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Cities Of Legend: Blueprints For Adventure

Destinations Paris by Jorge Avina

Image credit: / Jorge Avina

The Backstory:

When my pulp co-GM and I started talking about this article, it had a very different shape.

The original intention was to list the cities that we considered iconic settings for pulp adventure, and explain in each case why it had been selected to receive that accolade.

As the article progressed, however, it became clear that the reasons why a city could be considered an iconic setting were not only universal amongst the cities we had selected, but also that they applied universally to any city, regardless of setting or genre.

What we had, in fact, arrived at was a blueprint for conferring iconic status on a settlement. And that is what we are going to share with you today.

A-list, B-list, C-List, and beyond

The ‘blueprint’ consists of a number of criteria, and to be iconic, a location has to tick each and every box without reservation. Of these, the hardest is the last one we are going to discuss (variety of adventure possibilities) – or, at least, there seem to be a great many cities in the world that meet every other requirement quite handily.

This permits an ordered system of rating locations as viable adventure settings: the A-list ticks all the boxes, the B-list misses the last item on the list, the C-list misses both that and one other, and so on.

As a general rule of thumb, we’ve found that you can use A-list settlements repeatedly, and even base whole campaigns from them; the monotone nature of what can be done with B-list locations restricts them to single adventures except when deliberately repeating a theme; C-list and D-list locations tend to be fairly generic except in unusual situations revolving around symbolism or associated landmarks, and can only be used for a single adventure before being sucked dry unless that symbolism is a theme of the campaign; and E-list locations are someplace that only gets mentioned in passing, or used as a generic location.

The Iconic Criteria

We’ll have some specific advice on using iconic locations a little later in the article, but first, let’s look at the criteria we have developed. Make no mistake, there are some very beautiful locations that don’t make the A-list grade, places that might be wonderful and exciting places to call home; we aren’t judging cities as anything more than a place to set adventures.


Specifically, a unique visual style. Central Park is known the world over. The Eiffel Tower is an unmistakable symbol of Paris. One glimpse of Big Ben and you know where you are. But none of those are color – those are all landmarks, which is a completely distinct criterion. If you throw up a photograph, the players might not know where it is that they are looking at, but they will be able to see instantly that it’s not quite the same as a photograph of a different iconic city. Sometimes, the skyline is enough; sometimes it’s cobbled streets, or an antique architectural style, or the narrowness and twisting nature of the alleyways, and sometimes it’s a combination. Some cities have this in spades, others have barely enough of it to separate them from any other city.

As a general rule of thumb, advancing modernity equates to homogeneity over a great many cities. The older the city, the more easily color will be found.

The color needs to have one essential quality – it needs to be quickly and easily communicated. That’s because you want your descriptive narrative to focus on other aspects of the urban landscape. An image is definitely worth a thousand words.


Having talked about landmarks already, there’s not a lot left to say on the subject, except to say that a particular city may be known far-and-wide for being ubiquitously associated with a particular industry, and that can also qualify as a landmark! Oxford with it’s university, Amsterdam with the diamond trade, Clyde for it’s ship-building.


No city is complete without the people, but you want them to have a point of uniqueness that you can touch on briefly but memorably, even if that means exaggerating that part of the city’s character. You need the people to be animated, or to have some instantly-recognizable visual feature. Italians talk with their hands, the French wear berets, Brits carry black umbrellas, and the unceasing level of activity in New York City is immediately obvious to anyone who’s been there – it’s not called “The City That Never Sleeps” for nothing!

This can be playing into a cliché, but the extent to which it applies to any named individual is up to the GM; we’re talking about the population in general and the cliché is necessarily part of the zeitgeist that characterizes the city in the minds of the players.


An iconic city needs to have a symbolic value or meaning, even if it’s not one that you can immediately put your finger on. No city in the world symbolizes politics like Washington DC, no city encapsulates capitalism like New York, Los Angeles is a suburban wrapper around Hollywood and the entertainment industry, Rome is the beating heart of the Christian Faith, and you can’t talk about Cairo without referencing ancient Egypt. While you don’t need to reference this symbolism explicitly in your city narrative, you need to harness it in the way you actually use the location within the adventure.

A city’s history is key to the symbolism of the city. Chicago with it’s mobs, Bastille Day in Paris, Boston and the tea party, are all excellent examples.


An iconic city needs to have its own ambiance, and that is both the most subtle quality and the hardest to convey; hence, that quality has to be the GMs primary objective, reflected in both his narrative and in the action that occurs within the city. Ambiance, to some extent, is a product of all the preceding characteristics, but more of it is generated by the tone and style of delivery and encounters.

Ambiance is also about the lifestyle of the city, for example all the ethnic enclaves in New York, each of which puts its own twist on the city overall.

Ambiance is often the result of some significant area within the city that projects it’s style over the greater whole, for example Paris with its artists and New Orleans with it’s Jazz and Voodoo.

Quite often, a trivial encounter or observed scene is the best delivery method of ambience, leaving the GM free to focus on specific information.

Bonus (dubious) Criteria: Cuisine

At one point, we included this as one of criteria, but while it’s a fact that many of the iconic locations on our list have a distinctive cuisine, there are others that don’t have such cache in the minds of the modern audience. To many people, Chinese is Chinese, and the distinction between Peking cuisine and that of Shanghai is not obvious. Similarly, any distinctiveness that distinguishes Calcutta from Delhi is lost to the public – I’m sure that there are such characteristic differences, but they aren’t necessarily immediately obvious.

What can be said is that if there is something unique about the cuisine or the way it is consumed – London Pubs, French Bistros, German Beer-halls – that’s part of the unique flavor of the city and helps to establish its iconic status.


The geography of a city should create an overall impression that is distinctive. All Paris seems to have the same building codes, with the Eiffel Tower and a couple of other monuments rising above them, creating an overall impression of a flat city. New York, of course, is the home of the biggest skyscrapers, one nestled right next to another with scarcely any room in between. San Francisco has its bay, and Venice? Say no more.


Climate can be either a function of the geography, an element of the ambiance, or a combination of both. San Francisco’s fogs are legendary, Seattle’s reputation for rainfall, Calcutta’s Monsoons, and Earthquakes in San Francisco and Tokyo.


Specific information is easily come by. All iconic cities will have Wikipedia pages, virtually all will have tourist information pages, they will almost certainly have appeared in fiction that can be mined for flavor-drenched narrative. The trick is always distilling this information down into what needs to be delivered, and translating it into a form that conveys and/or mirrors the ambience.

Variety in Adventures

More potential listees fall off the A-list because of this requirement than any other. You need to be able to run not just multiple adventures but multiple kinds of adventure in the city, and have these feel natural, as though they ‘fit’ the location.

That last is an important point. You can run multiple adventures, with quite different styles and tones, in any city; but few will naturally resonate with the ambience, and take advantage of the symbolism and landmarks, and feel like it belongs in that location.

The power of the home town

Of course, one location that will always be an iconic city is the place you come from. Not your home town, necessarily, but the city or town in which you live. Not only does proximity lend it cache and relevance, local knowledge elevates in importance whatever local landmarks that exist. Sydney would not be considered an iconic location in the pulp era – so many of the landmarks post-date the time period – but it’s an iconic location (one that we haven’t yet used) in the Adventurer’s Club campaign, simply because my Co-GM and I, and all our players, live here. We know where the interesting parts of the city are, can run multiple adventures built around those elements, can bring out their individual flavor – Circular Quay and its Ferries, The Rocks, Bondi Beach, the North Shore, Luna Park, the old City Center, Central Station, Mascot Airport, Flemington Markets, Villawood… the list goes on and on – and means little or nothing to anyone who hasn’t lived here.

Using Iconic Cities

An iconic city conjures a distinctive image or flavor in the minds of everyone who hears the name. You don’t need to state where the city is, most people will be able to add the country in which it is located of their own knowledge. Nevertheless, it’s important to highlight the uniqueness of the city in a flavor text introduction, to make sure that everyone is on the same page, and ‘tastes’ the flavor.

Once you have started down that road, you can’t stop, or you will be wasting that distinctive character. Every scene should reference some uniqueness, so that the totality of the adventure that takes place in the iconic setting captures the distinctiveness of the setting. A murder in Paris? The Eiffel Tower should be visible through the window – mentioned in passing, perhaps, but there. A chase in L.A.? It has to be down Sunset Boulevard and especially the Hollywood Strip. If you set an adventure in Chicago, you want the players thinking about the Mobs and Gang wars – even if your actual adventure uses these thoughts as nothing more than added color.

More importantly, the location should be important to the plot or scene. There should be a reason why this city is where the action is occurring. Don’t waste the iconic status; draw it out, infuse it into the plot, and take full advantage of it (even if it’s only misdirection).

The (incomplete) list of iconic Pulp Cities

This list makes no real effort to be complete – though it probably comes close. Every one of these should conjure an impression with nothing more than the name (they did for us – failure to do so makes it a B-lister at best). They are offered here as examples. Don’t just skim the list; pause after each entry and try to picture the city, or something about the city, in your mind. Some entries will be obvious; others may surprise. But each had left an indelible impression upon us that was relevant to the time period and the genre. If we needed an atlas to confirm where it was, it fell short of the mark in our minds. This is the 1920s and 1930s A-list.

We started in North America, then moved on to Central and South America, Africa, Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Asia, and finally Australasia and the Pacific. One or two entries may be considered cheats, but we decided to let them slide; but we were ruthless when it came to places which may NOW be considered iconic, but which were not as exceptional in the popular zeitgeist back then.

We also, quite deliberately, have not numbered the list entries or even counted how many of them there are. We felt that to do so would give the impression that one was being valued over another.

Have we missed any? Almost certainly – Tokyo was added as the article was going to publication. I’m sure it’s not the only omission. But I think we’ve got most of them:

  • New York City
  • Chicago
  • Philadelphia
  • Los Angeles
  • San Francisco
  • New Orleans
  • Washington DC
  • Boston
  • Detroit
  • Dallas
  • Pittsburgh
  • Honolulu
  • Quebec
  • Beunos Aires
  • Rio
  • Port-A-Prince
  • Havana
  • Capetown
  • Mombasa (Mike thinks this is B-list, Blair cites it as the jumping-off point for many of the great expeditions)
  • Casablanca
  • Cairo
  • Giza
  • Baghdad
  • Jerusalem
  • Istanbul
  • Mecca
  • London
  • Oxford
  • Clyde – center of the British ship-building industry
  • Dublin – the quintessentially Irish city
  • Glasgow – the Scottish equivalent
  • Paris
  • Madrid
  • Barcelona
  • Berlin
  • Copenhagen
  • Vienna
  • Rome
  • Milan
  • Athens
  • Warsaw
  • Prague
  • Moscow
  • St Petersburg (Leningrad) – included for the Palaces and Basilica
  • Peking
  • Shanghai
  • Bangkok
  • Hong Kong
  • Saigon
  • Singapore
  • Tokyo
  • Calcutta
  • Delhi
  • Tahiti
  • Auckland

Iconic Settings

There are, of course, also a number of Iconic Settings that aren’t actually cities, but that meet all our requirements. The Nile, ‘Darkest Africa’, Brazilian Rainforest, Tibet, Sicily, the Arctic and Antarctic Wastes, the Yukon, Siberia, etc.

Disagreements & The Modern Audience

Blair and I weren’t in total agreement when we formulated the list. I’ve hinted at that in the entry for Mombasa. We discussed Panama and Suez repeatedly. Houston came up more than once, as did some of the Mississippi cities. Anchorage was mentioned, and so was Bern. That’s all fine; there may be cities on the list that you don’t feel qualify, and maybe cities that you think should have been obvious inclusions have been left off. It’s not necessary for everyone’s list to match. Marseilles was on the list until the last second – but, while it may have possessed iconic status back then, it no longer quite captures the same resonance in the modern mind.

Inevitably, it is necessary to compromise the list for modern sensibilities. These are the cities whose impression has stood the test of time.

At the same time, there are cities which have become famous for subsequent events. There has been a lot of history since the 1930s! But no matter how iconic an impression a city might have in modern times, that cache had to exist back then as well. A great example is Vegas – you don’t even need to give the city its full name for it to be recognizable – but it was only in 1931 that gambling was legalized and residency for divorce purposes was reduced to six weeks. The big, lavish, grand hotels that characterize the modern Vegas didn’t arrive until a post-WWII boom – between 1940 and 1950, the population went from under 9,000 to more than 24,000, and growth slowed only slightly over the subsequent two decades. Gambling might be legal in pulp-era Vegas, but the city that has the cache then that Vegas has now is Atlantic City – and that doesn’t have enough resonance with a modern audience. So both were left off the list.

Iconic Cities in other genres

Let’s talk D&D for a minute. Most campaigns will have cities. Are these vanilla – all the same – or worse yet, flavorless, in your campaign?

In Mike’s Fumanor campaign, for example, the central city so far as the campaign was concerned wasn’t the political capital, it was a city that after the apocalypse stood as the gateway from the semi-civilized Kingdom to the no-longer-tamed wilderness. Back then, it was a walled town, a fortress, and it retained the name “Fort Sharpfang” from that time.

The other part of the name derives from the mountain on which the fort was built – a raised plateau with a jagged spire of jutting rock behind the plateau, when viewed from the only approach. When contact with Elves and Dwarves was re-established, the paths to both ran straight through Fort Sharpfang.

As civilization re-emerged, there was not enough room within the walls, so a city slowly built up at the foot of the plateau. During the Great Orcwar, this was the front line.

When peace was declared and the Orcs and Drow became citizens of the Kingdom, the populace became too large and diverse to be ruled as one Kingdom; it was divided into three in the One Faith / Shards Of Empire simultaneous sequel campaigns, and Fort Sharpfang became the capital of the Outer Kingdom, the crossroads and center for trade, as what was once but a small collection of Baronies in the Old Kingdom struggled to grow into an Empire – and found itself faced with Empire-level threats.

The walls themselves are iconic: thirty meters thick, formed of great blocks of stone weighing hundreds of tons each, with towers forming 30-meter high crenelations, and ensorcelled with a lost magic by someone unknown at a time unknown to be as strong as rock walls five times as thick, black and glass-like in appearance and translucent in the dawn sunlight. No-one remembers who built them or how.

The city’s function as a crossroads makes it a melting pot with people from all walks of life, and the Arcane Academy (founded by a former PC from the first campaign) is the leading institute for the study and practice of magic throughout the Three Kingdoms. The city bustles with trade, and you never know who will be encountered walking down the narrow cobbled streets next.

Fort Sharpfang meets all the criteria for an iconic city (unlike the actual capital, which is even better defended but remote and quite dreary).

Use the criteria we have set forth to make the cities of your game world iconic within the minds of the inhabitants of that world – and then use the techniques described to convey that status to the players. You make them both larger-than-life and bring them to life at the same time.

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The Final Advantage

Image by geralt, licenced through Creative Commons CC0 via

Image by geralt, licenced through Creative Commons CC0 via

While playing Edge Of The Empire last week, a topic of conversation briefly arose: should advantage mechanics grow more extreme in effect in the big finish to an adventure or campaign?

Musing on Advantage Mechanics

Advantage mechanics of various forms have become a popular game mechanic in recent years. You have something of the general variety in TORG, in 7th Sea, in Edge Of Empire, in D&D 5e. The general principle is that a bias to the likelihood of success or failure, or other benefit for one faction and not the other, is introduced for dramatic effect. Sometimes it favors one side or the other based on circumstances and the tactical situation, and sometimes it is an ever-present existential balancing act in which the act of consuming the advantage on offer conveys a potential advantage to the opposition, and sometimes it represents wild luck or destiny taking a hand on a broader scale than any single die roll.

I have even seen the concept used as a narrative mechanism, where the conditions for the PCs to achieve victory were to accumulate a certain number of untapped advantages and then convert them all at once, while their NPC enemies could achieve victory at any point by achieving any of a variety of conditions. PC strategy, then, had to be to so obstruct the NPC march toward victory that the only way they could win the battle and get closer to a victory condition was to tap a potential advantage. In doing so, they advanced towards their own victory but also brought the PCs closer to success – eventually causing the whole conflict to reach a perfectly-poised knife edge at which things could go either way, in narrative terms; which is when the PCs gain the final untapped advantage that they need in order to sweep to a come-from-behind all-or-nothing victory.

Now, when adventures and campaigns are reaching their climax, we want everything to come down to a larger than life dramatic decision point in which all the chips are down and its win or lose for the whole ball game. Easy victories or inevitable failures are dull and boring; we want the whole adventure to be a struggle, each side gaining advantages and losing them as the stakes grow larger and the choices more decisive. Every game should come down to the last pitch, the last shot, the last chance; every race to the last corner, the last lunge at the line.

The entire first year of my superhero campaign was the PCs slowly whittling away at the advantages of an overwhelming enemy, earning first his attention, and then his respect, and then, ultimately, a final victory – with just enough ambiguity about the outcome to keep life interesting in the future. Move and counter-move, one step back for every two steps forward and every step a struggle against the odds, until they were able to redefine victory for both sides into something that everyone could live with.

The same pattern can be observed in the Lord Of The Rings; every grand victory consists of the cumulative effects of many smaller battles along the way until a decisive turning point is achieved.

Reflecting On End-games

No matter how big an advantage one side holds over the other, when it comes to a big finish, we want the stakes to be raised, a sense of winner-takes-all, and a sense of decisiveness. We want it in the final scenes of an adventure, we want it in our end-of-level monsters, and we want it in our cliffhanger endings. And, when we get to the final chapter of a string of such stories, we want the bar to be lifted even higher, we expect final confrontations and do-or-die situations, and climactic highs and lows.

One of the handicaps that the Star Wars prequels were always going to be lumbered with was the mere fact that they were prequels, and so we already knew that whatever happened was not going to be do-or-die; Revenge Of The Sith could never fully deliver that all-or-nothing climax because we already knew that neither side achieved total victory. (Lucas could have stunned everyone by appearing to deliver exactly that, and then attaching a 30-minute ‘prequel’ to a re-released episode IV that ‘undid’ the seeming victory, and a LOT of the criticism of the prequels would have melted away – and a lot of buzz would have been generated about the discontinuity, to boot. That was a definite opportunity missed).

The same forces apply in RPGs. We want the final adventure to be turned up to 11 – if not higher. So, the question is, should the scale of these artificial advantages become greater, or become smaller, or remain consistent, when the drama is to be heightened? Does doing so help to achieve this heightened level of dramatic tension and release?

The Inflate Advantages Case

If you want drama, and the potential for sudden and crashing reversals of fortune, increasing the effectiveness of advantage mechanics will certainly deliver. There would no longer be a small tactical advantage; any advantage that you can wring out of the circumstances would become hugely significant – for as long as it lasted.

It suddenly becomes an effective tactic to avoid a decisive conflict and focus on maneuvering, trying to line up as many advantages as you can to create an overwhelming, decisive situation. You would only pull the trigger on a final confrontation when you knew your advantage could not possibly be made any greater. Because any single advantage could be wrested away by a clever stratagem, you would find yourself better off pursuing a host of small advantages. It also puts wiles, intelligence, cunning, and wisdom on equal footing with physical strength, if not advantaging those qualities.

And all of that sounds very much like the pattern that we have described as being what you want in a big finish. It makes the desired situation all but an inevitability – and that’s a pretty strong argument in favor of the ‘yes’ case.

The Steady-as-she-goes Case

Players don’t like instability in the rules to which they are subject; they like to know where they stand. They especially don’t like the GM changing the rules to benefit NPCs relative to them. If the NPCs can orchestrate a string of small advantages as per the “Inflate Advantages” case, they can do the same without changing the rules, and the effect will be the same.

In other words, it’s up to the GM and his plotting machinations to deliver the appropriate tone and intensity to a big finish, and he shouldn’t use game mechanics manipulations to make his work easier. That’s cheating.

The Minimize Advantages Case

What inflating advantage benefits does, from this point-of-view, is to increase the level of uncertainty. That’s not inflating the drama, that’s maximizing the chaos – and when you maximize the chaos, it’s easy to make a misjudgment and hand someone so much advantage that a lucky roll can upset the applecart.

If anything, runs this line of argument, you should minimize chance and maximize strategy, tactics, and story. Prepare an exciting “script” and leave as little as possible to chance, with contingency plans on standby in case chance rears up and bites anyway.

The Hybrid Solution

There is a fourth option, which is important since each of the three lines of argument presented have their own merits – and their own shortcomings. That fourth option is to play to the strengths of each option at different points during the big finish. Let the NPC enemies implement multiple strategies at once (via flunkies), multiple ways in which to gain a major advantage, let the PCs discover some of them and decide which ones are the most important to block, let the other tactics of the NPCs succeed and be enough in aggregate to bring them just short of an overwhelming advantage – and then let the PCs pin back the NPCs a little bit at a time until they get to the big finish just short of having the overall edge, with one final chance to tilt the balance in their favor.

In essence, this means subordinating the net effect of advantages to the dictates of story, of creating an exciting finish.

The Other Variable

Before this discussion can be brought to a conclusion, there is one more variable that needs to be considered: It’s entirely up to the GM whether or not he invokes the benefits of an advantage. The dramatic objectives can be met, or very nearly met, simply by choosing whether or not to do so.

A pattern of conserving advantages until the NPC enemy is in a position to invoke several of them in a row, swinging the contest in his favor almost to the point that victory is within his grasp followed by a period in which the PCs have the opportunity to whittle away at those advantages and ultimately swing the overall balance in their favor, has exactly the desired outcome.

The smaller the benefit from any single advantage, the more finely this bias can be controlled, and the finer the control, the closer to the ‘edge’ the GM can dance. Ultimately, then, I have to declare a preference for either the Minimize Advantages option or the Steady-as-she-goes alternative.

To decide between the two, I next consider the disadvantages of each: the minimize advantages option risks upsetting players with changing rules and reads an awful lot like a plot train; there are no such problems with playing the rules as written and pulling strings by means of the timing variable.

The Verdict

This, then, is one case where the downsides of any house rules intended to maximize the drama of a big finish would seem to me to be counterproductive, and I would recommend the rules as everyone knows them. Smart play (by the GM, not necessarily by the NPC, who might just get lucky) will still yield all the benefits desired, with far more credibility, than manipulating the rules to artificially create risk and danger in the pursuit of cheap thrills.

Don’t cheapen the drama of your game. It will only undermine your credibility in the long run, for no good reason.

A relatively short post, this time around – I just ran out of things to say on the subject! Don’t get used to it…It’s also not the article that I was intending to publish today, that will be coming along in a couple of weeks.

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Working The Other Side Of The Screen

Nebula Mountains Mirror Curtains composite

Nebula image by / Terry Standefer
Mountains 4 by / Anay Paco Sancho
Mirror reflecting curtains by / Gábor Bejó
Compositing, composition by Mike
Click on the thumbnail to see the full-sized image

Not too long back, an exchange on Twitter led me to the question – does continuing to play RPGs on a regular basis make you a better GM?

I’m certainly in a position to judge, since I continue to run multiple campaigns and have, for most of the last year, been a player in a small Star Wars: Edge Of The Empire campaign, while in the past just prior to that, I spent many years purely as a GM.

Before that, I was a regular player in a Lord Of The Rings RPG campaign, and a 7th Sea campaign, while still running multiple campaigns – and before that was another stint as a pure GM – and before that, I played in a Champions campaign, and before that an Eberron campaign – still while running multiple campaigns. So I have regularly flirted with life on the other side of the screen.

In fact, it’s probably fair to ask if my stints as a non-player are the exceptions, rather than the rule, or is my default pattern of behavior not to play?

Illumination from The Edge Of Empire

I think the circumstances under which the Edge Of The Empire campaign came about might just be pertinent to that question, at least. One of my campaigns wrapped up when both players and myself started to find regular excuses not to make it. At that point, it was down to only two regular players, and the dynamic simply wasn’t there any more. It needed more variety of PC input to keep all of us interested.

At the same time, I didn’t feel up to designing and prepping a new campaign – it takes a lot of work to do it right, and at the time I was putting a lot of effort into Campaign Mastery and into the campaigns that were still active, and knew that I would need to continue to do so for some time to come.

Somewhat half-heartedly I suggested a Star Trek campaign, not really expecting that to get off the ground (it didn’t) but one of the players from the former campaign then suggested that he thought he could run a Star Wars campaign, at least for a while – until my batteries were recharged, as it were. (Currently, I can feel the creative itch starting to grow, once again. It’s not acute yet, but in a few months it might be – at which point I will start thinking about a new campaign, and when that’s ready, offer the GM the chance to take a break from Star Wars. The plan would be for a relatively short, sharp campaign (not my usual epic), and then back to Star Wars for a while. But that’s a plan for much later in 2016).

Almost every GM starts as a player. I certainly did. And that, to me, suggests that the normal state of affairs for a GM is to do both concurrently – in different campaigns, of course, and assuming that time (and the number of willing GMs) permits.

But that brings me back to the original question: does playing in another RPG on a regular basis make me a better GM? And how typical is my experience in this regard?

Re-framing the question

Since I can’t answer the second half of that double-barreled question, how can I make sure that the attempt to answer the first is relevant to most readers? And how does examining the subject translate into Campaign Mastery’s goals – to offer relevant and practical advice to make GMs better at their craft and their games more fun?

The obvious answer is to reformulate the question, discarding the relative value judgment involved, and simply consider the advantages and disadvantages that come from doing both concurrently. That way, it doesn’t matter how valid my experience is, because others can determine for themselves how relevant each advantage and disadvantage is – and then tot up a balance sheet at the end to determine whether or not THEY would be better served going one way or the other, at least experimentally.

The consequences of concurrent activity

I’ve totted up ten advantages to being a player in one campaign and the GM of another concurrently. Some of these are only minor effects in my case – your situation might vary – and others qualify as very strong incentives. I’m going to briefly examine each, and give them a rating out of 5 for how relevant they are to me – and I’ll leave a space for you to write down your own scores on a sheet of scrap paper for how relevant they are to me.

The advantages that I’ve identified are:

  1. Avoiding/Recovering from Burnout
  2. Less Stress
  3. Letting your hair down
  4. Learning from other GMing successes and mistakes
  5. More time available for Game Prep & Other Activities
  6. Trying new and diverse settings and systems
  7. Keeping in touch with player priorities
  8. Awareness of the player mindset
  9. Humility
  10. Less Flexibility

I’ve also come up with a list of nine disadvantages – which makes it easy to see how close the final analysis might be. Assuming that the average rating of both advantages and disadvantages is more or less the same, it would only take a slight drift one way or the other to completely change the overall result.

The disadvantages that I have identified are:

  1. Less time behind the screen
  2. Less variety in GMing diverse settings and systems
  3. Frustration
  4. Rivalry
  5. Losing Players
  6. Barnacles and Rust
  7. Less creative stimulation
  8. Less flexibility
  9. Commitment
10d5-9d5 probability thumbnail

Click on the thumbnail to see a larger image

To get some idea of just how finely balanced things were, I scurried off to AnyDice (my usual tool for this sort of thing) and whacked up a probability curve for 10d5 minus 9d5.

As you can see, there is a slight bias towards there being more advantages than disadvantages, but one question going from a ‘1’ to a ‘5’ or vice-versa is enough to take a strong result one way and put the choice on a knife-edge.

That tells me that there is unlikely to be a hard-and-fast result; as a GM’s circumstances change, so the answer to the reframed question – “Do the benefits of concurrently playing in one campaign while GMing another outweigh the costs” – will respond, potentially quite sharply.

The advantages of concurrent activity

So let’s look at those advantages in greater detail. Some of them will be reasonably self-evident, others definitely require explanation.

1. Avoiding/Recovering from Burnout

Burnout is rarely uniform; its dependent on the game system, and the characters, and how easily you can come with new, fresh, and interesting ideas. When that starts getting difficult, when execution of those ideas that you do have, and the prep required to implement them, starts to feel like a chore instead of an exhilaration, you are in the early stages of burnout. That means that you can suffer from “D&D Burnout” or “Fantasy Burnout” while your Sci-fi campaign keeps bouncing merrily along.

You can flirt with burnout repeatedly, growing frustrated temporarily while things aren’t running smoothly behind the screen and re-energized if and when ideas start to flow again, but when it becomes chronic, the mindset enters a downward spiral. Another solution that sometimes works is to introduce a new character that intrigues you and brightens up the prospects of working on the campaign – and sometimes that leads to the player of the new character being blamed if it doesn’t work.

Sometimes you can counter that spiral with a different campaign in a radically different genre and style; sometimes, you leave it too late. The biggest mistake that people make is to replace game sessions that are triggering burnout with ones that are going well – that risks spreading the problem from one campaign to another.

One of the most obvious ways of avoiding or recovering from Burnout is to play for a while instead of GMing. Even a slight easing of the workload (I went from 4 campaigns to 3) can be enough to keep you fresh in those campaigns that are not yet affected.

My Rating: 3/5 Your Rating: ______

2. Less Stress

There’s a lot less responsibility when you’re a player, and that means less stress. Even if a campaign is going well, you can feel the pressure to ‘perform’, week after week. How intensely you feel that pressure depends on a whole host of factors, including how difficult you find it to live up to the standards you have set, how much stress you are feeling in other aspects of your life, and how much fun you find the whole of the GMing process to be – from generating NPCs to plotlines to maps to props to actual play.

If you’re finding that stress is becoming a problem, there are two solutions: you can GM more, or you can GM less. GMing more works if you find that GMing is an outlet for your stress; some people find that it is. GMing less works the rest of the time. As usual when dealing with complex phenomena, sometimes there are no simple answers – you may find prep stressful at times but play is fine, or even vice-versa (a form of performance anxiety). If that’s your situation, consider hooking up with a co-GM or collaborator who is strong in the areas of activity that you find most stressful.

Personally, I don’t find GMing all that stressful except when several deadlines leap on me at once without warning – because I am perfectly willing to blow off a deadline if I have to. That willingness to miss a deadline when necessary relieves so much stress that it rarely inhibits me to the point where I actually miss a deadline – strange but true.

My Rating: 1/5 Your Rating: ______

3. Letting your hair down

You have a lot more freedom to just go wild as a player – though you should bear your fellow players in mind and not do too much that impacts on them!

I learned a long time ago that I could alter my mood by changing the style of music that was being played, or watching a different type/genre of TV show / movie. Satisfying your need for a “romp” to blow off some steam – even if you have to engineer it the hard way – has the same effect.

Personally, I don’t recommend this approach to an RPG unless both the other players AND the GM are on-board with the idea. Better to go watch something that scratches your itch before the game.

But still, we’re all occasionally in a silly mood, or a dark mood, or whatever. When you make the game a victim of such a mood, apologize to the others involved – and mean it – then get on with things as best you can.

I’ve even seen RPGs interrupted for a brief card- or board-game of appropriate tone just so that someone could get ‘an odd mood’ out of their system. Which can be worth considering if you find yourself stuck in an inappropriate emotional groove – ‘desperate times’ and ‘desperate measures’ comes to mind. If it’s a choice between a 20-30 minute interruption and the whole game session taking a left turn into the twilight zone, most GMs will be surprisingly tolerant. But you will owe everyone else at the table, big-time.

My Rating: 3/5 Your Rating: ______

4. Learning from other GMing successes and mistakes

Just because you aren’t the one behind the screen doesn’t mean that you can’t and don’t learn. Most GMs, when they play, do at least some second-guessing of the GM who is running the game they are playing in – “how would I handle this?” “Why did he do it that way?” “That hasn’t really worked – how could I have done it better in a similar situation?” It was thoughts like that (especially the latter two) that led me to abandon playing in the Adventurer’s Club campaign for a role as co-GM, when it became clear that I had the answers that the then-solo Blair lacked as GM. The result: the campaign that he thought might run for a year or two is now more than a decade old – and still going strong.

More importantly, because another GM will have different ideas to yours, and will get the PCs into different situations than you would, you are exposed to questions and problems that you might not ordinarily have to confront – and that makes for a solid learning experience.

My Rating: 4/5 Your Rating: ______

5. More time available for Game Prep & Other Activities

When I have a game, the entire day before is usually given over to game prep – at a bare minimum. Sometimes, months of work have been invested in a few minutes here and a few minutes there getting prep done. I’m well-known for being a very organized GM, able to determine what prep I will need long periods in advance, but I frequently wish that I was still more organized – and had an extra day in the week.

There is virtually no prep required when you’re a player. Reducing my workload from 4 active campaigns to 3 – with one of them only occurring when the game is ready-to-run – almost doubles my prep-time for the games that I am still running. It means that I have time to stop and watch the occasional TV show, or sleep in once in a while – and STILL get more done than I would otherwise.

My Rating: 5/5 Your Rating: ______

6. Trying new and diverse settings and systems

I would never have become a Pulp Co-GM if I hadn’t been a player first. I certainly would never have tried Edge Of Empire. My only experience of Call Of Cthulhu and Traveler have been as a player. Ditto GURPS and Rifts and Tunnels & Trolls and Star Trek the RPG, and the list only grows from there. Some of those games/genres would have appealed to me, others I would never have tried if someone else hadn’t put their hand up and said “I have an idea for…”

That means that a lot of the diversity in my gaming experience comes from being a player – in fact, it’s probably 3:1 or maybe even 5:1. Yet, that diversity continues to enhance my abilities and repertoire as both a rules-maker and a GM virtually every time I sit behind the screen – sometimes barely at all, sometimes a lot.

Being a sometimes-player means playing in game systems you would never GM – or never expect to GM, at the very least, simply because the person who is GMing the game has chosen a game system that you don’t know.

My Rating: 4/5 Your Rating: ______

7. Keeping in touch with player priorities

You can be spoiled by the omniscient perspective that comes with the GM Screen, wrapped up in your own cleverness. That can lead to train-wreck game sessions like the one I describe in this article.

Players won’t love everything you do just because you think they will or should. From time to time, every GM needs to be reminded that the players in any RPG have completely different goals to his in every game session. Playing on a regular basis keeps a GM in touch with reality.

My Rating: 4/5 Your Rating: ______

8. Awareness of the player mindset

It’s a strange thing to be aware of, but I use a completely different part of my mind when I’m playing as compared to GMing.

When I’m in front of the screen, I don’t know everything that’s going on, I don’t know what the big picture is, and I don’t know what the GM finds so obvious (or obviously wrong) about what my character is trying to do. When I’m behind the screen, I know everything that’s going on, I know which way the plot is headed, and where the PCs can shape events and outcomes, and it’s always obvious what is the best thing for the PCs given the current situation. For that reason, playing is also a lot less tiring than GMing.

My gray matter isn’t busy figuring out what is going on and how I should react, it’s working on how I engage each of the PCs, and how to make sure that one doesn’t steal the spotlight, and on being fair, and so on. When you’re a player, “fair” is something you usually only worry about as it pertains to you.

Playing regularly keeps you aware of the player mindset, and makes you better-equipped to deliver to that mind-set when you are behind the GM screen.

My Rating: 5/5 Your Rating: ______

9. Humility

Another occupational hazard is thinking that you are the smartest person in the room, able to craft stories that entertain and occasionally enlighten with greater skill than anyone else. To some extent, this is a consequence of the omniscience I have referenced already. Ironically, being a player can worsen this problem purely because of the absence of that omniscient perspective, but this still belongs on this side of the ledger because to get a balanced perspective, all you need do is observe how the other players are reacting to what you think is a comparatively poor performance.

There are three possibilities: Greater engagement, the same level of engagement, or less engagement.

If the players are clearly more into the game and more enthusiastic in their interactions with the GM, it becomes immediately clear that the GM isn’t doing half as bad a job as you thought – and that your own performances behind the screen are not the ground-breaking worlds-best standard that you thought they were. The story is much the same if engagement levels are the same as you observe in your games. Only of the other players are less involved does you self-congratulatory note have any possible merit.

This is the other side of the player mindset, and of being aware of it. Because of his unique perspective, no GM is ever fully equipped to analyze his own performance behind the screen; in fact, the comparative reactions of players (preferably the same players) is the only objective measure available. By being observant while playing, GMs can often get a much-needed reality check and dose of humility.

Of course, because no two games are alike – the PCs are different, for one thing – you also have to be a little careful that you aren’t comparing apples with oranges. Genre and characters and plotlines can all contaminate the clarity of this measure. For that reason, you need multiple examples from different games and genres before you can draw any definitive conclusions. The more you play, the more you can learn from playing to improve your own performance as a GM.

My Rating: 2/5 Your Rating: ______

10. Less Flexibility

Finally, we have the question of commitment and its consequences. Being a GM is a lot of work, for all that it can be both fun and rewarding. Players have a responsibility to respect the effort and make a commitment to participate if at all possible (without making it a do-or-die thing), and that applies to the GM when he’s a player in someone else’s game. If anything, he has less excuse for failures in this respect than anyone else, because he knows what it’s like to feel unappreciated (it happens to all of us, and is usually completely unintended by the players responsible – but emotional responses are rarely logical).

When you are the GM, you have the authority to cancel a game session if – for whatever reason – not enough players can get there, or if you aren’t going to be ready, or if you’re not well enough to run the game. That inevitably means that you have more flexibility in your schedule when you are a GM than when you are a player.

I know what you’re thinking: that doesn’t sound like much of an advantage, does it? But here’s the fact: humans like structure and schedule in their lives. It’s much easier to organize your life around some fixed routine than it is to do it around a lack of routine. Being a player on a regular basis can actually result in you becoming a better, more efficient, GM. And it’s whether or not these consequences are beneficial to you as a GM that we are concerned with.

My Rating: 1/5 Your Rating: ______

The disadvantages of concurrent activity

Of course. some of the disadvantages are no less cryptic:

1. Less time behind the screen

Would you learn more from observing another GM or from actually GMing yourself? While there are some perspectives that you can only get from the other side of the GM Screen, I nevertheless have to think that the intensity of actually doing it for the entire game session has to teach you more about being a GM than the equivalent amount of play. This is especially true with less GMing experience.

That said, you learn many shortcuts over the years; I can prep a game session in minutes now that would have taken me days when I was first starting out (if I could have done it at all). If your prep consumes so much of your available time that you are only ready to play once a fortnight, or once a month, or even less, and your choice is to play or do nothing/do game prep, you are probably better off playing – even if that’s X hours of prep that still have to be done.

Another factor to consider is rust. To some extent, it doesn’t matter how much you’ve GM’d in the past; what matters is how much current experience you have. Having all that out-of-date experience is still beneficial, but you will need to shake off any rust before you can fully utilize it. If your screen-experience is dated, your skills will (effectively) have regressed, in terms of assessing this disadvantage.

So long as you continue to GM some of the time, this isn’t a major disadvantage to an experienced GM. So I have only rated this a 1 – for me, in my current circumstances.

My Rating: 1/5 Your Rating: ______

2. Less variety in GMing diverse settings and systems

What if, instead of playing, you were to start a new campaign in a completely different genre to the one you usually referee? The more campaigns you have on the go, the greater the variety and depth of experience that you will accumulate. Even if the game system and genre are the same, GMing a whole bunch of different characters exposes you to different situations to the ones you are used to – which can be more difficult, but also more rewarding in terms of growth of skill.

When you first start out, it’s all you can do to stay on top of one campaign. With greater experience comes greater capacity. So this is a factor that becomes more significant with increasing GM expertise.

My Rating: 5/5 Your Rating: ______

3. Frustration

One of the problems that arises when a GM plays in someone else’s game is that they are perpetually second-guessing the GM. There were some positive aspects to doing this that were identified in the advantages section, but there are some definite downsides, especially when you think that your solution to a problem (which is nothing like the one the actual GM came up with) was the better answer. Never mind that you have no idea of the bigger picture that the GM has in his head, or the problems that he is dealing with, or that you can’t see the forest for the trees, or might just possibly be biased – any of which can render your solution invalid.

I once read a letter somewhere (it might have been in The Dragon but I’m not sure of that) from a frustrated player who wanted to start his own campaign because his GM had turned down his entirely “reasonable” request to give his paladin-assassin a +5 Holy Avenger of Vorpal Dancing. And the first thing he was going to do was give one to every PC who wanted one.

All players grow frustrated from time to time. GMs who play are even more susceptible. And the temptation to do in your game what another GM has prohibited you from doing in his, just to show him “how it could be done” – an extremely negative way of scratching that itch – means that your own GMing can actually be impaired by being a player – if you let it.

I’m not immune; I’ve been frustrated a number of times when a perfectly reasonable interpretation of a failed roll (or a spectacularly successful die roll) was rejected by the GM. But (so far, at least) I’ve recognized the reasons that might have led to his making a different decision to the one I was advocating, and so there has been no spillover into my campaigns as a result.

My Rating: 1/5 Your Rating: ______

4. Rivalry

A respectful rivalry can be a good thing. Striving to be a better GM than someone whose abilities you acknowledge can be a definite positive. But it’s always easy for a rivalry to get out of hand and become something poisonous. Worse still, immature players can sometimes try to play one rival off against the other; I was in my second year as a GM when I turned a player request down (I think it was for an unearned magic item, but no longer recall the specifics) only to be told, “[GM X] would let me have it”. Taking a deep breath, I explained that what another GM would or would not do was irrelevant, that the situations and campaigns and campaigns were in no way comparable.

Fortunately, with increasing maturity, this last becomes less of a problem, and as a reputation for fairness grows, the rivalry problem also tends to recede in general.

My Rating: 1/5 Your Rating: ______

5. Losing Players

If one of your players isn’t interested in playing in the new game, they will find other activities to fill their time. Sometimes, that means that you simply lose that player to a different GM, and sometimes this starts a decline in their interest in the hobby, full stop. Players who used to be stalwarts back when I started, playing in every game that they could find (and then some) have now been completely out of the hobby for 25 years or more. And it all started when one of the campaigns of which they were a part, folded.

Of the players who were part of my first campaign – which boasted 6 regulars at the time – only one still games regularly. And of the 6 core players who were part of the early days of my superhero campaign, half no longer game (though one continued to do so until his death in June 2012.

There was a time when the RPG Club around which my gaming life was built boasted a regular weekly attendance of 30 members and another 40 or so, any 10 of whom were in attendance on any given week. Only 7 or 8 of them still game together. Three have passed away, I have no idea what has happened to most of the rest; some of them moved away but may still game, and there are others who I know have hung up their dice. Well, you can’t stop the passage of time, and real life is always going to have its distractions to seduce players away from the game, but there is absolutely no good reason to give it opportunities.

My Rating: 3/5 Your Rating: ______

6. Barnacles and Rust

The more game systems that you GM at the same time, the more diverse your experience. I have found from personal experience that when you limit yourself to just one or two game systems, you grow extremely adept at nuancing that game system – but very quickly grow barnacles and rust in those genres and game systems that you aren’t using regularly. It’s now over a year since I GM’d a fantasy game – I have a superhero campaign, a pulp campaign, and a sci-fi campaign.

Variety of games as a GM keeps you sharper in all the games that you GM. You learn how to change mental gears more quickly, and how to look at gaming situations from different perspectives. It’s as big a paradigm shift as adapting a D&D module to a superhero campaign (something I’ve done in the past). And that’s an edge that you can lose if you give up GMing a campaign to become a player.

Simply because I’m thinking along those lines more of the time, I find it easier to conceive of sci-fi oriented campaigns right now. And that’s an phenomenon that will only accelerate over time – a feedback loop.

Fortunately, I have Campaign Mastery to write for, and that – plus a fantasy element to the superhero campaign – has been enough to keep my fantasy chops from becoming completely encrusted; but even so, I’m noticing that it’s growing a little harder to get into the right head-space to write a fantasy-oriented article (once I break through the barnacles and rust, I’m fine). But it’s something that I’m aware of, and actively combating.

My Rating: 4/5 Your Rating: ______

7. Less creative stimulation

You don’t have to be as creative to be a player as you do to be a GM. The downside of having fewer campaigns to prep for is that you have less variety of prep, and that (in turn) translates to less creative stimulation. As I identified above, my “fantasy” muscles are growing noticeably flabbier at the moment.

My Rating: 4/5 Your Rating: ______

8. Less flexibility

I talked earlier about the upsides of having less flexibility and more rigidity in your life as a result of the shift from pure GMing to a combination of GMing and playing in the advantages section – but those don’t negate the downsides.

My Rating: 4/5 Your Rating:______

9. Commitment

Of course, the reason you have less flexibility is because you have made a commitment to be a regular, recurring, reliable participant in the game. If you find that you are over-committed, you can’t scale back your involvement without breaking that commitment. To me, this is a strong enough consideration that it warrants separate consideration to that provided by the previous disadvantage.

If you’re the type of person who never over-commits themselves, congratulations on being able to give this a very low score. If you’re more like me, you have my sympathies.

My Rating: 4/5 Your Rating: ______

Analyzing the meaning

If you add up all the values I placed on the positives, you get a score of 32 – for me, in my current circumstances. Totaling the value of the disadvantages, I get a score of 27 – again, for me, in my current circumstances. That’s a balance of +5 in favor of the advantages, and means that right now, for me, the benefits of playing in someone else’s campaign at the same time as running my own outweigh the downsides. Your mileage might vary.

And what of the future? As I continue to recover from my brush with burnout, and as the need to scratch my growing “fantasy itch” grows more intense, I can see the positives declining by 6, while the negatives rise by 2 (having gone through the criteria item by item and assessed where things are likely to go). So the trend is for the balance to shift towards -3.

Inevitably, then, when the Edge Of Empire campaign runs its course, or the Dr Who campaign, I will look to fire up a new fantasy campaign, with myself in the GM’s chair. In fact, I’m starting to come up with ideas already… like using a “Quantum Leap” plot device to link totally unrelated fantasy adventures together… or maybe a very old-school simple campaign using the pathfinder system…

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Basics For Beginners (and the over-experienced) Pt 8: Depth In Plotting

dice by Armin Mechanist and frame by Billy Alexander

Frame: / Billy Alexander;
Dice Image: / Armin Mechanist;
Numeral & Compositing: Mike

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I’ve been asked a number of times what advice I have for a beginning GM. This 15-part series is an attempt to answer that question, three articles at a time – while throwing in some tips and reminders of the basics for more experienced GMs. This is the second of articles in the current trilogy and the planned half-way point of the series overall.

In the previous article, I looked at adventures and found (unsurprisingly) that they don’t exist in isolation; the campaign is ever-present, providing context to an adventure whether we plan for the campaign to be episodic or not. There are all sorts of metaphors that one could use to describe this – the campaign ‘providing the color palette in which adventures are painted’, for example – but the bottom line is that the campaign shapes and contributes content to any adventure, no matter how isolated, and most of the growth in expertise in adventure design lies in recognizing and working with that fact instead of fighting it or ignoring it.

This part of the series will look at the backbone of adventures, the plot, but instead of trying to look inward toward the content of individual adventures, it will deliberately look outward at that context, viewing adventures as the building blocks of something larger. And you know what? I predict that we will end up finding that you can’t do that without considering the internal structure of adventures.

The Common Development Path

As usual, I’ll start by looking at how most GMs progress from beginners through to experienced GMs. This ‘common development path’ might not be ubiquitous, but it’s certainly routine enough to be the lowest common denominator.

The Simple Adventure

In general, when GMs start off, they aren’t thinking about a campaign. Their attention is strictly focused on the adventure in front of them, and quite often that’s enough of a challenge. I’ve had several campaigns come about because I had an idea for an adventure – and the players enjoyed it enough that they wanted to continue on, wanted to know “what happens next?”

The Accidental Campaign

So there is a natural progression from no real campaign to a campaign emerging more or less by accident. And make no mistake, these can be quite successful for quite a long time; you can operate this way for years.

Static & Dynamic Backgrounds

Along the way, perhaps suggested by techniques that the GM has read about on sites like Campaign Mastery, perhaps inspired by progressive television shows (though the technique has become far more common in recent years/decades than it once was), the GM will transition from a static background to a dynamic one.

A static background is one that doesn’t change when the PCs aren’t around. It might not even change when they are around, but they are certainly going to be front-and-center whenever anything happens.

A dynamic background changes all the time, whether slowly or dramatically. In part, this is because NPCs begin to be assigned their own plans and agendas, that develop and mature over time; in part it’s repercussions from PC-involved events; in part, it’s the GM’s desire to ensure that the next adventure to take place in a given location puts the PCs in an interesting situation; and, in part, it’s because it brings a greater sense of the campaign world being “real” to the players.

Most will have had this experience: you go shopping in a given location for a while, but then – for whatever reason – you stop going there. Some time later – weeks, months or years – you return to that location and find that, while some of the shops are familiar, some are gone and new ones have opened. There are two forces at work: evolution and resistance to change. Some places are institutions and are highly resistant to change; others are semi-permanent fixtures and are resistant to change; and some are transient and prone to change at irregular intervals. But you don’t really notice the effects if you see them happening one at a time; only when there is some interval does the accumulation of change rise up and smack you between the eyes.

It was mid-2011 that I moved into my current accommodations (I can hardly believe that it’s been five years already!) and in that time, I’ve seen a lot of changes to the local shopping center. While some things haven’t changed, other stores have come and gone and so have the stores that took their place. I can count 40 or 50 such changes over that period of time – enough that if I hadn’t been here, the main shopping area of my suburb would be almost completely unrecognizable by now. I can think of only a handful of locations that haven’t changed, one way or another.

That’s what an evolving campaign background is like. The changes can be so gradual that you don’t notice them happening, but eventually something draws your attention to how much things have changed since the PCs first encountered it, and the difference suddenly seems enormous.

The Clumsy Campaign

Over time, the GM becomes aware of the issues and problems that come with having a totally-free environment, such internal contradictions, plot holes, forgotten characters and plot threads, or painting yourself into a plot corner. Or they are made aware that an undirected approach puts a heavier burden on their creativity and demands more game-prep, week-on-week. Or he simply gets a hankering to run a bigger, more complicated plotline.

The problem that most GMs experience is that they have run anything with this many moving parts before, so they try to look at the campaign as though it were just one big adventure, and that’s an invitation for disaster. There are so many different ways that it can go wrong but ultimately, it’s simply because the resulting game sessions are too much of one thing. There’s too much that’s all talk before there’s some action; there’s too much action before there’s some significance to it; there’s too much doom and gloom before there’s any relief. The gap between information being provided to the players and that information becoming relevant is too great. In a nutshell, if there’s anything that can go wrong with the pacing, it does.

Because most GMs try to get new campaigns off to a vibrant, intriguing start, these flaws are often not initially evident, and that only magnifies the appearance that the campaign is a catastrophic failure. To rescue things, most GMs abandon their plans and simply take the state of play at that point as a foundation, going back to the “accidental campaign” model.

What happens next depends on the analytic capabilities of the GM, or to someone pointing them at a resource that explains to them where they went wrong, or playing that role themselves. Many of them will simply give up and decide to stick with simplicity and emergent plotting.

Others will discover what went wrong, or have it pointed out to them, or simply come up with a solution on their own. Which brings me to:

The Emergent Campaign

The simplest solution that GMs stumble across or come up with on their own is to set things up waiting to be triggered by the arrival of the PCs, and let the campaign emerge of it’s own accord from this rich field of potential.

And for a while – again, potentially, years – this can be the standard approach adopted by the GM. In fact, some GMs settle into this technique quite comfortably and never leave it.

The Catastrophic Collapse

Eventually, though, one of their campaigns will experience a catastrophic collapse. None of the potential plotlines lives up to its promise, none of the ideas work out, the campaign goes over-the-top in any of half-a-dozen ways because of the lack of planning, or the campaign simply lacks impetus and just meanders from situation to situation. It’s like a half-hour TV show that’s been padded out to an hour – not enough density of engaging ideas to sustain interest.

The Locomotive Campaign

When that happens, the GM will inevitably reach the decision that a bit more planning is needed, the next time around. In fact, they usually go too far, forgetting what they have already learned about plot trains, and creating what can only be considered a plot train on a campaign scale. It happens to almost every GM at some point; it’s certainly happened to me, I was just lucky enough that it occurred within an established campaign that was strong enough to survive the experience.

A Happy Medium

There is a happy medium, an equilibrium between too much plot direction and too little. Although the plotting in the Zenith-3 campaign that I revealed way back in Back To Basics: Campaign Structures may seem like a locomotive campaign, in fact it’s not.

That’s probably the most misunderstood article that I’ve ever posted. The idea was to describe, in increasing order of complexity, a number of different ways to structure a campaign in terms of the adventure content, so that GMs could compare the techniques and choose the one that was most comfortable for them, given their current level of experience, and what the next most complex structural technique was. Some readers seemed to think that I was describing how a complex campaign was created, and getting themselves confused, or thought that they had to understand all of them – neither of which was the intention. Maybe it would have been clearer if I had dealt with each of them in an individual article. But it’s worth calling this out and clarifying it for readers at this point because it presents a different perspective on the subject matter of both this article and the previous one.

The approach that I used to plan the Zenith-3 campaign was to create a series of plotlines, break them up into a couple of thousand little jigsaw pieces, then figure out how to assemble them into a big picture so that as each of the plotlines evolved, the overall picture would change and evolve into a larger storyline. That becomes the blueprint that is used to create each adventure – but none of those jigsaw pieces or even the plotlines are set in stone until the adventure actually takes place that incorporates them. Any and all of them can be changed, events can be added or subtracted to adventures, and so on.

One of these days, when I get to a relatively small and compact plotline, I’ll do an article about how I translate those ‘jigsaw pieces’ into an actual adventure, just to complete the picture.

Taking A Shortcut

A lot of people have told me that they have been able to use the many articles on the subject that I have posted here at Campaign Mastery to short-cut their development process. While appreciative of their efforts, and acknowledging that this is the purpose of those articles, I’m always a little concerned that people are trying to run before they can walk. I strongly recommend that GMs select one of the intermediate plot structures from the Campaign Structures article as an intermediate goal, and especially employ the simpler planning techniques described in Amazon Nazis On The Moon: Campaign Planning Revisited for a while before trying to advance.

Russian Nesting Dolls by Bo Hansen

Credit: / Bo Hansen

That said, if you don’t make mistakes, you can never improve (unless you can learn from someone else’s mistakes, of course!) – so if a reader is prepared for the up for the challenge, more power to them. You can always fall back to a simpler technique if you find you have to!

Depth In Plotting

The objective is to achieve depth of plot while avoiding the traps of being locked into a plot locomotive. This is actually much simpler than it sounds. There are two basic approaches to the problem, and innumerable combinations and variations.

Russian Babushka Dolls

Method one is best thought of as a set of nested Babushka dolls. Each “doll” is a layer of plot, separated by a revelation, surprise, or plot twist. Let’s put one together to show you how simple it is.


We start with a few simple plotlines:

  1. The PCs rescue the (incognito) Crown Prince when he is accused of cheating in a card game in a tavern and are rewarded. The Crown Prince recruits the PCs to be his eyes, ears, and hands in dealing with problems that can’t, for some reason, be handled with the military force of the crown. Their first mission: a greedy landowner has failed to pay his taxes despite gouging those under his authority. The PCs are to collect the taxes and punish the landowner before banditry arises as a solution.

Sets up the basic campaign, starts it off with a bang, and gets the PCs involved up to their necks.

  1. The taxes are needed to repay war debts. When the neighboring Kingdom of Skannex invaded, the Dwarves of Zarecht bargained fiercely for their aid, but turned the tide of battle against the Realm’s ancient enemy. Reparations are in the form of a regular sum of gold until the debt plus interest is repaid, plus a series of ‘favors’ doing things that the Dwarves can’t be publicly seen to be party to. The gold makes an attractive target, so it needs to be protected by the PCs; and, when they get it to the Dwarves, they have to perform whatever ‘favor’ they demand, on behalf of the Realm.

Introduces the political situation. The ‘favor’ shouldn’t be anything the PCs particularly object to, but exactly what it will be has not yet been decided. The other iconic fantasy race are Elves, maybe something involving them?

  1. The eldest son of the Elvish Royal Family is about to reach maturity according to the standards of his race. While there has been enmity between Elves and Dwarves in the past, so it would not be politic for the Dwarves to attend the ceremony, the King of the Dwarves wishes to send a gift to the young elf in hopes of building toward a better future relationship. He needs the PCs to escort the gift, a gem the size of a baseball, whose every facet contains a different hue, to the Prince.

Yeah, that will work.

  1. The PCs are sent to help a hamlet in the Northern Reaches who claim to be having problems with an evil cult. The Prince suspects that they are dealing with ‘paper hobgoblins conjured from bad ale and strong imaginations’ but refuses to take chances with the lives of loyal citizens if he can help it.

This set of adventures have as their sole purpose the establishing of the character of the Crown Prince as a good guy who honors the obligations of the throne and cares for the citizens under his protection, and getting the PCs into his company. Next, it’s time for the first babushka doll:

  1. The PCs return to the Prince and tell him of the ‘favor’ demanded by the Dwarves. He casually replies, “oh yes, they sent me something when I turned 18, too, and indicates a similar but smaller gemstone mounted as a paperweight, before giving them their next assignment: to capture a bandit holed up in the Southern Caves and bring him back for a very public execution.
  2. A temple in the Western Plains is preaching sedition. The PCs are to kill the Cleric and level the Temple.

The Crown Prince’s personality has begun to shift. The PCs might not think too much of the shift in adventure 5 – it might be a little extreme but it’s still within reasonable bounds- but it’s rather more noticeable in adventure 6, and probably has the PCs starting to reconsider their association with the Prince. But this is just set-up for the next Babushka Doll:

  1. Someone attempts to poison the King, who has been a recluse since his beloved Queen died in childbirth eight years ago (explaining why the Crown Prince is in charge – he is ruling in his father’s name). The PCs should suspect the Crown Prince, given his recent behavioral shift. They discover that he has been replaced by a Doppleganger, but it takes months for full assimilation; that means that the real Crown Prince is still alive somewhere. The PCs find and rescue him from the Dungeons below the palace, where they discover a number of citizens who have been imprisoned for trivial offenses.
  2. If it wasn’t the Crown Prince, it must have been someone else, so the PCs continue to investigate. They will almost certainly attribute the change of personality to the Doppleganger taking the Prince’s place. Their investigation reveals a conspiracy headed by the son of Duke Archmoz, Chancellor of the exchequer; unknown to everyone until now, the Duke is the King’s older half-brother. The PCs capture the rest of the Duke’s family, but the Duke himself escapes, threatening the realm with Civil War with his very existence. The Crown Prince orders the rest of the Duke’s family put to death – including wife, son, daughter, and three grandchildren, the youngest just 6 months old. The PCs are assigned the task of hunting down the Duke.

Two Babushka dolls for the price of one! Although the Doppleganger revelation seems to explain the change in personality (which is driven home even more forcefully by the discovery in the Dungeons), the treatment of the Duke’s family should raise doubts as to that explanation.

  1. The PCs can either pursue their assignment, can seek out the Duke and push for him to challenge the Prince’s right to the throne because of their concerns that he is really a monster, or can look for an explanation for the personality shift before the Prince takes the Throne – which task they choose is up to them.

    • If they go after the Duke, he will offer terms to surrender peacefully: Cleanse the Prince of the insanity that has seized him; but until then, he cannot and will not abdicate his responsibility to his half-brother and to the people.
    • If they seek to ally with the Duke against the Prince, the same thing will happen.
    • If they choose to go after a solution to whatever is wrong with the Prince instead of pursuing the Duke, he will seek them out and make the same offer.

Three different roads, all leading to the same outcome, which is adventure #10, and the next Babushka Doll.

  1. The PCs get some expert advice on Dopplegangers by tracking down another one and promising to let it go in return for answers. Clues as to the identity of this Doppleganger should be inserted into Adventure 7. They learn that a Doppleganger’s first concern on taking a new form is to blend in, doing nothing that would reveal itself. This confirms that the Prince’s personality shift had nothing to do with his replacement. Eventually, they discover that the Prince is being controlled by a demon, but that it can’t be exorcised because it hasn’t actually possessed him, it lies hidden elsewhere. Before they can locate it, the King dies of the lingering effects of the poison administered in Adventure 7, and the Prince declares the PCs to be traitors to the throne because they have disobeyed his command. With the entire official apparatus of the state now turned against them, they now have to discover the hiding place of the Demon and drive it out or their own lives will (eventually) be forfeit.

There are two possible hiding places that make logical sense: the first is that the Demon has actually possessed the Duke, but that doesn’t actually lead to a completely satisfactory narrative; while there could be a moral about evil defeating itself, it doesn’t have a lot of drama. We want to be heading for a big finish. So that leaves option #2…

  1. While trying to figure out their next move, the PCs hear rumors of the Prince Of The Elves becoming cruel and despotic. This seems too great a coincidence to be accidental – what if the Demon is in the Gemstone sent to the Crown Prince as a gift? And another within the gift that they conveyed to the Prince Of The Elves as a ‘peace offering’? And, come to think of it, didn’t the Dwarven King have another of them mounted on his Jewelled scepter? To prove their theory, all they need do is penetrate the Royal Apartments…

Because I’m presenting this outline bereft of anything that isn’t important, you probably saw that coming. But to the players, the dwarven gifts would be just a bit of color, and not a significant, even critical, piece of the plot.

  1. With the Crown Prince released from the spell of the Demon within the Akh-stone paperweight, the Duke surrenders and is pardoned by the Prince, and declared next in the line of succession. The Prince orders the PCs to raid the Dwarven Tunnels and destroy the gem on the King’s scepter while he sends instructions to the Elvish Royal Family to do the same to the Elf Prince’s “gift”. If the PCs fail, the only recourse will be for an all-out war between an Elf-Human alliance and the Dwarves – which will so weaken the respective Kingdoms that they will be easy prey for their traditional enemies, Skannex.

The dominant element of this campaign plan is that every time the PCs think they have a handle on what the Campaign is all about, it changes gears on them. There are just two loose ends: the Kingdom of Skannex, which is used purely as a boogie-man, and where the Akhstones came from in the first place.

Spiderweb Plots

This is essentially the plotting technique that I use for the Zenith-3 campaign, in which there are a large number of distinct and separate plotlines in more-or-less simultaneous existence. Any given adventure advances only one or two of these plotlines at a time. The plotlines are based on the ambitions and plans of various NPCs and NPC groups. Concurrent with these plotlines are a series of character-driven subplots in which the PCs live their day-to-day lives; sometimes, these will intersect with the main plotline being developed, most of the time they simply provide context and continuity from one adventure to the next.

As examples of the latter, I have required the players to nominate hobbies that they want their characters to pursue; I have had them list skills that they want their characters to develop; and have added various official functions that they have to perform, such as regular media appearances, a favorite charity for which they will work publicly on a regular basis and for which they will generate publicity; and so on. The PCs are employed by a government agency that has embraced variations on the Japanese Management Techniques of the 80s – ‘these things are good for productivity, so you will do these things. These things have been shown to boost staff creativity and problem-solving ability, you will do these things.” This gives me a lot of things that I can show the characters doing, and I simply pick and choose the most interesting of them to actually show in-game; the rest are assumed to be happening in the background – at best, they simply rate a mention. “You are listening to an album of ‘electronic sound-scapes’ called Modus-5 by a Belorussian composer in 2022 – not because you like that sort of thing, but because it’s something you don’t normally listen to – when your comm-badge chimes….” and off we go into the actual plotline.

I won’t go too much more deeply into this, because it is described in detail as part of the article that I linked to earlier, “Campaign Structures”.

Everyone does it differently

“Where there is one solution, there are many” is a maxim that I apply regularly to problems presented to the PCs in-game, but it applies equally to problems of how to perform various tasks associated with being a GM, such as plotting.

Certainly, where there are two solutions to a problem, there are going to be more, and every GM will develop their own style and techniques.

Neither of the techniques described above match the plotting techniques that my co-GM and I use for the Adventurer’s Club campaign, because the Pulp Genre demands more straight-forward plots. At the same time, there are some elements of both the above approaches that are used; the personal-lives-as-subplots-as-continuity approach of Zenith-3 is a recognizable element of the Adventurer’s Club approach, and individual adventures will often use a simplified form of the Babushka Doll model as its internal structure.

Use these techniques as starting points to your own style and technique.

The New Beginnings Series

I should probably point out that the New Beginnings series assumes that a lot of these practices are going to be implemented. I talk extensively in that series about how to create a complex campaign based largely on the Spiderweb model, but with recursive elements from the Babushka model incorporated as well. I didn’t go deeply into why I was recommending certain courses of action in that series, it was going to be too long already – so you might find that this article provides context that helps you understand that series, or that the New Beginnings series expands your understanding of the contents of this article.

The Building Blocks Of Deep Plot

Ultimately, Deep Plots are just convoluted arrangements of pieces of adventure. To fully understand how to create a plotline of depth and substance, you need to understand how plotlines integrate with adventures, how one element of an adventure can shape and trigger the next. There are innumerable ways for these elements to be connected, but when you boil all the complexities away, you are left with two basic types of adventure structure (in terms of how the adventures integrate with the meta-plot), and two simple rules.

Plot-Driven Adventures

Some adventures are driven by the larger plot, and exist to advance it. Many of the later adventures in the Babushka Doll example fall into this category.

Adventure-Driven Plots

Others exist primarily for their own sake, as “something that is happening” while meta-plot events are taking place in the background. Take Adventures 5 and 6 of the Babushka example, or – for that matter – adventures 1, 2, and 3. At a meta-plot level, these do the following:

  • Introduce the Crown Prince and the Political situation around the characters, and make both a part of the character’s world;
  • Establish the personality of the Crown Prince…
  • …so that when it changes, the PCs will notice;
  • And finally, and very much under the radar, sneak in the clues that will lead to the final solution to the question of what has been going on.

In fact, the first five or six adventures all establish background. You could just as easily start the campaign with adventure 7, and fill in the rest in the character briefing – “You are in the employ of the Crown Prince, hired as a group to act unofficially when official channels are blocked or inappropriate. The Crown Prince established himself as an honorable man and a good ruler who cares for his subjects, but lately, something’s changed that has you suspicious.”

There are only two problems with cutting the campaign in half in this way: first, the whole thing lacks the impact that seeing it first-hand would provide; and second, it hides the essential clue from the players, turning the campaign into a plot locomotive over which they have little, if any, control. In comparison, the complete campaign as outlined may anticipate what the players will do, may even bait hooks to lure them down certain paths of their own free will, but at no stage actually forces them to follow the script; it’s just that it gives them no reason not to.

Rule One: Make the adventures fun

…and interesting, and unpredictable, with characters that the players care about, and care about playing; and,…

Rule Two: The Forest Mandate:

Always keep one eye on the Bigger Picture by stepping back and thinking not about the adventure you are creating now, but about how that adventure relates to the ones that have preceded it and to the ones that will follow.

When you get right down to it, that’s all that deep plotting really is: making sure that no matter how much attention you pay to the trees, you are always aware of the shape of the forest, and striving to make that interesting as well.

Campaign Outlines: objects of study

I’m going to end this article by pointing you at a couple of other campaign outlines that I have provided in the pages of Campaign Mastery in the past. I recommend studying them, looking not only at what I have done with each adventure described, but why I have done it – bearing in mind that my story-telling and plotting skills have also improved over the years!

  • The Frozen LandsThis article spells out the campaign premise of this near-future Sci-Fi/Pulp/Action-Adventure campaign but doesn’t actually break it down into adventures.
  • All Is ThreeAgain, this doesn’t break the proposed D&D/Pathfinder/fantasy campaign down, focusing more on the development of a campaign from initial premise. That said, all the ingredients are present for this to be a deep plot full of twists and turns, symbolism and meaning.
  • The Remembrance Of The Disquiet DeadThis horror-fantasy mini-campaign could be made part of a larger plotline or could be run as a standalone. It goes into details of the content of the plot-driven adventures and encounters, but doesn’t list any of the adventure-driven plots that would be needed to flesh out the concept. Because it offers four radically-different solutions as to what is happening and why it is taking place, it contains a lot of flexibility.
  • Control-Alt-DeleteThis article spells out not only the campaign premise for this near-future Time-travel/Sc-Fi/Action-Adventure campaign, but also the first 20 adventures in varying levels of detail. How many more adventures will follow is up to the GM; I called a halt to developments when I reached the point where the PCs are about to know what’s really been going on and can start deciding what to do about it. I would suggest a minimum of 2 more adventures (one investigation and one action/resolution) but you could lump the whole thing into one big adventure or break it down into 5 or 6. This was presented to illustrate how to go from premise to deep plot, so it’s completely relevant to today’s article, and utilizes a hybrid of both Spiderweb and Babushka structures.
  • Yesterday Once MoreAnd here’s another sci-fi/time-travel/pulp/action-adventure campaign consisting of 14 adventures, each spelled out in a fair amount of detail – more than I have used in the example offered in this article, for example. It employs a simpler plot structure than either of the deep-plot techniques described in this article while incorporating elements of both Babushka and Spiderweb approaches.

The last two are important, I think, because they not only show that there’s more techniques to deep-plot structuring than the two simplified models I describe in this article but illustrate how most of them are actually hybrids of the two, and that you don’t have to have a really complicated structure to have a rich, complex, plotline.

Concluding Advice

The plot structure that you employ should always be the best one for the plotline that you are comfortable with as a GM.

Too many GMs, especially beginners, mistake complex plot structures with complex plots; they focus on the way the parts of the puzzle move and not what the finished picture will look like. That’s a sure way to get yourself lost in complexities and drowning in details.

Instead, GMs (especially beginners) should think about the complexities of their plotline, and their current level of expertise and experience, and – if necessary to the delivery of that plotline – deliberately choose a simpler plot structure so that they can focus on the things that actually need their attention.

The final part of the current three-part block of this series is due to follow in two weeks’ time, when I tackle the often-contentious subject of Rewards…

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All Wounds Are Not Alike V: Narcotic Healing (part 2)

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Photo Credit: / Ken Thompson

Photo Credit: / Ken Thompson

It has often been suggested that players get addicted to the ease of healing that comes with “Holy Water Drip Bottle” syndrome. And that prompted me to ask what would result from making it really addictive, with all the associated problems that come with it.

In part 1, I simplified the general pattern of addiction into four stages for gaming purposes:

  • The first is with social/remedial usage.
  • The second signals the addiction becoming a force within the characters life, initially in small and trivial ways and progressing through to behavioral shifts severe/frequent enough for the character’s associates to become concerned, and is generally characterized by periodic consumption in excess of the social/recreational/remedial usage that defined stage 1.
  • In the third stage, a minor/occasional problem becomes the defining parameter of the character’s life, taking gradual control of them until the character themselves can no longer deny that they have a problem.
  • The fourth stage is when the character finally succeeds in breaking free of their addiction’s control and enters recovery. It can take real addicts dozens, hundreds, or thousands of attempts to achieve this stage in the process.

I then looked at how to adapt the specifics of each phase into in-game events – some transitory, some more long-lasting, with specific examples from the Zenith-3 campaign in which we have a mage PC becoming addicted to artificial mana-boosts.

Having established this general foundation, I then looked at the types of healing that could be addictive, and discovered that in the case of both potions and clerical healing it made total sense that addiction could take place, and in fact that it would be more surprising if it did not occur on a regular basis. Finally, I looked at three types of dependency that could occur – the usual two (physical and psychological) and one that was unique to this circumstance, which I dubbed ‘spiritual’ dependence.

Translating the Phases Of Healing Addiction

Armed with the knowledge of what the different forms of dependence would look like when the ‘substance’ of addiction is clerical healing or healing potions, we should next examine each stage of addiction for impacts based on the nature of that substance, and in particular, what in-game events would be typical.

Phase 1

This is where every character in every usually sits, quite comfortably. Get injured, get healed, no problem.

Phase 2

This is the phase in which dependence sets in. The mixture of types of dependence and their relative strengths would be different for every character, but all three would be present to some extent.

“The addict seeks, creates, or invents opportunities and reasons for further use for it’s own sake” – the three manifestations that come most readily to mind are:

  • the character thinks he has encountered food poisoning (‘that meat was a little off last night’, ‘don’t you think that beer was still a little green?’);
  • or, they have a mysterious ache somewhere (“I must have done something to myself without noticing it at the time”);
  • or, an old injury seems to have persistent effects (“I know you healed it when you could but that shoulder wound still aches in the morning, maybe you didn’t get to it in time.

In addition, characters might anticipate getting wounded (especially if they have a vigorous practice routine with their weapons each morning ‘to stay sharp’ and imagine that a preemptive healing potion/cure wounds spell will help protect them – this is especially plausible once the ‘old injury’ excuse card is on the table.

“Addict uses to excess, resulting in unwanted problems, which the addict blames on outside factors. Excess use of healing could have any or all of several effects:

  • If the character has to pay for the healing, he will always be short of money; when this starts becoming critical/chronic, he will begin to sponge off others, or penny-pinch in crucial areas. He may engage in risky gambles to raise funds, like betting an NPC in the bar that the character’s fellow-PC is stronger than the NPC, or that they can take him at Darts, or whatever. Once the character takes a loss, he will then keep chasing that loss – this is a trait of gambling addiction, but in this case the gambling is simply a means to an end and a manifestation of the real problem.
  • If the healing is being provided by a member of the party, it may be that on a particularly bad day the cleric simply runs out of healing spells because this PC has used so many of them.
  • The character could be so busy planning how he’s going to get more healing that he is inattentive on watch.
  • The character may become slightly resistant (ignore any ‘1’ results when rolling for healing). This won’t have a noticeable effect most of the time, but every now and then it will leave the character incompletely healed, requiring an additional potion/cure wounds spell to finish the job.
  • One of the scarier possibilities is that an infectious agent may become partially resistant to being healed – which neatly plays into the ‘old wound’ syndrome.
  • The character may suggest/insist that religious services should include healing so that participants can feel closer to their God.
  • Perhaps the most obvious one of all is simply becoming a little more reckless on the battlefield to ensure that he always gets injured in a fight.
  • Increased aggressiveness or obstinateness might trigger fights that didn’t have to happen.
  • While in a religious ecstasy, the character might volunteer the services of the party to the temple for something dangerous, or boring, or whatever.

There are lots of other possibilities. In general, it comes down to what the character has to do to obtain the excess that he desires, what the character should be doing but isn’t doing or isn’t doing as well as he should because he is thinking about what he has to do to satisfy his needs, and what the negative effects of actual consumption to excess might be,

“Addict begins to conceal additional supplies in regularly-frequented locations.” The character who is addicted to clerical healing might begin befriending the local priests wherever they go so that he can get them to supply additional healing “to save on party resources”. If to healing potions, he starts concealing/buying extras.

You get the idea – I’m not going to go into all of the elements of each stage of addiction.

This is all prep work for the GM; it’s an ongoing complication that he can throw into the lives of the PCs.

Game Effects & Rules – or the lack thereof

There are lots of ways of dealing with addiction in terms of game mechanics, and most of them are a bad idea.

You could require characters to save against addiction each time they get healed, for example – but that puts the notion of addiction front and center in their minds, and means that when it eventually happens, it will have all the impact of wet spaghetti.

You could specify some characteristic that indicates the potential for addiction, for example receiving more dice of healing in a day than the character has CON bonus, and only mentioning it when this limit is breached. But this is a lot of time-consuming bookwork that slows play down to no obvious benefit.

You could have an addict make a roll each hour or day or whatever to determine whether or not their addiction is going to cause a problem for them that day – then railroad the results into existence. It shouldn’t need explaining how bad an idea this is.

No, this is all best handled at a metagame level. Make a list of possible life-complications, just as I have demonstrated above, and keep an eye out for more; when an opportunity exists for one to to manifest, make a secret roll to decide whether or not it does. Or simply decide that it does, or doesn’t, based on the current state of addiction and level of dependence and how long it has been since the last time.

I plan things out as subplots in this way on a deliberately accelerating incidence curve. In a given adventure, there might be one or two or three addiction-related incidents. When addiction reaches stage-3, entire plotlines will occur because of the addiction. Keep any railroading – and there may be some – off-camera, and with the players full complicity. When something happens in-game, it’s either external to the character (“you wake up in the stables with no memory of the night before, with only 3 copper pieces in your coin pouch. Your head aches and throbs like there was a drum pounding in time with your heartbeat. You can’t remember getting robbed.”) or hand them a note (“The wound still aches, it doesn’t seem completely healed”) and let the player roleplay the situation.

You want the addiction to be just a piece of the background, something that you (and the players) have to take into account but which doesn’t totally control their lives. Use it as a plot device to get the characters into and out of dramatic situations and adventures; use it to complicate their lives; don’t use it to slow gameplay down or take control. Nudge and steer, don’t railroad.

Social Effects Of Addiction

If it is possible for a character to become addicted to healing, he won’t be the first and he won’t be the last when it does actually happen. And that means that the society around the characters will evolve in response to the phenomenon.


Think about how public drunkenness is treated. Think about how it was regarded in the 1980s. In the 1960s. In the 1920s. During Prohibition. In the 1870s. There are similarities to them all, but there are also subtle differences. There is always a social stigma attached to addiction; the intensity of the manifestation varies from era to era and individual to individual. When I was a child, drunkenness was quite tolerable provided that your behavior while intoxicated was socially acceptable and that you weren’t so alcohol-dependent that you had thrown away your life and been reduced to living in the gutter, for example; these days, more of the focus is on moderation of consumption, and the potential for drunken misbehavior is considered the responsibility of the individual to manage. Whereas misbehavior was treated in the past as a consequence of the alcohol, and responsibility of the individual for actions while intoxicated was mitigated or diminished, these days that is no longer considered a valid defense; by consuming to excess you are deemed to have accepted responsibility for anything you might do while under the influence.

But there are other forms of addiction that are treated far more gently – until they get out of control. Gambling addiction. Addiction to painkillers. Addiction to social media. Addiction to publicity. Addiction to sympathy. Addiction to generosity.

Humans can become addicted to any behavior that either makes them feel good, or makes them feel better than they did. Much of the rehabilitation process can be seen as transference of dependence from a socially-unacceptable form to a socially-acceptable support mechanism (often with vows of secrecy attached, in order to avoid the social stigma).

In addition, there is always a counter-movement within society when the incidence of individuals suffering from a social stigma arise – or when there is political capital to be gained. The Temperance movements at the start of the 20th century. Prohibition. The War On Drugs. Even the vegan and vegetarian movements can be considered a reaction to the excessive consumption of unhealthy fast/prepackaged foods in modern society, though that’s probably too extreme an interpretation. All of these movements were conceived with noble purposes and good intentions, and all of them (with the possible exception of the vegan/vegetarian movements) had unintended consequences that harmed societies when they became dominant influences to at least some extent – whether they did more harm than good is a whole different question, and has to be determined on a case-by-case basis.


There is always a moral dimension attached to addiction because of the immoral activities that people may be driven to in order to satisfy their addiction. That moral dimension always lends itself to stories of redemption from the evils of excessive consumption. Ordinary people can become extraordinary role models and cautionary tales, and these stories of redemption are rendered all the more relevant, poignant, and accessible by the very ordinariness of their beginnings.

Every PC will have heard stories of such people. The societal attitude towards the addiction itself will provide an important point of context for such tales; if the problem is not viewed as widespread, and healing is considered safe for most people most of the time, the focus will be on the extremity of the circumstances that led to the addiction and less on the cautionary tale. The story will be one of unusual tragedy leading to unusual redemption, with no trace of the “it could happen to you, too” moral warnings; instead, the focus would be on seeking help when you need it and being honest with yourself. Inspiration, not Warning, and an emphasis on the positive outcome at the end.

It is in the best interests of most religious organizations to so depict any form of addiction to their services. This may well lead to the real scale of the problem being ignored or actively downplayed. To this end, religious orders may even create interventionist services to conceal the problem and get it “out of sight and hence out of mind”. Only when the problem becomes too big to ignore, too obvious, is there a shift in the nature of the stories being told from pulpits etc to the cautionary tale. In many respects, this is a natural response to the evolution of the situation; as more ordinary people become addicted, so more tales of ordinary people destroying their lives surface to provide the foundations of these morality plays. Redemption remains rare and the examples of it lauded; the incidence of afflicted to redeemed rises, but there is a broader pool for ‘the lucky few’ to be drawn from.

This places the whole concept of the ‘adventurer’ into an interesting context. There can be a perception that adventurers risk addiction to healing in order to serve the public good – separating ‘us’ from ‘them’, and implying that ‘we’ are safe from this danger, at least ordinarily. This would then manifest in Institutions for the retired adventurer, where hopeless addicts are confined “for their own good” by “a grateful populace”. As the population sub-group most likely to be afflicted with this problem, the existence of healing addiction to any substantive extent forces the GM to consider adventurers as a social class or caste with (at least a fuzzily-) defined place within society. Even if that perception did not exist, recognition of this problem makes this treatment of adventurers an inevitability.

Nobles and lawmakers always like this sort of thing because it enables them to pass special laws pertaining to adventurers, for example “Adventurers arouse threats to the community, earning great wealth in the process. For the community to be protected from these consequences is expensive, and therefore a special tax levied on adventurers is justified”.

In some campaigns, the GM will already have thought about the role of, and the public perception of, adventurers within society, and will need to adapt his approach to the healing addiction stigma accordingly; in others, he can let the tail wag the dog, establishing the social reaction to addiction that he wants and using that to define an emerging perception of adventurers as a social class.

Social Trust

Quite often, the first casualty of addiction will be a perceived betrayal of a social trust. There are certain professions which are held to a higher standard by public opinion, such as pilots, bankers, police, fire, and rescue services, doctors, and priests. Even if such individuals succumb and are redeemed, the loss of public trust can be an even harder burden to overcome.

This is the reason why institutions and support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous are so strict about preserving the secrecy around the identities of attendees – to preserve the social trust of individuals wrestling with a problem.

Of course, this is always fraught with danger, as a policy. It means that people may be in positions of trust who cannot be trusted in those positions, and this is regarded as a necessary price to protect those in positions of trust who would not be trusted but who can nevertheless still discharge their public trusts with dignity and honor.

There is no easy social solution to this dilemma, and never has been. The best compromise that has been found is to protect secrecy up to the point of actual betrayal of that social trust without possibility of correction or restitution, at which point discovery of this failure ‘outs’ the sufferer. It’s not perfect, but it more or less works.

In any fantasy RPG, there is a reasonable expectation that ‘adventurers’ might be added to such a list. They are often granted extraordinary freedoms and latitudes; they may receive adulation as the ‘rock stars’ of their day. They may be held up as role models to others, as examples to which others should aspire. This would amplify greatly any social stigma attached to addiction; as much as pity and sympathy, there would also be a sense of betrayal of trust in some cases. The more your society lets adventurers simply ‘get on with adventuring’, the greater the level of trust being placed in adventurers to do the right thing and police their own numbers accordingly. Should they manifestly fail to do so, external controls will be enacted.

This opens up a whole new branch of plotlines to the GM in which the PCs are confronted with an NPC adventurer who may have betrayed that trust and who are required to apply and enforce appropriate discipline, or to investigate for possible breaches. Such plotlines also give the GM a ready conduit for providing the players with the social background and context that have been discussed. The offender need not be an addiction sufferer; he may be accused of cheating on his taxes, or taking advantage of the public, or seducing the daughter of the Count or the Mayor, or any of a dozen other transgressions. But as a way of educating players in the social treatment and expectations of adventurers, it’s hard to beat.


Theologians in fantasy societies are, or at least should be, frequently called upon to make moral judgments on behalf of the broader community when those judgments are beyond the capacities of that community. In theory, they can see the bigger picture, and there is a theological network by which problems can be escalated until they reach the proper level for a solution. Clouding this idyllic picture is the specter of self-interest and conflicts of interest, and the scandals of pedophilia in the priesthood have shown that organized religion has a very poor track record in such cases. History also shows that politics has proven equally corruptive.

When you consider the reactions of organized religion to Healing Addiction, you get some very interesting thoughts presenting themselves. An internal policy that is quite different from the public posture of the theology is almost certain to emerge; the very notion that healing can be addictive threatens the trust that the public places in their religious institutions. It may even be a mandated requirement of the priesthood that such addictions be supplied with as much as they need, in total secrecy, until the sufferer can be quietly withdrawn from society.

But I would not then put it past some to willfully addict nobles and others of high rank in order to give the church leverage over the civil authorities. I am completely convinced that there would have been the occasional such corruption in the campaigns’ history, carefully swept under the carpet. Healing Addiction requires the GM to think carefully about the role of religious institutions within their game world – something they should do anyway, but this makes it imperative.

Beyond that, theologians would have their own explanations for the phenomenon and would base the treatment they appear to provide to sufferers accordingly.

Radical Variant: The Gift Of Devils?

While I was planning this article, an original idea came to mind. Given all the social harm and disruption that can manifest, there is a solid case to be made for Clerical Healing to have been a “gift” from the Devils, a systematically-corruptive influence that is tolerated by the theologies of the world because the benefits appear to outweigh the harm – which is exactly the sort of moral judgment that I had in mind when writing the preceding section.

This is a secret that churchmen would be required to take to the grave – if they ever learned it in the first place. A PC undergoing such a revelation might well lead to Clerical Healing in all forms being banned, permanently ending the “Holy Drip Bottle” syndrome. And provided that you were prepared to let the PC make his own decision about what to do with this discovery, and the chips fall where they may, no player in that campaign would ever be in any doubt that their characters make a difference within the game world.

Not saying that’s the way it has to have happened, just saying that the idea raises interesting possibilities – ones that would obviously be a focal point of the campaign.

Less-radical Variant: The addiction sickness

An alternative idea might be that there is a sickness that is resistant to clerical healing – again, perhaps released by some inimical agency – that some people are occasionally afflicted with, and that it is this sickness that makes people susceptible to Healing Addiction. This is a convenient idea in many ways because it removes the ‘blame’ element from the addiction syndrome; anyone can come down with this problem if they are unlucky enough. Perhaps some healers are “typhoid maries” spreading the addiction potential even as they heal the sick and injured. Because adventurers need to be healed far more frequently than ordinary people, they are especially susceptible as a class to this disease, which has not yet even been recognized, let alone a cure found.

Because this is far less systematic and far more random and anarchic in its’ causation, this would be appropriate as the Demonic equivalent of the Devilish origins of the problem. And it would yield a completely different campaign if this were one of the centerpieces. Again, food for thought.


The other side of social stigma is always shame. Some will feel it keenly, others not at all, but most will feel at least moderately ashamed of having let themselves, their friends, their supporters, and the public, down. Even if there is no act of public redemption, and the addiction is kept completely secret, that sense of shame should be an influence on the character in the future as the character strives to make amends.

Na Pedra by  Thiago Rezende

Photo Credit: / Thiago Rezende

The absence of old adventurers?

Any mathematical analysis of relative numbers of characters of a given character level makes it clear that the numbers on any encounter table are vastly out of whack, referring specifically to the number of low-level characters relative to high-level characters.

If there is a 50% chance of surviving long enough to achieve the next character level, then for every member of character level X, there needs to be 2 characters of character level X-1.

That means that for each representative of character level X anywhere in the game, there needs to be 2 to the power of X-1 first level characters. For each character of 20th level, for example, there need to be 524,288 first level characters who are actively adventuring.

If the chances of survival are worse, this rises alarmingly – a 25% survival rate, level-on-level, increases the 2 to a 4. For every 20th level character, there need to be 274,877,906,944 first level characters! If the levels are more in line with typical PC experiences – 80% survival rate, or 90%, or even 95% – they drop, and the high-level population rises. At 80%, the ratio is 69.39:1 (1st:20th); at 90%, it’s 7.4:1 (1st:20th); and at 95%, it’s 2.65:1 (1st:20th).

But 50% is the level we aim for, because the goal set by most encounter systems is to match PCs and opposition power levels, on average, and by definition, that’s a 50-50 challenge as the standard. The problems start with relative wealth by level, which gives a different ratio when analyzed (and one that’s variable level-on-level); and only deepen with most encounter tables, in which higher-level characters are over-represented in some and under-represented in others. Going into details is vastly beyond the scope of this article – I started working on an e-book years ago that crashed-and-burned dramatically three times on these problems before being abandoned as something I just didn’t have time to work on. I had come to the conclusion that there needed to be something other than death that forced adventurers to retire, a risk that grew with increasing character level (unlike most risks, which decrease). Unable to think of one, the whole project dead-ended.

Addictive Healing could be the answer. It actively reduces the occurrence rate of higher-level adventurers, becomes more likely with accumulated exposure to healing (i.e. increasing character levels), and impacts on available character wealth along the way. Because there is one thing for sure: Addictive Healing would reduce the incidence of high-level adventurers, increasing the ‘rock-star’ potential of those who make it unscathed (or who beat their addiction and are able to stay in-the-game) – which SHOULD include any PCs. But I’ll get that that point in a minute.

It means that there should be a number of encounters with ‘ordinary people’ along the way who are ex-adventurers, who probably miss that life, and who want to relive it vicariously by either telling their stories to others or by hearing the latest stories from those who are still active. Such characters often feature in fantasy campaigns anyway, but there is always an unanswered question of why they had to give up adventuring. This proposal answers that question.

There is even a form of semi-retirement possible in which a character can adventure, in a limited way, but has to rely on natural healing afterwards – unless the situation is really life-and-death dire. Of course, natural healing has its own risks – things not healing properly, limbs being lost, etc – so this is a very precarious choice. Spacing the risks out – an annual adventure – mitigates that risk and hopefully delays the inevitable.

And we all know people like that, who once a year hang up their aprons and their day jobs and go out camping in the wilderness or white-water rafting or, well, you name it. They spend that entire year leading up to those events preparing themselves, both financially and physically, for the holiday of a lifetime – because they never know which one will be their last chance. Old age happens to us all, in the end.

The Metagame

So let’s talk a bit more about the metagame aspects of introducing Addictive Healing. It’s quite one thing to threaten the PCs with Healing Addiction, and to populate their world with a sprinkling of individuals and institutions affected by it; but there is an element from the player side of the table of “it will never happen to us”. PCs are, after all, to at least a certain extent, protected animals – at least in comparison to NPCs. There are things that you, as GM, can do to an NPC that you could never contemplate doing to a PC, and most of your players will assume that this is one of them.

This can completely undermine your GMing credibility; you have issued a threat but are seen as never being willing-and-able to back it up. It also confers a sense of security to the players; they might avoid healing for relatively small hit point losses (as a percentage of total hit point) but otherwise would still take it when they needed it. In the end, not a whole lot would be seen to be different.

Until you lower the boom on one of them. Actually, it shouldn’t be like lowering the boom; it should be a slow meander down the garden path of temptation, until the target takes one step too far.

Player Approval

If you are going to mess with a PC so fundamentally, even to the point of risking their ability to continue within the game, you really need to have the player’s approval. If they are fighting against the tide, you can still force the issue, but the whole thing stops being fun for everyone. That means that you need to select your target carefully, and make sure that it is worth their while to play along.

You need to be able to guarantee to the player that if they go along, their character will be one of the lucky ones who make a full recovery in the end (provided the character survives, of course).

On top of that, because you are taking something that players take for granted and willfully barring one specific character from enjoying it for the rest of their adventuring life, there needs to be some counterbalancing benefit to the character. This is NOT a bribe, but it can be an inducement to play ball – for example, setting things up so that the character achieves some life-long ambition as a result of their condition or recovery from it.

If your players trust you sufficiently, you may not need to get specific – I haven’t told Runeweaver’s player what reward the character will earn by participating in the mage-addicted-to-magic plotline that is underway in the Zenith-3 universe, only that the experience won’t permanently impair the character and will be instrumental in achieving something that the character really wants to achieve. Or, more to the point, that it will permit the character to achieve something that the player has said that the character really wants to achieve.

Final Advice

I started this proposal as a way of permitting clerical characters to step out from behind the shadow of being the party’s healer. It certainly achieves that, but it also fundamentally alters the shape of the game around such characters. This is not a mistake or a coincidence; that’s what you should expect when you alter something so profound and fundamental.

If Healing Addiction is real, however rare, in your game world, then I would expect profound implications at all levels. You may need to space adventures out more, creating a more episodic look-and-feel to the game, so as to permit time for the PCs to heal between adventures; that’s a metagame impact. You may need to be a little more liberal and generous in interpreting the conditions under which characters can heal naturally. You may need to throw a little more cash the player’s way in your rewards, enabling them to hire protectors so that they can be defended while recuperating ‘on the road’.

You’re fundamentally changing the paradigm of the adventuring world around the PCs. How they attempt to accommodate and adapt to that change is up to them; you should expect that most solutions will have been tried before, and found to be at least partially successful. Keep an open mind and let the players adjust to the changes – then evolve and adapt your gaming style accordingly. Occasionally exploit flaws or limitations in their approach, but only once it has been established that it does work. Say ‘yes, but…’ to whatever ideas they have in how to cope with the situation.

Addictive Healing is scarily plausible, more than enough so to be a perpetual feature of every campaign that you run; but don’t use it every time just because you can. This is the fifth solution I’ve offered to the problem of the “holy water drip bottle”, and there are others besides – the approach used in Assassin’s Amulet is ‘none of the above’, for example, and equates to a sixth solution.

Finding a different answer each time results in each campaign assuming its own identity, its own uniqueness. The trick is always making sure that the adventures you run and the world that you set them in are in sync, that they combine to form a campaign that is greater than the sum of its parts, and make sure that it’s fun for everybody, and it will be a success.

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A Heart Of Shiny Magic: Spell Storage Solutions Pt 2

based on Gem by Jaycy Castañeda

Photo Credit: / Jaycy Castañeda
Additional effects added by Mike

This is the second part of a very intermittent series that will examine alternatives and possible implications to the standard spell storage solutions built into D&D, Pathfinder, and, in fact, most fantasy games.
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It’s very unusual to identify an entire class of magic item that the benchmark games like D&D and Pathfinder appear not to have even noticed, but that’s exactly what I have for you all today.

Key Characteristics

So, what are the specifications that define this overlooked type of magic item?

  • Persistence
  • Mutable State
  • Limited Power/Complexity (with possible exceptions)
  • Rechargeable
  • Open or Closed
  • Restarting, Pausible, or Triggered
  • Reluctant or Eager

Although the magic in the item is consumed when the effect it contains is released, the item itself survives.

Mutable State

Although it is not strictly necessary, I like for there to be some visual indication that the item has been charged, or the charge dissipated. This helps to give this type of magic item a unique flavor all its own.

One-use Rechargeable

These are one-shot items that deliver their effect on a single occasion but (unlike potions and the other one-shot item types considered in Part 1), because this class of magic item persists beyond the release of the magic, one can be recharged to deliver the effect again on a subsequent occasion. In effect, these are spellcasters or deities putting a particular effect “in the bank” for later use or for distribution.

Limited Power/Complexity

The constraints on power level of this type of item tend to be the same as those of one-shot non-reusable items. But there can be exceptions if you use them to solve a logical inconsistency that was identified in Part 1:

The Illuminating Scroll Variations

In part one, I pointed out that Scrolls broke the ‘rules’ for potions. In a nutshell, you can only put limited power levels of spell into a potion, but you can put any power level of spell into a scroll, and this undermines the general in-game logic used to explain that power-level restriction.

One solution to this problem that was not explored in that article is the notion of restricting scrolls in utility. Perhaps “ordinary” magic scrolls can only hold spells of level 1-3; that with additional (expensive) special treatments, a scroll can hold spells of levels 4-6; but that to store spells of level 7-9, something more permanent is needed.

This violates the “low power level” principle suggested earlier, but that’s all right – since this is a completely new class of magic item that has no analogue within the major rules systems, we can add any rules or restrictions we want, so long as we can provide an appropriate in-game logic and metagame rules structure.

Things get even more interesting if spells embodied in this type of magic item cannot be simply cast from the item, but need to be ‘released’ in some manner. That means that such spells can’t be triggered at will, but can be activated eventually. All that remains is some mechanism by which a spellcaster can ‘read’ the magic within (consuming it in the process) to add the spell to their spell-book.


Nor do they have to be one or the other. To avoid confusion, I would suggest that the encapsulating medium be different for the different interpretations, but even that doesn’t have to be the case.

Open, Schooled, or Closed, with Specific or Broad definition

To close out this list of characteristics, I have a trio of parameters that could be one thing or the other, but that will usually be consistent throughout a campaign. But it’s always possible that consistency might be item-to-item (costing different amounts, of course) or even that there is no consistency and it’s all down to how an item is prepped. You’ll see what I mean as I proceed.

The first of these either/or parameters is “Open,” “Schooled,” or “Closed”.

  • Open means that once any spell/effect stored in the item is expended, it can be recharged to contain any other spell/effect of appropriate power level (see “Specific” and “Broad” below).
  • Schooled permits an expended spell/effect to be replaced by any other spell/effect of appropriate power level that is of the same school or otherwise matches the common theme ‘defined’ as a parameter of the object, eg “Fire”.
  • Closed mandates that an expended spell/effect can only be replaced with a spell/effect of exactly the same description; the initial enchantment has created an inflexible arcane ‘matrix’ within the object.

Two of these three require the GM to think about what happens when one attempts to shoehorn a spell or effect that doesn’t “fit” into such objects.

Attached to some of these choices is a sub-parameter, “Specific” or “Broad”. Specific means that spell and caster levels must match exactly the capacities of the object (defined by the first casting); unused caster levels may provide a bonus to successful enchantment, or may be consumed loading the effect with metamagics (the GM should pick one and stay with it throughout a campaign, at least for a given class of object – there’s nothing that says that opaque gemstones like pearls can’t be different to translucent ones like rubies).

Now that you have the context, the earlier suggestion regarding flexibility within this parameter be a function of the cost of the item should make more sense. That, once again, depends on how the GM wants to use these items within his campaign.

Restarting, Pausible, or Triggered

The same “flexibility for a greater price” line of thinking may or may not be applied to this parameter, which describes the triggering of the spell or effect contained within the magic item. This choice can have serious game-balance issues, but I’ve built in a protection to mitigate the worst of these effects.

  • Restarting items mean that once the effect is triggered but not yet activated, the count-down to activation can be stopped and will restart at the same mark (whatever it might be) the next time it is activated. With this option, a specific fixed countdown (3, 4, 5, or 6 rounds) should be pre-determined by the GM and applied to all magic items of the type, purely for simplicity.
  • Pausible permits the countdown to activation to be suspended prior to activation of the effect, but will resume where it left off the next time the item is triggered. To stop clever players from using this to create a set of ‘instant spells’, bypassing the casting time constraints completely by pausing the countdown at ‘1’, the GM should assign a die size for the determination of how long a countdown will be on any specific example and roll secretly for how long the countdown will last. d8 rounds is probably a fair number for higher levels of spell or effect.
  • Triggered Once these items are triggered, nothing can stop the effect from activating and running for its full duration, whatever that might be.
Reluctant or Eager

The final parameter describes what happens when the item is broken. “Reluctant” means that the magic is simply dissipated, and nothing happens. “Eager” means that the spell or effect is activated. To avoid “Eager” overriding the game-balance safeguards specified under the previous parameter, the target of the spell or effect should be chosen randomly from amongst those within a given range of the object, NOT the person who has actually broken the magic item.

Mordenkainen’s Disjunction

I have a great personal dislike for this spell. I have never seen it used in a manner that did not damage a campaign, even completely shortcut an adventure. I have once even had a campaign permanently disrupted by it (or it would have been save that the players and I decided to backtrack).

In all my campaigns, following that experience, the Disjunction produces a temporary interruption to the effects of a magic item. Artifacts are disrupted for d6 rounds, Major Wondrous Items, Armor, and Weapons for d8 hours; Minor Wondrous items, Wands, and Staves for d12 half-days; Ammunition, Scrolls and Potions for d20 weeks.

The Lord Of The Rings is no fun if the One Ring can be beaten by simply casting Disjunctions until one ‘takes’. In my campaigns, the permanent destruction of a magic item is difficult, and that of an artifact requires a quest of Fellowship proportions.

Because we can define and describe these magic items in any way that we want, an interesting possibility suggested itself: What if the spell/effect were already ‘activated’ within the magic item, and the ‘trigger’ is actually something holding that spell/effect back from activation? That means that the one sure way of getting these magic items to function immediately is to hit them with a Disjunction.

Any impediment to something that can wreck a campaign is worth considering as a ‘good thing’. If you think of these magic items as video-game ‘power-ups’, the prospect of triggering all of an enemies stored power-ups at once should have the effect of deterring characters from casting ‘Disjunction’ in battle; it might cut out the usual protections of the target but it risks making the problem faced by the PCs worse.

This permits some very interesting (and nasty) trap designs become possible – contemplate a ring of these with Fireballs (or whatever) in them and another of these with a Disjunction to trigger all those fireballs at once. (Even without the Disjunction trigger, some fun can be had: a lich’s false phylactery could be one of these with a Sphere Of Annihilation waiting to be released by the act of destroying the ‘phylactery’.)

Effect Contents

So, what sort of effects could be contained in these magic devices?


The most obvious and dull answer. There are lots of magic items out there that already do this. But that doesn’t rule this out as a viable answer; in fact, as noted earlier, it can provide a neat solution to some existing problems within the most common game systems.

Skill Bonuses

+2n to a specific skill is equivalent to a spell of N level. Duration is one round. This can be increased to one minute by halving the bonus, and then to one hour by halving it again. The effect is halved if the character does not already have at least one rank in the skill, and halved again if the skill is considered a cross-class skill.

EG: +16 to Lock-picking for 1 round = 8th level spell = +8 for 1 minute, or +4 for 1 hour. These are halved if the character has no existing skill in Lock-picking, (+8, +4, and +2, respectively). These values are then halved if the skill is a cross-class skill – +8, +4, +2 if the character has ranks in the skill, respectively, or +4, +2, +1 if the character does not.

When you’re in a tight spot, having an extra skill bonus ‘on tap’, however temporary, can be exactly what you need to get you past the hump.

Can’t be applied retroactively to a failed check.

Temporary Stat Boosts

+n to a stat bonus is equivalent to a spell of N+1 level. Duration is one round. This can be increased to one minute by halving the bonus and adding one to the spell, and then to one hour by halving it again and adding an addition +1 to the spell level. Each additional +1 to the ‘spell level’ equivalence adds +1 to the number of time units.

EG: +4 CON bonus for one round = 5th level spell, for two rounds = 6th level spell, for three rounds = 7th level spell. +2 CON bonus for 1 minute = 6th level spell, for 2 minutes = 7th level spell, and for 3 minutes = 8th level spell. +1 CON bonus for 1 hour = 7th level spell, for 2 hours = 8th level spell, and for 3 hours = 9th level spell.


Granting temporary access to a Feat that the character does not have, and indeed might not be normally able to qualify for, is another great magical item, vastly increasing the tactical options open to characters if used correctly. It is recommended that these should be relatively rare, or the game system may come unstuck.

1 feat with all requirements met by the character for 4 minutes = 5th level spell; for 4 hours = 6th level spell; for 1 day = 7th level spell; for 4 days = 8th level spell; for 2 weeks = 9th level spell. Each prerequisite that the character does not meet halves the duration.
If the character meets all the prerequisites and has a feat slot open, he may make the effect permanent, learning in the duration what may otherwise take weeks, months, or years.

One of the early professional successes I enjoyed at Campaign Mastery was my article on Open Game Table: The Anthology of Roleplaying Game Blogs, Vol. 2, still available through RPGNow (click the link). An unfortunate error mis-credited the article to Johnn Four, my collaborator at CM at the time, but it was still my first article in print.

The point of the article is that it offers a way to prevent the time requirements of acquiring a prestige level from disrupting an ongoing plotline just because a character has leveled up.

This mechanism for acquiring feats further contributes to the goal of minimizing the disruption of play by level gains.


Why not put a metamagic in such a magic item, giving a spellcaster the opportunity to add it to his spell without increasing the spell level from his point of view? The one-use nature of these magic items keeps this power boost from being too game-unbalancing, and you can further control any such tendency by specifying that when an item supplies the metamagic, it must be the only metamagic in the spell – which means that as spellcasters become more powerful, this limitation will curtail the desire to use such items.


But, for me, the greatest application is the potential to add something new to the game. Consider a Yu-Gi-Oh deck – you can summon a creature to fight on your behalf or a spell to enhance an ally or impair an opponent. All you need is some simple equivalence method for converting the very simple card stats into stats/effects and some guidelines for determining the spell-level equivalence. Suddenly, the horizons of what is possible for a character in a game explode.


What forms might this type of magic item take? The keys are that a visible change is needed and that the item not be consumed by the transition of this visible difference.

Gems with a internal glow when charged are the idea that comes most readily to mind. Scrolls and stones with words or symbols that vanish. Knots that untie themselves – or that have to be cut, to release the magic within. A deck of cards whose faces go blank when emptied of the magical effect contents. Even vials of something that becomes cloudy when empty and clear and sparkling when charged. A coin that is blank and featureless until charged.

There are many different ways to present this magic item, and that’s a very good thing; it means that there is enough diversity to encompass the versatility on offer. Which really does make you wonder just why this particular variety of magic item has been overlooked for so long, doesn’t it?

Part three of this series will eventually appear, and when it does, the subject will be Charged Power Packs – wands, etc.

On a completely unrelated subject, VOTING FOR THE ENNIES HAS STARTED and I WANT YOUR VOTE! If you like what I put out in 2015, please head to The Voting Page and cast your vote for Campaign Mastery for best Blog! You have until 11AM CDT on July 21 – just over 10 days – to make a difference!

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All Wounds Are Not Alike V: Narcotic Healing (part 1)

Photo Credit: / Ken Thompson

Photo Credit: / Ken Thompson

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I wasn’t going to make this a two-part article, but – as happens all too often – there was simply too much to include in the one post. Part two of this article will appear next week.

I’ve often seen it suggested that players get addicted to the ease of healing that comes with “Holy Water Drip Bottle” syndrome. Run, Fight, Heal, Loot, and Repeat. Sounds like a videogame – and one without a lot of depth, right?

I don’t know what your first reaction is, but mine – whenever I hear that suggestion – is, well, why not make it really addictive – with all the attendant problems that come with that problem?

Background Information

A lot of the research for this article was actually done for my Zenith-3 superhero campaign, where one of the characters (Runeweaver) is becoming addicted to magical power-ups / mana boosts. In fact, it is all based on four saved web pages that I compiled years ago. I don’t know if these are still available, but we’ll see how we go.

  • Stages Of Alcoholism and Drug Addiction – This was a page from “” but it is no longer available, and the domain is for sale.
  • Stages Of Substance Abuse – This was a page sourced from, which was a project of Boston University’s School Of Public Health, but which no seems to available.
  • Symptoms Of Addiction is an excerpt from “The Most Personal Addiction: How I Overcame Sex Addiction And How Anyone Can Overcome It” by Joe Zychik. This page is still online and the chapter excerpt is unchanged; the website is at this link (reader discretion advised).
  • Classic Story Structure meets the Phases Of Addiction – this page is from EIC, the Entertainment Industries Council, whose purpose is to encourage a more accurate and beneficial depiction of major health and social issues. This specific web page no longer appears to be available or has moved, but EIC are still there and deserve recognition and support. Note that their brief is far more diverse than simply dealing with addiction.
  • I also drew quite heavily on the Iron Man plotline now known as Demon In A Bottle, especially in terms of the initial stages and development of the disease. However, the recovery process depicted, while also referential, is completed in the course of only a page or two, and I have always felt that it lets the story down, as a whole, so that was something that I deliberately wanted to avoid in my “addiction plotline”.

Putting the information from these together, I came up with the following synopsis:

Stage 1: Experimental/Recreational/Social


  1. Substance is used to achieve some perceived or actual benefit without perceived negative consequences
Stage 2: Dependance/Excess

Some impacts may persist for some time before the first occurrance of #3.


  1. Addict seeks out, creates, or invents opportunities and reasons for further Use for its own sake.
  2. Addict denies there is a problem.
  3. Addict uses to excess, resulting in unwanted problems, which the addict blames on outside factors.
  4. Addict begins to conceal additional supplies in regularly-frequented locations
  5. Addict grows defensive when the issue is broached
  6. Friends and Family begin to grow concerned and seek to limit or restrict the addict’s intake
Stage 3: Addiction

While the suggestion is of a hard-and-fast demarcation between stages 2 and 3, reality is usually messier. For example, Runeweaver, the mana-addicted PC that I mentioned earlier, has already achieved items #2 and #3 or this list, even though he is still on the downward slide through item #3 of stage 2. Stage 3 begins to end when the final item (#10) is achieved, though the next step may not take place for days, months, or years (if ever).


  1. Satisfaction of the addiction becomes a dominant personal objective
  2. Addict persues addiction to the point of damaging other areas of his personal or professional life
  3. Existance of a problem is clear to friends and family
  4. Addict vehemently/violently denies theree is a problem
  5. Addict begins to experience increasing tolerance toward the source of addiction – it takes more to get the same effect
  6. Addict engages in behavior he would have considered reprehensible, degrading, or even criminal in order to satisfy addiction
  7. Addict begins to realise that there is a problem and attempts to stop, may even promise family/friends/etc that he has stopped/will stop. He is clearly sincere.
  8. Addict experiences withdrawal to the point of incapacity.
  9. Addict yields to his addiction during a time of increased percieved need.
  10. Addict realises that he is addicted.
Stage 4: Recovery

Characteristics: Some people never reach this phase, even after acknowledging that their addiction now rules their lives. Pride, or the loss of support of friends and family, or the social consuences of their addiction, or any one of dozens of other factors prevent them from achieving the self-respect necessary to regain the self-confidence to go day-to-day without satisfying their addiction. The struggle to overcome an addiction is as heroic and difficult as any other struggle faced in a superheroic campaign.

Recovery is achieved through a four step process:

  1. Acknowledgement and Removal of temptation
  2. Recovery of trust and support / Withdrawal
  3. Recovery of self-respect
  4. Recovery of self-confidence.

Recovery is very much considered to be an ongoing process. Addicts can slip back into Stage 3, and quite often will delude themselves into thinking that this time they can “handle it”, operating in a state of denial.

How I used this in the Zenith-3 Campaign:

The methodology which I employed to translate these general symptoms into in-game events is very instructive for any GM contemplating this approach.

In some ways, it would make more sense to actually leave this discussion until after I’ve talked about the healing variation, but because it follows on so logically from the previous section, I’ve pre-empted it and brought it forward.


I created a list of subplots reflecting one or more of the characteristics of the current stage of addiction. At the moment, the plotline has Runeweaver in the last period of Stage 2, gradually seguing into Stage 3. In the course of this stage, there have been the following subplots/plot elements:

  • RA 4. Runeweaver prioritises END cost reduction over Mana reduction in designing his spells, to force Glory to boost the frequency of Mana “recharges” she provides him.
  • RA 5. Runeweaver denies there is a problem throughout this stage.
  • RA 6. Glory grew concerned and decided to restrict the occasions of her Mana boosts to circumstances of Dire Need.
  • RA 7. Runeweaver becomes increasingly moody and irritable due to initial withdrawel symptoms.

These four actually took place in the course of the previous campaign.

  • RA 8. Runeweaver begins creating his own mana batteries within gems and concealing them about his person.
  • RA 9. Runeweaver begins using the “rush” to alter his moods.
  • RA 10. Runeweaver develops a secondary supply, purchasing mana batteries from Avalon.
  • RA 11. Runeweaver implants mana batteries on each wall of the base “so that he can get to them quickly if he needs to”.
  • RA 12. Runeweaver begins involuntarily expending excessive mana in his spells, miscasting spells, etc as though drunk creating side effects, sometimes beneficial, sometimes undesirable.

These subplots / plot elements then played out in the course of completely unrelated adventures, and RA 9 and 12 are still continuing. In fact, so far, RA 12 hasn’t had any major effect. Just to help complete the picture (without giving too much away, as the plotline is still very much ongoing), here’s what will happen next, as the first step into Stage 3:

  • RA 13. Runeweaver begins to start each day with a secret “pick-me-up” from a mana battery.

Of course, there have been a few other incidents along the way, most of which were logical outgrowths or interpretations of the ‘planned moments’, but several of which were spontanious and unplanned – just another case of an ongoing aspect of the characters’ “lives” within the campaign.

  • At one point, Runeweaver (who also serves as the team’s Field Commander) found himself Acting Chairman, and took advantage of the opportunity to authorize himself visiting Avalon to obtain the needed supply of Mana Batteries in the form of fragile gems; crush one, and a quick boost of Mana is released.
  • When the real Chairwoman returned to the job, she discovered this authorization. She was concerned because there was growing awareness amongst the PCs that something wasn’t right with Runeweaver (the players knew darned well that there was a Mana Addiction plotline underway, and that it was going to pose serious problems for both themselves and the mage), but reasoned that if she blocked him, he might very well go behind her back to do it anyway. Nevertheless she had a talk with him in which RA 5 was clearly on display.
  • When Runeweaver approached St Barbara with the idea contained in RA 11, she wanted very much to argue with him but the arguments he put forward to justify it were so logical that she couldn’t muster a good reason to deny him. She did her best to restrict the damage by laying down some very strict rules about how they should be spaced and where they should not be placed, and hoped that would be enough.
  • Zenith-3’s headquarters, The Knightly Building, hadn’t been designed at the time this plan was drafted, so it wasn’t clear how many “mana gems” would be required. When I started to do the calculations, it became clear that the total required would be truly horrendous (I’ll get to that total in a moment). The total completely outstripped the “industrial capacity” of the fantasy environment of Avalon, so Runeweaver began ordering them and then time-travelling into Avalon’s future to collect his order and place a new one – deciding to omit briefing St Barbara about this ‘so as not to worry her’ (the player knows, but the character doesn’t). This behaviour is tantamount to a stage-3 addiction symptom, lacking only the personal harm that stage-3 actions cause an addict.
  • Emplacing the ‘mana gems’ was an ongoing subplot for some time, even to the point of Runeweaver eschewing other social activities (he has resumed them since completing the task).
  • When the group were visiting their parent team (who operate in a parallel dimension), Runeweaver happened to mention the project to the overall Chairman, Bioman, who – knowing nothing of the context or background – replied that he thought that was a good idea and when Runeweaver finished, he might want to do the same thing at their new base, then under construction, alarming St Barbara and placing her in the difficult moral position of supporting her friend and teammate or spilling the beans. Reluctantly, she told Bioman of her concerns. Fortunately, because of the supply situation, it was not possible for Runeweaver to accept the offer to fit out the new facility.
  • The next thing that happened was that St Barbara recieved a report from Kira, the A.I. who runs the Knightly Building, indicating that the installation of the ‘mana gems’ was complete:

    “Summary: Construction enhancements of the Knightly Building are now complete as per specified parameters with minor variations documented. Specifics: Installation of three thousand, two hundred and sixty-five mana batteries. A hardcopy of this report has been routed to your inbox for formal acceptance. Do you require additional details?”

    *** pause for reply (expect ‘yes’ given that number).

    “Background: Authorization was granted for Runeweaver to emplace gemstone-based mana storage devices throughout the facility within the following parameters and restrictions:
         “One. Within small rooms, 1 each on two opposing walls and 1 mounted in the ceiling.
         “Two. Within medium rooms, 1 on each wall plus one ceiling mounted.
         “Three. Within corridors and rooms larger than 25m in one or more dimensions, additional wall and ceiling emplacements permitted provided that no mana battery be less than 20m removed from it’s nearest neighbor within the corridor or room.
         “Four. Vala’s personal quarters to be excluded at her request.
         “Report Request and Authorization: This unit was specifically requested by the current Chairman of Zenith-3, known locally as The Champions, to “keep an eye” on Runeweaver’s implementation of this task and specifically in referance to variations of these parameters and other relevant behavior noted in the course of that implementation. This was interpreted as a resquest to monitor activities within the scope of the project, to document any variations on the approved project parameters, and to generate a report stating these observations at project conclusion, or sooner if deemed to be warranted.
         “Report Contents: The following variations on accepted parameters have been observed and documented:
         “One. Stairwells and escelators have been treated as non-horizontal corridors for the purpose of determining mana point installations.
         “Two. Elevator Cars and elevator shafts have been treated as seperate rooms, the former being considered vertical “corridors”.
         “Three. No emplacements have been made in areas designated as restricted to individuals of the female gender such as rest rooms, changing rooms, etc.
         “Four. No emplacements have been made in areas designated as high-security or prisoner-confinement chambours. However, emplacements in areas providing access to such chambers have been increased 50%.
         “Five. With the exception of the lift lobbies and the Hanging Gardens no emplacements have been made within the residential chambers of any Zenith-3 member, *excluding* Runeweaver’s own quarters.
         “Six. Runeweaver has stated that he developed and refined his emplacement techniques by practicing upon the walls of his residential chambers, resulting in a significantly higher emplacement density on those floors. The exact count of emplacements in unmonitored spaces is unknown.
         “Seven. Not all gemstones designated for the purposes of emplacement have been utilized in this manner. It has been observed that after using his abilities to emplace 25-50 stones, Runeweaver would “consume” one of the stones to replenish his personal mana levels.
         “Eight. Runeweaver has further emplaced in various locations quantities of stones described as Emergency reserves. These include potted plants, air conditioning ducts, plumbing and wiring accesses, etc.
         “Eight-A. It is believed that Runeweaver has modified his accoutrements and attire to include concealed spaces for storing mana recepticals. The estimated number of such mana recepticals has been included in the total of additional stores specified in the summary appended to this report.
         “Nine. The parking garages on levels 29 and 30 and the Hanging Hardens which occupy the centre of the building from floor 2 to floor 18 have been treated as a single large space.
         “Ten. Where strict interpretation of the parameters would have resulted in installations within the operational field of transporter devices, additional wall mountings were used instead.
         “Eleven. No emplacements have been installed within the Danger Room environment but additional programming subroutines have been inserted to incorporate simalcra of emplacements in any appropriate simulation setting by default, which can be overridden by the console operator. Exception: the control room itself.
         “Total emplacements: 3-2-6-5. Additional stores: 4-5-0. Consumed during emplacement: 8-2. Unused, stored in official locations: 2-0-3. Project Total: 4-0-0-0 mana gems. Total project duration: 5-7-point-7-5 hrs over 6-point-1-2 days.”

    In summary, if anything, Runeweaver was more restrained than St Barbara had required him to be, so there was nothing for her to complain about – but the grand total was still a hugely revolting number far in excess of St Barbara’s expectations, who thought that the discussion would be dealing with two or three hundred of them. Five hundred, tops.

So that’s an example of how to take an addiction concept and incorporate it into game-play.

The Future of the Runeweaver Addiction plotline

Of course, darker days are ahead for the character, and the player knows it. He has asked me to accelerate the plotline as much as possible, and I have been doing so; but, at the same time, addiction is too serious a subject to trivialize; the road through purgatory to redemption will not be a quick and easy one, but the character will get there in the end – and, much later, will discover that it holds far greater significance than is currently appreciated. In fact, it – and its resolution – are pivotal developments in the broader plotline, and the latter will be one of the character’s most heroic achievements.

Beyond that tease, I can’t give anything away, I’m afraid.

What is addictive?

So, let’s turn our attention to the concept of Narcotic Healing. There is some real medical science that we can employ; painkillers aren’t given to people post-surgery just for their comfort. Pain causes all sorts of biological responses, and alleviating it speeds the recovery and provides better patient outcomes. Without painkillers, the system shock that arises from many surgical interventions kills more than such intervention can save. So there is some foundation in reality for the concept of some accelerated healing being addictive in nature.

There are a lot of aspects to addiction, something I’ll look into in more detail a little later. Among other aspects that will have to be considered, we have dependance, both physical and psychological, and withdrawal.

Before we can go there, we first need to ask just what forms of healing are to be considered by us as potentially addictive.

Healing Potions

The most obvious type of healing that could be addictive in nature is the ubiquitous Healing Potion. This is, after all, a foreign substance that is introduced to the body to induce rapid recovery from injuries. So quickly do they take effect that any adrenalyn rush from the incident that caused the injury, not to mention any biological responses to the injury by the body, have not had time to wear off. The effect would inevitably be an exhiliration, a rush, not unlike the results of consuming a narcotic. Yet PCs and NPCs toss the things down like candy. Even if there is no physical addiction, those vulnerable to addiction would undoubtedly suffer from psychological dependance if healing potions were consumed too frequently.

Clerical Healing

That wouldn’t do much to resolve the “Holy Water Drip Bottle” effect, however. For that, we need something else to be addictive: Clerical Healing Spells. Why might they be addictive?

Aside from the psychological dependance on the resulting rush, to answer that question fully, we need to understand what the character would experience when they are the recipient of a Cure Wounds spell – whether that be Light, Serious, Critical, or whatever. If the character experiences nothing more than the rapid cessation of pain, there isn’t a lot to discuss. But if there is some metaphysical contact with the divine being actually providing the healing, we enter a whole new realm of possibility. “The cleric touches your hand, and you feel the warmth and affection of his God. You feel safe and cared for by the ultimate Mother figure (or Father figure if a male deity), as if – for that instant – you are the most important thing in the world to her/him. You sense her/his concern that you are hurt, and a loving determination to make you feel better as quickly as possible, and then the pain is gone and the injury healed.”

If that isn’t going to be addictive, I don’t know what would be.

It also begs the immediate question of whether or not this effect would be experienced even if there was no injury to heal. But I’ll come back to that later.

based on Jump by Stuart Bryce

Image Credit: / Stuart Bryce
Colorization & Photoediting: Mike Bourke

Physical vs Psychological vs Emotional dependance?

First, let’s look a little more closely at the types of dependance that we’re dealing with.

Physical Dependance

Physical dependance is a biological effect that the body becomes accustomed to and even demands. It’s the most tangible form of dependance, and implies that there is a long-term biological alteration induced by the effect to which the individual is addicted. If we were talking real-world biology, now would be the time to wheel out terms such as “neuroreceptor”, “bioelectrical signal conversion”, and possibly “synaptic resistance”. All of which sound wonderfully technical, but clerical healing occurs in a fantasy domain in which these are meaningless (except, perhaps, in the grittiest possible expression of low fantasy).

No, to be meaningful in the more common fantasy milieu, we need a more abstract concept of physical addiction, and the simplest one that I can think of is this: if it isn’t exercised regularly, a muscle becomes weak and flabby. By analogy, then, if characters do not heal naturally for any period of time, their ability to do so could be compromised, leaving them physically dependant on external sources of healing.

At first, that might not seem such a bad thing; healing in fantasy games is plentiful and reliable, and far more efficient than natural recovery. To maintain some sort of cost-benefit parity, there need to be some additional negative consequences to physical addiction.

The ones that occured to me immediately are (1) the limits of external healing, and (2) the indiscriminate nature of external healing.

The Limits Of External Healing

Cure Wounds spells can’t do much in the way of reattaching severed limbs or replacing lost organs. If the character has not yet been maimed, if there is still some biological connection to work with, then the healing might be in with a shot; if not, then the best that can result is that the stump heals over. That suggests that critical wounds, i.e. those resulting from a critical hit, might not heal properly if the sufferer is exposed to external healing. That’s a prospect that was discussed in earlier parts of this series, so I won’t go into it any further at this time; but, in the interests of making this approach to limiting the effectiveness of external healing, why not assume that this isn’t the case. So long as the injury is fresh, i.e. rot has not set in, a cure wounds spell CAN reattach a severed limb, reconnect a lost eyeball, or whatever – you simply have to put it back into place before beginning the healing.

External Healing Is Indiscriminate

That leaves option B. The human body is far more complex than a single organism; all sorts of other biological entities have entered into a symbiotic relationship with it. In particular, there are bacteria in the gut that aid us in harvesting the nutrients from food, the loss of which have some nasty effects: digestive upsets, malnutrition, and dehydration. In a weakened individual, these can be fatal; in a healthy individual, they are uncomfortable.

Modern medicine also has artificial supports for healing bones properly, transplants, and other invasive technologies. Rejection is a serious problem that even today can be hard to manage. In some cases, we have devised better materials, in others it becomes necessary to reduce or even shut down the natural immune responses.

It’s a good thing that those techniques weren’t in place in our fantasy world, because external healing would also be akin to super-charging the immune system (enabling the character to fight off wound infections). It’s a near-certainty that if Cure Wounds spells can’t handle maimings, existing prosthetics would no longer fit properly after being exposed to such healing.

Fortunately, we’ve already decided that we want our cure wounds spells to be able to cope with such maimings, at least to some extent, reducing this impact. It can also be said, fairly reasonably, that – provided the character’s diet is adequate – the application of external healing would mean that they are not ‘in a weakened condition’, and hence would experience only the painful and irritating consequences of drinking strange and possibly tainted water.

Well, since there seems to be nothing more to add to the list of negative consequences from a standpoint of physical dependance, if we are to achieve something closer in cost-benefit parity between external and natural healing, we are going to have to find what we need in some other form of dependance.

Psychological Dependance

Euphoria can make people reckless and foolhardy. Aside from the direct dependance on the ‘rush’ after healing – it feels good so you want to feel it again – that naturally means that judgement is impaired in such a way that a repeated exposure to external healing becomes more likely to be necessary.

This is a fairly subtle effect that can be induced by careful choices in narrative by the GM; simply choosing descriptive terms that underestimate the danger a subsequent encounter or situation represents. Playing down the danger level that such encounters represent encourages players to engage – which is when they discover their misjudgment.

Beyond that, psychological dependance can be viewed through the prism of our ‘flabby muscle’ analogy. Just as physical dependance might impair natural healing, so psychological dependance may impair or inhibit the feeling of pleasure except as triggered by the healing.

This is not depression, or not acute depression, anyway. That is accompanied by a sense of helplessness, of being trapped by circumstances; that would not apply until late in stage 3 of the addiction cycle. Prior to that, the worst a character would experience would be the occasional passing lack of enthusiasm. Food might be tasty but it might as well be cardboard. Drinks may be alcoholic – they would certainly still impair judgement – but they might as well be alcoholic dishwater.

There are some who might become more dangerous enemies under these circumstances. Dispassion and ruthlessness can’t be far away, and sociopathy just one step beyond. But that (hopefully) would only be for extreme cases. On the other hand, such symptoms might explain a lack of old adventurers.

Nor would such effects necessarily be linked in anyone’s eyes to the effects of external healing. ‘The trauma and misery and pain of adventuring takes its toll on us all’ would be the more popular explanation. “I’ve seen so much death and destruction that I have no enthusiasm for living” might be another common complaint. In many ways, this would be an induced form of post-traumatic stress disorder (or whatever they are calling it these days).

Spiritual Dependance

And then there’s the potential for spiritual dependance (I couldn’t come up with a better term). That’s the dependance on the sense of protection and love of the deity doing the healing that I suggested earlier. At first, that sense would linger, and the character would feel more connected to the world; as dependance grew, the world after coming down from the healing ‘high’ would seem empty and bland. This is, in effect, an altered state of consciousness.

If this effect can be experienced without actual damage that needs to be healed, some people would deliberately induce it to gain a sense of protection and invulnerability in combat that would make them fearsome enemies, unconcerned with their own preservation, confident in being healed and cared for by the deity providing the healing. In effect, it would remove the DEX bonus and any level-based improvements from AC and add it to attack rolls.

If actual damage is required, then a more extreme outcome would take place amongst a smaller number who ritually cut themselves before going into battle to then be healed, inducing this same spiritual euphoria. Some might even rub dirt into the wounds to ensure a scar as a lasting symbol of the love of their god.

This could only exacerbate the psychological ‘rush’ and corresponding dependence discussed already, and the trend for the effects of addiction to include behavior that was more likely to trigger a renewed need for healing.

Again applying the ‘flabby muscle’ analogy, it could also become possible in advanced stages of addiction that the character would become conditioned to the point where they could only truly feel one with their god during combat. That would only make the character even more likely to engage in ‘risky behavior’.

An unhealthy plausibility

There is a definite sense of these effects being all-too-plausible in terms of how most of us perceive addiction. The need for ever increasing doses, either in active substance or in frequency or both is a known trait of most addictions. At the same time, there is a strong internal logic at work that holds the idea together. Certainly, the idea seems to posses a conceptual validity that is both fascinating and frightening in its implications.

….and that’s where I ran out of time. Part two will apply the broad general symptoms of the different phases of addiction (discussed above) to the specific concept of narcotic healing, will look at game mechanics to simulate the risks of narcotic healing, examine the impact on both a typical fantasy society of this concept and on an addicted individual within such a society, and wrap up with some metagame implications that would need to be considered before implementing this policy, With one or two interesting side-turns along the way. You’ll never look at Cure Light Wounds the same way again…

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Basics For Beginners (and the over-experienced) Pt 7: Adventures

Frame by Billy Alexander Dice Image by Armin Mechanist

Frame: / Billy Alexander;
Dice Image: / Armin Mechanist;
Numeral & Compositing: Mike Bourke

I’ve been asked a number of times what advice I have for a beginning GM. This 15-part series is an attempt to answer that question – while throwing in some tips and reminders of the basics for more experienced GMs. This is the first of a trio of articles that will carry this series through it’s half-way mark and beyond.

There have been 140 articles here at Campaign Mastery tagged as relating to “Adventure Creation”.

That’s a lot of advice, some of it probably redundant, and a lot of it specific to one particular subtopic or aspect of the craft.

It certainly raises the question of whether or not there is anything more to say. And, to be honest, I’m not sure that the following article will contain all that much that is new or revolutionary; what it will do, at the very least, is re-frame that advice in a straightforward fashion suitable for beginners to implement right away.

And you never know, there might be a new thought or idea that sneaks in when none of us are looking!

The Usual Pattern

When beginners first GM, there is a pattern that is so ubiquitous it can be considered ‘normal’. It doesn’t always apply in every case, but the majority of GMs who are honest with themselves will recognize similarities between that patten and their own experiences.

The pattern is the result of ignorance becoming experience and an inevitable process of learning what works and what doesn’t. I’ve divided the early stages into four stages of development; these may be experienced for just a short time or may be the GM’s modus operandi for months or years.

The First-Stage Adventure

Typically, the first adventures – in D&D / Pathfinder terms – is a dungeon consisting of individual rooms with individual encounters within. These are usually emplaced with little or no connection between them, and often too close together for real believability. At best, there will be a coherent origin story for the dungeon, of little or no relevance to the encounters.

Always assuming, of course, that the GM doesn’t start with a canned third-party adventure module.

The Second-Stage Adventure: The Mega-dungeon Option

When the GM advances to the second stage of development, one of two things tends to happen: either the GM is encouraged sufficiently by their first experience that they go bigger and better, or someone has pointed up the logical inconsistencies inherent in that first dungeon and they go right away from the dungeon concept for an adventure or two. I’ll deal with the latter alternative in a moment; first, let’s talk about the GM’s first home-grown mega-dungeon. That’s certainly the approach that I took, and I’m not ashamed to admit it.

This mega-dungeon (a term that didn’t actually exist when I crafted mine) is at least four times the size of the first, if not 40 times. I went from a six-room dungeon to a multi-level monstrosity with about 600 rooms, each and every one of which had something of interest. As the D&D equivalent of an anecdote collection, it was wonderful; as a coherent piece of design, it was… limited, at best.

But everything else is typically magnified. I didn’t make the mistake of putting a Dragon in a 10′ x 10′ room (something that I have seen others do in similar circumstances), but I DID have a dragon on the 17th subterranean level of the dungeon – with the only way for it to get there being through 8′ wide corridors. Some things I got right – if I indicated a wall as a line, it was defined as extending 1′ out from that line (which is why the corridors looked 10′ wide on the map but were only 8′ wide “in reality”), and I had actually thought about ventilation and how it reached the lower levels (little portals into the elemental plane of air and giant dragonflies trained to use their wings to blow the fresh air through the dungeon – but with no explanation as to who created them or where they had come from, so it wasn’t a perfect solution).

As is usually the case, by the end of that mega-dungeon (and I admit mine was much bigger than most), I had become acutely aware of its shortcomings – the lack of a meaningful plotline creating a narrative ‘thread’ through the ‘adventure’, the fact that there was no real depth to the setting and surrounds, the absence of PC-NPC interactions of a non-violent nature, and the total absence of any sort of society or ‘campaign’ background.

The Second-Stage Adventure: The Long And Winding Road

The other route that is commonly taken by a GM, if they are made aware of the logical ‘holes’ in their game world in the course of their first adventure – which often happens if they have more experienced players – is to eschew the most improbable elements completely. Dungeons? They make no sense, except in the traditional usage as a place to imprison people. Unbelievable varieties and proliferations of monsters? That makes no sense, so they begin thinking about ecologies and dominant populations in different regions of the world. The focus shifts to the journey and what you encounter during its beginning, middle, and end; and each journey is then followed by another, and then another.

There are some problems in common with the mega-dungeon approach; there is still usually minimal or no narrative thread connecting the whole of the journey. It’s a trip from A to B to C with no significance beyond the fact of the journey itself. It also tends to suffer from too much smallness in too large a framework – an open-air mega-dungeon of isolated environments that don’t really interconnect or interrelate.

In both cases, the ‘adventure’ is just a bunch of stuff that just “sort of happens”.

The Third-Stage Adventure: The Grand Railroad

Eventually, GMs tire of the vacuousness of these variations on the same approach and begin to focus on making story the dominant element. Often this happens gradually, without them even realizing that it’s taking place. But a new pitfall awaits; the plot train. The GM becomes so focused on producing a coherent and satisfying story within the game that he begins circumscribing the freedom of the players to make decisions for their characters. In every other way, things start coming together, and the GM learns to craft these great and imaginative tapestries, circumstances and characters and settings uniting in the service of the story, and for a while, players will revel in the sense of purpose to what is happening to their characters and not protest.

Usually, the GM won’t set out to railroad the characters; it will be a defensive response to the players derailing the plotline and going off on a tangent that the GM wasn’t ready for, and that has nothing to do with the narrative that he has envisaged within his head.

Eventually, the players will rebel. This usually happens as a result of a mistake on the part of the GM, a hole in their plot that the players pick up on, some obvious solution to their problems that the GM hasn’t even thought of, and when the GM learns to cope with this problem and give the players their freedom back, they become ‘mature’ as a GM.

It doesn’t have to be that way

It should be clear that this development path is natural and organic, a process that naturally transpires as a consequence of trying to be better at what you are doing, of trying to squeeze the maximum amount of entertainment value out of your game, both for yourself and your friends. Each phase is a natural evolution that derives from addressing the problems of the previous one.

But it’s possible to shortcut the process by learning from others. If you are a player in a game, analyzing what the GM is doing and understanding why they are doing it not only educates you in more advanced tricks of the trade, but gives you a giant step forwards. The internet, where people like myself discuss aspects and elements of their craft, is another giant resource.

There are limits, however; you can become an absolute master of the theory of GMing while never learning how to put those lessons into practice for yourself if you never actually GM a game. When you do so, it quickly becomes apparent that there are wide gulfs between theory and practice, and not everything that you have learned will apply to the real world. The problem is that every GM’s experience behind the GM screen (be it literal or figurative) will be different, and the lessons that apply to one GM’s experience at running a game will be different to those that apply to this other GM with this other group of players.

Ultimately. there is no substitute for real world experience, from being willing to make mistakes and learn from them.

One of the biggest challenges that a GM faces is a new group of players, especially if you’ve been gaming with the same group for a long period of time. Without even being consciously aware of it, familiarity leads to a GM tailoring and customizing the way that they plan and operate to suit the foibles and desires of their regular players, and a new group of players will not respond to the old techniques.

Perhaps the greatest advantage that I had as a developing GM was being part of a large and organized Club, one which (at times) had as many as four or five different RPGs being played simultaneously with 5 or 6 players each. When one campaign wrapped up and a new one began, there was an osmosis from other groups into the new campaign, while players with less interest in that campaign would jump ship and hook up with one of the others. Each campaign thus tended to consist of a loyal “core” of players who came and went infrequently, and a variety of others who would join up for a few months or a couple of years and then move on. The dynamics that the GM had to cope with and build around were perpetually changing and evolving as new players brought new ideas and approaches and priorities and expectations to the gaming table. You were forced to become a better GM whether you wanted to or not – or you dropped out of GMing altogether if you were unable to cut the mustard (or were sufficiently lacking in confidence that you didn’t think you could cope).


Speaking of confidence and competence, the one person who is never in a position to give a fair and unbiased perception of a GM’s abilities are the GM themselves; they will always under- or over-estimate their abilities. Unwarranted self-doubt can be crippling, but equally bad is over-arrogant self-confidence. No GM can objectively assess their own abilities.

Instead, look for subjective clues. If you have players who want to play in your game, if you get the occasional compliment from a player, if everyone seems to be having fun, then you are a successful GM.

Contrariwise, however, if none of these is true, that doesn’t make you a bad GM. It might simply mean that what you are offering doesn’t fit the needs and desires of the particular group of potential players that you have around you, that there is a clash of styles, or even that you are being judged unfairly on the basis of past mistakes. The absence of information tells you nothing.

Another phenomenon that should be taken into consideration is that it is very rare for a particular preference for a specific playing style to translate into a natural preference for that style as a GM. More often, the opposite is true. This has to do with the perception of challenge and of the potential for success; we all enjoy a challenge if we think we can succeed, but if success seems out of reach and impossible to achieve, we shy away from the frustration that will inevitably result.

That sounds entirely reasonable until you factor in my earlier comments about confidence and competence. If you can’t accurately assess how good you are as a GM, or your strengths and weaknesses, you can never make an accurate assessment of how successful we will be at any particular challenge.

The only real way to know is to try anyway – and then assess the success or failure afterwards. Never let a lack of confidence hold you back; you always learn more from failure than from success.

There is a perception amongst some readers that GMs with as much experience under the belts as I do have achieved some sort of “GMing Nirvana” in which we never make mistakes, running with complete success adventures and campaigns that they could never even dream of. There’s a small grain of truth buried in a whole heap of inaccuracy in such a perception; I can run campaigns and adventures of far greater complexity now than I could a decade ago, or two, or three. But that’s only true because I’ve made mistakes in the past (My Biggest Mistakes [series]) and learned from them – and it certainly doesn’t prevent me from totally messing up, even now (An Experimental Failure – 10 lessons from a train-wreck Session) – and learning from that, too.

I’ll stop learning and improving my abilities when I’m dead and buried, and not before – at least, if I have anything to say about it.

A Better Plan

There are two important contexts from which to view and assess an adventure. The first is as an entity in it’s own right, a discrete piece of gameplay, a narrative with start, finish, and end. The second is as an element in a broader storyline, the campaign. Another way to view the ‘typical developmental path’ that I outlined earlier is to think of it as a process of broadening perspectives from the former to the latter. Railroading happens when the ‘campaign perspective’ becomes so dominant that it crowds out consideration of the adventure as a discrete unit. Having learned to walk the tightrope between these two perspectives is the trait of a mature GM.

Again, there are techniques that can be employed to shortcut this developmental process. I’ve addressed this subject many times in many articles, but thought it might be useful to provide a simpler alternative for the beginner to follow and ‘get their feet wet’.

A Grand Vision

The place to start is by outlining the campaign-wide story, as simply and concisely as possible. Think of this as your internal ‘blurb’ describing the campaign to yourself (it might or might not also be the ‘blurb’ that you use to promote/describe the campaign to prospective players). This could be simple (“A peaceful kingdom is betrayed to an Orcish Alliance”) or complex (“A mad god holds magic for ransom unless his deranged demands are met”).

Once you have this “back cover blurb” for the campaign, break it into logical steps and stages. Take the first example: the stages might be:

  1. Establish Peaceful Kingdom – self-explanatory, provides the campaign background, intros the PCs;
  2. Establish Status Quo – an adventure into Orcish territory for no other reason than to provide the rest of the background;
  3. Create The Orcish Alliance – an adventure in which rumors of the Alliance begin to be heard in a sub-plot;
  4. Motivation For Betrayal – something happens that doesn’t directly impact the PCs (another sub-plot) but that will provide the motivation for someone to betray the kingdom to the Alliance;
  5. Invasion – for the first time, the campaign-scale plotline is the sole focus of an adventure, as the Alliance invades and village after village falls before them as a result of the betrayal, which is discovered by the PCs;
  6. Battlefield Stalemate – the PCs find a way to neutralize the advantage that was conferred by the betrayal, producing a stalemate in the war, and buying them time to dig more deeply;
  7. The Architect Of War – PCs discover who was behind both the creation of the Alliance and the betrayal of the kingdom;
  8. Broken Alliance – PCs use that information to break the Alliance;
  9. Peace In Our Time – PCs negotiate a peace treaty with the Kingdom’s Orcish neighbors, cemented when they save the life of the Orcish Leaders (and themselves) from an assassin sent by the villain in a last-ditch attempt at revenge;
  10. The Price Of Treason – the PCs hunt down the betrayer, discovering that the apparent villain was just a flunky, and confront the real architect of the war. Big Finish.

Or to put it another way, the PC’s ordinary lives are turned upside down by someone manipulating events to create War between the Kingdom and the Orcs, and it’s up to them to undo the machinations, expose, and punish the culprits. This outline has things starting slowly and building to a dramatic conclusion.

Strong Characters

Step two is to populate the campaign with strong characters, i.e. characters with depth and interesting personality. Take the betrayer – you need him to be a trusted person with considerable authority (or his betrayal will be meaningless), but with some sort of weakness or dark secret that can be exploited. It would be easier to have his betrayal be overt and obvious, but a lot more fun to have him lurk unsuspected at first, even apparently still loyal but wringing his hands and at his wit’s end, with only one idea to solve the problem – send in the PCs even though “it’s hopeless, there’s nothing [they] can do…”

This is a character who I could really get my teeth into, in terms of roleplaying, and the irony that the one move that he makes (thinking that it will be completely ineffectual) turns out to be the best move that could be made to undo and expose the treachery he’s committed.

Lurking Plots

The result is a ten-adventure campaign that seems completely reasonable on the face of it. The next thing that I do is start working on the background to the campaign, taking care to sprinkle ideas for potential plotlines beyond the main one throughout. Some of these will form the basis of the early, relatively self-contained adventures; others will lie unused and untriggered, just part of the color of the campaign. The primary goal of any campaign background – aside from telling the players what they need to know in order to participate in the planned campaign plotline – is to convey a sense of potential to the players, to create the impression of an environment in which fantastic adventures lurk around every corner.

More experienced GMs would look to advance and resolve some of these background plots while seeding new potential adventures into the campaign, ensuring that the world is dynamic and not static, but beginners should crawl before they walk.

Players set the direction, GM sets the context

Reading that campaign outline, or any of the many others that I have shared here at Campaign Mastery over the years, you might get the impression that there is a case of “do as I say, not as I do” taking place – that I am advising one thing and then demonstrating another. How can anything that reads “the PCs find a way to…” co-exist with the notion of player freedom of choice?

The answer is that it doesn’t matter how the players come to the adventure that you have in mind, so long as they get there eventually. The challenge is to permit the players to choose the actions of their PCs and then find a way for those choices to lead them into the plotline that the GM had in mind without force.

A good way to think of the process is the one expressed in the title of this sub-section of the article. Another, even more clarifying, version might read, “The players control the rudder, but the GM controls the winds and current.”

The big secret to achieving this is to be continually aware of the ‘trigger events’ you have buried in the plot and how these will affect NPCs that the PCs interact with. This gives you several paths that can be followed by the PCs into the adventure, and is the RPG equivalent of the “Magician’s Force” or “Magician’s Choice“.

All Roads Lead To Rome

At the very beginning of the campaign, the GM will have no idea of the characters and not much more idea (if any) of the players. Given this state of ignorance, the GM has absolutely no idea of what the players will want to do; all he can do is try to stay one step ahead of them, building the adventure on his understanding and knowledge of the campaign background.

As usual, there is a less obvious easier route – the technique described in the previous section. One event, trivial in terms of the big picture, but important when immediate and proximate, that will connect with a wide range of people and social classes, and then let the PCs find their own path to the adventure.

The Extended Sandbox

The final piece of advice in this section is not to commit yourself too far too soon. At any given time, the state of play should be:

  • Current adventure – complete and ready to run
  • Next adventure – detailed plans complete, approaching a ready-to-run condition, to be completed 1 game session before it is needed
  • Adventure after – rough plans and ideas noted down, focusing on those parts that will be directly connected to by “next adventure”
  • Adventures after that – little or nothing done, just a note of resources (characters, settings, illustrations, etc) that have been prepared for earlier adventures but which will also be required for these adventures.

This is called “just in time” delivery, a principle that I learned as an Analyst Programmer. I won’t go into detail here – for one thing, it’s too complicated a subject to fit within the bounds of this particular article, and for another, I’ve already addressed the topic in a pair of articles:

The Prep Investment

Which brings me to the subject of game prep in general. Getting the amount of game prep that you do right is a an art that none of us ever master, and even fewer can ever be completely confident of having gotten it right. Because it’s generally better to err on the side of caution, we tend to over-prepare. The articles listed above will help zero GMs in on the correct amount of game prep to do to avoid both burnout and under-prep, but there’s a caveat that they don’t go into.

Game prep that is sufficiently universal in application, in the early phases of a campaign, can actually save prep time in the long run. You work more efficiently if not yet distracted by actually running the game, and every hour of prep that is invested in elements that can be applied globally and can channel and direct your creativity in the future (rather than wasting time casting about for inspiration) is an investment in the campaign that will be repaid many-fold before it comes to an end.

In particular, it’s never too soon to start thinking about the problems and reversals that the PCs might face, how they could be overcome, and how everything is to culminate and pay off in a big finish.

In conclusion

There’s always more that can be said on this subject. My draft notes, for example, had me now commencing a discussion of the anatomy of an adventure (A hook to get the players interested, deepening trouble, some early success, events take a turn for the worse, adventure is resolved, plus sub-plots and background developments that connect together with each other and with other adventures to form “the big picture”) but in the end I felt that it was rather redundant and might even get in the way of the advice already offered. As I said at the start, there have been a LOT of articles here at Campaign Mastery on the subject of creating adventures, and there will undoubtedly be more in the future. It’s better to leave something out now and not overwhelm readers (especially beginners) with too much all at once.

Breaking News!

As I was finishing up today’s article, the news broke that for the second time in it’s history, Campaign Mastery is (drum-roll please): An


Congratulations and the best of luck to all my fellow nominees – but right now, I’m on top of the world!!

Voting opens on the 11th – that’s next Monday (US timezone) – and closes on the 21st, just 10 days later. So, if you like what I do here at Campaign Mastery, consider sending a vote my way. Whether you do or not, no hard feelings – it’s an honor just to be nominated!

The next part of this series, due in two week’s time, will get more strongly into the subject of Depth of planning and plotting.

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Consequential Expertise: A Neglected Plot Opportunity

Photo Credit: / Nina Briski

Photo Credit: / Nina Briski

Do your PCs know what they are doing? Not the players (they have no idea half the time) but the characters that those players operate – are they competent? Do they have expertise – in anything?

Because there’s a type of adventure intro that seems, in hindsight, to be horribly under-used: the expert witness. Why? Because, first and foremost, it involves thinking about laws and legal systems – and most GMs don’t. Second, it only seems to involve the one PC. Third, because the GM himself isn’t an expert in the field, and doesn’t want to expose his limitations. And fourth, because it doesn’t look like being all that much fun to play – courtrooms being such dry and dusty places (in a metaphoric sense). And, more than any other genre, Fantasy is the worst offender.

None of these reasons stacks up very well to a little reflection. Today’s article will bust them all (assuming all goes according to plan). And then I’ll look at the practicalities of implementing this type of plot thread and some of the many ways it can manifest. By the time we’re done, it should be a permanent part of every GM’s toolkit.

The Problems

Let’s start by poking holes in those four objections.

Campaign Law

In most campaigns, there’s a sense that anything goes and that the only things that are outright illegal are the things that the GM can build plots upon. If someone steals, that’s obviously illegal. If you kill someone, the law will be looking for you. If you humiliate or poke fun at the nobility, they take a dim view of it. But you can kill monsters (sentient or otherwise) with gay abandon. You can loot bodies as you see fit. Pillaging dungeons is all in a day’s play.

There’s a sense that writing laws is a dry and boring process and results in a dry and boring game element. but Laws affect everyone, and not every law needs to be spelled out in long-winded legalese. Instead, let’s turn the problem on it’s head: Everything the PCs do should be scrutinized by the GM for possible legal complications. No law should ever enter the “books” in anything other than general summary form, and only when the GM sees a future plotline resulting from it. Players should only need to know what the law is when it becomes relevant, i.e. they are about to break it, see someone else break it, or someone is constrained because of it.

What players (and characters) do need to know is the sort of basic overview that an international tourist might be informed of before entering a foreign country. “These things are forbidden. These things that are usually forbidden are legal under some circumstances. The law is policed by [organization]. If you are accused, here’s an outline of how the legal process works, its flaws, and where it breaks down.”

In most fantasy campaigns, this is never stated explicitly. Absolute Monarchies (where whatever the local Nobility and his superiors says is legal, goes, and anything he forbids is not) abound – but there is also a tendency to implement a lot of very modern legal machinery without thinking too much about it. Talking about your rights for example, especially those preventing self-incrimination, freedom of speech, and representation.

Historically, it was the scale of injury that determined who made judgment on a case. If it injured the locals or the neighbors, they had something in most medieval villages that closely resembles modern jury trials – the accused represented themselves, the head of the village acted as judge, and his primary job was to select a number of respectable locals to serve as the jury. The judge or a bailiff read the accusation, heard statements from witnesses, the accused was then given the chance to defend himself, challenge the evidence or testimony, or throw himself on the mercy of the court; the jury decided guilt or innocence and the judge then imposed sentence. Such courts were usually held on specific days once a week, fortnight, or month, and heard all the cases that had accumulated since the last. In some periods, Judges appointed by the monarchy worked a circuit from village to village to hear more serious cases.

If the rights, privileges, or property of a noble was infringed, justice was simpler and quicker. In most cases, people weren’t afforded any opportunity to defend themselves; the accusation was made to the noble concerned and he decreed a punishment on the spot if there wasn’t one already “on the books”. He didn’t even have to face the accused personally if he didn’t want to. Preventing abuse of the system – in theory – was the fact that each noble was answerable to another of higher rank, all the way up to the King. Justice was generally swift, few cases taking more than five or ten minutes to be heard – think “Judge Judy” with a jury box. Nobles of various rank would periodically send out wandering judges to hear serious cases (murder etc) and check on the way their social/peerage subordinates were conducting themselves.

Some nobles were repressive and firm; others were more lenient and forgiving; some took pride on making the punishment fit the crime, while others sought out ‘object lessons’. Those were their prerogatives. Unjust punishments could only be taken so far, however, before his superiors began to feel they were being damaged, their reputations, nobility, honor, or sanctity harmed by the punisher – thus rendering the excessively punitive subject to punishment.

In order to be seen to do the right thing, some nobles made a point of confronting those accused and considering mitigating circumstances. Others held open courts in which anyone, regardless of station, could address the noble and have his concerns considered. It was traditional in some places for all prisoners to be pardoned and released when a new king took the throne, or a new heir to the throne was born. In other locations, exceptions were made to this principle. These were not rights held by the accused, they were authority exercising it’s privilege.

This is the sort of thing that every character should know, absorbed simply by living in the society and seeing the way things worked. And none of it sounds particularly dull to me; on the contrary, it brings the society to life by detailing how that society relates to its constituent population – including the PCs.

Experts can be called upon in such courts to testify as to the plausibility of statements made by witnesses or the defendant, when necessary.

Broader Spotlights

If such testimony affected only one PC, then that PC can hold the spotlight, true enough; but the brevity of cases and summary nature of judgments means that this would not be true for very long, and would not give that character an unjust share of the spotlight time. Larger cases, in which more spotlight time can accrue to the character, can be mitigated by preventing the testifying PC from hearing anything about the case except the part that he is to provide an expert opinion on, even though this wasn’t the way things were historically done. If that isn’t enough, consider giving each of the other PCs his or her own little “mini-plot”.

But every expert witness’ testimony will harm someone, and that someone – and his family, friends, and flunkies – have a vested interest in preventing harmful testimony from being heard. In modern life, expert witnesses are a dime a dozen and evidence is considered the primary consideration; the presumption is that getting rid of an expert won’t achieve anything because a replacement will look at the evidence and reach the same conclusion. Experts, in other words, are objective instruments of explanation and analysis. In a fantasy milieu, that will not be the case. Opinions of experts matters more than evidence, which is rarely collected and held. Being of good character means that you are more likely to be believed (and since juries are also men and women of good character, are likely to include several friends. If an expert is to present damning evidence and can’t be easily replaced, preventing that testimony becomes a viable (if illegal) tactic. Being asked to appear as an expert witness can put one’s life in danger, which furnishes a role for the other PCs within the scope of the unfolding drama.

A lot depends on the usage that the GM intends to make of the case. If it’s a side-plot intended to do nothing but be ‘something different’ for the PC to get involved in, it cam be kept short. If the purpose is to serve as a springboard to the main adventure, the same is true. If it is simply to give the PCs a chance to get to know who some of the local ‘characters’ are, let them be in the public galleries to hear the case. If the case is to be a full plot in it’s own right, then it becomes necessary to broaden the spotlight.

The GM has so many options and choices, and is able to tailor them to suit his intended plot purposes, that the ‘spotlight’ problem simply defines the parameters of his plot.

But I’m Not An Expert In…

You don’t have to be. A little advance prep goes a long way. I dealt with this problem (in a broader context) in an article some time ago, The Expert In Everything?.

But here’s another little trick to add to your repertoire: temporary sharing of PCs.

One of my regular players is an armchair expert on firearms, knowing more about them than anyone else at the table. One of the PCs in the Zenith-3 campaign, owned and operated by a different player, is an ex-cop. If a situation ever arose in which the latter was to appear as an expert on firearms as part of the adventure, I would grant temporary custody of the PC to the first player for the duration of the testimony, while letting that character’s usual owner handle everything else (as usual) and look after the first player’s usual character at the same time.

Each of your players, by experience and interests, is an ‘expert’ in something in which the others are not. Make that work for you.

The Fun Police

In most courtroom dramas, a couple of people do most of the talking – and they aren’t the PCs. That can be taken to mean that courtrooms don’t translate well to an RPG usage, and stated in that way, I would have to concur.

I once ran a courtroom drama in which one of the PCs of my superhero campaign was on trial for murder. To compensate for this dryness, I deliberately made the NPCs doing the talking larger than life – you had Perry Mason as a special prosecutor and a younger Denny Crane for the Defense. I made sure that Mason was brilliant and that Crane was brilliantly unorthodox in order to force Mason to use his every wit – in particular, stipulating to all the bits that would have been boring in play. And then I centered the whole procedure around the testimony of each of the PCs on the witness stand. In some cases, Mason won key points; in some cases, Crane shot important holes in the prosecution’s case. Ultimately, this was all about how superheros were going to fit into the law of the nation in which they were then based. Ultimately, what the PCs said on the witness stand in response to intelligent and probing questions, defined the role of the superhero in society; the specific verdict was always pre-determined by me, but the wider issue was entirely in play and could have gone in any direction. It wasn’t something I would do on a regular basis, but as a one-shot, it worked perfectly (even if I had laryngitis for three days afterwards as a result).

So courtrooms can work in an RPG – if you skip the boring bits and inject enough life and color, or project the case beyond the walls of the court.

The secret is to bone up in advance. Look at TV shows of the genre. Watch movies. Look for the things you can do to inject life and interest into the plot. There is a reason why the police procedural is a genre that surfaces in entertainment media again and again; done well, it makes for great viewing, and permits an examination of social issues that could be deadly dull any other way.

Some ‘Pro’s’ to go with the ‘Con’s’

Balanced against those problems are a whole slew of benefits.

Demonstrating Expertise

You give a PC a chance to show off an expertise that he has been building and which you haven’t yet found an in-game reason to use. Lots of players will take some skills for ‘color’ – this gives an opportunity to put those color elements front-and-center for a change, instead of parking them off to one side.


It also provides relevance to those skills, by showing how they can matter, and integrates the PCs as being part of the world and community around them.


I touched on this when I mentioned social issues a moment ago. But beyond that, you are placing actions by an NPC into social context of what is permitted and what is not, bringing that culture to life.


The court provides a great way to introduce one or more PCs to people who will then become important to one or more later plots. The Judge, the accuser/prosecutor, the victim, the accused, and even the jury – even if the PC doesn’t get to know these people (which he will do to a greater or lesser extent according to their role in the courtroom process), they will get to know the PC – which can be enough for them to think of him or her when another problem arises.

A Different Flavor

As a subplot or plot or even just a means of connecting the PCs to a plot, it’s different and therefore much more interesting than ‘a stranger approaches your table at the inn’.


It’s a great way to show the players that their characters are becoming respected, and introducing the notion that there is a price to pay for that respect.


It can be a great way to introduce additional information about the adventure or campaign background by making it a bit more interactive than the GM simply reciting some narrative.


Because it’s not too far removed from what the players expect in the real world, and is a logical development within the game world, it makes that game world seem far more real and plausible to the players – even if you only roleplay the highlights.


It provides an opportunity to explain how a central element of the society around the PCs works. Equally importantly, it shows that you are putting thought and effort into how the society works.

Just The Beginning

And finally, the court appearance itself can be just the beginning of the adventure.

The Practical

So, there are lots of good reasons to consider this particular type of event. With the causes for hesitation more-or-less exploded, that leaves an overwhelming list of good reasons to do it and hardly any for not doing it. That means that it’s time to turn our attention to making it practical. There are four essential stages to such a plot or subplot: Validating the PC’s expertise, The call to employ that expertise, the application of that expertise, and the wrap-up of the plotline/subplot.

Validating Expertise

To start with, you need for the NPCs to have a reason to consider the PC an expert (or something close enough to one for their purposes). Let’s say that the character has “fishing” as a skill, bought to a very high level (as justification for making sure that the character can always find food). You could have him come across a fishing contest with a nice prize (from his point of view – and if you don’t know how to make a fishing contest interesting, check out Ask The GMs: How to set up a fun fishing mini game, one of the reasons why I chose this as an example (the other being that this was both a skill that a character was likely to have, and one that wouldn’t see much ‘action’ in-game). Or maybe there was some drunken bragging in the bar (“I once caught a 14-pound trout, it was this long…”).

The Call

Next, you need some reason for this expertise to be needed in a court case. Having caught the attention of the “right” people (from the plot point of view), and established that the PC is an expert in the key subject in the eyes of those people, the logical thing for them to do is to approach the character. The reason for the expertise being needed is their motivation for calling on the PC. Maybe the accused claims that he was out fishing at the time a crime was committed and even caught a 10-pound salmon, but the accuser believes that he’s lying – and wants the PC to prove it on the witness stand as an expert.

The Testimony/Action

The domino pieces then fall inevitably until the PC appears on the witness stand. It’s critical that their testimony not hinge on their success at a die roll; you want to make the quality and depth of information that they have available to them be a reflection of their skill, not their success at rolling dice. The LAST thing you want is for the so-called ‘expert’ to be asked a series of questions and have to make a series of die rolls in order to be able to answer them, especially if the knowledge is fairly fundamental. In other words, this is to be a Role-playing experience, not a roll-playing experience.

Unless the player in question happens to be an expert in the subject himself, you will therefore need to arm the player with a ‘fact sheet’ to represent things that the character knows.

Here’s how it might play out: “The accused claims that he was fishing at the time of the crime, and even caught a 10-pound salmon. Could you, as an expert witness, examine the fishing gear found in the accused’s home and tell us whether it supports his story?”
     “Certainly.” (is given a list of the fishing gear prepared by the GM, compares it to the cheat-sheet). “I’m afraid it doesn’t look very likely. The strongest line here is jute-and-elderflower and has a best-possible breaking strain of four pounds; it’s the wrong season for salmon; and these hooks are all too small for a fish of that size.”
     “That’s not my fishing gear! Someone’s pulling a fast one on me, I bin framed!”
or, perhaps,
     “I lost the line and hook I was using.”

Either way, the expert witness has done his job; the entire nature of the case has changed as a result of his testimony and is now all about the credibility and character of the accused – if the jury believes that he is honest and that someone might have reason to substitute for the real fishing gear, knowing that it was important to the alibi of the accused, (option 1) or that he might have lost the fishing line etc that he was using and had only the one hook of the right size for salmon of that weight, they will let him go; if they don’t, then he will be found guilty.


I think it is always important to have an “afterwards” phase to any encounter of this type, to show consequences and tie up loose ends and bring the subplot to a close (or use the subplot to launch the main plot). That would normally consist of the verdict, the punishment, and maybe some conversation. Money might also change hands if the character is to be paid for giving his opinion in court.

Applied Expertise Plotlines

There are lots of plotlines in which a character can be called upon to render an expert opinion, i.e. to use the principles stated in a real-world game. Here are just some of them:

The Judge

The PC is called upon to judge a contest relevant to the field of his expertise. It could be a fishing contest at the county fair, or submissions to an architectural contest, or an amateur poetry recital, or whatever.

The Consultant

Someone might want to obtain the ‘expert opinion’ of the PC – it doesn’t have to be in a court-room.

The Rival

The PC might be challenged over his expertise by a rival. Or a Doubting Thomas. Or a braggart. Bets, anyone?

The Outsider

The PC might be considered superior to local experts because he is an outsider without a vested interest or axe to grind. This is sure to put the noses of those locals who do have a vested interest, or an axe to grind, out of joint.

The Cheat

The PC might simply be passing by and taking an interest in some event when he spots someone cheating. What does he do? Or maybe it’s architecture, and he spots a room that is too small relative to the outside of the building – a secret room that even the building owners might not know about.

The Mystery

The PC’s testimony exonerates the person accused of a crime that touches the PC in some way, encouraging him to solve the mystery of who the real criminal is.

The Criminal

The PC’s testimony is going to cause the accused to go free, but the PC is convinced that the accused is guilty. It’s up to him and his friends to prove it – before the damning testimony has to be delivered.

The Beginning

Or perhaps the crime is just the tip of a very much larger situation, the hook that involves the PCs in what will turn out to be the adventure.

Take that fishing example: The accused is found guilty because of the PC’s testimony, but as he is being led away, he cries “Amagoth! I have failed you – take me now, I sacrifice myself in your name,” and erupts into flames or turns into a puddle of liquid goo right in front of the PC. All of a sudden, there are more questions than answers, and the PC is already in the adventure up to his neck…

The Expert In His Place

I’m not suggesting that this plot template be used all the time. But, as characters advance in levels and skills relative to those around them, it should definitely occur occasionally – and a lot more often than it usually does. Well, at least in my opinion – and hopefully, I’ve both convinced you and given you the tools to add “Consequential Expertise” (i.e. the consequences of having a particular expertise) to your repertoire.

I Hope this article is coherent, I’m suffering heavily from a head cold and having trouble concentrating.

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Ask The GMs: Many Hands, Mild Insanity: Large Groups Revisited

As I explained the last time I looked at large groups, I have only limited experience in the area, so this was one topic for which I definitely wanted to source a broader opinion base. The question at hand: If you are “fortunate” enough to have a large group of players, which games could you – and which games shouldn’t you – play?

Ask the gamemasters

Phil asked,

“How to GM for a Large Group?

Over the past few years I’ve found myself in the position of GMing for what I would consider to be a fairly large group, seven players with an occasional eighth tagging along. I’ve been finding it tough to ensure that everyone gets a fair share of time in the spotlight.

How would you recommend keeping everyone interested in the game and do you feel there are specific campaign types that are particularly suited (or unsuited) to larger groups?” (edited for clarity)

A bull-pit discussion this weekend while we were eating lunch and waiting to start play produced a consensus that there were three types of difficulty, one of which Phil himself has already partially identified:

  • Mechanical Difficulties – Some game systems are inherently less suited to larger numbers of players.
  • Metagame Difficulties – Some aspects of gaming in general are inherently less suited to larger numbers of
  • Systemic Difficulties – Some genres and sub-genres are inherently less suited to larger numbers of players.

The answer below is going to consider each of these subjects to at least some extent and render what assistance and guidance we can, but the last subject is how we are interpreting Phil’s question about “campaign types” and hence will receive the bulk of the attention.

Mechanical Difficulties and Rules Traumas

If every rules dialogue were isolated to PC and Target, the effort required to GM a larger group would increase as the square of a multiple of the number of players. It’s never that simple, and so the increase is even greater.

There was a strong consensus that regardless of the genre issue, a rules-light approach was definitely to be recommended, especially in terms of the combat mechanics. There is a past article at Campaign Mastery entirely dedicated to the general principles of the subject – The Application Of Time and Motion to RPG Game Mechanics – so I won’t go into it in any detail here and now.

As a rule of thumb: multiply the number of steps to resolve a round of combat by the number of rounds a combat usually lasts, multiply that by the average time required to complete each of those steps, and multiply that by the total of both PCs and NPCs involved, and you soon get an idea of the extent of the problem.

Let’s say the number of steps is 1 (movement) plus 4 (attack resolution) plus 2 (damage calculation) plus 2 (damage resolution) plus 1 (who acts next) = 13 – about right for D&D 3.x and Pathfinder; that each step requires an average of 5 seconds; that the number of rounds is 3; and that there are equal numbers of PCs and NPCs. With a party of 5 – the largest group that I would be comfortable GMing with the unadulterated rules system – that gives 13 x 5 x 3 x (5+5) = 1950 seconds = 32.5 minutes. That’s the absolute minimum time that the typical combat would require to complete. More likely, it will take two, three, or even four times that, because our estimated time doesn’t make sufficient allowance for communications between players and GM. So let’s pick the middle of those and call it 97.5 minutes.

Now add two more PCs to the mix and recalculate: 13 x 5 x 3 x (7+7) = 2730 seconds (optimum), x 3 (for communications & inefficiency) = 8,190 seconds = 136.5 minutes.

The more closely you look at these numbers, and the meaning behind the calculations, the worse things get. With additional players, there will be increased noise and a reduction in efficiency of communications. With an increase in players there will be an increase in the variety of PCs, resulting in more need to periodically access the rules (amongst other effects that I’ll get to, later). Our x3 is more likely to be a x3.5 or even x4. And suddenly an hour-and-a-half becomes 3 hours – from the addition of two players.

What other game processes are similarly affected? Skill checks are the next most obvious. Ultra-detailed, ultra-complicated skill systems should be avoided, or so some of us thought; but there was a substantial counter-argument that larger skill-sets provided greater capacity for variety in PCs without undue diversity in power levels.

In a nutshell: rules-light is your friend, at least under the circumstances described by Phil.

Metagame Difficulties

Everything is exponentially harder for the GM to prepare for, simply because the PCs can deal with more things at once and are likely to have greater varieties of expertise. Simply describing where each of the PCs is takes (at least) 40% longer with two extra players! More shortcuts in game prep are going to be required simply because every task in that game prep takes longer to complete.

Spotlight Time

Similarly, every PC will receive considerably less spotlight time. With a group of 5, the spotlight gets divided about 7 ways: one share to each PC, one share to the group collectively, and one share to the GM. Add an extra two players, and the share drops to a ninth. Any inefficiencies in transitioning the spotlight get worse as well.

The best solution to this particular problem is to stop giving the spotlight to single PCs and start giving it to pairs and small groups. These can simply be thrown together by chance, or according to some rota system, or according to the nature of the challenge, or by character class (if there is such a thing in the game system in question) – whatever seems appropriate. Excuses for buddying up may sometimes seem contrived, but that’s better than the alternative.

The Generic Resort

I would also recommend adopting a more generic approach to many of the routine situations dealt with at the game table. Instead of getting each character to make ‘perception’ or ‘spot’ checks, for example, tell ALL of them the target to be achieved – then deal with all those who succeeded as a group.

This gets all the players resolving questions of game mechanics simultaneously as much as possible, speeding up play for everyone – and making more time for the ‘spotlight’ passages of play.

Systemic Difficulties

As a general rule of thumb, the less diverse the capabilities of the group of PCs, the larger the problems that the GM will have. Some genres create extreme diversity in the group, and those are the ones that become problematic with increasing numbers of players.

More players also inevitably magnify any problems with power levels, simply because there are more characters of extreme power.

Those are the two primary considerations that have shaped the following analysis of genres, bolstered here and there by points already made.

Cyberpunk / Modern Dystopia / Post-Apocalyptic

As a genre, Cyberpunk can be either a perfect fit for a large group or a total nightmare. To a large extent, these are the problems that afflict the genre regardless of number of players – the need to adventure in two (or more) different realities – cyberspace and the meat-world – simultaneously, for example. A larger group simply makes it more likely that you will trip over this problem if it exists at all within your specific campaign.

The same holds true of the other named genres within this group. If cyberspace is a headache, it will be a bigger headache with a large group.

Another item to watch out for is the level of available cyber-enhancement, which can lead to diversity & power=level problems. If Cyber-enhancement is relatively minimal, this genre can work quite well with larger groups.


So what then of Cyberpunk as a game system with large groups? Experience of this genre amongst the convened GMs was relatively light. I have been in two different Cyberpunk campaigns with 8-10 players. Both were short-lived, and in one case that was specifically because the referee found preparing for such a large group to be too stressful, particularly trying to cope with the problems described above. The other was an unqualified success because the GM split the party into smaller groups, experiencing independent but intertwining plotlines all flowing from a single triggering event. I learned a lot from him :) It also helped that he had the game system memorized, and understood it up, down, backwards, and forwards. In the first campaign that I mentioned, this wasn’t the case, something that added substantially to the problems experienced by the GM.

Fantasy Games

As a general rule of thumb, the higher the fantasy subgenre, the less successful it is with large groups. The entire group agreed with that premise immediately, and each of us had a war-story to contribute that backed it up.

Pathfinder / D&D 3.x & older

This is the standard against which all genres and systems are measured. Whenever a relative statement has been made without context being made clear, this is what we are comparing with. Unfortunately, we also all agreed that neither Pathfinder nor it’s antecedents were particularly well-suited to large groups, although the size of the threshold into impracticality varied with actual system. These game systems suffer from just about every problem that’s been identified in this article.

4th & 5th ed D&D

There was a general consensus that the streamlining of rules and better game balance that were features of these incarnations of the D&D concept made them far more suitable for larger groups. There can still be problems at higher character levels, but it was felt that when this was experienced, it was a sign that it was time to end that particular campaign and start another.

Lord Of The Rings RPG

The primary requirement for success with this RPG, released in the wake of the movies, is for the GM to be an expert in the writings of Tolkien and hence in the mythology of Middle-Earth, while the players should have at least a passing familiarity with the subject. Given that, it was felt by those who knew the system that this game would scale very well to a larger group. There was also a lot of material published by I.C.E. for an earlier RPG based on Tolkien – it can be hard to find, these days, but is definitely worth tracking down if you decide to go down this route.


This RPG never set the world on fire, but in many ways it is the perfect solution to the problem. Low fantasy, with Magic essentially restricted to evil NPCs – few in number and easily powerful enough with flunky support to pose a challenge for even a large group of PCs.

Tunnels & Trolls

If you want a rules-light fantasy system, it’s hard to look past this iconic veteran. It occupies a middle ground somewhere between Lord Of The Rings / Conan and D&D and that makes it a great compromise.

Horror Games

The more players you have, the more work you create when you split up the party, which is a staple of the genre. On the other hand, characters in horror-genre games tend to be relatively uniform in their capabilities, with just enough diversity to make them individual, so some of the major problems experienced by other genres don’t apply here.

Call Of Cthulhu

The great-granddaddy of the genre is Call Of Cthulhu, and it’s the only entrant that any of us had any experience in with groups large enough to qualify as relevant to this discussion. That experience can be summed up: it all depends on the quality of the GM. Brilliant exponents of the genre can cope with large groups as easily, or even more easily, as with small; average or worse GMs would find their problems magnified by an increase in numbers.

Mystery & Detective Games

While a number of the GMs participating in the discussion were fans of the genre, none of us had ever actually played any games that fall under this umbrella. All our experience came from representations of the style in other genres – a mystery in D&D or in Cyberpunk or in a Pulp campaign or whatever.

The general feeling on the basis of this experience was that increased players magnified existing problems with the genre beyond the point at which they could be wallpapered over, but that this effect could be overcome using the “small groups instead of individuals” approach described earlier as a solution to the spotlight-time issue.

Consider a mystery in which each PC gets one clue to the solution, which they then have to put together in order to progress their investigation; a mystery with seven or eight pieces is a lot more complicated than one with four or five. Quite possibly, so much so that the mystery is elevated beyond the capacity of ordinary people to solve – and solving mysteries by die roll is never satisfying.

It was also thought that the comments made earlier in reference to both Cyberpunk and Call of Cthulhu about the quality of the GM might also apply here – but that the need was for the players to be equally-gifted. For the right group, then, this might be a viable choice, but for most, a compromise would be necessary; the simplest such compromise being in the form of dealing with subgroups instead of individuals as a means of simplifying the puzzles being presented.

Pirate/Swashbuckling Games

These games seem like a natural fit for a larger group, at least at first glance – but there is a problem. They rely on each PC regularly getting his “moment”, and these are harder to arrange for large groups. This is an amplified form of the spotlight problem that a brilliant GM might be able to overcome, but anything less would be forced into formulaic approaches that were certain to yield the required ‘spotlight moments’ – and hence would limit the longevity of any campaign.

7th Sea

The only real game with which any of us had experienced in this genre was 7th Sea, and that under only the one GM (who does a pretty good job of it, despite wanting to be a player of the game more than a GM). That experience also pointed out a second problem – every increase in the number of players increases the number of ways in which they can interact, i.e. the number of combinations. Inevitably, with increasing numbers, it becomes impossible for any given PC to interact with each of the other PCs as individuals in any given adventure. The players of each PC will thus gravitate their interactions towards those other PCs with whom the interactions are more satisfying or rewarding, while ignoring those which don’t yield the same level of reward. The inevitable result is the formation of little cliques and sub-groups amongst the PCs, which can fracture the campaign when two of these cliques disagree.

It seemed inevitable that, as a result, any large group of players would shed them in twos and threes (probably over seemingly-unrelated issues) until it achieved more manageable dimensions, and that was certainly the experience in all three 7th Sea campaigns that we had experienced, collectively. Ian Mackinder, the GM in question, might have something to add on this topic in the comments (he was not amongst the GMs discussing it).

Pulp Games

The Pulp genre would seem to be a natural fit for a large group, capable of supporting sufficient diversity to create a large group of individuals while constraining that diversity enough to make the group manageable.

Hero System – The Adventurer’s Club Campaign

Certainly, we’ve had as many as nine or ten players at once in the Adventurer’s Club campaign. We ran into the familiar problems of spotlight time and rules overload, especially during combat sequences, but for the most part, it worked just fine. However, those problems were sufficient to weaken the appeal to the players enough that they drifted off, one by one; with each departure, it became possible to focus more and more on those who remained until an equilibrium (four-to-five players) was achieved.

There is an additional caveat: Some character concepts / archetypes are more demanding of screen time than others – a gadget-oriented character, for example. If you are already close to the limit, or simply insist on sharing the spotlight evenly, these character types simply don’t work as well as anyone would like. The more players you have, the more likely it is that one or more will select such archetypes, a problem that will be compounded by the reduced screen time share that they will get. Both players and GM should be actively vigilant in looking for this problem and replacing a character if necessary.

Sci-Fi & Space Opera Games

This genre can be problematic regardless of the number of players, but such inherent difficulties can be exacerbated with increasing player numbers. At the same time, there is generally a standard of equality across a range of PCs within these genres that makes them potentially successful with large groups.

A little thought shows that – as with several other examples – it all depends on the quality of the GM; but many of the strengths required to be successful with a large group within this genre are different to those of other genres. This should actually lend hope to any GMs in a similar position to Phil (Remember him? He asked the original question.) It means that if you try something and it doesn’t work, changing genres might be a solution by calling upon different GMing strengths and minimizing GM weaknesses.

There are some games that I would never even attempt to GM; I know that my mind doesn’t work properly to make a success of them. Cyberpunk, Horror, Westerns – these don’t fit me. There was a time when I would have included Pulp in that list, but my co-GM brings a wealth of genre expertise to the table and through mutual discussion, we have both gained a stronger understanding of the genre.

I mention this because it’s a possible solution to all Phil’s problems – pick a genre to which a rules system he knows can apply, and in which he lacks the necessary expertise, and make one of his players who has the necessary knowledge a co-GM. This does three things:

  • It reduces the number of PCs, increasing the spotlight time for each;
  • It increases the GMing capacity at the game table, further increasing the spotlight time for each PC;
  • It increases the range of genres which can be applied to the group.
Original Traveller

I’ve experienced a large group of players in original Traveller campaigns a couple of times. In one, the GM was hopelessly out of his depth and the game was a total flop; in the other two, both with the aforementioned Ian Mackinder as GM it was a great experience (even if my characters ultimately killed both campaigns and led to his banning me from playing those species ever again in one of his games – a Newt and a Hyver, respectively). So I know that Original Traveller can work with a large group if the GM is up to the job. None of the gathered GMs had ever played subsequent versions of the system, so we can’t speak to their suitability.

Star Trek

Ian also ran a couple of campaigns using the Star Trek RPG (from FASA, I believe). These both had enough players to qualify as a large group, from memory, and were both excellent. To be honest, I enjoyed the traditional ST campaign, the “Axenar” campaign, more than the Klingons campaign, but for Ian (and some of the other players) it was the other way around. But it shows that if you can resolve the inevitable spotlighting issues that come with designated ship functions amongst a bridge crew, a large-group campaign of this subgenre and game system can work.


A good Paranoia campaign requires the right players and the right GM, and if you’ve got both, it’s a case of ‘the more the merrier’. Paranoia for a large group should, first and foremost, be a comedic farce, so you need someone with a keen sense of humor and players who are willing to play into that humor, either as contributors or as knowing straight-men. One campaign that has survived in legend since it was played back in the mid-to-late-80s killed all six of one player’s clones before the group even got to the briefing – and had the entire group rolling on the floor with laughter. So there’s absolutely no doubt that under the right circumstances, Paranoia can work.

Spy & Secret Agent Games

At first glance, this genre seems ideally suited to a large group. There are no huge power-level problems, and the skill-set from one character to another will be largely the same, as will the combat effectiveness. But there are three large problems that only grow bigger with increasing numbers.

The first is the credibility problem. False identities for a group are a lot harder to arrange. Mission Impossible succeeds by avoiding this problem and dividing the team; for large amounts of the time, individual team members have nothing to do, it’s all about positioning them to be in the right place to contribute to the solution of the problem when the time comes. And that’s the only large-group example of the genre that comes to mind; every other example is small-scale.

The second is the problem already discussed under the mystery genre – missions with seven, eight, or more, moving parts are a LOT more complicated than those with three or four. In fact, the sheer scale of them becomes a credibility problem after a while.

The third and final issue is the lowest common denominator. There’s inevitably a lot of stealth and infiltration involved in this genre, and the skill of a group at doing these thing is always that of the least-skilled member. The larger the group, the more checks that have to be made in order for the entire group to succeed – increasing the odds that at least one will fail. If you want to work out the maths, you can actually adjust the risks that one of them will fail, in order to take this into account – but most GMs won’t even recognize the need to do so.

Top Secret

I’ve run a couple of Top Secret modules adapted to a different set of rules, and read over the Top Secret rules system once or twice (a long time ago). For the most part, they are strictly limited in number of participants, but there’s nothing in the rules system itself that would be prohibitive to running a large group if the genre issues could be overcome. That, however, is a very large ‘If’.

Hero System

I’ve also run a super-spies campaign using a variant on the Hero System. The group wasn’t large – five players, later four – and it was amazing how much better and more interactive the adventures became with that reduction. Extrapolating backwards only confirms all the concerns voiced earlier in this section – despite initial appearances, this genre would be seriously handicapped by a large group.

Steampunk Games

I know there are a number of fans of this genre out there, but none of the participating GMs had ever played a game in it, let alone run one, and never mind the group size. Based on what little we know, it should be suitable for larger groups provided that the game system doesn’t get in the way.

Superhero Games

The superhero genre, on the other hand, is one that we all knew well, in fact that was what we had gathered to play on this particular day. I have been running my superhero campaign or its sequels (with a break or two in between) since 1981. I’ve had as many as ten players and as few as two in that time, and I can state that every possible problem with group size is applicable to most superhero campaigns. There is a limited exception for really big, “Cosmic” campaigns, though – if the GM is experienced enough, has planned ahead enough, and is good enough. Game system remains a critical decision.

Hero System

Most of my genre experience is from refereeing a variant on the Hero System. It works really well with small groups (three or four), begins to struggle with moderately-large groups (five or six) and becomes really cumbersome with any more; the optimum solution is to compromise the game system, as I explained in Superhero combat on steroids – pt 1 of 2: Taking the initiative with the Hero System and part 2, Moving with a purpose. In fact, even smaller groups benefit from the change to a D&D/Pathfinder-style initiative-and-turn system. I certainly would not attempt to use the Hero System for a large group without making such a rules change – having experienced the benefits first-hand.

Icons experiences

A rules-lite alternative that Ian Gray strongly recommended was Icons. He reports that it only takes about a minute to generate an enemy NPC, which means that he can construct them as he needs them. I’m not sure how appropriate the game system is for high-powered campaigns, but from all reports, it works very well at lower power levels – and if you aren’t used to GMing large groups or high-powered superheros, going for a lower power level definitely makes sense to me.

GURPS Supers

I’ve also played in one GURPS Supers campaign with a high player count, and can state that if the GM knows that system backwards and forwards, front-to-back and back again, it can work perfectly well – with only the usual spotlight issues.

Villains & Vigilantes, Marvel Superheroes RPG

But if you really want to try the superhero genre with a large group of players and for some reason Icons doesn’t float your boat, these older systems are just the ticket. I’ve never played them, but have adapted enough modules from both of them to have some sense of the systems. V&V works very well for low-powered supers, while Marvel Superheroes occupies a more intermediate power level.

So you really are spoiled for choice in this genre.

Western Games

As with Steampunk, none of the participating GMs are experienced in this genre at any scale. I couldn’t even name a game system in this genre off the top of my head – I think that the people behind Hackmaster have one called Aces And Eights but I’m not even sure that I have the name right (subsequently verified). I certainly can’t tell you anything about how it will scale with increased player numbers.

Final Thoughts and General Observations

What I found when writing up the proceeds of our discussion on the subject (above) was this general observation: More players amplify any flaws in a game system. Absolutely none of the problems mentioned above are not inherent to the game systems; they simply become so enlarged as a result of this amplification effect that they can no longer be tolerated or ignored. Unless you can find a way to deliberately engineer an alternative, in just the same way that grouping PCs into small groups instead of dealing with them as individuals solves the spotlight problem. That might be done by altering game mechanics, as is the case for the Hero System, or it might be by deliberately designing your campaign to avoid the worst of the issues.

Beyond what’s been reported above, the conversation touched lightly on other issues such as physical space around the table and noise, but most of these have already been dealt with in the previous articles on large groups (My table runneth over (too many players) and Gaming In A Crowd: Some Advice).

In summary: Some compromises will always have to be made to make it practical to game in a large group. Intelligent and thoughtful choices of genre and game system can minimize the degree and nature of those compromises, and can even transform them into assets. It’s always going to be harder with a large group – but it doesn’t have to be any less successful.

About the contributors:

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


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


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


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


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

Over the last couple of years he has been dirtying his hands with game design. He was a contributor to Assassin’s Amulet, the first time his name appeared in the credits of a real, live, RPG supplement. Recently he has taken to GMing more frequently, with more initial success than he was probably expecting (based on his prior experiences). Amongst the other games he now runs, Mike and Blair currently play in his Star Wars Edge Of The Empire Campaign.

In the next ATGMs: Incorporating Music: The Sounds Of Silence?

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Throw Me A Life-line: A Character Background Planning Tool


When I was a child, I knew three of my grandparents well. My paternal grandfather and namesake, however, I have no memory of ever meeting; he died before I was born, he was only ever a photograph on the wall.

I was thinking about that, and about how my experience of family was not adequately described by a simple traditional family tree (of the type shown to the left), prompted by an old episode of the original “Who Do You Think You Are?” that was recently repeated on Australian TV – and had a stroke of inspiration.

The Life-Line

What you see to the right is a character background planning tool that I have created called a Life-Line. Let me walk you through what it contains.

There’s a scale on the left in years. Key ages are marked with lines running the width of the tool, ages at which key life events occur or transitions begin or end. These key ages delineate seven different stages of life in an individual.

These life stages are a reflection of both the biology and society of the individual. This example is appropriate to a modern-day character; characters from a century or more ago would have a different pattern, as would characters in a Fantasy campaign like D&D, or Elves, or whatever. That means that GMs will have to create their own using this as a template in order to reflect their own campaigns. Sorry, I can’t do it all for you.

To assist in doing so, let’s examine the seven life-stages that I have defined:

Child (0-5 years)

In childhood, the main task of the individual is to learn how to walk, talk, etc – the essentials of managing their body. There is zero chance of anyone this age becoming a parent.

School (5-16 years)

School years are when the individual receives their fundamental education. There is a very low chance of anyone in this age group becoming a parent.

Pre-Adult (16-21 years)

The pre-adult years are when the individual receives their advanced eduction, learning either a craft (apprenticeship), professional skills, or receiving further education. While the chances are low that an individual in this age group will become a parent, it is also not unheard of. My parents were both in this age group when I was born, for example – and my sister and middle brother, for good measure. But they were both young at the time. In most cultures, the age of adulthood falls somewhere in this range, often in graduated stages (whatever the “official” view is) – the age at which one is permitted to consume alcohol may be different from the age at which you can join the army, which may be different from the age that you are permitted to leave school, which may be different to the age at which you can legally marry, or vote, or own property.

Young Adult (21-35 years)

It is in this age group that the individual begins to establish themselves in their profession. This is also the peak age for parenthood, the age at which an individual is most likely to become a parent (if they aren’t already).

Mature (35-55 years)

This is usually the peak period in a professional life, and is often marked by a transition from doing something to managing, supervising, or training others who are doing that something. At the same time, there is a decreasing likelihood of parenthood, starting reasonably high and becoming almost unheard-of at the end. This is a mirror image of the parental likelihood progression within the school years and pre-adult period. This is also the age period in which the risk of mortality begins to increase.

Senior (55-70 years)

Until relatively recently – the last 20-30 years, say – this was the age at which the professional transition from middle management to senior management occurred. It is often marked by the individual beginning to lose touch with the ‘coming trends’ in their profession. Somewhere in this age range, retirement is likely to occur – the exact age at which this occurs varies from profession to profession and society to society. There is little-to-no chance of individuals in this age group becoming parents to their own offspring, but adoption and guardianship may still occur. Mortality rates rise markedly, and until very recently, the majority of individuals will pass away during this age period.

Venerable )70+ years)

Three-score-and-ten years marks the point at which the character’s age becomes significant, and age-related infirmities become part of almost every individual’s life. Even today, every year that passes without the individual dying makes them part of an increasingly-rare group. According to current statistics:

  • At 70, only 73,546 out of 100,000 men will be alive; for women, this rises to 82,818.
  • At 75, only 63,559 men out of 100,000 men will be alive; for women, 74,992 / 100,000.
  • At 80, 50,344 men / 100,000 and 62,542 / 100,000 women;
  • At 85, 34.014 men and 47,815 women;
  • At 90, 17,429 men and 28,751 women;
  • At 95, only 5,481 men and 11,557 women will survive.
  • At age 100, which is far as I have taken the life-line, only 884 out of 100,000 men and 2,610 out of 100,000 women survive.

But these statistics were far worse only a couple of decades ago. According to the UK Government, mortality rates by age have halved since 1963, only increasing beyond this rule of thumb in the 85+ age group – and even there, the rate is only about 55% of what it was. It seems logical that the improvement would continue to reduce with age – it might only be 75% of what it was for 95-year olds, and might be as much as 90% of what it was for 100-year olds.

The odds of the individual having any measure of professional practice at all reduces at a similar rate with age, in other words the percentage of those still working from amongst those who survive will be about the same as the death rate. At 70 years, 26.5% of men will have died, and of the remaining 73.5%, only 26.5% will still do any work.

This rough-and-ready estimating technique is brilliant because it naturally incorporates changes in social dynamics from one era to another. Let’s look at the 1963 comparison to show you what I mean: At 70, roughly 53% of men will have died, and of the remaining 47%, about 53% of them will still need to work in some capacity. If we assume that (war notwithstanding), the death rates at the start of the 20th century were half again of the 1963 rate: At 70, roughly 80% of men will have died (26.5 + 53), and of the remaining 20%, eight in ten of them will still be working in some way. It might be a different occupation (something unskilled); it might be simply caring for the grandchildren while the parents work (and note that I consider childcare and home duties for others, including partners and children to be work), as is a vegetable garden for the purpose of supplementing your own diet.

Why the Life-Line is a useful tool

The life-line has one significant advantage over any other such tool: You can make several of them and slide one up-and-down relative to another. Doesn’t sound like much, does it?

Let me phrase that another way: By lining up a parent’s age at the time a character was born, you can see exactly what stage of life the parent was at during each stage of the character’s life. You can include siblings, grandparents, even great-grandparents.

It transforms the basic data of Date Of Birth from a traditional family tree into a graphical format that you can manipulate to get exactly the character life-story that you want.

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A Demonstration

Here’s a demonstration for an only child. I’ve put the parents to each side of the subject, the father to the left and the mother to the right. Further out from each parent are their parents – so paternal grandparents on the extreme left, and maternal on the extreme right.

I’ve lined the parents up relative to the character to show their age at the time the character was born, and then moved the grandparents to show their ages at the time each parent was born.

I’ve indicated how old the character is at the moment with a red line and an arrow-head – 24 years of age.

And finally, I’ve torn the bottoms off the lifelines at the age of death of the relatives based on when I wanted the relationship to stop influencing the character, or when I wanted him to experience the trauma of losing a beloved relative. In practice, it’s probably better to simply fold undesired parts of the life-lines under the used strip, permitting you to change your mind and tweak this aspect of the character’s background until perfectly satisfied.

In this case, the character’s mother was about 23 years old when the character was born, and his father was a little older at about 29 years old. His mother died young, when he was about 19 and she was about 42 – this could be the result of illness or accident. In the modern era, the latter is more likely than the former; a century ago, the reverse was beginning to be true. The character’s father is still alive and is now in his early 50s. Note that the father’s life-line is intact because the character doesn’t know how long his father will live.

Next, let’s look at the Paternal grandparents. His grandmother was about 23 years of age when his father was born, and his grandfather a little younger at 19 years of age. At the time, those four years would probably have loomed very large in their relationship, and might well have caused some social stigma; not much was said when a man took a slightly-younger bride but the reverse tended to be frowned-upon. The paternal grandparents are both dead; Grandmother died at 61, when the character was only a few years into his schooling – eight or nine years old. Grandfather died at 71, only a year or two ago.

On the maternal line, the character’s grandfather was 47 when the character’s mother was born, and – scandalously – his grandmother 34, a difference of 13 years. If grandma was married at about 18, grandpa would have been 33 at the time; if the wedding was a decade later, he would have been 43 and approaching middle age when she was 28 and still quite definitely young. That sort of fits the profile of a man marrying his secretary or something along those lines; she might even be his second wife.

His maternal grandmother died at 65 years of age, when the character was at school, only 7 or 8 years of age, and about a year before his maternal grandmother passed away. He would probably only barely remember her. His maternal grandfather has only passed away in the last year, at the ripe old age of 95, and in fact he has lost both his grandfathers within the span of a year.
lifelines in use with dates

World Events

To complete the functionality of the Life-line, we need a strip of paper – the backs of unused life-lines would work – in which lines denote significant national events wherever the character or his ancestors were living at the time.

Let’s say, for example, that this character is part of a Pulp Campaign set in 1933. Notable events might include the start of the great depression (1929), World War 1 (1914-1918), The Great San Francisco Earthquake (1906); The Typhoid Mary Epidemic & The first flight of the wright brothers (1903); The Spanish-American War (1898); The Light Bulb (1880); The telephone (1875); the trans-continental railroad link cuts coast-to-coast travel time from 3 months to 8 days (1869); and the US Civil War & Assassination of Lincoln (1861-1865). There are many more that could be chosen, of course.

The image to the right illustrates the result.

The character’s maternal grandmother was born in the year the South attempted to secede, triggering the Civil War. His maternal grandfather was more than 10 years old at that time, and as the war continued, was probably old enough to entertain childish notions of running off to war. He would certainly have remembered life in the era of slavery. Neither of his grandmothers would have seen the end of World War I.

The “great years” of the American Wild West, as romanticized in the 20th century, took place during the large gap in the dates. All his grandparents were of an age where the opportunities may have appealed. The character was not old enough to understand much of the first world war, but would have been shaped by the privations and hardships of the war effort – the meat-free days, flour-free days, and so on.

The most significant event in the character’s life would almost certainly be the Great Depression; he would have been greatly conscious of his professional opportunities vanishing from beneath his feet, and this – accompanied by the loss of his mother – are likely to have had strong formative influences over the person he has become.

His father almost certainly served during the First World War, and was the right sort of age to have been enlisted as a Sergeant – the slightly older man who knew how the world worked and could manage the men in a unit while the Officer, who had received specialized training in command, took care of the military side of things. His paternal Grandfather looks to have been old enough to resent not being permitted to join up and do his part in defeating the Kaiser.

It’s also worth noticing that his father’s parents are both younger than those of his mother, having had their child at a much younger age than this maternal grandparents. This becomes significant when compared with the Civil War period – both the maternal grandparents experienced the Civil War, while neither of his paternal grandparents did. This is likely to produce a generational divide in terms of social attitude between them.

When the character was a child, his parents were both young; his maternal grandfather was old; and his other grandparents were middle-aged. Now his father is middle-aged and is his only surviving direct relative.

It’s hard to go much further without localities and personalities. What’s clear is that the only really significant female presence in his life was his mother, while he would have had three quite disparate but strong (in their own ways) male influences. The character is probably masculine and might even be somewhat misogynistic as a result. It will take a very strong-willed woman to dominate him, and he is more likely to be attracted to a shy, demure type who will accede to his dominion.

The chart also offers a couple of unresolved questions. Is it coincidence that both his grandfathers died during the depression? Is it coincidence that his mother died just before the depression? Is it coincidence that both his grandmothers died during World War I? Did his father, in fact, serve during the Great War, and what impact has the experience had on him?

Sliding one of these charts just a year or two up or down can have a profound impact. If the character’s mother had died a year or two earlier, it would have occurred just as he was finishing his education, and could suggest that the character’s life choices upon entry to young adulthood were shaped by her absence. The relationship with his father would already be precarious because of World War I; with the added pressure of the Depression and the loss of his mother at a key point in his life, the character and his father might well have become estranged and the character have left home to make his own way in the world.

Getting A Life-line

There are two ways to get your hands on one of these planning tools for your own use. The first is to create your own, and if the culture in your campaign is at all different to that of the 20th and 21st century western world – i.e. the one that I have used – that’s what you will have to do, simply because the categories will either be different, or have boundaries at different key points, or both.

Or, if that isn’t the case, you can use the one that I included in the article earlier – simply right-click on the image and “Save as” or “open image in new tab” or whatever is your favored approach.

Or you could click on this link to open the graphic in a new tab.

Final Word

The events that our grandparents experienced shape them and their lives, and that in turn (plus the events that they experience) shapes our parents – and that shapes us. Applying this principle to the characters we create helps to make them richer and more complete as characters. The Life-line is a great tool for exploring the options available and shaping the character’s past to suit the personality that we want to create and the past that we want them to experience.

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Encampments and other In-Character Opportunities

Photo Credit: / Michael Faes

Photo Credit: / Michael Faes

When I was starting the original Fumanor (D&D 3.x) campaign, I tried to get the players to establish the sort of routines that would come naturally in real life.

You see this sort of thing in Fantasy novels all the time and it’s a great way for personalities to manifest and a useful tool for the GM.


Who is cooking the meals? Who gathers the firewood? Do they have to set up their own tent as well, or will that burden be shared amongst the other characters? What security measures in place? Who will be on-watch, if anyone, and when? Who is in charge of camp sanitation and digging a trench for the purpose?

The characters were gender-mixed – do they require two such trenches, or do they lengthen one and situate it so that underbrush provides privacy, or do they co-mingle? Who takes care of any pack animals / riding animals and do they have to set up their own tent as well? One-person, two-person, or four-person tents, and – if shared – who shares with whom, who carries the tent (do they rotate the burden?).

Who makes sure the campsite is clear of nasties, who clears the site of undergrowth, who chooses the campsite in the first place and what are their priorities, and so on. Do they hunt and gather daily, and in the morning or the evening, or do they rely on the stores that they are carrying? Who is most likely to encounter any wildlife?

The intent was to establish camp routines as an in-character exercise to help the players get to know each other’s characters, iron out any wrinkles in their processes, and then let those routines fade into the background as the characters progressed in levels to the point where they could handle most routine encounters – except as a planning tool for me to employ in describing the situation when something significant occurred.

On top of that, knowing how long they were taking to set up and break camp would tell me how many hours a day they had left for travel, and hence what distance they would cover in a day.

The characters were all of diverse backgrounds, and this was also to serve as a way for those with relevant knowledge to share that knowledge with the others. I wanted to emphasize that some of the characters were more familiar with and at-home in a wilderness setting, while others wouldn’t sleep well until the group were back in an urban environment, and still others would not be comfortable until they were back underground and didn’t have to look up at infinity all the time. This was a tool for making the differences between PCs relevant and significant, putting those differences ‘on-show’ for all to see.

The final purpose was to impart information to the players in a more organic way than a block of narrative delivered from on-high. I intended to color that information according to the source, again as a way of making who they were relevant to their daily lives and what they were doing.

Where Things Went Wrong

As you can see, there were an awful lot good reasons to roleplay the processes of encampment and the breaking of camp the next morning. Would it have worked out so harmoniously? I’ll never know, because one key player absolutely refused to play ball. “Our play time is limited and I don’t want to waste it on housekeeping”.

I had to concede that he had a point; we could only play the campaign once a month, and that’s not enough to spare a lot of time for things that don’t contribute directly to the story. On the other hand, I was looking on that ‘lost time’ as an investment that would enhance subsequent days of play, ultimately packing more game into the few hours we had available.

But he convinced the other players, so I shrugged my shoulders and let it slide.

Your situation may be different

For anyone not laboring under the constraints that we were under, this should be a no-brainer. Even some groups who do experience similar time pressures, this may still be a viable and valid technique for adding roleplay opportunities based on the daily routine. It follows that it deserves serious thought by the GM.

Photo Credit: / Cody Mummau

Photo Credit: / Cody Mummau

Campfire Chats, Rumors, and Misinformation

The situation was a little different when we started the Shards Of Divinity campaign.

Most of the PCs were supposed to be seasoned veterans who had more or less figured all that sort of practical stuff out a long time ago. You see this illustrated very clearly in parts of David Eddings The Belgariad although it isn’t until the sequel to that quintilogy, The Mallorean, that any attention is really paid to the point. Each member of the party in that story naturally falls to setting up the camp while playing to their individual strengths, maximizing the efficiency and effectiveness of the group as a whole.

As a result, I didn’t ask the PCs; I told them: Character X is most skilled at Cooking, and so automatically takes charge of the evening meal. Characters Y and Z are the strongest, so they take charge of erecting defenses, gathering firewood as they do so, and digging a latrine. Character A is an experienced handler of animals, so he will look after the mounts and pack animals and feed, water, and brush them while checking them for problems like cuts and infections. Since everyone already has a job, all the other chores, like setting up the tents and cleaning the dishes and so on, gets shared evenly amongst you. That left only Character Zero, the first-level character who was central to the entire campaign, to feel like a fifth wheel. By the time he had his tent set up, the others were relaxing around the campfire and enjoying the smell of the meal being cooked. On top of that, because he was completely unskilled at such things, Character Zero was everybody’s assistant and dog’s-body; the dirtier and more tedious the job, the more quickly his name came to the fore.

Once this routine was spelt out, it was immediately ignored by everyone except when some part of it became significant, such as the time the donkey was tethered (by Character Zero) too close to the guy ropes of his tent and proceeded to eat them.

Instead, I intended to use the campaign down-time for a different purpose. I had carefully given each of the players a set of rumors that they had heard, and some little snippets of information that they had stumbled upon before the group had assembled. Some of these were mutually contradictory, some were outright fabrications or wild distortions of the truth, some told the same story from different points of view, and some told different parts of the one story. Put all of them together, and you could get a pretty good idea of a number of things that were going on.

The idea was that at the end of each in-game day, I would spark the conversation with “you aren’t sure how the subject came up, but you find yourselves talking about X”. Each player would then put in his two cents’ worth and the group would try and figure out what it meant. Some of these were clues to where dungeons could be found, some were about the reasons different NPC groups were doing the things they had been doing, some were about things that were going to happen in the future. As each subject was brought up, I would replenish the lists. Once play was underway, I intended to use the day’s events as a starting point for the conversations, assuming that they had become habitual elements of the gameplay. This was a way to ‘sneak’ background into the game without long-winded narrative on my part.

Where Things Went Wrong

This plan fell apart for three reasons. First, a couple of players with key pieces of information to impart who had committed to the campaign bailed after only a session or two. That alone might have been close to fatal, but could have been worked around simply by adding to what the remaining players ‘knew’ or ‘had heard’. In at least one case, the character remained as an NPC even though the player had gone, giving me still greater opportunities to utilize the technique.

In order to understand the second reason, you have to first understand that these were all Evil characters uniting with each other for mutual profit and protection, and that I had been at pains to point out what an alignment of “Evil” meant in this particular campaign. What it did not mean was a character who was incapable of mutual cooperation, a character who would not assist the group out of enlightened self-interest. Unfortunately, that was how they all approached their characters to at least some extent. None of them wanted to share what they knew for fear of losing some advantage over the others, and as a result, none of them gained any advantage over anyone outside of the group, either.

And the third reason? The same player, with the same argument, as the previous case discussed: “We have limited time and I don’t want to waste it on idle chatter.”

This really irked me in this particular case, because gaming to me is more than encounters and combat and loot; this was part of playing the characters. It wasn’t as though there was a deadline – “you have to reach the dungeon before December 23rd, real time”; if it took an extra couple of minutes once a session – and that was all I was seriously proposing – then it was time well-spent because it brought the world to life, it meant that I was giving the players raw information about which they could make up their own minds instead of putting polished interpretations into their heads, and I was signposting choices that the characters didn’t know they had (One player took this notion to the point of inventing his own stories rather than relaying what the character supposedly knew)!

If it weren’t for the other two reasons, I would have fought a lot harder to keep this game element, this part of the adventure format, going. I was convinced that once the first concrete benefit materialized to show the way, the objection would be forgotten, or at least, overruled. The real killer was problem #2. Without the willingness to share information that meant nothing to the individual in isolation, but which might have become significant when married to what other characters knew, the tactic was doomed to failure.

Your situation may be different

Once again, for a different group under different circumstances, this could be a very viable technique. There’s certainly nothing wrong with it, in principle.

To make it work, the PCs need to be more inclined to collaborate and cooperate; the GM has to be willing to invest both the prep time and game-time required; and he has to be up-front in telling the players that a lot of their key background information will be arriving in this format.

Creating the Snippets

Each character brought three key points of view to the table: Race/Social, Geography, and Class Education. To create the snippets of “rumor, hearsay, and background”, these needed to be considered.

I would start by writing a simple and straightforward statement of events. “A cult in the town of Cromin was trying to resurrect a radical spiritual leader as a lich. The Paladins of nearby Thorwist discovered the plot, sealed all the exits to the town, and burnt it to the ground; there were no survivors.”

Next, I would examine this story from the three points of view of each character – what might they have heard about the story, and how might it have been colored by their perspectives? Each part of the story gets dismembered and allocated to different characters. If a given character has no particular perspective that is relevant to the story, they may have heard a generic rumor; I rolled d8+2 to get a score out of ten for how distorted their account was.

So one character might hear that there was a cult in Cromin; another might hear that there was a Lich in Cromin; a third would hear that the Paladins of Thorwist burned a town alive; a fourth heard the same thing, but it was a town where the whole population were undead; a fourth would simply know that there was a tragic fire in Corwin (note: wrong town!) in which the entire town was consumed; and a fifth might know that the Paladins of Thorwist are obsessively zealous about destroying undead. A sixth might get the whole story completely wrong – “a Lich burned the entire order of Paladins in Thorwist alive” – as might a seventh: “One of the members of the Paladins of Thorwist is secretly a Lich.”

Putting all those together, while they are in one place, is relatively easy. But scatter them at random amongst 11 other rumors or snippets of information (or misinformation – always allow for the possibility of ‘spin’ by someone with a vested interest!) and it’s hard to pick out the right pieces that go together to make this particular jigsaw puzzle.

Recent events, malicious stories, misunderstood decisions, paranoia, misinformation, the occasional bit of prophecy, and an anecdote or two (especially if it has a cautionary element or other such appeal as a story – the hard part shouldn’t be coming up with the rumors to give to each player, it should be in knowing when and where to stop.

The final step is to expand on the starting points, dressing them up into a full ‘story’ by inventing additional details out of whole cloth. This usually consists of answering any of the basic six questions – Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How – that aren’t already covered. (I also liked to throw in the occasional thing that one character had ‘heard’ but that another character knew to be untrue, or distorted, or absolute gospel, simply as a way of teaching the players how the rumors “work”.

In a number of cases, I hadn’t even decided what the truth was – I was going to wait and see what the players came up with and use that as my inspiration, or – at the very least – my starting point. If the players decided to go and investigate the ruins of Corwin, for example, I might have decided that not all of the cultists perished, and the survivors are trying again. Or maybe that they never intended to raise a Lich, but were being persecuted by the Paladins. Whatever was most interesting and entertaining in terms of supplying a day’s play would be ‘the truth’. Until then, it was all rumor and speculation!

Photo Credit: / Shalom Pennington

Photo Credit: / Shalom Pennington

Everyday Life Creates a sense of reality

The approach employed in my Zenith-3, Warcry, and Adventurer’s Club campaigns has been rather more successful. It stems from the assumption that at the time an at any given moment, people don’t distinguish between the crisis’s of everyday life and those with larger, longer-term ramifications; the sense of personal involvement in the smaller events more than compensates for their relatively trivial nature.

From that assumption, it becomes clear that signpost events in the personal lives of the character deserve screen time and attention just as much as the latest cosmic menace or weirded-out supervillain. This principle is also taken into consideration when awarding experience points.

One of the reasons this approach is working is because it helps the players feel like they are spending time ‘in the shoes’ of their characters. Another is because I work carefully to balance good with bad, using the principles of the favorite pseudo-science of the 1970s, Biorhythms, as inspiration. In general, there are times when the whole of the character’s life will seem stuffed up, and one shoe drops after another, and times when some aspects of the character’s life are positive and others negative – and even times when everything seems to be coming up roses. What the actual traits being modeled are vary from character to character and even from one occasion to the next.

The final reason this is working is because I’ve been fairly successful at blending events of greater significance with events of personal importance and relating the two to each other. Some background encounters are designed to do nothing more than make the character’s life seem real, but some introduce important NPCs and evolutions within the campaign background and even hints and clues as to the major action that is about to unfold or has just occurred.

It’s a very human thing, but how often has some event taken place and resonated with a recent conversation on a related subject? You hear news of the event and think, ” I was just talking to someone about that the other day”. We completely forget about the other 9,999 topics that came up in conversation that don’t manifest in more significant events and zero in on the ones that do. Spiritualists and “Mind Readers” have been exploiting this for over a century; in fact, it works so well because the human mind is ready and willing to do at least half the work for the fraud/entertainer. The ‘psychic’ or medium says something like “I sense some involvement with water or the sea” and the subject reviews their life and that of everyone they knew for just such a connection, e.g. “My Uncle Jake was a deep-sea fisherman and often used to talk about his love of the sea”; the rest of the audience then inadvertently welds two and two together and afterwards remembers the event as the psychic making contact with the subject’s Uncle. This is a very crude explanation, and modern performers are far more skilled at it.

I realized some time ago that as a GM, I could take advantage of this phenomenon simply by having many of the trivial events of the day be the ones in which the character makes just such a connection. Not all of them, of course – that would be far too obvious – but every character gets the occasional piece of ‘wheat’ amongst the ‘chaff’. And, of course, some of the daily events link directly to the major plotline of the day, sometimes in surprising ways. One character may be asked by a friend for a favor, only for the later adventure to be the result of one NPC doing a favor for another, for example.

By deliberately choosing to (briefly) roleplay these moments of serendipitous synchronicity, when the players look back on the events of the day’s play, or even the previous hour’s play, their character’s life seems more sweaty and real, because what we have roleplayed are . the events that the character would remember as real, as the flavor and milestone of the day or the week or whatever.

The Bottom Line

The more of a character’s personal life that can be conducted in-character, the better a game will be. That includes characters trying to figure out what may have happened in a distant place (and what it means for them) and what their daily routines will be and seemingly trivial conversations that just happen to have a thematic similarity to larger events. Work with your players to create and exploit these opportunities, and your campaign will be enriched for both players and GM in the process.

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