing use of electricity, the time when the greatest supply is available, is the late-night shift. But that costs, because there is often a penalty rate applied to night-work – so the cost of manufacturing rises if the manufacturer takes advantage of the increased electrical supply, and it may rise if they don’t, because they can’t run their machines at full efficiency. The impact then becomes a question of manufacturing capacity and profit margin vs. demand – meeting demand often means cutting into profit margins, or raising prices. But raising prices reduces demand while increasing capacity to meet demand – so this is a delicate balancing act, one in which getting it even a little bit wrong leaves the manufacturer vulnerable to a loss of market share to a competitor. If it’s human nature to make mistakes, eventually every manufacture will increase prices too much or too little, will cut or boost production too much or too little. If they are lucky, this will be spotted in time and corrected; but it’s all too easy to enter a death-spiral of catastrophic unprofitability, and before you know it, an old and trusted brand vanishes from the supermarket shelves. This is bad enough in a competitive environment, where there is a rival to pick up the slack in supply, but what of those cases where one manufacturer has so much market share that they hold, effectively, a monopoly? What of those cases where the product is considered essential? And, finally, consider the position of a rival, if there was one – who finds the demand for his products suddenly skyrocketing? How much additional manufacturing capacity do they need to provide, and what will it cost? That’s why, when a brand vanishes from the shelves, its rivals often have to increase their prices – to fund an expansion in capacity to meet the new demand levels. In theory, this will enable them to lower costs, increasing profit margins as the capital investment is repaid, permitting the higher price to be stable for a long time to come – long enough for inflation to catch up with it. But it’s easy to grow accustomed to a higher profit margin… Of course, with the product of their labor in demand, this is also the “perfect” time for the factory workers to demand an increase in pay (eating into those higher profit margins before the capital investment is repaid, and disrupting an already-fragile supply).

That’s a long string of dominos, but what it adds up to is that domestic electrical consumption dictates – in part – the cost and availability of products. The manufacturer who most closely aligns his production schedule with the available resources, after factoring in biasing factors will be more profitable and hence more viable. And it’s an awful lot for any abstract simulation to take into account. In relatively trivial cases like this, it has no real impact on the verisimilitude of the game world; both players and GM simply assume that if the connection is not obvious, it’s not important enough to factor in.

When the case is not so trivial, the impact can be more severe, and yet just as hard to model. Consider the effect of a failure of electricity supplies – even a temporary one – on food storage. We’ve all had to throw food away (or better yet, give it away) after a blackout because we can’t consume it before it spoils. But that implies that we have to replace it when the electricity comes back on – so a blackout often leads to a local surge in demand for perishables, emptying supermarket shelves of the affected products. Now contemplate for a moment the effects of a more widespread failure, one that affects the supply to an industrial-scale freezer. That’s why most such have their own generators, something the typical suburban home doesn’t possess – but in a worst-case scenario, where the generator fails, it can be enough to close a business for good.

Or, more critical again, consider the power supply to a hospital or nursing home. Once again, they will usually have their own generators for such emergencies – and if those generators fail, lives are put at risk, and society would count itself lucky if none of those risks actually resulted in deaths.

A solution

It’s often said that problems come in threes, and while I’m not aware of any statistical analysis that backs up the maxim, it provides a great shortcut to making catastrophes and disruptions more “real” in an RPG. Whatever the problem is, it counts as one of the three; that means that concurrent with that problem there should be two other emergencies. If they can flow logically from the first, so much the better; but society is so interlinked, and the simulation is so incapable of containing every possible connection, that you can get away without an obvious link. People will simply assume that there is one, or that it’s coincidence – because coincidences do happen.

An Example: There’s an emergency of some sort at a nuclear power station. That’s problem number one. The nature of the problem compels the authorities to commence an evacuation of the local vicinity; but that can’t be kept secret, there’s a panic, and before too long, the highways are jammed. That’s problem number two. Problem number three: brownouts encourage looters. Or perhaps there’s enough capacity that there is no need for brownouts, and an emergency generator starts a fire at somewhere – a hospital? Perhaps a factory, where they make something that gives off toxic gasses when it burns? That sounds like a typical emergency situation in a superhero campaign – and nary a villain in sight. Or is there? What caused the problem at the power station? Or maybe a supervillain is trapped on the freeway and beginning to lose it at his inability to escape? or maybe a villain turns up to help – a temporary suspension of hostilities? There are a lot of different directions in which you could take this situation, but they are all interesting, and they all feel “real”.

Of course, that example’s not very relevant to a fantasy game. So here’s another: There’s an attempted assassination of the ruler of the city. That’s problem number 1. The city is sealed until the assassins are found and captured; this traps a wizard whose grand creation, a proto-dragon, is about to hatch; since this magic is forbidden by someone – a guild, the church, the law, whatever – while he needed the resources of the city to complete his creation, he wanted to be a long way away before it came to anyone’s notice. Now, his proto-dragon is about to hatch and fast-mature in the docks region – that’s problem number two. Problem number three could be a firestorm initiated by the proto-dragon (perhaps through contact with someone smuggling alcohol), or it could be someone trying to take advantage of the fact that the City Watch are all busy searching for the Assassins and not guarding the treasury, or perhaps the proto-dragon hatches in the sewers (where the mage was hiding), blocking them with rubble and debris, or perhaps this is all happening in a city under enemy control at the same time as the PCs are attempting to scout it out, threatening to disrupt their mission. Or perhaps a panicked crowd, already nervous because the watch is asking questions in a very determined manner, and because of the rumors of the assassination, will panic and become a mob, or overrun the market district setting fire to a silk weaver (silk gives off cyanide when it burns, I believe). Whatever you choose, lots of merriment is assured!

The Third Point Of Relevance: Rules for technology

The computers in original Traveller were laughable at any time other than when the game was published. A piece of hardware the size of a biggish room which could handle – at most – six functions at a time?

The pace of computer hardware development has continually outstripped attempts to forecast it. This failure is second only to the complete and utter failure to predict the impact that it would have on society, and the shape it would have. The history of the personal computer, in particular, is one of finding a solution to impossible problems that then becomes a compromise or a bottleneck to the next generation of hardware. It’s frankly a miracle, and a testament to the ingenuity of many hundreds of engineers and software developers that they work as well as they do. To put it into perspective: Any Windows-XP capable computer is on a par with, if not superior to, the original Cray Supercomputer, in most if not all vital respects.

One of their great strengths is that no two are exactly the same. No-one else on the planet is likely to have the particular hardware and software requirements that I do, or to have selected the same solutions to those problems, or to have their system settings exactly the same as I do. No matter how identical two computers might be from the time they are delivered by a bespoke supplier, as soon as a user starts configuring it to his particular needs, it begins to become unique. Every piece of software installed adds to the number of points of distinction.

The current trend in computers is away from the infinitely-customizable desktop option to a more one-size-fits-all – which means, in the eyes of a lot of people, that it tries to be a master of all things and is inherently compromised in all of them. The results might – arguably – be considered more user-friendly, or more easily-supported; I can believe the latter, I don’t believe the former. But they are equally inconvenient for everyone. I think I’ve mentioned in passing before that I hate push technology, I hate software that decides to update itself and alters what it does and how it does it; when it comes to my computer, I’m a control freak. I want reliability, and beyond that, leave me alone!

Pity the poor RPG designer who has to accommodate into his rules systems the capabilities of computers. Performance has changed so exponentially that it’s almost impossible to do so with anything approaching game balance or realism. I know – I’ve tried.

Of course, my players will tell anyone who cares to listen that I’m handicapped when it comes to doing so – I know too much about the subject, and have a tendency to incorporate too much of that knowledge into what should be an abstract collection of game mechanics for anything approaching playability.

I once created a set of rules for computers that more-or-less accurately modeled the limitations of every model from the Vic-20 to a modern networked server farm and into the future. It was 38 pages long and completely unplayable – though it made perfect sense in each particular. If you wanted to over-clock the CPU, these rules covered it. If you wanted to hack into Midwestern Power And Light, these rules covered the process – and the difficulties that you would face, and the likelyhood of detection. More importantly, if you wanted a computer to run an office block, or a starship, or whatever, it correctly simulated that. It even had rules for writing your own software!

One of the most important sections within those rules dealt with the domino effects of failures in some minor part of the system. You see, there are three kinds of failures within a computer system:

  • Catastrophic,
  • Incremental, and
  • Impairing.

A catastrophic failure means that the machine dies suddenly and completely. I’ve had a hard disk fail catastrophically; I’ve had several power supplies go bang; I’ve had a motherboard burn out, and a CPU fry. Until the problem is resolved, these failures turn the machine into an expensive doorstop.

Less severe are Incremental failures. These are problems which start minor and just keep getting worse and worse. These are rarely hardware related, though they can be; I’ve had one hard disk that would only work when the temperature was below a certain temperature, and another that would only work above a certain temperature, for example. I’ve had a graphics card that worked fine until it overheated, corrupting the display completely; the only solution was to turn the computer off and let it cool down. I’ve had a printer that only worked when the winds were blowing in the right direction, or so it seemed; at other times, it might get part-way through a print job and just freeze up, or it might not start at all. I’ve had a modem that only worked when the humidity wasn’t too high. Electrical failures in something as complex as a computer system can be extremely subtle, and are attributable to a component that is slowly drifting out of its tolerance range. But, more commonly, this is an operating system problem – you have a systems crash caused by anything from the phase of the moon on down, which corrupts part of the system files, which makes it more likely that you will experience a subsequent computer crash. These are most often repaired by reinstalling the operating system – which is a colossal pain in the neck, but better than the alternative. In my Windows 98 days, I became so proficient at it that I could completely rebuild my operating system in an hour or two, including reinstalling all the key pieces of software.

Is it possible that Operating System corruption is responsible for my current woes? Entirely. It might be a coincidence, but the troubles all started with a failed update to Adobe Acrobat; I was forced to use system restore to get the machine functional again. And then discovered that all sorts of services had failed to start properly. I solved the immediate problem, but it’s possible that some long-term damage was done somewhere, which has started me down a slippery slope.

If the Windows installation CD could see the hard disk on which Windows was installed, I would probably have reinstalled it by now in an attempt to cure my headaches. It can’t. When I installed my old disk drives, with all my old data, into the current computer, I may have altered the configuration of the hardware; I simply don’t remember now. But I have discovered that windows can read that CD from within windows itself – so drastic action may yet be attempted. But if it doesn’t work, I’m up the creek without a paddle, at least until I have some alternative solution on the horizon.

The third type of failure is one where some component or piece of software fails catastrophically without completely ruining the system. I’ve had a CD-ROM shatter explosively, destroying the drive – but doing no damage to the rest of the system (this was a week before Mythbusters ‘proved’ this would never happen. Oh, well). I’ve had hard disks fail that weren’t critical to the system’s operation. I’ve had monitors burn out – but as soon as another was plugged in, everything worked fine.

These days, most RPGs seem to expect that computers will work flawlessly, if operated correctly. On the premise that computers performing a critical function are under greater load when executing that function, once again we have a situation in which a catastrophic failure – even only a momentary one – is more likely to happen at the worst possible time – I always check when the PCs are relying on a computer to do something vital. And I always have some novel and interesting failure mode in mind for the next failure. I’d tell you what the next one that I have in mind for my PCs in the Zenith-3 campaign is, but then I couldn’t use it – and it’s too much fun to waste!

I’m still searching for a set of computer rules that will be sufficiently abstract to be playable and yet sufficiently respectful of the limitations of the technology, especially when applied to historical models, to be reasonably accurate. I had the glimmerings of a possible approach way back in 2004, but I’ve never had the chance to properly develop it. It was for this reason that I was particularly interested in the computer/hacking rules when I was offered a guest article from one of the developers of the Interface Zero 2.0 RPG as a means of promoting their Kickstarter campaign, which was more wildly successful than I think anyone expected, falling just a few hundred dollars short of their ultimate stretch goal.

Of course, the same is true of almost any form of advanced technology, most of which have computer support anyway. The modern car has more processing power devoted to its Electronic Fuel Injection system than was on the Apollo spacecraft. So does a typical pocket calculator – even one that only has the basic numeric functions. The next time your PCs rely on a piece of technology, contemplate the chances that it might fail them, and if so, in which of the three modes. It might be good for nothing more than heightening the drama of the moment, or it might be significant in its own right as a plot development.

The Final Point Of Relevance: Game Rules in general

Of course, if we’re talking about complex systems and the ways in which they can fail, we have to at least spare a thought or two for probably the most complex system involved in an RPG: the rules themselves. These are just as prone to failure as any other complex system, and like the electricity grid, more prone to experiencing a failure when placed under the greatest stress. Critical moments, when life or death, or success or failure, hang in the balance. These errors can be minor, sometimes not even noticed; or they can be degenerative, like introducing an ad-hoc ruling that comes back to bite the GM months or years later, and all they can say is that it seemed like a good idea at the time; or they can be catastrophic, such as when a situation arises that the rules don’t deal with at all, or that they deal with – like my computer rules – in completely unplayable fashion.

When this happens – and we will all experience it at some point – remember that the objective is for everyone to have fun. Everything else should be sacrificed to this end, if necessary.

If the GM is in possession of key relevant facts that the players can’t be told for the sake of that overriding principle – no other reason is sufficient for keeping those facts secret under the circumstances of catastrophic rules failure – then he may have to make a ruling according to his own best judgment. That’s his job as the GM. The rest of the time, in the event of catastrophic rules failure, consult the players. The complete failure of the game is no fun for anyone. And if in doubt, let the players succeed at whatever they were trying to do – if the alternative is cataclysmic game failure.

We all like to push the boundaries of the rules – that’s where the most fun is there to be had. Whenever you adjudicate a rules question, consider for a moment the possibility that the decision you are about to make could lead to a failure of the rules system. Anticipate it and don’t be taken by surprise.

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A Brief Heads-up: Why I may miss posting

"System Fail" by DGBurns

“System Fail” by DGBurns

My computer is experiencing intermittent hardware failures. It’s been doing that for a while now, but it seems to be a bit more serious about it this time – to the point where I’m never sure, from one day to the next, whether it will even boot up, or – if it does – how long it will function for before the eventual crash. Some days it works like a swiss watch, and other days it’s a sundial at night in a dark, sealed, cavern.

It’s my impression that I have two independant hardware problems: one that functions when the machine is too hot (CPU overheating, or maybe it’s the 3D graphics card) and one that functions when the primary disk drive is too cold (won’t read from the hard disk). Annoyingly, of course, it’s the newest drive that’s causing all the trouble – my old IDE drives just keep ticking over.

Unfortunately, my present financial position will make it difficult to get replacement parts until February or March at the earliest, as I have to commit funds to some minor surgery early in 2014. So I have to struggle on with the failing equipment.

If, perchance, no article gets posted here on time or at all over the next few weeks, that’s the reason.

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Leaving Things Out: Negative Space in RPGs

Reflection Nebula - inversion

“Negative Space” sounds like the sort of thing that pretentious art critics fill the air with when they have nothing of substance to contribute. It’s not some antimatter or “mirror, mirror” universe, either – though it can be either or both those things if you want. It may come as some surprise to those with little or not experience in art extending beyond an “I like/don’t like it” that Negative Space is actually something rather important.

Negative Space – and this is my personal definition, and not something to write on an art or design exam – is space without details or specifics that surrounds the focus of attention and provides a strong contrast with that focus. Despite the fact that it contains little or nothing, Negative Space can be incredibly important and can serve a number of useful functions:

  • It can serve as a visual barrier, preventing attention from straying away from the desired focus of the composition;
  • It usually heightens the importance of the desired focus;
  • It can be used subtly to provide context without distracting specifics;
  • It can contain a second image relevant to the first;
  • It separates important elements and prevents them from ‘running into each other’; and, finally,
  • It provides an empty space that the viewer fills in subconsciously, giving the actual focus greater substance and substantiality.

I’m going to take a very brief look at how Negative Space achieves or performs these functions – trust me, it will be useful later in the article.

Visual Barrier

It’s natural for the human eye and mind to follow the edge of an object within an artwork rather than launching it’s focus of attention into an empty space. It’s natural for us to pay attention to anything that is sharp and focused and more or less ignore anything that is blurred and fuzzy – something photographers and movie directors have been exploiting for a century or more. It’s present in advertising as well – quite often company logos will appear in greater focus on a background image that has been blurred ever so slightly just to tell the mind what to pay attention to. In both cases, the negative space, the background, is serving to contain the attention of the viewer. It takes a deliberate effort to shift that focus away from wherever it is supposed to go.

This effect also shows up in all sorts of other ways. It’s the product of evolution, a pro-survival trick – focus the attention on what matters and ignore the rest. There is a famous psychology stunt designed to test the value of witness statements in a general sense: Get a bunch of people all dressed in a similar way and get them to dance around on stage, and give the audience some task that will require them to focus on those performers, such as counting how many of them there are. Most observers doing so – nine out of ten of them – will fail to notice another person in a gorilla costume quite openly walking across the stage in the background. That’s how powerful negative space can be as a barrier.

Heightened Focus

In both art and survival, the payoff comes in the form of greater attention being paid to those things deemed important. And yet, that greater attention can be strangely myopic as well – if people do something attention-getting and unexpected, more attention will be paid to their actions and less to what they actually looked like, something else that contaminates witness statements all the time. Height, weight, color of clothing, color of hair, even who did what to whom, and in what order – these can all go by the wayside.

Magicians use this all the time to misdirect audience attention – they will get people watching something, like what one hand is doing, and not paying attention to what the other is up to.


Providing Context

Negative space doesn’t have to be empty, it just has to be devoid of details that grab the intention. Color and impressions of space or movement can all be inserted into the negative space and used to provide context. Patterns and effects are more attention-getting, and so are harder to use in this way, but tiling of a motif serves the same purpose. In July of last year, I used the image to the right to illustrate an article. The flea is intentionally attention-getting, to the point that looking closely at it reduces the background to a generic patterned backdrop. Only when you focus on the background does the fact that it comprises silhouettes of camels become apparent. It took me more than a dozen attempts to create this image, because I wanted to make the camels more visually apparent and they kept getting lost in the white space – in the end, I had to make them larger and somewhat visually distorted, and flip the image of the flea left-to-right, to give people a chance to see the camels.

Some people will see the camels more readily than others. There’s a natural human variation. It will also vary with circumstances and a number of other factors – there are times when I don’t see the camels at first, and I know they are there.

It’s even possible to conceal an entire second image in the negative space – focus on it, and what used to be the positive space becomes the negative space of this new image. Consider the example of Rubin’s Vase, where the negative space forms the image of two men facing each other.

Element Separation

Comic books are sometimes described as “sequential art that tells a story”. The typical page from a comic raises the use of negative space to a high art – not only is negative space used within each panel, but the gutters between panels form a “higher order” of negative space that separates the two images in time – because people can only pay attention to one of the images at a time – and space. You read one panel and then move on to the next, creating a mental impression that the events depicted in the second occur after the events in the first.

Some people have trouble reading Japanese Manga because the pages are printed in reverse order to what Western eyes are used to. You start at the “last page” and work your way forwards. The panels flow from right to left, as well. I’m quite sure that it is just as difficult for Japanese readers to enjoy American comics, even assuming no language difficulties.

One issue of a comic named Alpha Flight featured a battle between two white characters (and I don’t mean Caucasian) fighting in a snowstorm. Almost the entire story was told through the shape of the panels alone – in other words, through manipulating the negative space.

These are all extreme examples. In more traditional art, such as objects on a table, the negative space helps to separate the objects.

Tabula Rasa

Human minds aren’t really equipped to deal with empty space. When we encounter it, our minds try and interpret the space as containing something. Some optical illusions rely on this to shape part of the negative space to such a degree of success that we can see something that just isn’t there, such as is the case in the Kanizsa Triangle (shown left), created by Italian psychologist and artist Gaetano Kanizsa in the 1970s. The mind creates an object – a white triangle, point-down – out of the negative space to ‘explain’ what it perceives as interruptions of the other parts of the image. In other words, it separates the negative space into two planes, one triangle-shaped and in front of everything else, and one flat and behind everything else. In fact, there is no white triangle, but this nonexistent element of the picture becomes the dominant focus of attention as soon as it appears.

The mind extrapolates from cues within the event or scene to “fill in the blanks” – which are then taken as actual fact even if they contradict what is actually seen. This effect also manifests in witness statements – people naturally try to place the event they have seen into a context, and will actually (entirely unwittingly) modify their recollection of events to conform to that context. If someone else strongly suggests an alternative context that makes more sense to the subject, they will “rewrite history” in their mind to contain supporting details. The only hope an investigator has of finding out what actually took place from eyewitness testimony alone is to get those statements as soon as possible after the event, having kept the witnesses isolated from anyone and everyone else in the meantime. The Wikipedia article on Eyewitness Testimony makes fascinating reading for anyone unfamiliar with recent developments on the subject.

Implanting subtle cues of any sort into the negative space helps give that space a context, a starting point, and the mind goes on to fill in the blanks to incorporate that context into the focus of the image.

The Manipulation of Negative Space

There is always going to be negative space surrounding any image or perception. This negative space can be manipulated, if the artist is smart enough to do so, to enhance and compliment the focus of attention, and to manipulate the impressions received of that focus of attention.

Expanding the concept

Why is such a useful tool not recognized and employed in other creative fields and applications? What could we (as GMs) do with it if we adapted it for such use? And wait a minute – “Less Is More” – isn’t it already there, under a different name? And how does Negative Space relate to “White Space”?

Less-is-more vs Negative Space

To some extent, the principle of “less is more” is an attempt to focus the attention on the essential elements of whatever is being perceived, whether that be in narration, description, or visually by deliberately omitting anything that is not relevant. The assumption is that the details that are actually conveyed become stronger impressions of the scene when the reader/viewer does not have his attention distracted by a flood of irrelevant information. This can be viewed as an attempt to create negative space within the frame of reference.

The flaw with this approach is that it explicitly defines the resulting negative space as “everything that is not essential”; this can be coped with reasonably well when we’re talking about a modern setting with a contemporary world, but begins to fall apart quickly when the fantastic enters the setting, although perhaps the principle can still apply if the definition of “essential” is expanded. In my article on Mystery Plotlines in RPGs, The Butler Did It, about half-way through the article I quite selected passages from Isaac Asimov’s foreword to Asimov’s Mysteries in which he discusses the union of Mysteries and Science Fiction, and the perceived impossibility of uniting the genres – a perception that he resolved by specifically expanding the definition of “essential”. And, to keep from overwhelming the reader at the key point of the story, he shifts as much as possible of the additional “essential” information elsewhere within the story. After all, it may be essential that the reader has this information, it is not essential that they be distracted with it when there are other things that they should be focusing on. Context is therefore defined as both negative space to the description of events and essential nevertheless.

By explicitly defining the negative space as “everything that is not essential”, though, we forego the capacity to manipulate that negative space. We let its shape be more-or-less accidental and incidental, rather than treating it as a deliberately manipulable element. Negative Space in design and in art is never accidental and never incidental – not in the hands of any serious artist, at least – so “Less Is More” is a less-refined principle than the concept of a deliberately-structured Negative Space analogue.

White Space vs Negative Space

I’ve seen the same thing happen in Magazine layout, which is where the term “white space” originates. The concept that the gutters between columns and at the edges of a page where capable of more than simply defining the boundaries of the columns began to seep into the field in the late 70s and early 80s. In fact, it could be employed to create shapes out of white space was radical and innovative at the time.

The concept quickly evolved to integrate illustration, completing the transition in concept from “white space” (where there is no visual content) to “negative space” (where there is no text), by placing the artwork wholly or in selected parts within that negative space in more creative ways than simply having text wrap around it in a box. This was a consequence of the introduction of elements of Graphic Design into the world of Page Layouts in previous decades. “Time”, “PC World”, and “Seventeen” (to name three magazines completely at random) all look different; they employ different fonts, different layouts, and have different objectives.

Sometimes these layouts became artistic statements in and of themselves; sometimes they went too far and became more important than the substance of the article they were intended to support and enhance. Over time, these excesses have been recognized and pared back to more functional designs.

Ultimately, White Space is concerned principally with the positioning of content elements with respect to each other and the page boundaries; employing it simply to generate the capacity to incorporate an additional featured content element is as far as it goes. Like “Less Is More”, it’s a forerunner of the actual principle, but is one which is further along the path to a full realization of the potential of Negative Space within the select field of page layout and typography.

It can also be said that progress along that path was arrested over the last two decades, as the designers began to grapple with the internet and web page layout and the ever-changing potentials technology has provided for dynamic designs. The best designers have migrated into this field, and technological improvements have continually raised the bar of what is possible to keep them there. It will be a decade or more, in my opinion, before design catches up with the capabilities we already have – assuming (hah!) that the technology doesn’t change again in the meantime.

Negative Space in RPGs

So, since Negative space is neither “Less Is More” nor “White Space” – both principles that have been considered and discussed elsewhere in terms of RPGs – for example, this article on game prep at Stuffer Shack – it is worth exploring just how the principles of Negative Space can be incorporated into various elements of the RPG hobby beyond mere page design, to the benefit of both individual games and the hobby as a whole.

There are eight aspects of RPGs that come to mind.

  • Negative Space In Narrative
  • Negative Space In Descriptions
  • Negative Space In Characterization
  • Negative Space In Maps
  • Negative Space In Adventures
  • Negative Space In NPCs
  • Negative Space In Rules
  • Negative Space In Campaign Planning

It was somewhat surprising, when I started thinking about each of these, that to some extent Campaign Mastery had already started this exploration, though without any overall direction. I feel like I have discovered a new unifying principle that amounts to a paradigm shift in my perceptions, and have the impression that I will be exploring the nuances and implications for a very long time to come – and that I will never look at some aspects of the hobby in quite the same way again.

Of course, that doesn’t do our readers much good without some specifics, so let’s look at each of these. There may be more applications of the principle in each of these fields, and some of them may not be as groundbreaking as others, but this will at least provide a starting point.

Negative Space Layers1

Negative Space In Narrative

In narrative terms, Negative Space is about adopting a layered standard of information detail. We can keep the basic principle of “Less Is More”, but refine it to encompass a broader interpretation of ‘essential’, and differentiating between different strata of essentials, to which different standards of detail apply. This transforms the “negative space” from the concept of leaving out everything that is not immediately essential into the concept of providing information which fills, and employs, that negative space so as to manipulate the context of the “essential” that is provided in full detail.

The result is a pyramid structure consisting of at least three layers, possibly four, five, or six:

  1. The uppermost level contains the immediate essentials, less anything that is not immediately obvious to the characters. This is the peak of the pyramid, the part that is most sharply defined.
  2. The second layer contains conditional information – narrative detailing facts that are essentials, but that may not be immediately obvious, and hence will only be detailed under certain conditions (the PC making the right skill check, for example, or asking the right question). Before then, it will only be hinted at – but it should be hinted at, so that players will know that there is more information available which may be relevant.
  3. In the third layer we have contextual information. This should already have been provided to the players, so all that is needed here is a general reminder that associates that information with the narrative being delivered.
  4. An optional fourth layer provides psychological, magical, scientific, spiritual, or other specialist context or perspective to those of the appropriate skillset or experience. To avoid forcing the player into adopting a position predetermined by the GM, effectively negating player free will, this should be kept broad and general, leaving it to the player to decide how this perspective or context will influence their specific interpretation of the narrative. The player can always ask more specific questions, which may or may not require die rolls / skill checks. Because this is character-specific context, it is often better delivered by note, permitting it to influence the character’s roleplay without explanation to those who do not share this perspective. This practice makes this layer character-enhancing rather than character-detracting.
  5. The fifth layer is also optional, and exists to provide metaphysical, philosophical, and moral context or perspective that only applies to one specific race or species. This information should already be known to the player (or at least available to them), so only general reference is required concerning the relevance. Like material from the fourth layer, this is often better passed on by note, though there may be times when it is better to actually take the player aside and discuss the specifics with them. It is rare for skill rolls to be required to access this additional information, which is why it forms a distinct stratum from the fourth layer.
  6. Finally, a further optional layer contains metaphysical, philosophical, and moral context or perspective that is generally available or applicable, or which the majority of players may assume is generally applicable. Once again, this should be broad and general, if present at all, so that while players can assess the stakes and the context, the choice of how the act or react to it is left to them. This information may be overruled in specific individuals by content from the fourth or fifth layers.

It should also be noted that each piece of conditional information may also have associated elements within the fourth, fifth or sixth layers.

I tried to represent all this in a diagram, but it wasn’t as clear as the text explanation, as you can see to the above right. But the general principle should be clear from the text.

Negative Space In Descriptions

A similar approach applies to creating negative space in descriptions: decide what’s important to be specific about, what’s important to touch on in context or in respect of specialist knowledge, and what’s important to touch in with respect to past events or locations within the campaign. In particular, any changes to the setting since the last time the characters were here should be at least mentioned in passing, even if they aren’t immediately relevant, because they convey the impression of a dynamic, changing, world. Finally, and analogous to the deeper layers described above is anything needed to establish the mood and tone of the circumstances under which the description is being delivered.

There is always debate about whether the mood & tone information needs to come first or should be the last thing mentioned. The latter ensures that it is the foremost thing in the player’s minds, the former enables it to color the description. My preference is to try to achieve both – use general terms at the start, and provide one or two contributing specifics at the end of the description. But that won’t always work. And anything that you want the characters to specifically act or react to, like a charging mercenary, should be mentioned both early and in more detail at the end.

Still more importantly, the witness behavior described earlier should be taken into account. If there’s a charging mercenary, characters will be less prone to note details of the background until the immediate threat is resolved. It’s important to then provide the missing description, usually with an opening phrase along the lines of “only now do you notice…”

Some GMs require the players to make some sort of perception roll at the start and use those as a guideline to how much of the background detail should be included, but there are so many combinations of circumstance and subtleties of obviousness that no hard and fast rules can really be provided.

Negative Space In Characterization

The best way to provide negative space in terms of characterization is by abstracting qualities rather than delving into specifics. Don’t tell people about the personality, find a way for the character to reveal his personality through speech and actions. I’ve discussed this in detail in a past article, Look Beyond The Box, without realizing that this was in fact incorporating and using Negative Space in the characterization – but it is. The more broadly you can define the characterization, the more you can employ it to reflect other aspects of the character when those questions come up; and by using them as a starting point, or character seed, you ensure a consistent characterization even in aspects of the character that weren’t defined at the time.

Combining this principle with the techniques offered in The 3-minute (or less) NPC, which relies on building Negative Space into a character in a selective and controlled (and hence manipulable) fashion, and you are well-served.

Negative Space In Maps

Former site co-owner Johnn Four has actually addressed this specific subject, in the third entry within his series, “Maps Have Three Parts”, or at least started to look at the topic.

Old-time maps simply left what they didn’t know, blank, at least they did if they were intended to have practical value. Some maps may have been drawn speculating on features that were not known to exist. I have employed the same principle many, many times in my games. I have covered part of the map with post-its, for example, and removed them one at a time when the PCs reached an appropriate area. On another occasion, I printed one map with holes that matched the locations of selected rooms and corridors on the second map; the latter was given to the PCs, and the second glued on top in panels containing individual rooms and corridors. On still other occasions I’ve created a narrative in advance and drawn the map to contain it as the PCs discovered it. On one occasion, a map was drawn and covered in clear contact plastic, and furnishings cut out from cardboard and blue-tacked to that map – enabling tables to be knocked over and chairs to be broken during the barroom brawl that we knew was coming (actually, it was a high-end restaurant similar to that seen in the opening of the second Indiana Jones movie, but you get the idea). I will usually draw my terrain maps electronically, then mask off the parts that are unexplored or unknown using a mask contained on a separate layer; this enables me to apply transparency selectively to the mask. In my fantasy campaigns, any given geographic feature shown that the PCs have not been to in the past is 2d4+d5-3 2km hexes away from where it is shown, in a random (d36 times 10) direction – or some similar approach is employed – because aerial surveys and precise measurements over such distances were simply not available. I have even generated a map where each feature was an “object” in its own right so that I could move them around – then gave the PCs three slightly-contradictory versions of the map to work from.

Negative Space contains the unknown, and provides room for errors in the making of the maps.

One final tip: aside from space filled with wall, in a structure like a castle, there are no negative spaces – the negative spaces that surround a given room are all other rooms or corridors. Plan and draw your map accordingly.

I once created a castle map, cut out each room and corridor, and interposed a minimum one-square gap between the pieces. I filled most of the resulting wall space in, extending the corridors as necessary – but used some of the gaps for secret tunnels.

Another time, I created a maze with very thick walls – then subdivided the space within the maze into rooms. Throw in a couple of secret passages through parts of the maze (which had been drawn in at random during the maze construction) and hey presto – a wonderfully confounding and confusing complex!

These are just some of the many things that can be done with negative space in maps.

Oh, all right – just one more. Create a map electronically, leaving empty (transparent) spaces between terrain features. Create a couple of other maps electronically with other terrain features. Then place the first map over the top of the second, and over the third, and over the fourth, and so on. The result is a map with a few fixed features (from the first map) and morphing or unstable terrain in between them. This trick works well for doing different seasons – Winter, spring, and summer/autumn are the three I normally work with, because these can have very different water flows. But it also works when two planes of existence are colliding :)

Negative Space In Adventures

Every adventure needs to have negative space, for the PCs to fill. What you need to know are who the key NPCs are, what they are trying to accomplish, how they are trying to achieve this, and how those factors are going to intersect with the PCs lives – everything else should start out as negative space, to be filled in as necessary.

Practicality and the exigencies of good play may require some of those spaces to be populated with narrative or minor encounters in advance, but these should always be selective and prepared on-spec – never certain to actually be used. Don’t worry, if the villain has a good speech in the current adventure that he never gets to give, you can always recycle it at some future point for some other villain.

Each time you start working on an encounter, or a description, or a scene within an adventure, you should always ask yourself how much detail you need to prep in advance – and what you can get away with making up on the spot, or in between adventures when the characters head in an unexpected direction. Some people like to describe this as giving the players as much room to maneuver as possible; I like to think of it in terms of giving them enough rope to hang themselves :)

Negative Space In NPCs

Wait, we’ve already covered this, haven’t we?

Not completely. I’ve talked about Negative Space in characterization; but this is more about which NPCs you need to prep in advance. The vague and abstract you can make these until you need them, the more time you have to devote to other things – and the more latitude you have when you do need to actually specify them in detail.

One of my early AD&D campaigns featured a monarch who was small, and mousy, and nervous, and cowardly, and a little inept in many ways (while very astute in others). He was served by a hulking brick of a fighter, 6’7″ tall, four feet across the shoulders, with a broadaxe almost as wide as he was. Whenever the monarch had to appear in public, he dressed up as a manservant and dressed the fighter up as “the King”. This arrangement gave the pair the best of both worlds. (Everything worked out fine until the warrior got himself killed in a drunken brawl with a storm giant in a tavern – then the PCs had to be called in in a hurry to scare up a replacement or resurrect the old fake). To anyone from outside the Kingdom, it was protected and ruled by a mighty warrior who thought with his biceps – but was gifted with the occasional canny insight. Anyone acting on this perception were behind the eight-ball even before setting foot in the Kingdom, because they seriously underestimated the monarch who actually ruled there. (I got the idea from The Wizard Of Oz).

When characters are just starting out, they need to know the local monarch’s reputation – which may have absolutely nothing to do with the real monarch. Apply this principle to every NPC in the campaign, and save yourself a LOT of work – while giving yourself a lot more room to move.

Negative Space In Rules

I can hear some people already: “Deliberately leaving things out of the rules? What are you, nuts?”

And yet, I’ve already hinted at this principle in Top-Down Plug-in Game Design: The Perfect Recipe?, in which I advocated a modular game design with a central framework. Leave out that magic system – then offer several alternatives. Leave out the combat system – then offer a couple of variations with different levels of detail. Leave out the skills system – then offer three or four variations with different levels of detail and different approaches – one or two of which have a matching xp system, replacing that module of the rules. All you need to do is specify in advance how these subsystems are going to connect with each other.

Negative Space In Campaign Planning

Every campaign needs negative space. This is space in which events and encounters are intended simply to establish the general framework and context of the campaign, in which dya-to-day normality is presented to the players and the foundations – technological, spiritual, theological, psychological, and metaphysical – are explained and demonstrated to the players. NPCs who are going to be important get introduced, initial relationships established, and the pieces of the jigsaw layed out ready for assembly into the “real” story.

This takes the principles explained in the discussion of sci-fi mysteries and expands them to cover the entire campaign.

Right now, in the Zenith-3 campaign, the players are in the early stages of Adventure number 7, “Mixed Emotions”. This adventure will carry them through to the conclusion of the first page of the multipage campaign plan. How many significant events have their been in the campaign so far, and how much is negative space? Answer: Including the parts of this adventure that have not yet been played, there have been exactly nine important developments. Two of those were the introduction of new team members. A third was the establishment of their new base of operations and the politics that come with it and with their new role. A fourth was a still-unidentified group who set out to test the new arrivals. Fifth was the establishment of a non-aggression pact with a villain named Voodoo Willy, who always makes sure he’s more valuable to the PCs where he is and doing what he does than he would be if they followed their instincts and locked him up. Sixth was the obtaining and emplacement of Mana storage devices throughout the base of operations. Seventh was the restoration of the parent team’s space-going base of operations. Eigth was the development of a commercially available psionic shield. And ninth has been a redefinition of the relationship between the parent group and the PCs that gives them a great deal more liberty – and a great deal more responsibility. Everything else has been negative space, laying groundwork for the future, or simply exploring the repercussions of the PCs current situation. As the campaign proceeds, the pace of significant events will increase; we’re still in its early days.

The same is true of my Shards Of Divinity campaign, where there have been a few significant events, but mostly there have been excuses provided to get the PCs to wander about, exploring their environment.

Where To From Here?

So far, I don’t think I’ve done more than scratch the surface of the principle of Negative Space applied to RPGs, but I’ve presented as many specifics as have come to mind thus far in this article. At this point, the principle is more of a perceptual shift, changing the way I think about everything that a GM does and has to do; that altered perception has not yet had time to manifest into practical applications of the principle. Right now, all I can do is bear it in mind as I go about the multitude of tasks involved in GMing and see what develops…

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