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Flavors Of Victory: Why do good GMs fail?


I’m blessed, or cursed, with a naturally analytic mindset. I can’t help but look for patterns and, having seen one, trying to understand what it means and why it is a pattern. Of course, the more frequently you can observe the circumstances that produce the pattern, the more easily those patterns are to detect.

Local television has been repeating episodes of Iron Chef five times a week. This has already inspired one article here at Campaign Mastery (Layers Of Mis-translation: RPGs and Dubbed TV), and now I have another. You see, I’ve started noticing patterns in the reasons why one contestant on this cooking contest appear to win and the other to lose, and those patterns have some surprising relevance to RPGs.

Key Failures

Sometimes, the reason for a loss is obvious – one chef simply under-performs in one of the key criteria – flavor, originality, and presentation, leaving the door open for his opponent to outperform him, even if the opponent does not do quite as well in the other two areas.

And there are obvious analogies to RPGs. One GM may excel at Adventure Construction, or Characterization, or Creating Immersion, or Rules Interpretation, or Prop Construction, or however you want to slice up the overall task of being a GM. In fact, most GMs will be at least mediocre in these and will have a reputation for excellence in several of them.

But it doesn’t matter how much the first GM excels in the other areas if they are completely inadequate in one of them. This fatal flaw will drag down the overall popularity of their game until that of another GM – who is not as brilliant in the areas where he is strong as the first GM, but who is reason[Link]
ably good, and who lacks that weak point – will have greater success as a GM.

Showing why is simply a matter of adding up some fictitious scores:

  • First GM: 10 + 9 + 6 + 4 + 3 + 1 = 34/60 = 56.7%.
  • Second GM: 8 + 7 + 6 + 6 + 6 + 5 = 36/60 = 60%.

Here we have a situation in which a GM who is at least OK at everything, and a little better than that at a couple of them, is compared with a GM who is a genius at one thing, excellent at another, and OK at a third – but who is poor or worse at the rest. And, if for some reason, the GM’s strengths aren’t relevant to a particular day’s play, look what happens:

  • First GM: 10 (not counted), 9 + 6 + 4 + 3 + 1 = 23/50 = 46%.
  • Second GM: 8 (not counted), 7 + 6 + 6 + 6 + 5 = 30/50 = 60%.

The second GM’s game is consistently better than that of the First GM, in the eyes of the players who are supposedly doing the rating, and only when the first GM can exploit his natural genius can he even come close to the second, more mediocre GM.

Why should that be so?

If someone isn’t good at something, they tend to avoid it. It doesn’t take long for this to constrain the variety of options available in response to any given situation. It also begins to erode the palette of available adventures. Greater predictability and weakened versatility begin to wear away at the verisimilitude of the game – when NPCs don’t react in the most natural way to a situation because the GM is inadequate at refereeing that type of reaction, plausibility, immersion, and characterization all take a hit, no matter how good the GM may naturally be at them.

At the same time, the GM has the choice of either playing to his strengths every single time, further reducing variety of adventures and available responses to situations, or foregoing their greatest asset. Either way, it should be clear that any weakness – real or imagined – is far more important than any strengths that a GM might have.

A weakness in GMing abilities undermines any areas of superior capability that a GM might have.

Remedial Action

Of course, if the first GM figures out that he is weak in one or two areas and expends extra effort into them, and into getting better at them, he will soon leave the second in his wake. Not only will all those direct negatives go away, so will all the indirect negatives mentioned in the previous section.

All they have to do is get themselves up to a “mediocre” standard:

  • First GM: 10 + 9 + 7 + 5 + 5 + 5 = 41/60 = 68.3%. Noticeably better than the 60% of GM two.
  • Excluding best: 9 + 7 + 5 + 5 + 5 = 31/50 = 62%. Still better than the 60% of GM two and MASSIVELY better than the 46% GM one scored the first time around.

The GM no longer needs to use what he is good at as a crutch, but can save it for those occasions when it really elevates his game.

In The Long Term

It might seem that these differences are too small to make much difference. But let’s see what happens when they have an affect, game after game. Let’s assume that a result of 55% is needed for a campaign to grow:

First GM:

  • 100 x (56.7%/55%)^1 = 103.1% approval
  • 100 x (56.7%/55%)^2 = 106.3% approval
  • 100 x (56.7%/55%)^3 = 109.6% approval
  • 100 x (56.7%/55%)^10 = 135.6% approval.

Second GM:

  • 100 x (60%/55%)^1 = 109.1% approval
  • 100 x (60%/55%)^2 = 119.0% approval
  • 100 x (60%/55%)^3 = 129.8% approval
  • 100 x (60%/55%)^10 = 238.7% approval.

But those numbers assume that a GM can play to his strengths all the time. If they can’t:

First GM:

  • 100 x (46%/55%)^1 = 83.6% approval
  • 100 x (46%/55%)^2 = 69.95% approval
  • 100 x (46%/55%)^3 = 58.5% approval
  • 100 x (46%/55%)^10 = 16.75% approval.

Second GM:

  • 100 x (60%/55%)^1 = 109.1% approval
  • 100 x (60%/55%)^2 = 119.0% approval
  • 100 x (60%/55%)^3 = 129.8% approval
  • 100 x (60%/55%)^10 = 238.7% approval.

One campaign is clearly going to be hemorrhaging players to the other. Using his strengths every game session or two will slow the rot but 56.7% is too close to the break-even mark of 55 to make up for the 46%.

So the fatal flaw in GMing ability can kill games even from GMs who are brilliant in as many areas as they are deficient.

The Opposing Brilliance

Sometimes, it comes down to the smallest of mistakes, especially when the two sides are equal or close to it. Let’s consider a situation in which one GM scores an 8 most of the time in two categories, but every third game, scores a solid 10 out of 10, while his opposition scores a nine in two of three games, but only a 6 in the third – using the same out-of-60 scale and 55% success mark. We’ll assume that the other scores are all 6/10.

GM One:

  • 8 + 8 + 6 + 6 + 6 + 6 = 40 out of 60 = 66.7% – most of the time.
  • 10 + 10 + 6 + 6 + 6 + 6 = 44 out of 60 = 73.33% one time in three.
  • so his three-game streak is 100 x (66.7/55) x (66.7/55) x (73.33/55) = 196.09%

GM Two:

  • 9 + 9 + 6 + 6 + 6 + 6 = 42 out of 60 = 70% – most of the time.
  • 6 + 6 + 6 + 6 + 6 + 6 = 36 out of 60 = 60%, one time in three.
  • so his three game streak is 100 x (70/55) x (70/55) x (60/55) = 176.7%

These results show that there is more to the story. I mentioned previously that if the GM with the weakness applied himself to eradicating that fatal flaw, his games would skyrocket in popularity relative to the consistently a-little-above-average GM, and this is clearly evidencing that pattern. Yet, on his day, it doesn’t matter what GM Two can do, GM One will outperform him – he can’t touch that 73.33% top score.

Yet, it only takes one more bad session for GM One to be overtaken by a consistently above-average GM Two. Any time GM One is off his game, and GM Two is at his usual standard, GM Two will run the more satisfying game for his players.

Sometimes, you win because you are brilliant in one area and your opponent simply can’t make up the difference.

When I’m looking at Iron Chef, this is the equivalent of rating each individual dish provided by each contestant. Being consistently good can overcome a combination of one perfect dish and a couple that under-perform in the eyes of the tasters – but is not enough if the others are at least comparable.

Sometimes, a game will not succeed because everyone wants to play something else – no matter how consistently reasonably good your game is.

Remedial Action

If another game is consistently reasonable and occasionally brilliant, your best means of countering the effect is to be just a little better than reasonable and be consistent at it. Playing the long game and improving yourself just a little in areas where you’re already OK works. The gaming equivalent is to go in for a niche that suits a couple of players who don’t like what the star attraction is offering, and get better at delivering what they want.

This is the equivalent of focusing on your “core business”, and getting it right, in order to fend off the competition from a rival who occasionally does things better than you can. And, if necessary, shifting the “core business” to target an area that he can’t compete in, because he has this diverse group of interests to try and satisfy.

Here’s a real-world gaming equivalent: For a long time (and in theory, still), my Fumanor campaign is stacked up against Ian M’s 7th Sea campaign. For various reasons, my players were either not interested in the latter game, or there was no room for them. Over time, many of my players have drifted away, for various reasons; but the two core players are still there. I’m not interested in trying to steal Ian’s players; my game can survive just fine without doing so, just by satisfying those players who aren’t part of his game, in other words, by targeting a different market segment. There’s room for both of us, so long as I don’t try to compete directly with him.

From the point of view of number of players, Ian’s game is the winner of a comparison between the two. But that’s not the only way to measure success. By choosing a different measure, my game survives.


Something that I have seen a number of times on Iron Chef is that a Wonderful recipe is undone by being too similar to other dishes served by the same chef. Blandness, in other words, can contaminate brilliance.

Games need variety.

That can be more easily said than done, because you still have to satisfy your players; if they only want a limited range of things, variety can get in the way of satisfying them, game in and game out.

Remedial Action

This is actually some of the oldest gaming advice in the book, dressed in new clothes; if your players are action junkies, you can do anything you like so long as there is an adequate serving of action in the plot. The action can be in the service of political intrigue, or going shopping, or discovering the secret of the ruined temple, or finding the lost starship, or preventing the mutant uprising, or dealing with the star-crossed love interest; but the action has to be there, either resulting from the variety or altering the outcome of the variety plotline.

If you have one or two elements in your game that have to be central in order to satisfy your players, you still need to cloak them in variety, and that means looking for ways in which each variant plotline can lead to the core elements your players demand, looking for ways in which the two can co-exist at the same time, and looking for ways in which the core elements can be given context by the variation in plotline.

There is no excuse for focusing so much on the core “deliverables” that they become bland. There are reasons why it might happen, but they are hardly justifiable. Laziness. Failure of imagination. Habit.

Overcome these by starting all your adventure ideas from the point of view of variety and looking for ways to incorporate the requisite core elements, rather than the other way around.

A Bigger Picture

The final pattern that I have observed is that mediocre dishes that are arranged in such a way that they tell an overall “story” can defeat dishes that are excellent in isolation but which don’t connect to each other. Even when dishes stand in isolation, having a narrative flow is possible, simply by having some elements contrast while others provide a form of continuity. Spiciness, Sweetness, Saltness, Texture, and so on, can all be manipulated to create this overarching narrative within food.

This is relevant to gaming in two ways.

Bigger-Picture Content within an adventure

Contemplate this scenario: The PCs do something, and nothing appears to change as a result. The game keeps following the script laid out for it by the GM without diverging to any perceptible extent – perceptible by the players, that is. No matter how much may have changed behind the scenes, or how much the PCs opposition may have had to scramble to keep their plans on-track.

This has certainly happened to me in the past, and it really irks when you get accused of railroad plotting as a result, because you know darned well that it ain’t so; you’ve just been better at thinking on your feet than you have been given credit for.

Why does this happen?

There are two cause-and-effect continuities going on in any adventure – maybe more – and not just the obvious one of Characters act and opponents react.

The second one that I have in mind is “Characters act and opponents are seen to react.”

If the Players do something to counter whatever the situation is that the GM has orchestrated, there needs to be a tangible response by their opposition before the end of that day’s play. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the opposition has to abandon its’ plans; it may not even have to break stride. But there should be some evidence of:

  1. A pre-planned contingency plan being put into operation, even if the GM had to come up with it on the spot to keep the main plan on course; or,
  2. Some indication of a scramble to react on the other side, exposing potential flaws in the situation that the PCs can possibly exploit; or,
  3. Some definite and clear set-back in the progress of the other side’s plans, however temporary; or,
  4. The exposure of some fatal flaw in the opposition’s plans as a result of the PCs’ intervention.

How well thought-out the enemy’s plans should be is a function of their capabilities and is neither here nor there. Even a vexed message from the opposition complaining that the PCs (or their actions) have proven no small inconvenience can be enough. But there needs to be some visible reaction from the other side.

Perhaps a hidden asset has had to be revealed to the PCs in order to counter their move. Or a team of flunkies sent to deal with their impertinence (and keep them busy) while the big boss undoes the damage.

Best of all – and circumstances don’t often permit this – there will be no visible reaction from the other side until the climax of the day’s play, when it becomes clear that as a result of whatever the opposition have done to keep their plot rolling along apparently undisturbed, a fatal flaw in the plan has been opened up by the PCs actions – a flaw that they can begin to exploit in the next game session, and possibly one that the opposition is not even aware of.

I used to think – and this was a mistake that I made for a long time, and which is even embedded within some advice here at Campaign Mastery, I suspect – that it was sufficient for the NPCs to have to react to the PCs counter-actions. In other words, I was dealing only with the primary cause-and-effect layer. It’s only been quite recently that I have realized that my life as a GM would have been much easier if I paid closer attention – heck, any attention – to the second cause-and-effect layer as well.

PC actions not only have to affect in-game actions by NPCs, they have to be Seen to affect in-game actions by NPCs.

Bigger-Picture Content bridging adventures

This is probably the most obvious way in which the patterns of Victories on Iron Chef can be perceived as an analogy for something RPG-related. This was actually the observation that kicked off the entire train of thought encapsulated in this article. The chef in question arranged his courses so that each item had something in common with the item before it and something else in common with the item after it, but which contrasted with both surrounding offerings in other ways. The result was a series of strongly individual dishes that were individually not quite as highly praised as the best his rival was offering, but which were woven together to tell a more complete story, to make a more complete experience.

That’s a powerful formula, and one that GMs can definitely learn from. Have some point of similarity in terms of style or content, beyond the obvious, that connects this adventure to the one before it, and a second thing that connects this to the adventure that is to follow – and make other such elements quite different.

Follow something that’s grim and gritty with something a little more light-hearted, at least in places. Follow an uber-powerful enemy’s latest move with something more everyday and pedestrian, or something more socially aware, or something more uplifting. The contrast accentuates both adventures, while the point of connection keeps everything part of the same overall game universe.

This is emotional intensity control, as advocated in my two-part article “Swell And Lull – Emotional Pacing in RPGs” (Part 1, Part 2) on a campaign scale. It’s the sort of thing that I was trying to suggest back in Scenario Sequencing: Structuring Campaign Flow.

The “connecting threads” that I talked about at that time were

  • Emotional Intensity
  • Level of Action
  • “Cosmic” content
  • “Fantasy” content
  • Mood/Tone (Dark to Light>

And these days, I would add

  • Character Focus, and
  • Sense Of Resolution.

The first five are described in detail back in the original article, but are largely self-evident in meaning, so I won’t go into them again.

“Character Focus” ensures that if a plotline is all about one character having the spotlight, that the spotlight shifts with the next adventure to either one of the other characters or to the group as a whole – refer to “Ensemble or Star Vehicle – Which is Your RPG Campaign?” for more information.

And “Sense of Resolution” is something that has been coming to my attention lately as a result of the players in the Zenith-3 campaign pre-empting what was supposed to be a quick introductory adventure intended to populate the world and make the players aware of various characters and situations and running it to a conclusion of sorts, as described in Monday’s Let’s Twist Again – Eleven Types Of Plot Twist for RPGs part 2.

You see, I’m still not sure that I did the right thing in letting the PCs go beyond that initial intent when they wanted to. Maybe I didn’t look hard enough for a way to end the plotline before they got involved in the later adventure – for example, deciding that it would take time for them to track down the Cosmic Symbiote that was the MacGuffin they decided to go after. If I had done that, then I could have left the intended recipient, Thanos-Prime, as a menace lurking in the background – no overt threat, not figuring in any significant adventures hence (not for a long time, anyway), a dark and shadowy part of the wallpaper.

Instead, he is a threat neutralized and a potential future ally. I’ll be able to shuffle him to the sidelines for now – it will take time for him to “connect” with the Cosmic Symbiote he is about to receive – so I can keep him from contaminating future plotlines. But there is a sense of momentum that was building up with the introduction of many threats that has been dissipated by the premature resolution of the plotline. The PCs have achieved victory too soon, and for a while I’m going to have to shift gears to rebuild the intensity that I had been building up, or future plotlines won’t have the gravitas and drama needed to make them interesting instead of anticlimactic.

What’s done is done; the PCs have made some hard moral choices, prevented an interdimensional Nazi invasion by super-powered cybernetically-“enhanced” meta-humans, and sparked a revolution that will restore freedom to a planet of oppressed citizens, dealt with problems they were not supposed to be ready to face yet (which is one reason why it took so much angst for them to make those hard choices – the adventure itself, viewed in isolation, was a success). More importantly, from a campaign perspective, they have established a precedent and a policy; it will be easier for them to “go there” next time a similar problem arises, making it much easier to resolve some problems they have yet to encounter. Things that should have been difficult will be easier to contemplate.

Foreshadowing has become resolution, and the campaign overall might suffer for a while as a result. The flow of the courses from one to the next has been disrupted, and it will take careful planning to get it back on track.

A little behind-the-scenes info because it provides a cautionary tale for other GMs is appropriate. There were certain plot problems that I had not devised a solution to in terms of the long-term plotline for Thanos-Prime. When the PCs proposed their solution, they did so in such a way that I immediately saw a solution to those problems, and in a burst of enthusiasm, let the PCs get the results that they needed in order to progress the plotline. That’s why I didn’t look harder for a stalling tactic at the time – I was too distracted by analyzing the solution and it’s implications, and got carried away by my own enthusiasm.

The effect was a short-term success, but one that will cause problems for the campaign for some time to come. In fact, it’s badly damaged some aspects of what I had planned for the future.

Victory Over Whom?

Ultimately, the person a GM scores a victory over when he gets things right are his own worst instincts and inherent flaws – we all have them, and the wise thing to do is always to seek to control or counteract them. We’re competing with ourselves to run the best, most interesting, most entertaining campaign that we can. In return, we get not only the vicarious thrill of sharing the player’s enjoyment of the game, but we also get all the fun of being creative and of being the instigator of that fun.

I think it’s telling that the initial passages of this analysis described one GM competing for players with another – because it was by forgetting the opposition and focusing on self-improvement, of competing against yourself, that victory was to be achieved. Learn from what the GM at the next table (or its internet equivalent) is doing right, and doing wrong, and use it to make your own game better than it was. Everything else will follow, and everyone wins in the end.

Games run by Good GMs fail, just as they do for everyone else. But, Good GMs learn from the experience, and come back stronger for the next round – and ultimately win the war against themselves. That’s a lesson we can all take from the patterns of victories on Iron Chef.

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Let’s Twist Again – Eleven types of Plot Twist for RPGs pt 2

rpg blog carnival logo

With A Twist

Campaign Mastery is hosting this month’s Blog Carnival. The subject I’ve chosen is “With A Twist” and anything about Surprises, the Unexpected, Plot Twists, etc, is fair game.

The Carnival started with an article on the rules interpretation of Surprise, and last week I posted the first part of this exploration of the Plot Twist.

In this part, I take up the cudgels and look at the fourth through eleventh different types of plot twist I’ve come up with for RPGs…

Unfolding Tesseract

This perpetually-unfolding Tesseract is the perfect metaphor for a plot twist as the hidden interior emerges to completely dominate the shape of events. Image Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons – click image to view licence


The Plot twist is amongst the hardest literary devices to employ in an RPG setting, as explained in part 1 of this two-part article, because none of the literary techniques are appropriate to an RPG application. That means that new techniques are needed, preferably ones that take advantage of the nature of an RPG instead of fighting it.

Last time, I developed eight rules that plot twists in an RPG should follow:

  1. The GM cannot hide or distort facts that the PCs should be able to discern.
  2. The GM cannot lie to the players, though he can mislead them, or let them mislead themselves – but beware of Confirmation Bias.
  3. The plot twist has to follow logically from the combination of the facts observed by the PCs and other facts to which they were reasonably not privy, but which will become clear in the course of the revelation of the twist.
  4. Characterization should be consistent within reasonable normality. That means that a character can pretend to be something they aren’t, but this should be detectable unless they are consummate actors; outside of a deliberate act of deception by the character, their personality should be consistent, however complex.
  5. Ideally, the plot twist should make the PCs world richer, more detailed, and more substantial.
  6. The Plot Twist must not required the PCs to behave in a manner dictated by the GM. Misguided PC behavior based on incorrect understanding of a situation by players is fine.
  7. The Plot Twist must not take away the PCs ability to do something about whatever situation they are in, and should not confine PC actions to a single subsequent path.
  8. The key to a good plot twist is the surprise factor. The plot twist must not only maintain the surprise but deliver it as a “punch” at the right time. The perfect plot twist will drop player’s jaws in surprise (I’ve managed that about four times, which shows how hard it is).

And then offered a list of no less than eleven plot twist varieties that were designed to work in an RPG:

  1. The Instinctive Twist
  2. Emergent Opportunism
  3. Inverted Identities
    • The villain is a hero.
    • The hero is a villain.
    • The victim is a hero.
    • The victim is a villain.
    • The villain is the victim.
    • The hero is the victim.
  4. Key Fact Substitution
  5. The Figure From The Shadows
  6. Lurking Opportunities, Hidden Significance
  7. Predestined Failure
  8. Pointillism And Context
  9. Multi-track Planning
  10. Twist Ten: Dust in the wind
  11. Twist Eleven: More Than Meets The Eye

Finally, I looked at the first three types in more detail, especially the many variations on the third type, Inverted Identities. But that’s where I ran out of time – so let’s pick right up where I left off…

Twist Four: Key Fact Substitution

Describe a situation – what happened, and why people did what they are believed to have done. These are the key facts of the situation. Using such a situation as the core of an RPG adventure involves the PCs discovering these key facts, either before or after the situation has reached its ultimate conclusion, and acting upon the situation, one way or another. Some of the key facts may not be revealed but must be surmised by the players in their roles as the PCs. It follows that the minimalist description of the adventure is that same list of key facts, in chronological sequence, with an indicator of when the PCs are to get involved and when events will reach their conclusion. Of course, the PCs involvement should change the outcome, or the outcome should change the lives of the PCs, or both.

Creating a plot twist is as simple as choosing one or more of the key facts and replacing them with something different, while retaining the appearance that the original key “fact(s)” were correct until the moment of revelation. In other words, Circumstances or villain design lead to a key fact being incorrectly reported or assumed. Revelation of the true fact creates the twist.

This is really easily done using a table in a word processor, one divided into two columns. In the left-hand column, you list the apparent key facts, one per row. Where any fact is not going to change, you merge the cell that contains that fact with its neighbor to the right. Where a fact is to be replaced, you enter the “true” fact in the right-hand column. Simply reading down the page then gives you a summary of what seems to have happened, and what really happened.


Of course, it’s not quite that simple. You need to justify the illusion or deception or whatever the cause is of the misapprehended fact. This may require inserting additional rows into the event structure.


If you change a character’s motivation, you also alter how that character might act in future events. It’s also always useful to review the events and characterizations as they are perceived by each individual involved, because if one character changes, they way others react to that character might also change. You need consistency of characterization throughout.


This approach is one of the simplest techniques for plotting a mystery, so that deserves special mention. A similar approach, listing events as each character reportedly perceived them, is also one of the best tools for solving mysteries – which also merits highlighting.

Twist Five: The Figure From The Shadows

An RPG is bigger than any one adventure. No matter how serial in nature the campaign might be, it is nevertheless a larger tapestry than one isolated story. The fifth type of plot twist takes advantage of this broader tapestry by bringing in a third party at the climax who has been orchestrating events to create an opportunity for themselves.

In a self-contained work, this is unacceptable, and viewed as cheating the audience or the reader. In an RPG adventure, it is entirely fair, and actually enhances the game most of the time. Of course, this violates the “serial” nature of some campaigns, so it should be used sparingly, but it’s one way for serial campaigns to nevertheless have a bigger picture that is not static, evolving over time.

It’s a big game world out there. Why should the players (and, by extension, the PCs) be the only ones who take advantage of the fact?

But there is an even greater significance to this type of plot structure, because even in the most serial of game structures, the characters should always behave as though there had been a yesterday before they got involved in the adventure, and will be a tomorrow. Any other assumption immediately makes them two-dimensional, no matter how complex, deep, and rounded they might be.

Twist Six: Lurking Opportunities, Hidden Significance

This method concerns the meaning of events, the reason things are happening. What appeared to be coincidence, chance, or simply unrelated to events, turns out to be all-important, and the reason things are happening is something completely different to what it seemed. To avoid anticlimax, this is almost always a development in the direction of greater significance.

This type of plot twist can be difficult to plan unless you start by putting the cart ahead of the horse. Work out what’s really going on, and who is really behind it all, and then find ways to conceal the truth (the best way is for the true villain to deliberately emulate another villain’s M.O.) Once you have done so, look at the gap that’s left and deliberately choose something to fill them that looks plausible. Then go through the plan and look for ways to make that plausible item look right, look even more plausible.

At least half of the adventure, from the point of view of the PCs, should result in them undermining that plausibility, so it’s important to make a note of as many “tiny details that don’t fit” as you can.

Opportunism and Threat Response

A variation on this approach is through opportunism and threat response. Let’s say that you have three established antagonists in the campaign, and another lurking in the wings. Every time Antagonist #1 does something, or the PCs do something about him, the other three should not only look at ways to profit from the turn of events (even indirectly), while also examining the situation for possible threats to whatever they have going on. They should then act accordingly.

The same is true of any Allies the PCs might have, and any neutral opportunists. The more well-stocked with lively, interesting characters that a campaign is, the more certain it is that at least one character will see a potential opportunity and another will perceive a threat, and both will act accordingly to complicate the situation. Paying attention to the speed of information is vital in all such cases – it makes no sense for anyone to act in response to an opportunity that existed three months earlier; instead, you should extrapolate forwards to a best guess of the current / future situation that will result, and examine that for opportunities.

The logic is not quite the same when it comes to threats. A threat that existed three months earlier might still be a danger today; or the threat might even have caused a reversal at the time, the news of which has not yet reached the person making the assessment. Accordingly, there is an immediate need to act, regardless, and to act in three ways at the same time:

  • Find out what the outcome was, and whether or not remedial action is possible even at this late date;
  • Assume that the threat has befallen, and immediately begin taking steps to compensate / prepare;
  • Review all other operations and operational needs that might be placed at threat under similar circumstances and make preparations as best as is possible to deal with such threats.

Nor should these assessments (both pro and anti) be restricted to those not involved in the adventure already. All those participating in the adventure should similarly be reviewed for both opportunities and threats.

There is little that is so pleasurable to both players and to GMs than a character who does unpredictable things when the right clue is figured out and it all suddenly makes perfect sense!

Twist Seven: Predestined Failure

This is a hard one to pull off. It requires the villain to have made a mistake before the PCs even got involved in the plot, that at the last moment, is shown to make the failure of his plans inevitable, or his victory at best, Pyrrhic.

In order for this plot twist to be effective, everyone – villain, PCs, and onlookers alike – have to be convinced that victory is at hand. That’s hard enough to do, but the trouble doesn’t end there; next, the PCs can’t feel like fifth wheels, and the plot can’t be railroaded at any point, and has to be seen not to be railroaded. In fact, ideally, the actual act that unknowingly undoes the plans of the villain will be something that the PCs have inadvertently done or changed, something so apparently trivial that neither they nor the villain are aware of it.

Method 1

And that’s the key that unlocks this particular variety of plot twist. Start with some minor trivial act by the PCs and then come up with a chain of events – “for want of a nail” stuff – that transforms that trivial act into something of epic significance. Once you have that chain of events – and you may need several tries to get it right – you then need to hide it, disguise it, wrap it until the very last minute with a seemingly inevitable victory on the part of the villain. It’s this need to disguise what is going on beneath the surface that means you may need to redo your chain of “true events” time and time again.

Method 2

A slower, and somewhat more difficult approach is to build your plan up a bit like growing a tree – you do part of the roots, then part of the canopy (the part that shows), then a bit more of the roots, then a bit more of the canopy, and so on. This sort of step-by-step approach means that you don’t have a clear and simple construction of “what’s really happening” to follow, but it means that if a step can’t be concealed by the “canopy” you only have to go back and change that part of the “roots” growth – in the long run, it can save time and effort.

Method 3

A hybrid approach is also possible, constructing a slightly vague and generic “real story” skeleton which is then used as a guideline to the “tree” approach, and this is the technique that I usually employ when creating this type of adventure.

Employing a third party

It’s absolutely critical that the deception be complete on both sides. This is often most easily achieved by employing a third party behind the scenes, a rival who is conducting a very well-planned operation to take down a rival, an operation that will ultimately be successful. That gives you a character pulling strings behind the scenes to make sure things turn out the way he wants, burying facts, providing misinformation, and manipulating everyone else involved. Quite often, when I use this approach, I will use a prior adventure to establish the bona-fides of the apparent villain as a credible threat to the PCs and/or their ambitions, so they will be minded to see his attempt at a comprehensive victory as being just as credible. When the sting is revealed, and he is ruthlessly crushed or brushed aside, it immediately elevates the true villain as being even more dangerous than the first threat was; I know from experience that this one adventure can build up the threat posed by the real villain as much, if not more, than three or four appearances of any other sort.

If this is the real purpose of this adventure from a metagame campaign standpoint, then it becomes immediately worthwhile to spend three or even four times as long as normal in plotting the adventure, crossing T’s and dotting i’s.

To be honest, the work involved makes it hard to otherwise justify this variety of plot twist, but – like all such – it only has a limited repeatability when used as a one-trick pony. Even though it entails undesirable overheads, you have to occasionally use this plot twist variety at a time when you can’t justify it, just to keep it available and useful when you do need it.

Twist Eight: Pointillism And Context

Caption Text

An example of Pointillism

caption text

Close-up of the Pointillism Example

Think of each plotline or adventure in a campaign as a single dot on a canvas. The style of painting which employs this technique is called Pointillism, and you can see an example of it above. Only when many of these points are viewed collectively does a larger pattern become revealed. The points, meaningless in isolation, quite literally come together to form a “bigger picture”.

Things are a little more complicated when it comes to real-world adventures rather than abstract conceptual entities. Each adventure has a meaning and a structure all it’s own, and it is in the spaces in between that there is room for the color of the “dot”. Zoom in and you can see this texture and complexity; zoom out and the big picture still emerges.

It’s the equivalent of a photographic image in which each apparent pixel of color is really a microdot containing vast amounts of additional information.

It used to be thought that this was also an analogy for reality; you had the macro-world dominated by physics, you had the atomic scale of molecules and chemistry, and the subatomic world of particles beneath that, and so on. Even the macro-world was broken into layers – there was the layer at which Gravity was relatively insignificant, easily overcome by one of the other forces, and a larger scale of planets and solar systems in which something close to parity was achieved, and the still-larger scale of galaxies in which gravity was all-important. Even today, when we know better, it is often simpler to assume this simplified view of reality in order to solve problems.

Another way of looking at it is a form of abstract steganography, but one in which it is the buried image that we see all the time and not the larger picture. The detail usually hidden in steganography is overt, and the image that is hidden is the broader one. This is also analogous to the old-school dot-matrix images which used alphabetic characters to create an image – something now known as ASCII Art.

Wikipedia Logo with letters

Wikipedia logo made with letters (too small to make out in this image) – Art by Rascal the Peaceful at en.wikipedia [CC-BY-SA-3.0], click image to view licence, via Wikimedia Commons

Caption text

Closeup of part of the image. You can almost make out some of the individual letters. Art by Rascal the Peaceful at en.wikipedia [CC-BY-SA-3.0], click image to view licence, via Wikimedia Commons

RPGs actually perpetuate this mode of thinking as a tool. A bigger picture is an emergent property of all campaigns, either explicit and deliberately created or a subconscious manifestation of the GM’s thinking and plotting processes, and always shaped by the players through the actions of their characters.

Many plotting techniques for campaigns employ this technique to link subplots that are otherwise unrelated to the main plot into a broader narrative:

  • Campaign Background
    • Lays the foundation for the bigger picture
  • Adventure #1
    • Subplot = Bigger Picture part 1
  • Adventure #2
    • Subplot = Bigger Picture part 2
    • Subplot = Bigger Picture part 3
  • Adventure #3
    • Subplot = Bigger Picture part 4
    • Subplot = Bigger Picture part 5
  • Adventure #4
    • Subplot = Bigger Picture part 6
    • Subplot = Bigger Picture part 7
    • Subplot = Bigger Picture part 8
    • Bigger Picture noticed for the first time but still incomplete
  • Adventure #5
    • Subplot = Bigger Picture part 9
    • Subplot = Bigger Picture part 10
    • Subplot = Bigger Picture part 11
    • Subplot = Bigger Picture part 12
    • Bigger picture forms a coherent image for the first time
  • Adventure #6
    • Bigger Picture complicates the main plot or otherwise takes a secondary role to the main adventure
  • Adventure #7
    • Bigger Picture forms a Main plot element
  • Adventure #8
    • Plot focuses directly on the bigger picture

A campaign may have several of these bigger pictures going on either sequentially or simultaneously. It is even possible to have several such bigger pictures combine into a still larger narrative structure. That’s the level of complexity of plotting for my Zenith-3 campaign.


Way back when, I wrote an article called “Back To Basics: Campaign Structures” describing the step-by-step evolution in complexity of plotting that was possible, from the simplest possible structure all the way through to the Zenith-3 level of complexity as part of a series looking at some of the fundamentals of the art of DMing. The image to the side is an extreme scale reduction of my color-coordinated campaign “map”, updated to show just how far the campaign has come since we started play in January 2012 – not as far as expected, but there are two things to note in that regard: Not all adventures are the same size (the pace picks up considerably the farther through it we get), and the players spent half this playing year pre-empting an adventure that wasn’t supposed to happen until much later in the campaign (actually, a pair of adventures). Even without taking that into account, we are more-or-less where I expected to be after 24 months play, so only about 20% behind schedule of what was planned to be a seven-year campaign (with three years margin for error and additional adventures along the way). Taking the pre-preemption into account, we’re actually 33% behind schedule but will make up half of that when we reach the point where the Thanos War was supposed to occur.

I’ve wandered slightly off my point, which is that the techniques described in that article are exactly the same as the abstract example given above, and therefore show you how to create this sort of plot. There are even a couple of examples in the series for you to look at. Here’s the complete list of the Back-to-Basics series of articles:

And here are a couple of related articles that might be useful:

(If parts of this list look familiar, it’s because I refer people to these articles almost every time this subject comes up).

Getting back on-topic:

Manifesting these plot structures into a plot twist simply requires an adventure which has been deliberately designed to appear self-contained and unrelated but whose outcome will be radically changed by the revelation of the pattern. The greatest difficulty is hiding the pattern from the players while being true to the ground rules laid out earlier; the best technique for doing so that I can offer is the palimpsest, where you embed a layer for the PCs to penetrate and a still-deeper layer to use as the campaign-scale plot twist.

Twist Nine: Multi-track Planning

This type of Plot Twist is relatively easy to implement, but it suffers from a fatal flaw, which will become obvious when we get to it – though I’ll point it out, nevertheless.

There are three distinct phases to the planning of this plot twist.

Phase 1:
Start by planning a fairly straightforward plotline up to the point at which the PCs will be compelled by circumstances to act in some fairly obvious way. Next, assume that whatever that obvious action is, it will be the exact wrong thing to do, if only the PCs knew the full circumstances.

Phase 2:
Next, decide exactly what it is that the players don’t know that justifies the description of “the worst possible thing to do” – this will usually be “playing into the hands of the villain” or something similar, but there’s room to get creative here. Finally, go backwards through the events leading up to this point looking for what has to be altered in terms of those events to accommodate both outcomes – thereby determining what clues there will be to the impending plot twist. These have to be either pieces of the puzzle that don’t fit, or that can be subsequently discovered.

Phase 3:
Having revised the lead-up to the plot twist, it’s then a simple job of plotting your way forward from the point of critical mistake, through to the moment of revelation (NOT necessarily the same thing!) and thence through to the resolution and conclusion of the plotline. After all, you now know everything that’s going on and how the situation has been manipulated to influence the PCs into a reasonable mistake that benefits their opposition.

So, did you spot the huge danger that this entails? That’s right, it all hinges on the PCs being predictable. And if there’s one word that GMs should use with caution when describing PCs, it’s “Predictable”.

There are two solutions to this particular problem of predictability, and GMs can use either or both at the same time, as they see fit, and as in-game circumstances dictate.

If the PCs behave in some manner other than expected, there can be only three outcomes. They can move in the direction of discovering the manipulation, they can simply jump ahead to a later point in the chain of logic the GM expects them to follow, or they can move in a completely different direction.

The GM, for his part, has two choices: he can attempt to nudge them back in the direction they were expected to follow, or he can simply go with the flow while thinking about how the orchestrator will react.

Predictability solution one:

If it isn’t going to be absolutely catastrophic, choose “go with the flow”. If that means the PCs don’t fall for the manipulations of the villain, so be it – the players will have earned the high-fives they will exchange when they learn the significance of their discovery. And if it cuts the adventure short, that just gives them more time to celebrate.

Predictability solution two:

There are times when going with the flow will upset more important apple-carts. In which case I recommend junking the elaborate deception that you had planned, and going with the flow – up to a point (Trust me – it will all make sense in a moment). When you get to the point of revelation, ie the last possible point of going with the flow, you reveal one of two plot twists: Either the original overt agenda that the PCs were expected to follow is now the hidden plot of the villain, or his secret plot is still in operation, but instead of the cover that he had thought up, the PCs (and the players) have contrived their own. The point of revelation comes when one of these two is just short of being unstoppable.

Explaining the multi-tracks

This plotting technique develops two competing theories as to what is going on and why it is happening and who is behind it (and so on), one overt and one hidden. Both predictability solutions add a third track, one generated by the PCs. It’s up to the GM which one is what appears to be going on, and which one is what is really taking place; and he doesn’t have to decide until the last possible moment. Until then, he can simply keep his options open and let the PCs do as they will.

I advocated a similar approach (explained somewhat differently and in more detail) in an article I wrote on mysteries in RPGs a couple of years ago.

In essence, you could synopsize this technique as deliberately choosing events that can have two different meanings, one overt and one covert; at the moment of revelation, you reveal the covert as being the true plotline and the overt as a deception or error in judgment.

NPCs are fallible

It often helps if you prepare the ground early on in the adventure. Have an NPC not known for their logical thinking suggest the “covert” interpretation of events, only for the idea to be poo-poohed by another NPC who is usually much stronger (in the PCs estimation) on deductive reasoning. Don’t make either too obvious, or too easy. If the evidence keeps piling up, but they encounter reverses and difficulties in obtaining such evidence, the PCs will put much more stock in the theory than if it walks in and sits down at the table.

Players are used to the GM speaking ex-cathedra, and therefore expect NPCs to speak truthfully most of the time – at the very least, to get rolls to notice that someone is lying. So practice your deception (refer The Hierarchy Of Deceipt: How and when to lie to your players) and disguise any necessary rolls as something else, or make them before the game starts.

Twist Ten: Dust in the wind

Player thoughts are like motes of slightly-sticky dust, flying this way and that in the wind. Occasionally one will connect to another and form a close bond, and from these speculations, players will develop a theory as to what’s going on, either within the adventure or within the campaign. This may or may not accord with what the GM had intended to be the explanation for the events in question. To use this as the foundation of a plot twist, the GM needs to do five things:

  1. Listen to the player’s emergent theories and superficially conform with them – or at least, not contradict them until he’s ready.
  2. As the moment of revelation approaches, the GM makes the assumption that the players are wrong.
  3. He then evolves an alternative explanation for events that is radically different, noting any events in past adventures that contradict this new theory.
  4. He then invents or contrives an explanation for those contradictions that is plausible – usually an act of deception or manipulation by the real motive force.

Important: the moment of revelation should be the 11th hour for whatever the motive force is trying to achieve, leaving the PCs with just enough time to scramble to a solution.

The similarities between this approach and the second “Predictability” solution for Twist Type Nine are fairly obvious, so there’s little more to be said about the actual mechanics.

However, this twist has a couple of advantages, most notably that you don’t have to worry about lying to the players – which is a good thing if you aren’t good at deception. Instead, it harnesses the power of indecision.

Twist Eleven: More Than Meets The Eye

Try this sometime: Do a rough outline of a straightforward plotline. About half-way through it, pick an NPC who is unique to this particular plotline and decide that they are not who they seem to be. Don’t worry about who they actually are, yet – instead, look at what this implies for their contributions to the plotline. If the results are trivial, pick another NPC instead, or in addition to, this ringer, and repeat the process. There is little that is more fun for the GM than two NPCs both trying to deceive the PCs for their own purposes and in total ignorance of the other! Eventually, you will find an NPC who has a profound effect on the adventure if they can’t be trusted, or if they haven’t been telling the truth.

Once you’ve identified the rotten apple in the barrel, look at what their position within society; assuming that they took this disguise for a reason, what might it be? What does their employment/position give them access to? Information, Opportunities, Power, Security? Who would most like to have that benefit/advantage? This enables you to narrow down your choices as to who the NPC really is.

I once ran a Super-spy adventure in which eight NPCs figured prominently – and each of them was secretly a double-agent for someone else. Ostensible allies were actually enemies, ostensible enemies were secretly in cahoots, and the PCs job was to identify the triple agent amongst them who had killed a ninth agent. Everyone was acting at cross-purposes, sabotaging both their own efforts and those of everyone else. And each of them got it into their heads that the PCs were about to blow their covers. Four of them (independently) sabotaged the PCs car, two of them presented genuine credentials (blowing their covers to the PCs in an attempt to prevent the PCs asking the wrong person the wrong question), and two presented forged credentials (attempting to persuade the PCs not to blow non-existent covers). The triple-agent/assassin they were chasing ended up being identified as a mole for still another agency, one the PCs thought had been shut down…

The Final Twist

Sometimes, just to keep my players on their toes, I’ll set up a situation in which it seems like there is going to be a plot twist, and a fairly obvious one – then NOT deliver a plot twist. I even occasionally challenge myself to see how many different plot twists I could hint at and then not deliver in a single hour’s play – my record is twenty-three, but the circumstances were unusual. The more paranoid your players are, the more fun you can have with this non-twist.

However, most of the time, you will need some sort of plot twist on a regular basis. This would get awfully predictable and problematic if there was only one or two ways to skin that particular cat – so it’s a good thing there are so many different ways to twist the plot in an RPG!

Whew! Sorry for the delay in posting – the layout threw up some unexpected headaches at the last minute. The way the side-by-side images look is not at ALL the way they were supposed to, but my limited knowledge of stylesheets proved inadequate to the look I was trying to create.

On a completely unrelated issue, the usual schedule has posts due at Campaign Mastery on both Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. I’m not sure yet how I’m going to handle that – so there may or may not be something special in people’s Christmas stockings!

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Ask The GMs: Buzz and Background

Excitement. Buzz. Anticipation. Enthusiasm. How best to create these for a new campaign?

Ask the gamemasters

This question comes from BlueNinja, who wrote:

“I have an idea for a campaign, that follows off the plot of a popular CRPG [Computer RPG — Mike] (set a few centuries later, of course, so that the PCs don’t have to compete directly with the game’s PCs). While I am enthused about the idea, most of my gaming group has not played the game and know virtually nothing about it. Without finding them a copy to play, or otherwise mandating it, what is a good way to put out the background of the world to try and give my players the enthusiasm that makes for good gameplay?”


Saxon Brenton contributed to this article.

It was my initial impression that this was a tricky question to answer, because it was actually asking for two things that may be at cross-purposes.

The first is the best way to deliver Background information to the players, and the second is how to generate enthusiasm for the proposed campaign. The goals and purposes of these two activities are not necessarily mutually compatible.

When I consulted one of my fellow GMs, he thought the same thing. But we all have new campaigns to launch from time to time, so…

Today’s answer is going to be broken into three parts.

  • Ways to deliver background, and their respective pros and cons;
  • The best ways to generate buzz/enthusiasm; and
  • A wrap-up considering What common ground, if any, can be found between the two.


Mike’s Answer [incorporating Saxon’s Solutions], Part 1: Imparting Background to prospective and confirmed players

There are lots of ways to impart campaign background to players. Most of them have major potential downsides. After all, you can lead a player to information but can’t make him read – and even if he does, he may not understand. I’ve categorized the different approaches that I’ve experienced (or can conceive of) into 8 broad categories, and after looking at these in detail, I’ve got a little general advice on the subject.

1. Major Info Dump

“I’m starting a new campaign, here’s 700 pages of background to read. And 300 pages of House Rules to go with them.”

There are some out there who would accuse me of the above, but even at my most extreme, I never went that far. But I do know one GM who required his players to have read the Eberron setting – ALL of it – before play began. They didn’t, of course.

And that’s just the start of the problems with this approach. With so much, things get lost – we refer to it as information overload.

Nevertheless, there are rare occasions when this is the best way to go. When you have a lot of information to dispense, for example, and your players are all avid readers – and you are an avid writer.

Cross-referenced, Indexed, Searchable, Annotatable
These are all tools for making information accessible to the reader. They are also areas where RPGs are notoriously deficient. The more of these that you can provide with your Info Dump, the better off you are.

Campaign Wiki
One alternative to the prose dump is to create a campaign Wiki. If you grant players the appropriate privileges, they can annotate to their heart’s content, and it’s usually easy to incorporate a custom Google Search if the Wiki doesn’t have that sort of function already. A variant on this theme is to start a Google+ Group for the Campaign. Cross-referencing and Indexing still have to be done manually, though, however the use of pages and sub-pages can be an automatic poor-GM’s substitute, at least to a minimal extent.

A free WordPress Site
Using Blog Software as though it were a Wiki not only provides all the advantages of a Wiki, but by providing multiple ways of indexing – keywords, internal links, categories – provides greater flexibility and multiple layers of indexing, as I pointed out in Have WordPress, will Game.

Upside for Mind-Mappers
An upside for anyone who uses mind-mapping to organize their thoughts and notes is that the information to populate these sites is already organized appropriately to at least some extent!

As I discovered when I went to do a reasonably minor update to CM several years ago (“Reconstructing the Campaign Mastery Blog), it’s massively inconvenient to change your taxonomy in mid-stream. On this occasion, less than two months into what is about to become a Six-year existence, it still took six-and-a-half hours to update a mere 20 blog entries. Even granted that my system was slow at the time, that’s still just under twenty minutes per blog entry. These days, with 642 blog entries – including this one – we’re talking about 210 HOURS of work to do the same job.

Spending a whole day (or even a working week) preening your taxonomy might seem like a lot at the time, but it’s trivial compared to the time it would take to correct a flawed design.

ALL such work is an additional overhead, campaign prep that needs to be done and done right before it gets used by anyone, including you. So that’s a downside.

2. Major Info Dump In-Game

I tried this; the idea was that by roleplaying the delivery, I could break up the info dump into more digestible chunks. You can read all about how it worked out here: My Biggest Mistakes: Information Overload in the Zenith-3 Campaign, but the title alone should tell you all you need to know.

In smaller doses, this might still work, so the technique must still be considered viable – but lose the “Major” from the technique description.

caption text

A reduced-size example of the Fumanor Website

3. Tailored Info Dump

This is a variant on the Campaign Wiki / WordPress Site approach mentioned above, and one that worked a treat for the original Fumanor Campaign.

I constructed a website designed for off-line access, using custom links at the bottom of each page to string separate pages (and even variant forms of some pages) into a coherent narrative that was tailored to the characters. There was a Common/Everyman thread, a Priests-and-Mages thread, an Elves thread, and a GM-only thread. This enabled players to read the Common/Everyman thread and decide what character class they wanted to be, and – if they decided to run a Mage, Cleric, or whatever, they could access specialist knowledge that these groups had preserved that had been forgotten by the everyday man. Of course, there was heavy bias at work in the various groups, and it was made clear that this was all being delivered “in-game” and not ex-cathedra – meaning that there was no guarantee that a single word of it was true. Distortion, Bias, and simple Error were all built-in. Then I bundled the whole thing up in a self-extracting Zip file small enough to email around. What’s more, I could (and did) annotate and expand and correct it from time to time.

The downside to this approach is that it takes a lot of prep time, and you need to know your way around a website editor capable of producing off-line web sites. Frontpage Express has always been my weapon of choice even though it’s zonks old, now. I also know basic HTML, and know the trick of renaming HTML files as .rtf to enable direct-editing of the code with wordpad (somewhat more powerful than notepad, but not so powerful that it gets in the way), so I had and have the know-how to use this approach. If you don’t, go for something more WISIWIG that will do the job for you.

4. Limited Info Dump

Or, here’s an idea, Don’t Tell The Players Everything. Restrict yourself to The things they need to know at the start of play, and plan on educating them as things come up.

This puts even more responsibility on the GM’s shoulders than he had already; it means that every time he has information that the PC would have and the player doesn’t, he is honor-bound to make the player aware of it. This can interrupt game-flow, but that can be the lesser evil.

Synopsize the campaign world’s history onto a single page or less. Use another page for the society, politics, crime & punishment, money and trade, etc that the players need to know. Produce a one-page map with just the bare bones on it. Produce dedicated half-pages for each of the races available to players for PCs, and another for each of the major class types (if you’re talking D&D or Pathfinder), using copy-and-paste if necessary. The result is a four-page dossier that is theoretically unique to each character and gives them just enough knowledge to start play.

Depending on the campaign, you might be able to go further. Try halving that – you can’t reduce the map much, but that’s 4 pages down to 2-and-a-half. Halve it again, and you’re down to less than a page of text and a page of map. That’s the target most people aim for when designing Tournament Adventures.

Of course, if you’re using standard races / alien species from the sourcebooks, or classes, you need not do anything but point people at the appropriate pages and maybe offer a URL or two.

The Downside to such severe restriction might be an apparent lack of depth and originality. The more you rely on other people’s sources, the more “canned” the campaign can feel. And there is always the danger of leaving out something important. For an ongoing campaign, I think four or five pages is about right, most of the time.

5. Introductory Campaign Phase

One way to limit what you need to tell players about up-front is to design a phase of the campaign that is about nothing but bringing the campaign background to life and presenting it to the players. With the exception of the most recent adventure, that describes exactly the technique being employed in the Zenith-3 “Earth Regency” campaign – and it was supposed to apply to the most recent adventure, too, but the players decided to get clever on me and pre-empted a couple of adventures intended to take place much later in the campaign. What was supposed to be a quick introduction to a background character who would eventually become significant ended up taking most of the year. You can read more about that next week.

You can design an entire phase of your campaign around imparting necessary information to the PCs in-play instead of in advance. Don’t tell them about Drow, have them encounter Drow. Or have them meet someone who is frightened by Drow. Or who was once attacked by Drow. Or who wants to attack the Drow. Build an adventure around the concept of making each “chunk” of the campaign background essential information for that Adventure, and let the players start to build up their own “Big Picture” – before the main campaign starts in earnest.

6. The Preliminary Campaign: PCs as Youths

A variation on this approach is to get the players to give you a summary of the life events they want their characters to have experienced prior to the start of play. Use the “Limited Info Dump” to give them what they need for that, and require them be generic. Then, in a series of solo game sessions, and compressing time in between key events as much as possible, roleplay the actual events, filling in background as you go. “You want to be orphaned at a young age and raised by an Elf? Okay.” “You want to be taken under the wing of a legendary fighter and trained by him? No problem.”

The notion is that each of the player’s chosen life events gets filtered by the GM, adjusted and altered to be accommodated within the campaign setting. The player doesn’t need to know in advance how the game society treats orphans, the GM can show him. This can bring a character backstory to life in a way nothing else will.

I would even contemplate using a different game system, one designed for more narrative interaction, ie a “storytelling” game system. I’ve never used one, but several have been recommended in comments here at Campaign Mastery in the past – FATE and FUDGE have both been mentioned in this context in the past (and thanks to Brent P. Newhall of for supplying the links, way back in May, 2009!)

7. Information Osmosis

The absolute best way to give information to the players is as they play. It’s not easy, but as I demonstrated in Yesterday Once More, the Campaign that I gave away a couple of weeks ago, it is possible. A key part of each adventure is telling the PCs what they need to know about the game world and the physics and the tech involved and it’s limitations as it becomes relevant.

In practice, it’s rare that the whole background can be imparted in this way; but combining this with the “Limited” or “Targeted” information-dump techniques can save you a lot of grief.

8. Exotic Solutions

Create an Infographic, or a video trailer, for the campaign. This sort of thing is way beyond my level of expertise but if this sort of thing is up your alley, take advantage of it!

The assumption of Ignorance

To paraphrase what I said earlier, “You can lead a player to information but you can’t make him read.” One of the decisions that should be made up-front when you deciding how to disseminate the campaign background to the players is “How am I going to handle someone not having read it?”

There are lots of alternatives. Peer pressure, holding up the game while you educate the player on what he should already know, is one approach. Assuming that if the player doesn’t know, neither does the character, is a fairly brutal but effective solution. Even more brutal is requiring the character to “buy” the background they should already know, one word at a time, with XP, is even more brutal. Still another is simply forcing decisions onto the character when they were made in “willful ignorance”, though I don’t recommend that as a technique. Assuming that none of the players have read the relevant information, or that at least one will have forgotten it, is another, rather more generous approach, because it leads you to build “educational reminders” into your adventures that get everyone on the same page when it’s necessary.

The degree of harshness should depend on how reasonable your expectations are, which is hard for you to judge. It’s utterly unreasonable to expect anyone to have memorized that proverbial 700-page magnum opus that I mentioned as an extreme example at the start. But if you were more reasonable in your expectations, it provides less reason to be forgiving – though you should always take individual circumstances into account. Letting the other players choose the punishment to be applied is sometimes the best policy, because they are in the best position to decide how reasonable you were being in the first place.

It’s all about Them

You should always remember that you aren’t writing Campaign Background for yourself; any benefits you get from being able to use it as reference material is a bonus. It should be an extract from your Campaign Planning Notes aimed at telling the Players what they need to know, and that means that the delivery method and depth should be something that suits them. There are worse ideas than providing a limited background and permitting them to ask questions for more information in things that interest them, or that they think their character should know a little more about.

The players define the standards of what is acceptable, what is required, and how success in delivering the background is to be measured. You’re just along for the ride.

Mike’s Answer, [incorporating Saxon’s Solutions], Part 2: Enthusiasm

But all that presupposes that you have players in the first place. How do you get potential players interested enough to sign up in the first place? This is a LOT easier said than done. I’m lucky – I’ve never had to actively spruik for players, and there have been times when I’ve had to do everything short of beating them off with a stick! At one point (in the mid-90s, I think it was), I had 23 players on the waiting list for my Superhero campaign!!

But I won’t let my lack of direct experience get in the way – I’m used to winging it and pretending to be an Expert In Everything. I’ve given the subject some thought, and I have twelve specific thoughts, and three pieces of general advice, to offer. But I’m warning readers up front that this is likely to be far from complete or as robust as usual – apply grains of salt at your own discretion!

i. Be Enthusiastic

Smiles, and enthusiasm, are contagious. If you are excited by what you’re doing, share that excitement! Describe your campaign with zest and gusto when speaking to prospective players.

ii. Track Record

The better your established track record of running interesting campaigns with lots of fun and solid foundations, the easier it will be to persuade players to join your next one. The implications can be profound; if your prospective players think you are biting off more than you can chew with the proposed campaign, the smart move can be to set it aside and run a number of smaller campaigns designed to ensure (and demonstrate) that you have the skills needed to pull off “the big one”.

So far as I am concerned, those smaller campaigns are as much for the purpose of generating enthusiasm for the Big Campaign idea as they are for the removal of perceived impediments to the success of that campaign.

A negative reputation can also have a significant effect, and may need to be countered specifically. Graham McDonald was a good friend, but he had developed the reputation for starting campaigns and then dumping them in three-to-six months. As a result, he found it hard to attract players to his later campaigns, and found it even harder to persuade them to invest any sort of effort in their characters. Any enthusiasm for those campaigns was in spite of his reputation, not because of it.

iii. Originality

Originality is always a great selling point for a campaign, especially if the players think the GM knows what he’s doing. Like Track Record, though, it can also be a double-edged sword – if the prospective players lack confidence in the GM’s game mechanics, they may be less inclined to sign on for anything more than a one-off trial run.

iv. Marketing Your Campaign

Marketing, at it’s most fundamental, is about creating a perception of need that the product being marketed can then be shown to satisfy. It doesn’t matter how necessary the product really is, or how real the need is – perception is more important than reality in the world of marketing.

A key element of most marketing strategies is about generating enthusiasm for the product, and that means that the full range of marketing techniques (or some reasonable facsimile) can be applied to the task of getting players to sign up to the campaign and be happy about doing so – until they see whether or not it lives up to the hype, at least!

I won’t go any further into this, having already written an article on this specific subject – Cause And Inflect: Marketing your way to a better game. This Google Search might be helpful if this route is something you want to consider.

v. Salesmanship – Put Yourself In Their Shoes

The key to selling something is to put yourself in the customer’s shoes, identify why they need the product in question, and then impart that knowledge in a convincing manner to the customer. If you’re “selling” participation in your next campaign, or enthusiasm about it, the principle still holds. (I’ve never been a fan of the hard sell; while it may work at the time, it can also produce anger and disappointment if the product doesn’t live up to expectations. This is a soft-sell technique that is almost as effective and is much less prone to arousing anger.

Of course, the more you know about the person you’re trying to “sell” to, the better your chances of success. That’s why cold calling is such a painful occupation for anyone with half-human empathy – you are required to make assumptions about the person you’re selling to, and they immediately resent that. To compensate, hard-sell tactics are forced on the seller, who then forces them onto the prospective customer.

Having done both, I’d rather sell Vacuum Cleaners door-to-door than cold-call people from a marketing call center.

vi. Mind Games & Teases

The more interesting you can make the campaign seem, the more interested and enthusiastic the prospective players will be. When you put your promotional material (or equivalent) together, pay special attention to arousing some intellectual appeal. Don’t make it all about this, of course, but don’t neglect it, either.

vii. Mysteries & Mayhem

Don’t explain everything. Include some teasers for the first couple of adventures. Try to arouse curiosity about the campaign – curiosity that can only be resolved by joining in. The more you hook the prospective players’ curiosity, the more enthusiastic they will be about getting answers. Then make sure that as each solution is delivered, a new question or mystery gets raised. “I don’t know what’s going to happen next, but I know it will probably be fun” is what you want to aim for.

viii. A short story

If you’re a good writer, use a short short story to make players connect with the campaign. If you aren’t, try using someone else’s and building your campaign around it. That four-or-five pages length that I mentioned back in the first part of this ATGMs answer is a good guideline. Even better, you can use it to deliver (and immerse) your prospective players in the campaign background.

ix. Campaign Blurb

Try to come up with a campaign blurb – a one-sentence synopsis of what the campaign is going to be about. Load it with things that you know your prospective players like as much as you can, but that will probably have to wait for a more comprehensive description.

Part of the process of creating a blurb is to give your campaign a memorable name. From my series on
, and past campaigns by other GMs from the days when I had to produce a game schedule, compare these (they’re in alphabetical order in each category, so don’t read anything into their sequence within each list):

  • GREAT:
    • Fumanor: The Last Deity
    • Fumanor: The Seeds Of Empire
    • Shards Of Divinity
    • The Adventurer’s Club
    • The Tree Of Life
    • Zenith-3: Earth Regency

    These all work because they tell you something about the campaign and it’s flavor or genre beyond the name of the game system. That additional meaning needs no interpretation, it leaps out at you. “The Last Deity”? The mortality of the gods is an obvious central theme. “The Seeds Of Empire”? Clearly, it’s about a political structure becoming an Empire.

    The only name that may not be familiar to regular readers of Campaign Mastery is “The Tree Of Life”, which was the Campaign that I devised to playtest what is now D&D 5e, and which was just “D&D Next” at the time.

  • GOOD:
    • Ars Magica: Triamore
    • Ars Magica: The Novgorod Tribunal
    • Champions: Zenith-3
    • Cyberpunk by Bill K
    • Fumanor: One Faith
    • Riddleport
    • The Carnus Campaign
    • Yesterday Once More

    These are not great, but are not bad either; in general, they tell you something about the campaign in addition to any info about the Game System, but the information needs context or explanation. Once that information is supplied, the name works.

    I’ve included three ringers with deliberate intent. The first is “Yesterday Once More“, which hasn’t changed since the last time I mentioned it. The name implies regular Time Travel, but also holds hidden layers of meaning that will only become clear to the players in hindsight (I almost titled it “Yesterday, but not as we know it,” but decided that this title gave away too much of the plot twist).

    The other is “Cyberpunk by Bill K,” aka “Bill’s Cyberpunk”. At first glance, this deserves relegation to the “Poor” category below, but what isn’t shown is that Bill had a rep for his Cyberpunk campaigns that elevated the meaning of the “name”. And now that the context has been explained, the name works – barely.

  • POOR:
    • 7th Sea
    • Mike W’s Game
    • Phil’s Game
    • Rings Of Time
    • Warcry

    I agonized briefly about including “Warcry” in this part of the list – but supplying the context (it’s all about a character formerly of the Champions: Zenith-3 campaign) doesn’t elevate understanding of the campaign; you need to actually explain the context of the context to get there. So for all it’s being a great name to anyone who knows the significance, and sounds nice and dramatic (as a superhero nom-de-plum should), it doesn’t quite make the grade on it’s own Merits.

    “Rings Of Time” took its name from the first adventure, which was supposed to be a one-shot game. The players insisted that it continue. While it’s a great name in and of itself, it actually has little-to-no relevance beyond that one adventure. Again, once you explain the meaning, you have to explain the significance of the meaning before you know anything about the campaign. Worse, this is actually misleading in its implications.

    “7th Sea” tells you most of what you need to know, IF you recognize the name of the Game System. Without that, it’s in the same category as “Warcry”, and for the same reason.

    And the other two are what you call a campaign when you don’t know what name it’s been given – or when it hasn’t been given one.

x. Art, Banners, Logos, & Game Aids

A great graphic can excite the senses, tease as to the content of the campaign it represents, and be worth a thousand words. More, because it can cut straight through to an emotional response, it can do things that those thousand words can’t unless in the hands of a GREAT writer.

Banners are like name-tags – stick one on everything to do with the game and simply showing them off generates some excitement.

A logo is simply a name-tag without an illustration.

Game Aids, like character sheets with the campaign’s logo on them, also grab attention and suggest that you’re serious about this campaign. That can be vital if commitment is thought to be an issue.

These are all variations on the giveaway gimmick, which has been a part of sales since early in the 20th century, maybe longer. They are the equivalent of Crackerjacks prizes and toys in cereal boxes. On their own, they don’t do much – but when coupled with other promotional elements, they can push you over the line and into a “sale”.

xi. Promises, Promises

Whatever you produce to promote your campaign should promise to deliver whatever it is that the players want. That’s the style of adventure/campaign, the type of genre, the type of location, the relative degree of action, the style of adventure, and so on. EVERYTHING they receive prior to the start of play should instill the notion that this is exactly what they want. And then, the campaign has to deliver on those promises.

Promising “Move and countermove in the minefield of pan-racial polytheistic fantasy politics” might get some players excited – but if what you want is to thump something every week, this isn’t going to cut it.

In particular, if you are an experienced GM, you have to promise that this campaign is not going to fall victim to whatever negativity is associated with the last one that you ran (or perhaps the last half dozen). But, it’s not enough simply to say “this will be different” – you have to actually tell the people you are trying to enthuse why it will be different. “My roleplaying will be better this time because I’ve been taking acting lessons.” “I won’t let this campaign bog down with rules arguments because I have a new protocol on how to resolve these problems.” “No more bunnies with sub-machine-guns, I promise!” “I’ve fixed every problem with the rules that came to my attention last game.” “Now, without added MSG!” Whatever it was, no matter what you thought of it, if the players were unhappy with it, it needs to change. And actions speak louder than words – so show that you have taken some action!

xii. Referencing Inspiration

In the case of BlueNinja, he wants to base his campaign on a computer game he likes, and wants to generate excitement for the idea, but doesn’t know how to impart the background he has in mind in such a way that the players will be enthusiastic without forcing them to play the game.

The last is a lousy idea – if they don’t like the game, you’ve blown any chance of hooking them, and since an entirely different skillset is involved, the results would be unpredictable at best.

What you need to do is translate the game into the medium that you need for an RPG background – then edit the results into something that stands a chance of generating enthusiasm.

  • Cover Art - Can you use the game’s cover art as your campaign illustration? DON’T try using screen grabs – instead, search for fan art of the characters, settings, locations, etc. Of course, this breaks copyright, so you won’t be able to publish it, and may not be able to publish the campaign, either – if you’re going to have to file off serial numbers, doing so before play starts is far better.
  • Campaign Name - Can you reference the source Game’s name in your Campaign Name? “Space Invaders: The Retribution” is it’s own hook. But this may also run you afoul of copyright and intellectual property law.
  • Logo - Can you photoshop out a copy of the cover art to extract the logo – then use that for your campaign (with additions, if necessary)? Note that this has the same problem as cover art.
  • Reviews - Assuming that you still want to go ahead, dig up every text review of the game that you can. Any review worth reading will describe the game’s setting and overall plotline, however briefly – and that makes it an ideal place to mine for content to insert into your background.
  • Wikipedia - Another great source is to look for a description of the game on Wikipedia. You might find nothing – but anythiA6FFA6ng you DO find could be gold.
  • Advertising - Advertising for the original game is designed to make a positive impression and make you want to play. If you are translating the game into a different medium, even if just as a campaign background for original adventures (rather than forcing the players to re-enact the computer game), advertising for the original can also do the job of making players enthusiastic about your adaption. Some of this advertising may be in video format, but most is likely to be print-based. The newer the game, the less likely this is to be true.
  • Video Reviews (youTube) - Similarly, look for a video review that you might be able to show the players.
  • Game Company - Don’t forget to look for goodies (text and visual) at the website of the game company!
  • Pop Culture references - Finally, look for any pop culture references that you can use to describe key aspects of the background that you have in mind. “Dirty Harry in the 1930s” tells people what they need to know with a minimum of verbiage.
  • Soundtrack - If the computer game itself has an antecedent as a movie or TV show, look for a theme or soundtrack recording. If it works for them, maybe it can work for your game, too.
“This isn’t the game they’re looking for…”

No matter how enthusiastic you might be, the available players might not be interested. I don’t care how excited my friends get about a Western, I’m just not into the genre. I can count the number of Westerns I’ve enjoyed on one hand – “Evil Roy Slade” and two episodes of “Walker, Texas Ranger” that I caught by accident. Full Stop. If you stretched the point, you could include “A Fist Full Of Datas” from Star Trek: The Next Generation. And maybe the Tremors movies, especially the original.

So, if I’m offered a Western-genre RPG, you will need to move mountains to get me to sign up.

I like a lot of Sci-Fi, but Avatar bored me to tears. Offer me a game based on Avatar, and I’ll wish you all the luck in the world – but I won’t be joining you at the game table.

The only Pirate movies that I like are the Pirates Of The Caribbean series – but I like a lot of action-adventure, and fantasy, so offer me action-adventure with a recurring comedic strand and a little fantasy thrown in on the side, and I’ll sign up for a buccaneering adventure or two, maybe even a whole campaign. In fact, I did.

The bottom line: unless there’s some predisposition that you can tap into, the success of your persuading a player to join your game rests on the genre and style that are going to underpin it; and if they aren’t interested at all, they aren’t going to become interested, no matter what you do or say. Save the idea for some other time, some other group of players. Or write it up and sell it.

It’s Never Going To Be The Same

Something that I’ve seen happen on a number of occasions: GM generates campaign based on some property – novel, TV show, movie – and expects their game to have exactly the same flavor. It won’t. As I pointed out in Layers Of Mis-translation: RPGs and Dubbed TV, the way any given campaign plays is due to the players as much as the GM, with the game system and campaign genre throwing their hats into the ring, to boot. If you expect to re-create the experience that you had when playing/reading/watching the original, back off now before the memories become contaminated – it WON’T be the same.

I’ve thought for a while that there might be something to be said for taking a series that had potential but squandered it and trying to “do it right” – I even did a complete outline for a “Babylon 5: Excalibur Redux” campaign on that basis, which had players signing up on the spot – but which I’ve never had time to develop, let alone run.

Rollerbladed Time-traveling Cyber-Ninja Hobbits On A Ship

Finally, there are always some concepts that just won’t work no matter how enthusiastic the originator might be. Not if you try and play them straight, anyway – there might be room in the above concept for a farce, though I don’t know how much longevity it would have. If you can’t get your players to be enthusiastic about your idea – and it does happen to all of us now and then – examine it closely. Is it a distant relative of the “Rollerbladed Time-traveling Cyber-Ninja Hobbits On A Ship”?

The Wrap-up: Mike’s Answer, [incorporating Saxon’s Solutions], Part 3: Integrating Buzz-Builders and Background

The campaign background exists to do a job, but there’s always more than one way to skin a cat. Using marketing and sales techniques to insert key elements into your background can be a way of achieving both goals at the same time. All you have to do is ensure that the marketing and buzz-building doesn’t get in the way of the essential purpose of the background.

That becomes a lot easier if you use something other than the info-dump as your primary technique for imparting background. After all, there’s nothing that says you can’t use the marketing technique analogies that I have described as your primary method of separating what limited information you retain from what you intend to reveal in play. There’s nothing that says that you can’t use source-related materials like covers and advertising to convey part or all of your background.

But it all needs to harmonize – what you leave out of the background shapes what has to be revealed in play, which in turn shapes the campaign’s adventures. It does no-one any good if everything you put into your background promises Black Forest Cake and you deliver the best Banana Bread ever, with cherries and chocolate on top. You only damage your credibility.

So: Use the marketing principles to design your background so that it appeals to your proposed player’s tastes and interests them; use the background – both what’s promised and what’s been left out – to shape your campaign plan, and hence your adventures; and have the whole package ready before you try and interest your players – and you might just have a shot at getting them on-board.

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

About the contributors:

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

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

Next in this series: Creating cool spell components!

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Pretzel Thinking – 11 types of Plot Twist for RPGs, Part 1

rpg blog carnival logo

With A Twist

So it’s Blog Carnival time again, and (as I explained last week) this time around, Campaign Mastery is hosting. The Subject is “With A Twist” which means anything about Surprises, the Unexpected, Plot Twists, etc, is fair game.

I kicked the month off with an article on Surprise, and this time around it’s Part One of a two-part exploration of the Plot Twist, which will be followed sometime very soon with Part Two. Later this month, I have two more up my sleeve (if it all comes together). But more on that a little farther down the track.

In the meantime, let’s take a good hard look at Plot Twists, and why they are often much harder than it seems they should be – and what can be done about the problem…

Twisted Directions 1061652_17898544

Pretzel Thinking – Eleven types of Plot Twist for RPGs, Part 1

The Plot twist is amongst the hardest literary devices to employ in an RPG setting. The main reason for the difficulty is that so few of the literary techniques used in literature, TV, and movies, can be applied to the RPG environment.

The wikipedia page on the subject that I listed a moment ago lists 11 plot twist mechanics, and for one reason or another, not one of them can be translated directly to an RPG.

Some are unfair to the players, some require a non-linear sequence of events which is much harder to pull off in an RPG without being both obvious and clumsy about it, and some are simple last-minute solutions to mysteries that lead to an unexpected perpetrator. No matter which one you look at, they all suffer from one problem or another that makes them unusable in an RPG.

If there is no past art that we can draw upon, then the GM has to go beyond known techniques and find his own methods, then refine them through failure and painful experience, getting it wrong more often than right.

Do we really need plot twists?

Plotlines keep the game interesting beyond the simple mechanics of “see monster, hit monster”. Without the capacity for surprises and unexpected developments, those plotlines become predictable and less interesting – in other words, starts losing their effect. Predictable quickly becomes dull, and dull quickly becomes “Let’s play something else.”

At the same time, you can’t just have all sorts of crazy stuff happen at random just for the surprise factor. That, too, quickly becomes predictable, and it also excludes the opportunity to have fun exploring the world because it simply won’t make sense.

So you need the world to be sensible and predictable, up to a point, and then for a surprising development to shine a new perspective on the past and create a new context for future events, reinvigorating the game’s plot potential.

And a surprising development that changes the interpretation of events and lends unexpected significance to the plot is what we call – a plot twist.

Ground rules

Having determined that the recognized literary techniques for plot twists don’t work in an RPG environment, but that plot twists are a necessary part of any RPG, then we have to find new techniques, ones that take advantage of the nature of an RPG instead of fighting it. The place to start is by laying down a couple of ground rules that our techniques will have to follow. It is violation of these ground rules that excludes the traditional plot twist techniques – in fact, the following eight rules were generated by working backwards from the question “what’s wrong with this?” as applied to those traditional techniques.

  1. The GM cannot hide or distort facts that the PCs should be able to discern.
  2. The GM cannot lie to the players, though he can mislead them, or let them mislead themselves – but beware of Confirmation Bias.
  3. The plot twist has to follow logically from the combination of the facts observed by the PCs and other facts to which they were reasonably not privy, but which will become clear in the course of the revelation of the twist.
  4. Characterization should be consistent within reasonable normality. That means that a character can pretend to be something they aren’t, but this should be detectable unless they are consummate actors; outside of a deliberate act of deception by the character, their personality should be consistent, however complex.
  5. Ideally, the plot twist should make the PCs world richer, more detailed, and more substantial.
  6. The Plot Twist must not required the PCs to behave in a manner dictated by the GM. Misguided PC behavior based on incorrect understanding of a situation by players is fine.
  7. The Plot Twist must not take away the PCs ability to do something about whatever situation they are in, and should not confine PC actions to a single subsequent path.
  8. The key to a good plot twist is the surprise factor. The plot twist must not only maintain the surprise but deliver it as a “punch” at the right time. The perfect plot twist will drop player’s jaws in surprise (I’ve managed that about four times, which shows how hard it is).

Types Of Plot Twist

With those rules defined, we can turn our attention to types of plot twist suitable for RPGs, how to create them, and how to implement them effectively.

I stated earlier that, since the literary plot twists don’t work, it would be necessary for a GM to find his own methods and acquire proficiency in them on his own. Over the last 33+ years of gaming, I have matched the official eleven with eleven approaches of my own:

  1. The Instinctive Twist
  2. Emergent Opportunism
  3. Inverted Identities
    • The villain is a hero.
    • The hero is a villain.
    • The victim is a hero.
    • The victim is a villain.
    • The villain is the victim.
    • The hero is the victim.
  4. Key Fact Substitution
  5. The Figure From The Shadows
  6. Lurking Opportunities, Hidden Significance
  7. Predestined Failure
  8. Pointillism And Context
  9. Multi-track Planning
  10. Dust in the wind
  11. More Than Meets The Eye

Now, without explanation, some (most?) of those will be meaningless, though some may be obvious. There’s something to be said about each of them, though, so let’s start looking at them in detail:

Twist One: The Instinctive Twist

The most basic sort of plot twist is the one that is achieved by the GM deciding that the players are too on top of whatever the situation happens to be and deciding to throw a surprise monkey wrench into proceedings – “They’ll never expect this!”

With the exception of novice GMs who try to plot-railroad a twist into their adventures, this is where we all start learning the art of the plot twist, and many never go beyond it.

Like a player making an instinctive move in chess with the aim of surprising an opponent, this technique is instinctively complicating the situation for shock value and rationalizing it afterwards. It’s biggest flaws are that sometimes it can’t be made rational, and is never very well thought out, so it often creates opportunities for the players to exploit. In fact, one player I once knew used to deliberately provoke his GM by emphasizing the predictable aspects of the game in the most irritating way possible just to create these opportunities. Players claiming that something was predictable after the fact should be taken with a grain of salt! If the GM in question had not risen to the bait time and time again, and simply stuck to the situation he had so carefully crafted to challenge the players, his adventures would have been more successful and entertaining.

If, however, a player is successfully predicting what’s going to happen next, either verbally to the others, or simply through preparations for whatever they expect to encounter, the temptation to throw an unscripted and unplanned complication into the works, no matter what it does to the plotline, can be overwhelming. While this can work in the short-term, the better long-term solution is to get better at crafting plots that have built-in plot twists.

To be honest, my strike rate with this type of plot twist is about one in three. Quite often, they make things more “interesting” in the short-term but do long-term damage to the campaign; and about one in ten can’t be rationalized because they contradict something I had forgotten but the players haven’t. But, every so often, your instinctive creation of a complication that you haven’t thought through will succeed on all fronts.

I got a lot better at doing this when I learned to swallow my pride, admit that the plotline was not delivering the excitement that it should have, and calling a five-minute break to give me time to come up with a plot twist and think it through at least somewhat. Similarly, when the players do something unexpected, or manage to shortcut the plot into a place that the GM hasn’t prepped, you will have more success at coping if you give the players credit and call a break to assess your options.

I should make it clear that I plot at two levels simultaneously – I know what the NPCs’ ambitions and goals are, and how they are going about achieving them (that’s one level), and I know how I expect the PCs to learn of the NPCs actions and what I think they can do about it. Whether or not they actually follow the path to success that I perceived is irrelevant and completely up to the players. On rare occasions, I’ve had to breadcrumb the route to my solution rather than letting the game come to a complete standstill, but this is rare – and something I only do when I’m convinced that the PCs would not be as lost as the players are!

It’s a long-held maxim of my gaming that where there is one solution to the problem confronting the PCs, there will be more, and any of them are acceptable. This makes it much easier to respond when the players go off the reservation or think outside the box; all I have to do is make sure that I have something interesting for the rest of the day, and that whatever I come up with in the way of an unexpected development does not invalidate the solution, ie fail rules 6 and 7.

As I have become more skilled at plotting in this way, I have found myself relying on this technique far more infrequently. I still have it in my toolbox if I need it, but it is very much a last resort. The other techniques described in this article are better.

Twist Two: Emergent Opportunism

I try to keep track of what all the PCs enemies are up to; this is easier in some campaigns than others. It’s especially hard in the Zenith-3 campaign because a superhero campaign (by its nature) has so many villains!

An adventure is essentially one of two things: either it’s an NPC doing something that should trigger a response or reaction from the PCs, or it’s an NPC reacting or responding to something the PCs have done (on some occasions, it’s both at the same time). I can’t predict what the PCs will do with any certainty (though I can make educated guesses); but I certainly do know what the primary villain of an adventure is up to. Every time I plot an action by an NPC, I briefly run down the mental catalog of other NPC enemies in play (whether the PCs know about them already or not) and ask four questions:

  1. Does this create an opportunity for the second NPC to advance his agenda?
  2. Does this pose a threat to the second NPC’s goals?
  3. Can the second NPC gain a future advantage by becoming involved in the plotline?
  4. Does the second NPC have a personality that would mandate their involvement in the situation?

If any of these questions are “yes”, then I have a potential plot twist, and I move on to a second set of three questions:

  1. Will the second NPC acting in the current situation harm my long-term plans for either of the NPCs (or for any others)?
  2. Does the second NPC have a personality that would regard any risks in their involvement as unacceptable?
  3. Will their involvement in the current situation make it more interesting?

If these indicate that the second NPC would not get involved (for whatever reason), I create a rational reason for them not to do so, despite the potential gains and/or compulsion to do so, if I haven’t got one already. If it’s something trivial like “didn’t learn about it in time” then I usually don’t bother recording it in time; if it’s anything more interesting, I do.

But if the stars align, the second NPC can be written in as a plot twist. Note that it will usually qualify as one because of the keyword “interesting”, and especially in terms of the dynamic of the relationship between the two NPCs that either exists or will develop in the course of the encounter.

I’ve had second villains turn up and seize control of a situation, leading the original villain to ally with the PCs to undo his own plot. I’ve had a second villain turn up and fight the first for control of the situation because only one can benefit from it. I’ve had villains revealed as each other’s arch enemies. I’ve had second villains turn up and tell the PCs, “He [first villain] must be stopped, even if it means we must work together to do so!” I’ve had second villains get involved indirectly because something they are doing is making the current situation worse, or because the current situation is making what they are up to worse. And I’ve had second villains turn up and say, “Your plan interests me, but I believe I have identified a flaw. Why not do [x]…” (this is especially galling to the players if they had been planning to exploit that flaw!)

Every one of those examples would qualify as a plot twist!

In addition, even masterminds make mistakes – and not all villains are masterminds. If the combination promises to be interesting enough, that can be enough reason to involve the second villain even if (logically) he shouldn’t. The real killer is question 5 – if that’s a “yes” then I won’t do it, no matter what.

That disposes of the preplanned NPC actions. The other part of the picture comes from PC responses to these preplanned NPC actions, and to unplanned NPC reactions to those responses. As decisions get made in-game, I use the shortlist of second characters who might get involved to quickly assess the same eight questions, usually without even needing to articulate them mentally. It only takes a second or so to make a decision about bringing in a complication at a future point consistent with the time it would take the NPC in question to make his decision and act upon it. Never neglect travel time!

This technique relies upon the fact that an RPG can have a wider pool of villains than the cast that appear to be involved at the start of an adventure; unlike a novel or TV show, where this would be considered a dues-ex-machina (introducing a character who had not previously appeared in the story), this draws upon the wider setting possible to an RPG.

Twist Three: Inverted Identities

Another fairly obvious technique is for the characters participating in the plot to exchange roles within that plot unexpectedly. Since there are multiple roles within the plot, this option contains a number of subtypes to consider. To understand them. we first need a system of classification (to make sure we don’t miss any). Fortunately, this is fairly simple.

The Conflict Triangle

There are three basic roles in any encounter – the good guy, the bad guy, and the person the bad guy is trying to harm or has harmed, assuming that we have a more complex situation than one simply attacking the other. These roles may be occupied by a single individual, an organization, or a group. Any change of roles implies an exchange with one of the other points of the triangle or there is no explanation for the conflict between them, and certainly no conflict to resolve in the rest of the plot. That means that there are six basic inversions to consider.

The Role Of the PCs

But wait, it’s more complicated than that. Where are the PCs? Are they occupying one of these roles, or are they bystanders trying to understand what is happening, and deciding how to intervene? In particular, are they occupying the Hero role?

The triangle gives six options, and in two of them the hero changes roles. If the hero role is not reassigned, it makes no difference whether or not the hero is one or all of the PCs; so in fact we have eight options. Rather than duplicate a lot of the discussion, however, I have chosen to ignore the additional variations except when they matter.

Variation 1: The apparent villain is a hero.

This immediately calls into question the motivation for the conflict between villain and victim, with the implication that either there has been some misunderstanding which got out of hand, or the victim is actually a villain (a double-exchange). Since there is no change in the status of the hero role, upon this revelation taking place, an uneasy alliance between former villain and PCs is likely to ensue; however, if the PCs have already attacked, they may also be recast as villains in the plot, without even knowing it. One way or the other, however, this exchange collapses the Conflict Triangle into a straightforward conflict.

This would seem to violate our fifth rule, but that is not the case on closer examination; it creates moral ambiguities, expands on the concept of hero and villain as transitional roles in at least some cases, renders an NPC into a more complex and complete character, signaling greater importance for that character in the future or more of the same. Far from simplifying the game world, this adds moral depth and shades of gray to it.

This is therefore a great way of taking a morally simple (or even simplistic) world-view, which is often part of some genres, and adapting that genre and world-view to a more modern, cosmopolitan audience.

Variation 2: The apparent hero is a villain.

This takes on two quite different meanings if the PCs are filling the hero role or if they are bystanders.

Hero Role:
The PCs are doing something that seems to be the right thing to do, but for some reason it’s not. That usually means that the apparent villain is actually filling the hero role, and the apparent victim is another villain, but that doesn’t have to be the case – the villain and victims might also be filling their allocated roles. This creates a situation in which the PCs and the villains are unwitting rivals for something the victim has or knows.

Things get more interesting when the PCs aren’t occupying one of the three roles. It means that the actual situation is a rivalry between two villains, and regardless of what the PCs do about the situation, one or both will be disadvantaged. If one can capitalize on the disadvantage to his rival, he will win the prize with the help of the PCs – putting them in a position where they hand an advantage to an enemy, and have to undo their mistake. Or perhaps both will be disadvantaged, and the PCs will end up with the prize – without knowing what it is or what it can do, a potential time bomb.

Variation 3: The apparent victim is a hero.

At first, this may look like a fairly straightforward option, but there are a couple of subtle nuances. Heroes, after all, come in three sub-varieties: they are either the PCs’ antecedents, the PC’s peers, or the next generation (or a wannabe) coming along to make them feel old. The first shines a light on campaign history and is a great way to deliver additional background to the players; the second introduces a potential rival, or a potential NPC member of the group, which is always a handy thing to have on tap; and the third can be either a great way to make the players feel the passage of time within the game, while boosting their confidence because there is a new generation coming to take their place if the worst happens, or is an additional source of worry if the victim is actually a wannabe hero. Of the two, the peer is the weakest option, unless one of two circumstances apply: (1) the victim is someone with a personality that immediately irritates the PCs, sending the encounter down the rivalry route, and potentially eventually turning the hero into a villain; or (2) the victim/hero is a genuine peer who is getting the tar beaten out of him, to the point where he may be forced to retire for a lengthy period of recuperation if not permanently, it shows the power of the opposition to the PCs.

This inversion focuses on campaign continuity, no matter which variation you choose. The campaign will always be a little bigger afterwards.

Variation 4: The apparent victim is a villain.

An interesting moral problem for the PCs in some genres: what do you do when someone is beating an enemy to a pulp, as in, there is serious threat of permanent injury or death? Is the villain a hero, and anti-hero, or a villain? This is one of the most straightforward of the variations, and almost inevitably casts the PCs in the hero role while making it unclear what the heroic thing to do is.

Variation 5: The apparent villain is the victim.

Closing in on the final variation, but before we get there, let’s consider this interesting situation. This is a perfect swap in role between villain and victim, and is clearly the result of the victim having picked on the wrong target, who has turned the tables by the time the PCs show up. The reasons for the conflict will vary from case to case, but the PCs are obviously cast in the position of the hero and may be unsure about who to help – or may help the wrong party.

Variation 6: The apparent hero is the victim.

Our final variation is a tricky one to work out. But that only makes it potentially more interesting. It’s clearly a case of the original victim having turned the tables on someone, in the same way as Variation #5, but on whom? Is the person who was initially serving as the hero now the victim? That would describe a trap for a vigilante, perhaps. Or is the original villain now the victim? That would describe a situation in which a vigilante has drawn a villain out for disproportionate punishment.

A fourth corner to the triangle: the witness

Did I say there were only six, sorry, eight variations? There aren’t. The whole situation can be complicated endlessly by way of the witness – a witness who spots an opportunity (becoming the villain), a witness who is threatened for what he has seen (the victim), a witness who leaps in to try and help (the hero). It’s easy to end up in a situation in which no-one is exactly who they appear to be at the moment the PCs come across the situation.

A general lesson

And that gives a clue as to how to handle plot twists in general. They are usually situations which had a beginning that the PCs didn’t see, and which are prone to misinterpretation or manipulation through a deliberate act of deception by someone. If you remember that part of the story happened “off camera” and do nothing that contradicts the truth of what occurred in that preliminary time-frame except through subsequent lies and deception, anything else is fair game – until the time comes to reveal the truth, of course!

And that, unfortunately, is where I ran out of time. In part two, I’ll look at the remaining eight types of plot twist (yes, we really are about half-way – well, maybe 40% of the way – through!)

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The Unexpected Creeps Up Behind You – Dec 2014 Blog Carnival

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November 2014

The November Blog Carnival hosted by Roleplaying Tips, is winding up – there are just a few days left to post your articles on the subjects of Aliens and Races.

December 2014

That also means that its time for me to gear up for the December Carnival, because I’ve put Campaign Mastery’s hand up to serve as Host. The subject this time around is going to be “With A Twist” – surprises, plot twists, the unexpected in any form, and anything else that’s relevant to these subjects.

I’ve got one two-part article aimed at the topic so far (not counting this one), and I’m looking forward to the variety of interesting submissions that such a broad topic should produce. Remember, anything that has anything at all to do with surprises, tricks, twists, or the unexpected is fair game!

This page is the anchor for the month – Bloggers, link to this page to generate a pingback and drop me a comment here about your article, so that it can be included in the end-of-month roundup on the subject.

But I’m not the type (usually) to simply put up an empty “send your comments here” and call it an article. So I’m kicking the month off early with a modest essay on the subject of — Well…



Let’s start with a definition, from


  1. To encounter suddenly or unexpectedly; take or catch unawares.
  2. To attack or capture suddenly and without warning.
  3. To cause to feel wonder, astonishment, or amazement, as at something unanticipated.
    • To cause (someone) to do or say something unintended.
    • To elicit or detect through surprise.


  1. The act of surprising or the condition of being surprised.
  2. Something, such as an unexpected encounter, event, or gift, that surprises.

Surprise is also a vital game mechanic in many if not most game systems. And that’s only fair enough; the ability to cope with the unexpected is a key factor in events in real life, and some can react while others only stand and gape.

Surprise is also a huge tactical advantage, one that many game systems don’t simulate very well, usually severely underestimating its impact. There are some good reasons for this – surprise takes away from the PCs ability to act or react to a situation, and that’s no fun for the PCs. However, the lame implementations that are common are so mild as to make surprise tactically almost-insignificant, and that’s going too far. Ideally, you want surprise to dump the PCs just deep enough into trouble that they can fight their way back out – barely.

The effects of Surprise

Game systems have all sorts of different ways of simulating the condition of surprise. Before we can discuss them, though, we need to understand what the effects of surprise are.

My research says:

  1. Surprise causes hesitation even in the face of the immediate need to act.
  2. Surprise causes a gap in comprehension; and if another unexpected event occurs while in a surprised state, it can extend that surprise state as the mind struggles to integrate perceptions into a view of the world that it can comprehend and act upon.
  3. Surprise can redirect or refocus attention onto something new instead of maintaining concentration on whatever someone was doing at the moment they were surprised. If the new focus of attention is perceived as threatening (whether it is or not), it can trigger an involuntary fight-or-flight response, whether or not that response is actually warranted by the degree of threat. Note that fight-or-flight means that the focus shifts immediately once again away from the threat to search for escape routes; if one presents, it will be taken if surprise is still in effect, regardless of how unsafe it may be. If no escape route presents itself, focus will return to the threat; if there is an opening to attack, it will be taken, otherwise a defensive posture will probably be adopted.
  4. Responses to surprise can be trained, but this conditioned response will only be applicable to stimuli that match those trained for. These responses may be triggered as any other conditioned response, regardless of whether or not the person is surprised at the time.
  5. People can be desensitized to particular types of surprise, which over time leads to a decrease in the level of surprise intensity experienced. This doesn’t mean that they won’t be surprised in a scary movie, just that they might expect the startling scene due to familiarity with past movies of the genre, lowering the level of surprise.
  6. Some studies show that higher IQ corresponds to a shortened surprise reaction. Some show that higher IQ corresponds with an increased propensity to be surprised. Some studies that don’t differentiate between these two aspects of the phenomenon suggest that IQ makes no quantifiable difference. None of these results have been proven to a statistical certainty.

By my count, that’s six criteria that any surprise system has to simulate in order to correspond with reality. I doubt any will, simply because playability mandates some level of compromise. But let’s take a look at one or two and see how we go.

D&D 3.x

3.x has two mechanisms for simulating surprise: “Surprise” and “Flat-footed”.

“Surprise” is described as the situation when combat begins and you are not aware of your enemy while they are aware of you. Awareness is up to the GM to decide, there are some examples and guidelines. In the event that some participants are surprised and others are not, combat begins with a “Surprise Round” in which only those who are not surprised can act.

Actions in a surprise round consist of a Standard Action, and any additional Free Actions that the GM permits. This is slightly more restrictive than a normal combat round. Those who don’t get to act in a Surprise round are considered flat-footed. Interestingly, the term “Surprise” is mentioned only in the heading of the rules section summarized above.

“Flat-footed” sounds impressive, but in fact everyone who has yet to act in a combat is in that condition. It means that you can’t use your Dexterity Bonus to AC, and can’t make attacks of opportunity. What’s more, some classes have the potential to avoid being considered flat-footed.

So what does “surprise” amount to under these game mechanics? A delay in the end of a slightly-reduced ability to defend yourself for one combat round – and some characters can avoid that penalty – and the inability to act for that same fixed period of time. Full stop.

Comparing that with our list of real-world effects, we can rate this system as one out of six. If we allow for the uncertainty of the last and assume that everyone not trained to do otherwise will react the same overall, two out of six.

It can be argued that it’s unreasonable to mandate effect three, that’s a matter of roleplay. I consider that true, as far as it goes – but since players don’t typically so roleplay, instead focusing on the threats displayed under the situation, I would argue that some game mechanics should be at least considered.

However, there’s one vital element that the rules quoted above don’t mention, and it changes the entire picture. How long is a combat round? For how long should surprise continue, in combat rounds?

I’ve always been told that there’s one surprise round and then the characters act normally, but a stricter reading of the rules suggests otherwise. Surprise rounds continue as long as one or more characters are unaware of the presence of a hostile force. That means that if the hostile force does something sneaky instead of attacking in their surprise round, surprise will continue to apply. However, the number of participating characters might change.

The big shortcoming is that Surprise is all or nothing, and being caught “Flatfooted” is not all that significant. While the DEX bonus to AC is useful, it is not all that substantial.

Proposed Optional Rules

I have four House Rules to propose that, in combination, would lift the score to five out of six, possible six out of six.

Proposed Optional 3.x Rule Number One:
“Flatfooted” also prevents the use of a shield (including any AC bonuses it may confer) and prevents any weapon from being reloaded, i.e. if you have an arrow in hand, you may fire that arrow, but may not then draw another arrow from the quiver; if your crossbow is cocked and loaded, you can fire it, but cannot cock and reload it.

Proposed Optional 3.x Rule Number Two:
The round after a character is attacked while in a state of surprise, they enter “fight-or-flight” status. While in this status they are no longer considered flat-footed and may act as any other character within the Surprise Round, but must make a WIS check at DC15 or be forced to use their one standard action for movement in the direction of the nearest escape route in as straight a line as possible, which may subject the character to attacks of opportunity. If there are no escape routes, the character may attack. If presented with multiple foes, they will attack in the direction of what would be the most immediate escape route if the target attacked were not there. Thereafter, in any round in which they are not attacked, they may make additional WIS checks at DC15 to end this condition. If they are attacked, they may also save, but the DC is increased by 1 per dice of damage inflicted on the character in that round.

2a: Any class ability or feat that prevents the character from being caught flatfooted while surprised places that character in “Fight or Flight” mode immediately, as though they had just exited the condition of being surprised, but also confers a +2 to the first WIS check. Furthermore, they may choose their route of movement towards the escape route rather than being restricted to straight-line movement as described.

2b: Fighters and other soldiers may, at the GM’s discretion, make a save vs military class level to avoid this status completely by virtue of their training.

Proposed Optional 3.x Rule Number Three:
While in “fight-or-flight” condition, the character must make an INT check (same DCs) to use any INT-based skill or ability, including the ability to cast spells. Exceptions are at the GMs discretion but should normally include wands, scrolls, and quickened spells.

Proposed Optional 3.x Rule Number Four:
If a character is attacked from behind or the side, or by any foe they did not realize was present, while in “fight-or-flight” condition, they resume being flatfooted for their subsequent action in the current or next combat round, whichever comes first. If anything else occurs that could be considered surprising or unexpected, they must make a WIS check at DC15 to avoid reentering a surprised state for a round. These events occur even if the character is now aware of hostile forces (but this would mean that they will automatically come out of surprise after one combat round. Characters who are not subject to being flatfooted by virtue of class abilities or feats do not lose a round to surprise; the primary effect on such characters is to restart the saves sequence in “fight or flight” status.

The first proposed rule employs the logic that if you can’t effectively dodge to one side in combat (i.e. employ your DEX-based AC Modifier, you shouldn’t be able to do anything else similar, like moving a shield into position to block an attack. My first draft outlawed all ranged weapons fire – can’t aim at anything for the same reason – but I decided that was too harsh and restrictive.

The second rule creates an intermediate combat condition after a character is surprised in which they are less in control of their actions, while permitting players the chance of regaining control. It also confers the opportunity for a character to be returned to a state of surprise if attacked unexpectedly, or some other surprising development occurs. Rule 2a describes how Rogue and Barbarian immunity to surprise is interacts with this combat condition. Rule 2b gives an out to those who can reasonably be described as having trained for surprise combat if they are experienced enough will still letting surprise pose a risk to these characters.

Rule number three deals with the difficulty in comprehending the environment and in performing complex mental tasks while surprised.

Lastly, Rule Four permits the unexpected to disturb mental equilibrium even once a character has started to recover from being surprised.

Personal assessment:

I would keep Rule number one. I would consider rules two through four on a trial basis before committing to them; they may complicate combat too much, failing the playability test. But the description of “Surprise” that results is so much closer to the real condition that it’s definitely worth considering.


Unsurprisingly, there aren’t many differences between 3.x and Pathfinder. They are explicit in stating that characters are only flatfooted when surprised because they haven’t acted yet, and until they become aware of a hostile opponent, they won’t get to act. Free actions are no longer only if the GM permits them.

That means that they don’t even meet the same standard as the 3.x rules in terms of realism because they don’t fully replicate the one aspect of being surprised as well as 3.x does. However, the rules are considerably simpler in explanation, and so would score more highly in terms of playability.

Optional Rules

The optional rules stated above work fine in principle but are out of step with the relative simplicity of the pathfinder rules. So I would simplify them somewhat to bring them more into line:

Proposed Optional Pathfinder Rule Number One:
When you are “Flatfooted” you cant use a shield or get any AC bonus from a shield. You can’t reload a ranged weapon, but may use any ammunition already in hand.

Proposed Optional Pathfinder Rule Number Two:
When a character stops being surprised, they enter “fight-or-flight” status. They must move in as straight a line as possible toward the nearest escape route unless they make a WIS check at DC 15. This may subject the character to attacks of opportunity. If the escape routes are blocked by enemies, the character must attack the enemy blocking the most accessible escape route until the character makes a WIS Check as described. As soon as the character succeeds in a WIS check, they are free to choose their actions as normal. Characters with the Uncanny Dodge ability who would otherwise be flatfooted are forced to move as described until making a successful WIS check but may choose the direction of movement. Fighters and other martial character classes may, at the GM’s discretion, make a save vs military class level to avoid this condition completely by virtue of their training.

Proposed Optional Pathfinder Rule Number Three:
While in “fight-or-flight” status, the character must make an INT check (DC 15) to use any INT-based skill or ability, including the ability to cast spells. Exceptions are at the GMs discretion but should normally include wands, scrolls, and quickened spells.

This says effectively the same thing, but with a some simplification, and it eliminates the fourth proposed house rule entirely, more in keeping with the simplicity and increased emphasis on playability. They do take a little of the flexibility away from the characters but simplify the mechanics considerably in the process.

The loss of proposed house rule four removes the simulation of recurring panic from the mechanics, and so this would only score four or five out of six – but that is a great deal better than the original state of the simulation, and makes Surprise something to be avoided if it is at all possible, something that is not the case in many high-level campaigns.

Personal Assessment:

I don’t currently run a Pathfinder campaign, but if I did, I would adopt all the rules as given above. I might raise the DC required, bearing in mind how easy it is for most mid-level characters to achieve this standard.

D&D 4e

I don’t run this system and have never played it; I quickly became convinced that it moved its emphasis in a direction that didn’t suit my existing campaigns. Those campaigns are still running and 5e is now out, so I kind of doubt that I ever will. So I’m not qualified to comment. I did an online search for the relevant rules but found everything pointing at one of the online 3.5 SRDs, so that was a bust, too. If anyone wants to synopsis how 4e handles Surprise and assess it against the six criteria listed earlier, drop your contribution into the comments section!

D&D 5e

A similar story with the latest iteration of the D&D rules, I’m afraid – they have simply been beyond the reach of my wallet so far, and while I have access to the playtesting drafts of the rules, if there was no change from those to the final game rules I would be quite disappointed. Once again, if anyone wants to synopsize and evaluate the surprise rules, please direct the info to a comment!

Hero System 5e

The Hero System is another game system that I use frequently because it’s the basis of the Pulp Campaign. It recognizes two distinct types of Surprise – there’s an attack from an unexpected direction or quarter while already engaged in combat or expecting combat, and a more severe situation when you aren’t expecting an attack at all.

Being surprised in-combat makes you easier to hit. There are no other direct effects. And, of course, once you’ve been surprised by a given combatant, it’s much harder to be surprised by them again, though there are ways it can be done using powers like invisibility combined with some stealthy movement capability.

Being surprised when you aren’t expecting combat is far more serious. Such targets are not only easier to hit but take double stun damage, which can be enough to induce other combat effects. It’s also easier for attackers who have the advantage of surprise to target using a Placed Shot, which can compound the effectiveness of the attack.

It’s those “other combat effects” that are critical. If the attack inflicts more STUN damage than the targets’ CON, after his defenses are taken into account, then the character is Stunned. This is bad news – not only can you not act, but powers which are voluntary shut down, you remain at half-defense (so subsequent attacks continue to be easier to succeed with), and the character doesn’t get some of his normal recoveries, meaning that he is vulnerable to running out of STUN completely, inducing unconsciousness. Finally, in order to get to act normally, he has to use a full action to Recover from being stunned, and ANY damage inflicted while he is attempting to do so prevents the Recovery from succeeding.

In effect, this means that if the initial hit (the surprise, in other words) is big enough, the character can do nothing but gape and try to make sense of what is going on until he gets an action in which he is not successfully hit again – with his defense against being so hit reduced.

By my count, that’s two or three out of six of the effects of stun. What’s more, tucked away in the relevant rules is the statement that Soldiers, Police, etc, can’t be surprised while on duty – that seems a little too generous to me, but it’s close enough to the “trained response” to add another one to the score. In fact, the only real-world effects not modeled by this system are the contentious “INT differences” and the “fight-or-flight”.

But that’s not the end of this particular story.

While characters can start “Recovery from being Stunned” in their action, it takes their FULL action. Depending on how you interpret the rules, that can be significant.

The easier option, in terms of game playability, is to have a character complete a full round action at the point when they act in the battle sequence. The more realistic option is for this action to be complete the instant before their next action begins. This makes a huge difference in terms of the rule that “any additional damage that penetrates defenses prevents the success of the Recovery”.

Optional Rules

There are a number of rules variations possible that attempt to combine the more playable game mechanics with what seems to be the intent of the rules, i.e. the more severe combat effects.

Proposed Optional Hero System Rule Number One:
The simplest such variation that I have found is to define an additional combat status, “In Danger of being Re-Stunned”, which the character enters after executing a “Recovery from being Stunned” action. In this half-way state, the character has all the game effects of being stunned lifted, but any damage that penetrates his defenses immediately makes the character Stunned again.

That leaves the question of how and when a character exits this combat status. There are two options here, and while the difference might seem trivial at first, it is actually rather profound.attempt

Proposed Optional Hero System Rule Number Two – standard rules:
As soon as the character is permitted to act following an attempt to “Recover from being Stunned”, they are no longer “In Danger of being Re-Stunned”.

Proposed Optional Hero System Rule Number Two – ‘fight or flight’ rules:
As soon as the character completes a full action following an attempt to “Recover from being Stunned” and is permitted to make a second full action, they are no longer “In Danger of being Re-Stunned”.

The second version means that a character may have a full action after recovering from being stunned, but remains vulnerable to being Re-Stunned until they commence the action after that – which means that there is a tactical imperative to use that first full action to minimize the dangers of being hit again. This constrains what the character should choose to do to the normal “fight or flight” responses – head for a point of protection, take cover, or try to get whatever is in between them and safety out of the way if there is no other option. It’s not a perfect implementation but it comes close.

Personal Assessment:

Implementation of the first rule should be pretty much universal, since it does nothing but simplify the game mechanics without changing them. The choice between versions one and two of the second rule is a little more problematic, and should be made along genre lines, and possibly even on a case-by-case, combat-by-combat, basis.

The players in the Adventurer’s Club campaign are the types to seek cover in this sort of situation anyway, do I don’t think version two would be needed very often in that campaign – we can trust our players to behave sensibly. If I were running a superhero campaign, genre conventions dictate that superhero slugfests are over the top, so I would commit to the first version of the rule. A super-agents campaign, on the other hand, should emphasize melodramatic combat and high-stakes danger, so I would commit such a campaign to the second version of the rule, and this would also be the case with Fantasy Hero campaigns (with possible exceptions). The same would probably hold true for Ninja Hero and Star Hero campaigns, for the increased gritty realism and heightened melodrama, respectively.

Other Game Systems

There are a LOT of other game systems out there, from TORG to who-knows-what. I’m sure that some of them have innovative or unique methods of simulating Surprise, and it would not surprise me if some of them ignored the subject entirely. The purpose of this article is not so much to be comprehensive (though I would like to have covered the most popular game systems), but to act as an example and a template for others to consider the way in which the game system they are playing simulates Surprise.

Does it do it well? Does it miss any of the key criteria? Does it play well? I want each GM reading this to spend 60 seconds asking how well the game system they are using handles this aspect of the simulated reality – and whether or not some house rule to implement a closer simulation would be worth the experiment.

By all means, if there is a different way of handling surprise, tell me about it in the comments. If you try a house rule to better simulate surprise, I want to know if it’s an improvement or not. Let’s make this a month of pleasant surprises!

An unsurprising conclusion?

All game systems are a compromise between reality, an idealized genre-rooted distortion of reality, and playability. Each occupies a different position within this triangle. The trend should always be towards a point on the axis between the latter two, with “reality” harnessed in service of the other goals, which in turn exist only to create entertainment for the participants.

The rules for Surprise in a game system are representative of this point, varying from “very close to reality” in some cases to “extremely compromised” in others.

However, in all cases examined, it is not all that difficult to frame rules that more accurately simulate reality without compromising the other priorities; the inevitable question has to be, why were these rules not included in the game systems in question. Is it simply a case of human error, or was it a necessary compromise to make room for something judged more essential?

Regardless of the reason, the fact remains that every game system examined was compromised to at least some extent, perhaps unnecessarily. The decision as to whether or not to leave things in that state for your game is up to you, as GM, after due input from your players. This article tells you what you need to know in order to make an informed decision; what you make of it is up to you. It’s your campaign, I can only offer food for thought.

There’s always something unexpected creeping up behind you…

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Studs, Buttons, and Static Cling: Creating consistent non-human tech

rpg blog carnival logo

The November blog carnival is hosted by Roleplaying tips, and is on the subject of Races and Species.

For the second of the two articles I am submitting for the carnival, I thought I would step into left field and look at the question sideways for a bit, as you can tell from the title of this post. It’s impossible to underrate the importance of a unique look-and-feel in sci-fi and fantasy on television and movies, but because these are visual media, a lot of GMs under-estimate the importance of this aspect of the races they create – or simply import from elsewhere – to their games.

I think that because RPGs are not primarily a visual medium, that it is more important than ever that the look-and-feel of technology is unique to each race, because it serves as a point of distinction and differentiation between races that are otherwise often nothing more than a label for a re-skinned human.

I wrote this article to address that issue…


Creating consistent non-human tech

The look and feel of technology is important. It ties the technology of a race to its creators. If you can establish a logical style for the technology, it can become a signature, to the point where the description alone can be indicative of the origins of an item.

It’s easier for those working in a visual medium, of course. But there are nevertheless principles of extrapolation of design that can be lifted from such media and applied to non-visual constructs such as RPGs.

Normally, the first place I would look for inspiration and reference would be fiction, especially science fiction and fantasy, but too much of it has failed to address this point. In fact, the only distinct reference that comes to mind is The Mote In God’s Eye by Niven and Pournelle, where the Moties have a distinctly alien slant on technology that makes a Mote-built product immediately recognizable.

So the only place to look is in the media – television and movies, specifically – though one of the examples I have in mind will provide a bridge into the world of radio.

Before we get started, I should point readers at a previous four-part article that touched on many of these issues, Creating The World Of Tomorrow (part of the “Putting the Science into Sci-Fi” series): Part One, Part Two, Part Three, and The Design Ethos Of Tomorrow (a post-scripted Part Four). Of these, the last two are probably the most relevant.

But I want to make it clear that THIS article is going to address Fantasy as well as Sci-Fi and Superhero campaigns.

Exemplars Of Style in Technology

I have selected four exemplars because each illustrates different aspects of the general principle, and hence helps identify the pertinent characteristics that need to be implemented, or simulated, in order to achieve the same results in an RPG.

Star Trek

One of the common threads running through Star Trek are the designs of the ships. Engines need to be in nacelles that can be configured in only a few arrangements for the technology to work. The “physics” underlying the universe manifests in the same basic principles whether you’re talking Federation, Klingon, Romulan, or Cardassian engineering. This underlying design theme helps add visual credibility to the various shows regardless of which era of Star Trek we’re talking about.

Beyond these common themes, each race has its own design philosophy that – supposedly – is reflective of the racial profile. The Romulans are birds of prey, the Klingons are militaristic and intimidating, the Federation are smooth and streamlined without pretension, and the Cardassians… who knows? Unfortunately, this is theory cobbled together after the fact; the designs were chosen for “looking cool” with explanations tacked on like superstructure. Over the years, authors have done a remarkable job at inventing this superstructure, but it still feels tacked on most of the time.

Practicality is filtered through a racial iconography is our first principle.

The Lord Of The Rings

Peter Jackson’s Trilogy (and I’m expecting nothing less from the soon-to-be-complete Hobbit trilogy) uses design as a visual iconography for each race and each culture. These are far more carefully thought out than those of Star Trek, but that’s a luxury that comes from working on a big-budget motion picture, and being total fan-boys and girls concerning the subject matter.

Elves are sinewy, lithe, graceful, and pointed – and so are their weapons. Dwarves are blocky, solid, and angular. Orcs are minimalistic, crude, and recycled from scrap. The Rohirran have horse motifs and lots of leather in their clothing. According to the DVD extras, the designs had two guiding principles: first is the realistic functionality of the equipment, and second is the iconographic design theme of each race. Or maybe those were the other way around.

The quest for design fidelity even extended to giving Elvish Arms and Armor a different look for each of the eras depicted within the movies, as well as offering slightly different sensibilities for those who reside in Lothlorien relative to those from Rivendell, with Legolas employing the designs of still a third sub-group.

These principles were used to specify everything from the type of thread used, through the textures, colors, and weave of the cloth, to the shape of the buttons, to the embossing and decorations, to the furniture, and to everyday items and utensils. In some cases, it might take an expert eye to classify an item’s origins from its appearance alone, but in most cases it would take just a glance at an object to identify its creators.

Our second principle is that Cultural subgroups are reflected in variations of the racial iconography.


B-5 took a different tack to Star Trek, assuming that there were many different ways to skin a cat, and that allied and peripheral technologies could profoundly influence the capacity for use of a primary technology. The Minbari way was not the same as the Vorlon way which was not the same as the Centauri, Drazi, Human, Shadows, Narn, or any other technology.

At the same time, there are undercurrents within the designs that are explicitly relevant to the culture and race; while this hodge-podge could be a recipe for anarchy, if not total confusion, the history of each race and the sources of inspiration available to that race lend a rationality to the choices that results in each type of ship looking “right”, or at least plausible, and the same design ethos is then reflected in everything else built by that race – from cups to decorations to ceremonial blades to costume.

In other words, Babylon Five tells the story of who the races are through the iconography of each race’s design aesthetics.

Let’s start with the Vorlons – they build living ships, and their ships have an organic feel. At the same time, they are intensely secretive and hide as much behind the curtain as they possibly can. Throw in their organic tech and it’s no surprise that their ships look different to anyone else’s.

Same story for the Vorlon’s arch-enemies and old friends, The Shadows. And it’s significant that from some angles, their ships look like angel’s wings, or perhaps devil’s wings, and from in front, they look like spiders; the first time that you see them, you know that they are designed to evoke a fear response with their kinesthetics and design.

Humans bought jump technology from the Centauri; as the least advanced race, technologically, human ships have a crude, box-like structure. With a few exceptions, they did not even artificial gravity, so the central rotating section that simulates gravity is a recognizable theme. This also serves to make the overall story accessible to the audience, because it’s easy to imagine us building something like that with a generation of first buying the drive technology – the setting could be anything from thirty years into the future onward. The technology, in other words, is recognizably familiar.

The resemblance between the Centauri “royal haircut” and their crescent-moon shaped fighters is unmistakable, and speaks clearly to a common design aesthetic. It does beg the question of which came first, though! More importantly, though, you have to wonder if the functionality has been compromised for aesthetics as a result of the similarity in design. The species are decadent and even hedonistic, and their ships are as much dedicated to luxury and comfort as to military effectiveness. It seems inconceivable that this was achieved without compromising the designs in pure performance terms. Their larger ships are more reminiscent of Jack Kirby’s design aesthetics from the 50s or 60s than anything else – I’m thinking of one specific panel in one specific story, which I can remember clearly, though I’m darned if I can remember which story it was – in my opinion. And yet both share enough common elements to look like they come from different periods of a single design philosophy.

The Narn are very instructive as an example. They also started without Jump Drive technology, and were conquered and enslaved by the Centauri; they eventually launched a war of liberation, won their independence – an achievement the Centauri have great difficulty reconciling with their self-image as superior – and based their designs on captured Centauri ships. Nevertheless, the basic design has evolved, the wings of the moon bending in to become more akin to a tuning fork and more angular, full of flat planes. The Narn aesthetic is entirely directed toward military efficacy, further deepening the suspicions voiced about the Centauri designs. In fact, many modern supercars evoke a similar angularity in many respects. There is also – to my eye, at least – some element of similarity between the flat planes of a snake’s or frog’s head and the Narn designs, which is only appropriate since they have skin that is also reminiscent of these species, suggestive of an amphibian species. Many other aspects of the race and culture reinforce the latter impression, which only makes the harsh, desert-like environment of their home-world – the legacy of the war with the Centauri – all the more shocking. As amphibians./reptiles in an arid environment, they have to be tough to survive, and that is a key element of their racial makeup.

The ships of the Minbari are fundamentally different to most other designs, presenting more of their cross-sections at right angles to the direction of travel, a visual that seems deeply opposed to the principle of streamlining that the Narn and Centari – and to a lesser extent, the Vorlons – employ. There is a strangely fish-like or tadpole-like quality to the designs, and at the same time the bony ridges of the species are reflected in the designs of their ships.

It is also interesting to note that the Alliance ships, which are supposedly the result of a union between Minbari and Vorlon technologies, show clear lineage from both sources when viewed from certain angles, especially from the sides.

So the third principle is that Design experiences an aesthetic evolution that mirrors the cultural and historic development of the species, within the limits of practicality.


Viking 5C Rocket Engine By Sanjay Acharya (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

Star Wars

The last exemplar is, in many ways, the hardest to pin down. The various designs of equipment and ships in Star Wars are clearly thematically linked to each other, but trying to actually describe that style in simple terms is extraordinarily difficult. If pinned down, I might suggest that the best definition is that they wear their insides on the outside instead of covering everything up with a smooth, slick exterior. Think of a jet or rocket engine without its normal cowling or covering and you will see what I mean. The same holds for everything from R2D2 through to a lightsabre by way of the Millennium Falcon.

In a way, this is a logical development of the development of shield technology – instead of the smooth exteriors we’re used to, use a force-field to achieve the same effect while leaving the critical innards more accessible for maintenance. But it also means that those functional exteriors are exposed to more patchwork repairs and wear-and-tear, rather than these being hidden from view – contributing to the “lived-in” look for which the Star Wars universe is famous.

Aside from these, there are a couple of common elements. Starship Engines are clearly all derived from one base model, and have one abiding visual characteristic, they have a “business end” that is incredibly brightly lit with an internal glow – you see this in everything from the aforementioned Millennium Falcon to the Hospital Ship that is central command in Return Of The Jedi to the Imperial Star Destroyers to long-range shuttles. The shape of these engines is variable, but this lighting effect unifies them and shows that the underlying physics is the same for all their big ships. The small ships – X-wings, Y wings, and Tie Fighters – lack this effect and employ a different root iconography, almost as though they are using a different drive technology.

Interestingly, there was a somewhat different aesthetic used for a lot of the prequel trilogy, in which those coverings were in place. This suggests that aesthetics were dumped out of practical need in the period in between the two trilogies, and is one of the visual shorthands that Lucasfilm used to signify that the prequels occurred in a “more civilized time”.

A variation on the “bright light” aesthetic was also employed by Battlestar Galactica, one of several commonalities which led to the plagiarism lawsuit from Lucas and 20th Century Fox against Universal. This was not all that surprising given the number of common members in the design teams, especially conceptual artist Ralph McQuarrie and Special Effects Artist John Dykstra.

And yet, the two are distinctly different experiences on the screen, due more than anything else to the sound design that accompanies these effects. The strange sounds employed on Star Wars are every bit a piece of iconography that clearly identifies the Star Wars universe, no visuals required. Try a few of the Star Wars sounds at and you will find yourself instantly transported into the Star Wars universe.

Star Wars achieves its common iconography through the use of thematic similarities that focus on only a couple of design elements, while leaving others open to the creativity of each film’s model-makers and artists. Thus the tie fighters and imperial star destroyers are clearly completely different in design outside of those thematic commonalities.

This gives us our fourth and fifth principles: Iconography can be applied to multiple sensory channels and It can be sufficient to focus on design sub-elements if these are addressed consistently throughout.


Applying The Principles

Having identified the five principles that seem most pertinent, it’s time to apply them to create a process for the design of aesthetically-consistent and iconographic technology, so that the benefits of that consistency become part of an RPG. I’ve broken this process down into 10 relatively simple steps. It’s important to note that it’s a complete waste of effort only applying this process to one or two races; the distinctiveness will be lost in the anarchic muddle of everyone else. In order to be effective, every race has to be run through this aesthetic development – so it’s imperative that it be very quick and easy, especially once the basic parameters are established within the campaign. Ideally, only a minute or two should be enough to do a basic job – though the more time and effort expended, the better the results will be.

Accordingly, the process is designed to be used in two different ways – a very quick run-through to generate basic ideas, and a slower, more methodolical approach that refines these rough ideas. Use the quick approach for each race at the time of campaign creation (or initial application of these principles if applying them to an existing campaign), then refine each race as they become relevant.

The ten steps are:

  • Species Tags
  • Element Selection
  • Theme
  • Design Principles
  • Physics
  • Usage
  • History and Context
  • Racial Design Iconography
  • Application
  • Outliers and Variations

And, while I’m at it, here’s a summary of the five principles for easy reference:

  1. Practicality is filtered through a racial iconography.
  2. Cultural subgroups are reflected in variations of the racial iconography.
  3. Design experiences an aesthetic evolution that mirrors the cultural and historic development of the species, within the limits of practicality.
  4. Iconography can be applied to multiple sensory channels
  5. It can be sufficient to focus on design sub-elements if these are addressed consistently throughout.

1. Species Tags

A species tag is a keyword that is used as a constant referent for the technological look and feel of a race. The preference is to use all of them as a consistent metaphor within the tech description, and if not, the more the better. The fewer of these there are, the greater the consistency with which they will be reflected in that iconography, but the more work it may be in individual cases. More makes it easier, but risks diluting consistency beyond the point of recognition by the players, wasting the entire effort.


As a general rule of thumb, two are an acceptable minimum number, three is close to the sweet spot, and four is just short of too many. It’s easy to come up with too many; just look at all the keywords that I came up with for describing the Water Realm of Zhin Tahn, as reported in my recent article (also part of the current Blog Carnival), Alien In Innovation: Creating Original Non-human Species. However, I’m going to reserve the fourth and final keyword for a specific purpose, so the goal is have three, at most.

Trimming to essentials

When you have too many, the easiest way to trim the fat is to exclude anything that’s just a variation or metaphor for another keyword; and then, if that still leaves you with more than three, to exclude any that are logically implied by a previous keyword. The goal is for this list to be the most important key concepts, even if they appear mutually contradictory.


That doesn’t mean that they have to be abstract, however. “Flat” is every bit as valid as “Graceful” or “Snowflake”. The best keywords are those that can be interpreted in many different ways.


There is one final attribute that these keywords should posses: Each should be the exclusive province of just one race or species within the campaign. Once you’ve handed “Flat” to someone, no-one but that race and it’s sub-races can have it. Others may have keywords that imply that term, but can’t have the term itself – for example, “panels” or “planes” may imply “flat” but they aren’t the same term; they each carry other connotations as well.

At The Same Time

This is easier to achieve if you generate Keyword lists for all species at the same time. Use a scratchpad or document to compile them so that you can see as many species’ keyword lists at the same time as possible.

Sub-race Distinctiveness

To distinguish each sub-race within the major race, assign that sub-race it’s own unique keyword, using the fourth slot that was set aside. Unlike the primary keywords, a secondary keyword can be the same as another race’s primary keyword (NOT the same race), but the goal is going to be to apply the secondary keyword as frequently and widely as possible, so choose it with care, looking for terms that are loaded with potential meaning or interpretation.

On rare occasions, I will also employ a second secondary keyword, primarily when the first does not seem sufficiently wide-ranging but is too powerfully descriptive to set aside.

2. Element Selection

There are three aspects to element selection, which is all about designating the points of distinct comparison to which the keywords will be applied. Ideally, you will want one, possibly two, from each category. In some cases, the third will not apply, and in others, it will be the second.

What we are not doing – yet

We don’t care what it is about these points of identification that makes them unique in the case of any given species. That will come later. All we want to know is that there will be something about the element that has been selected that will become characteristic of a race’s technology. Don’t bog down in details; if inspiration strikes, make a brief note of the idea somewhere and carry on with the task at hand.

2a. Universality

The first aspect should be a technology that is as ubiquitous as possible across all species – in other words, everyone will have some form of this technology. In sci-fi campaigns, it is often starships; in fantasy, martial weapons. But don’t be afraid to look outside the norm if it seems appropriate.

In addition to being ubiquitous, it has to be a technology that the PCs are going to be seeing frequently, or at least regularly. This, this element becomes the point of association between each species and the keywords used to describe that species. Once you have that association established, any technology derived from that species should remind the audience of the universal element of that species, and hence immediately suggest the origins of that technology.

2b. Species

The second aspect is ubiquitous within just a single species or race, and also serves as a unifying principle for that race. “Gurrnt Tech always has control studs” might be a summary of such an aspect, linking the ‘keyword’ “control studs” with the species “Gurrnt”. The best choices are something with a broad application; “nature motifs” works, for example, because it can be applied in many ways. “Control Studs” in a sci-fi campaign works because most advanced tech will have controls of some kind – the key that you are tying yourself to is that they will try and use this type of control even when humans might choose something else, like a lever, a mouse, or a wheel.

In a single-species campaign, this element can be foregone, for obvious reasons. However, even the historical presence of another species is enough to mandate inclusion.

2c. Culture/Society/Design Movements

The final aspect is one that applies only to sub-elements within a single species, adding a reference point that can be used to distinguish between different cultures or societies within that race, and within different time periods within those cultures and societies.

This is how an expert can look at a shard of broken pot found in an archaeological dig and state “This is Greek, from about 100BC” – and, unless the archaeological site is in Greece or one of it’s immediate neighbors, that tells you something immediately about the inhabitants and society of the people who lived where the site is located.

Similarly, we can look at a photograph of a car and usually make broad guesses as to the country and period of origin, or the country and period which it is attempting to emulate. This can even identify individual manufacturers if the styling has been consistent enough – but that generally comes at the price of masking one or more of the other characteristics. Porsche 911’s haven’t changed very much in outward design over the last 40 or more years, so it is very easy to look at a car and say “It’s a Porsche” and often even stating the model number (“911″) – but it then takes a real grognard to be able to locate and identify the characteristics that distinguish, say, a 1986 model from the 1996 version.
process map

3. Theme

Themes are starting points for the description of racial technology that result from applying each races’ keywords to a Ubiquitous Element. Just as the players will be using these ubiquitous elements and the depiction of each race’s solution as a touchstone, so the GM should use them as the foundation for his descriptions of the races technology – something that’s hard to do unless you have already put that theme together.

So this step generates a first draft of the theme for each race’s technology. It’s still brief and perhaps a little abstract, essentially an idea of how that race will relate the keywords to what you have designated the most common distinguishing technology across all races.

I actually construct alien tech look-and-feel in two phases, starting from this point in the process. I’ll do a very quick ‘theme’ idea each for all the races and then work on each race individually in detail through the remainder of the steps. This is illustrated by the process map to the right.

This also means that this is as far as you need to go until a particular race or their technology are going to appear in the campaign, including being described by an NPC or PC, which means that the remainder of the process can be scheduled and managed to limit the prep requirements.

Subsequent Refinement

Despite the possibility of bailing out early described in the preceding paragraph, I recommend that you proceed at least to the point of having rough notes on all the races. This is for two reasons:

  1. It’s more efficient to work on a process when you have it clearly in mind, instead of needing to re-learn the fine details each time. What takes only four or five minutes now might take two or three times as long on some other occasion.
  2. The associations in the back of your mind between the key words you have assigned as Species Tags and the ultimately resulting look-and-feel details will never be as clear and sharp as they are right now. You clearly had something in mind when you chose those particular tags; identify it and get it down in writing before it is washed away by other concerns. This factor multiplies with the already-inflated time estimate from the previous justification.

The process of refinement turns the one central idea that you determined as an identifying theme and describes it in more detail, ready to be slotted into an adventure as a paragraph of polished narrative. Note that you’re still not getting into things like classes of starship etc; this is still describing the general building blocks of descriptive narrative.

For example: “Twin Nacelles are angled to resemble a predator leaping upon its prey from in front. They thrust some distance ahead of the main part of a typical ship. It is preferable to make these (and any other element of engineering) larger and stronger in preference to increasing numbers – so bigger nacelles for a bigger ship, not more nacelles.The head of a ship is mounted on a long shaft which connects to the engineering spaces so that radiation shielding between the two can be minimized. The head consists of a thick jaw-shaped flat section angled to a point at both front and underside, while bulbous cylindrical domes surmount the ‘jaw”.

4. Design Principles

Taking the refined theme, the next step is to identify any general design principles that can apply to other technology. “Bigger not more” and “Head, Shaft, Body” are two that could be derived from the example above.

5. Physics

If the game physics are going to impose any restraints, now is the time to mention them so that they can be taken into account when applying the theme. As noted previously, there are two broad approaches that can be employed:

  1. Basic physics only admits the one general answer and all ships will be variations on a theme.
  2. There are many different ways to skin this particular cat and each race who develops their own technology will probably have a different solution in terms of look and feel..

6. Usage

Peculiarities in how technology is used or operated makes a great thematic element, but it’s too non-visual to actually use as a Theme in an RPG. Besides, it’s not like controlling / activating / using technology is an optional aspect; so it’s better to apply themes and keywords to the question of how the race controls their technology if there is any noteworthy aspect than to use up a valuable point of differentiation than is there anyway.

Therefore, this is the point to ask the question of whether or not there is a peculiarity to the way the race operates their technology, or their way of thinking about control systems, and making note of what that peculiarity is.

The other aspect of this question is that by making a ‘yes’ response optional, rather than potentially mandatory, you avoid situations in which a given control or operating stricture makes no logical sense. Sound engineering principles remain sound engineering principles, and there is no temptation to force a race into deploying a nonsensical approach “because they’re alien”. If you’re talking about a firearm, for example, a “tell me three times” control system to avoid accidental firing makes no sense at all. Instead, you have a reasonably quick firing action, an inhibitor that prevents accidental triggering of that action – the safety – and a safety policy mandating that weapons not be loaded except in circumstances where they are likely to need to be used without warning.

I once saw a “spaceship” in an RPG campaign that required people to be in three separate control rooms performing their actions simultaneously in order to have the commands recognized as valid “because they have an alien way of thinking”; if this was not the case, the commands would be ignored. Now, that might be OK for the equivalent of an ocean liner, though bizarre; but in any situation where emergency control inputs might be required, it makes no sense at all. Which is why I thought it strange to the point of lunacy that the same restrictions were placed on the operation of the emergency escape pods of this “spaceship” or the pod would not function.

At one point, I mentioned this to a player I knew, and he countered with the story of another GM who created a race which had no capacity for sight, and then used an optical warning system – lighting changing color, lights flashing, and so on – for a reactor overload condition. Why would this race build something with lights at all?

“Because they’re alien” is an unsatisfactory answer, in any event. Don’t tell me that someone is peculiar in their thought processes; tell me what the peculiarity is and why it makes sense to them. What priority of design makes this solution seem rational?

There is another aspect to this question that also bears mentioning, and that is the physical capacities of the race. Earlier this year I wrote a very well-received set of articles on Ergonomics and the impact on non-human technologies; the first part looked at Elves as an example, while Seasoning The Stew, the question was asked why I make it a priority to define the distinguishing features that separate Drow from Elves. In the question, the point was made that they were both variations of the one common culture, and so should be the same, aside from attitude, rituals and environment. Part of my answer boils down to cultural separation over a long period of time. Nevertheless, the point made in the question would be partially right; in some things, they would be the same as their surface-dwelling kin, while in others, there was ample good reason to do things differently. The final sub-step of the final step is to make notes on these differences and how they manifest in the technology of the sub-species or sub-culture that is different from what you have defined as the norm for the race – again, so that you will have the tools you need, ready for when you need them.

Different Races require differences

Very early in Campaign Mastery’s history, Johnn Four wrote an article entitled “Races should make a Difference“. I couldn’t agree more, but to be as beneficial to verisimilitude and as interesting as they could be, in order for the objects a race owns and uses and how they approach engineering, the distinctiveness of each race needs to be clear and a common design thread should connect all or most of the goods and tools and applied technologies stemming from them. That requires a consistency in the design and function of their technology, but that’s always been difficult to achieve. This article has endeavored to chart a course around the difficulties and lay out a practical approach to making your non-human tech a consistent signature of its creators. There are simply too many benefits to doing so to ignore.

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Yesterday Once More: A pulp time-travel Campaign


I originally came up with this as an adventure outline for the Adventurer’s Club campaign, but it quickly became far too big and too complicated for that.

Rather than throw it away, I have recast it as the outline of a standalone Pulp Campaign.

The overall premise is The PCs time travel into the bodies of people in the past in order to stop the spirit of an inventor bootstrapping himself into unearned wealth and power at the expense of everyone else in the planet.


The campaign writeup is a little more developed than simple outline notes, but every aspect needs further prep before it would be ready to run.


The campaign background should be a somewhat more optimistic version of our history. The Great Depression should have been shallower and shorter, thanks to bailouts and reinvestment by civic-minded entrepreneurs who foresaw the economic train-wreck and decided to do something about it. These movers and shakers then backed FDR’s reforms as though the bailout had never happened and used the corresponding increase in productivity to recover their investments and make a profit on the side – but it was a risky proposition, and one that they don’t want to have to rely on in the future. As a result, unemployment is down, incomes are up, and the future looks rosy – though the shadows of Fascism and Communism still loom on the horizon. The date should be mid-to-late 1930s.

Adventure #1: All My Yesterdays

I’m serving this adventure in more detail than most because it spells out the premise of the campaign and the relevant game physics. It’s in eight parts, some longer than others. Adventure #1 gives the campaign premise, introduces the campaign Instigator and the Master Villain, tells the players about the immediate Threat, and outlines the game physics relating to applied time travel.

  1. A newsboy is spruiking paper sales, yelling out the headline “War threat rising as German Diplomats recalled from Washington. Prices to rise, new taxes blamed, Mayor burned in effigy at Church, stunt condemned by City Government.” The PCs are approached by a beggar – one of many on the street corner – who asks for help. NB: Scenery described is very dystopian, full of polluting factories, workers as almost slave labor, etc, and NOT what the players would have been expecting from the campaign background described. Be sure to emphasize a couple of times that “everything seems normal to you,” especially if the players comment on the difference between what they were expecting and what they have actually encountered.

  2. Beggar claims to be the ghost of the wealthiest man in the world, come to set right his mistakes of the past.
  3. He outlines a variant history of our world, and explains that he was an inventor working on exotic weapons research during the conflict that occupies half the next decade, when the US Government was desperate enough to try anything. The US had stayed out of the European War until it was almost too late, dragged in only when Japan invaded and conquered Hawaii in the wake of a sneak attack. Facing a potential mainland invasion, US support of the European Theater was half-hearted, and Britain was eventually forced to its knees by lack of supplies. The Germans then turned their attentions to conquering the Caribbean Islands to use as a staging point for an eventual invasion from the southeast while the Japanese had Hawaii to stage from the west. In this environment, what was needed was a super-weapon to make both sides back off, and the DoD spent billions backing all sorts of long-shots in hopes of finding one winner.
  4. His invention was just such a winner – Ectoplasm Time Travel, enabling him to jump into the body of someone else at the destination time and use his knowledge of the future to change history. He arrived before the Yukon Gold Rush and bought up the land where the most valuable gold strikes would occur, earning himself a small fortune and becoming a legend. He then invested wisely, converting the gold into hard currency through the boom of the post WWI era, subverting politicians with bribery and legitimate backing, and knocking the most vehement of the isolationists out of politics. He sold all his stocks over the month prior to the beginning of the Great Depression, converting a fortune that had grown ten-fold in the meantime back into hard currency. When stocks in blue-chip companies reached their minimums, he had bought them up, saving the companies, and increasing that fortune 1,000-fold, until he was the wealthiest man in America and owned 60% of the 100 biggest companies in the country. He then pushed for heavy industrialization and preparations for war, using the political influence he had garnered to steamroller any obstacles, and making the US the unquestioned greatest military power in the world, all in preparation for the inevitable war.
  5. The plan approved by the 1948 DoD was for him to make the US so strong that Japan would not dare attack Hawaii, but instead would accept an official look-the-other-way neutrality with the US in the form of a treaty even now being instigated by his tame politicians. This would give the country the military strength to support England on his terms, crushing the Nazi regime. But his contemporary self has already changed the history of the world sufficiently that his predictions have a serious (and rising) margin of error, and in particular, he needs to stabilize the timeline in which he is wealthy and powerful, or the Grandfather Paradox will turn around and bite him. To do this, he needs to replicate his research and send someone else back in time to do the dirty work that leaves him in control. Only when this world has the power to make the same events occur in history will the timeline become stable.
  6. In the era from which the beggar derives, he understands time travel far more thoroughly and has also seen the consequences of his manipulations first hand. The person selected by his contemporary self will follow the plan up to a point, insinuating himself as the Oracle of his younger self, but all the while plotting to overthrow him and establish himself as a fascist dictator, not for ideology, but for personal power. The future version who’s ghost has possessed the beggar tried to stop the Oracle in the future and failed, dying in the attempt, but surviving long enough to attempt time-travel for a third time in hopes of regaining control over the situation. The Oracle must have pulled the plug on him while he was in transit back to 1895, however, because he ended up here, instead.
  7. He needs the PCs – his greatest known enemies in the timeline from whence he came, excluding The Oracle whom he did not suspect as an enemy – to (1) Seize Control of the Time Travel equipment built by his contemporary self; (2) permit him to modify the equipment, so that he can sent the PCs back to various points in the history in-between just long enough to do what has to be done and then returning them. These changes include: (3) Follow the Oracle back in time and stop him; (4) change history to some middle ground in which the money is funneled not to his past self but to various others who will of their own volition work to oppose the rise of Fascism; and (5) then set up conditions such that his original self is never called on to conduct the time-travel research that starts this whole brouhaha. This will gently “unwind” the changes made to history, restoring time to something approaching its natural course – but there is a fuzziness to the path of history, fringe effects effects will linger, making people aware of the possibilities of a potential future that never happened. This will inspire others to make preparations for future events, strengthening the US just enough to make intervention in the coming war practical without laying the foundations for a new US-based fascist world dictator to seize power.
  8. PCs are given the address of the time travel equipment. They can’t afford to kill the contemporary version of the creator of the equipment even though he is the ultimate villain of the plot; they need to keep him alive until after time has been set right and stabilized. Until then, he has to survive to become the Hero/instigator of the plot to rescue history. Nor can they afford to risk damage to the equipment. They have to get through security that is more than a decade more advanced than what they are used to, beat the armed thugs employed by villain, and try to prevent damage to the machine. They succeed in all of this but fail to prevent the Oracle being sent back into the past. Their only hope is to pursue him and stop him from changing world history in such a way that he becomes a Fascist Dictator before it’s too late.

Adventure #2: All That Glitters

Adventure #2 introduces the Immediate Threat (who the PCs have only heard about in Adventure #1) and establishes the standard format of each adventure. It may (probably will?) also establish further elements of the campaign physics.

Each adventure has both a back-in-the-past element and a here-and-now element. The latter will usually but not always be secondary to the former.

The back-time element also has a fairly standard format: a) Arrive Back In Time, b) Get together, c) Do whatever needs to be done, d) Deal with any immediate fallout, e) Make restitution to the Bodies they are inhabiting and whose lives they have disrupted, and f) return to their ‘now’.

NB: If a PC inhabiting a past body gets killed, they will return to their natural time and can be sent back in a different body. It will make the restitution phase (e) more complicated, though. If their modern-day selves are injured or harmed in any way while the PCs are in the past, improbable circumstances will arise that will deal an identical injury to the body they are inhabiting.

The PCs are sent back in time to early-to-mid-1896 (3-6 months before the Gold Rush begins), arriving at various points in the US and inhabiting the bodies of various people. Each has a solo adventure en route to junking the old lives of their hosts (no matter how prosperous) and heading for the site of the forthcoming Klondike Gold Rush. Once reunited, they have to (1) Identify the Oracle; (2) Sabotage as many of the land deals being perpetrated by the Oracle as they can; (3) Deal with the Hired Thugs sent to persuade them to mind their own business by The Oracle and the puppet behind the scenes, who will be their ally in the far future but who is currently a second enemy and desperate, while permitting enough of the deals to go through to avoid the original timeline. They will also have to do something to compensate the bodies they are inhabiting and whose lives they have disrupted. When these tasks are complete to the GM’s satisfaction (it doesn’t have to be perfect), the PCs will snap back to their present day, strapped into the time machines, where they will discover that more thugs sent by the Oracle have the beggar at gunpoint (Cliffhanger ending).

Adventure #3: Depressing Thoughts

More action, more adventure, move and countermove, and more game physics. This one is also detailed fairly extensively, and will offer still more game physics at the end.

The PCs escape their bonds and fight off the modern-day bad guys. It’s clear that they are going to have to fight on two fronts – the now and the then. Since their enemies know where they are, the smartest thing to do would be to move the time machine apparatus, but it can’t be done; there is a ‘window of elasticity’ to events before they become fixed, and the machine would need to be re-tuned and recalibrated before it could function at a new location – which would take more time than the available size of the window. So the PCs need to find a way to secure the facility, but they can’t take very long to do so.

It will also be discovered that time flows at a different rate within the machine – for every day spent in the past, only about 1 minute passed in the modern day. That means that they can minimize the window of vulnerability during which they are helpless within the machine by not dilly-dallying in the past. NB: The closer to the modern day they come, the closer to sync the two time rates become.

The PCs are then sent back to 1900’s New York City, the turn of the Millennium and beginning of the 20th century, generally viewed with a sense of optimism. The world is more or less at peace and there is a general sense that War is obsolete as a means of settling international differences, though not every country in the world has yet woken up to this fact. Treaties between the great Empires of Europe mean that should one be attacked, others will be drawn in, confronting the aggressor with overwhelming odds, so no-one would dare start anything serious. It is also a period of unparalleled innovation and of technology being taken to the masses – refer to this wikipedia page and this list for more info on what was new and exciting and what was exploding into mass popularity.

Their mission in the past is to create a targeted series of small stock market events that will limit the profitability of the investments that their major enemy is making, while sucking away about 1/3 of his investment capital and setting up investment accounts for their own future use. That requires a two-sided operation, carefully synchronized: a Big Con to separate him from his money, and some careful stock market manipulation through rumors, insider information, and deceptions.

Once again, the bodies they occupy will hail from all income levels and walks of life, and be from all over the west coast – not knowing who they would be, the PCs will have to improvise with who they are.

As usual, once the adventure is complete, the PCs will return to the present, just as unsuspected damage from the earlier fire-fight causes sparks to fly and smoke to erupt from the time-travel machine. The PCs will have to act quickly to put the fire out before the machine is irretrievably damaged, and before someone calls the fire department. End when the fire seems out but before they know how well they have succeeded in containing the situation.

Adventure #4: Over There, Over Then

The fire is out, the fire brigade are not on their way, but the time travel machine is badly damaged. To repair it, The Beggar needs a high-tension electric coil; his past self spent six months building the one that has just fried, time they don’t have. Their only choice is to beg, borrow, or steal one from the only person in this era who would have such a thing – Nikola Tesla. But they can’t tell him what they want it for, or even mention time travel in his presence. In terms of his career, Tesla had hit the high-point in 1928 and begun a slow downhill slide. His reputation as a wizard and wonder-worker remained intact, and he would frequently make the headlines with spectacular electrical light-shows and even more grandiose claims of what his technology was capable of in his hands, but in reality he was heading toward being penniless and had not had a patent approved since ’28. Always proud to the point of being self-destructively stiff-necked, this is a dangerous time to approach the inventor; his pride has been inflamed (he will not under any circumstances take anything even remotely resembling charity), and at the same time no-one serious will back him financially, and the earning power of his patents is beginning to wane.

Remembering that every minute counts (the window of elasticity), the PCs will have to move quickly – on a job that would be difficult if they had ample time at their disposal.

While attempting to gain the part they need, they will come under attack from even more thugs – their enemy has presumed that critical components may have been damaged and knows where they would have to go to obtain replacements. He has hirelings staked out these places, waiting for the PCs.

When they get it back to the time machine and install it, the Instigator will pronounce that it is safe to use – but that he has had to work around other damage that decrease the reliability of the machine. Because of the window of elasticity, they will have very little time to attempt their next mission into the past, and may even fail; he views the attempt more as a final test of the rebuilt machine than as an opportunity to undo the harm that the Oracle is doing in the past.

That mission: it’s the early days of WWI, and The Oracle has invested in many stocks that will boom as a result of the conflict. His puppet, and the ultimate villain of the campaign, now sits on the board of several companies as a junior member, and is wealthy – but no longer amongst the 100 wealthiest in America, thanks to the PCs past efforts. One of the Oracle’s key lieutenants is currently an enlisted man serving at Fort Bliss, where the Eighth Brigade under Pershing is about to be handed the task of securing the US-Mexico border in light of the Mexican Revolution. That future lieutenant will distinguish himself in the 1916-17 Punitive Expedition into Mexico in search of Pancho Villa despite the failure of that expedition overall, but only if his immediate superior takes a shine to the generally unlikeable character. The Oracle is going to achieve this by means of bribing one officer and tainting the career of another with an unproven scandal. The PCs mission is to prevent these developments if they can, exposing the corruption of the bribed officer and clearing the name of the officer who dislikes the future Lieutenant intensely.

The PCs will be (mostly if not all) civilians, they will have only half-a-week or so to get the job done, they will have to face travel restrictions and do most of their work with no authority from positions of hiding, or after stealing uniforms and ID from real soldiers, being careful to avoid blackening the records of anyone who will ever amount to anything important. This would be a difficult job if they had unlimited time, so they should expect to fail – don’t disappoint them.

When they succeed, or time runs out, return them to the 1930s as usual, but don’t have them all awaken at the same time because of the damage to the time machine. Let the PCs discuss this while they wait for the other shoe to drop and get more and more paranoid when nothing seems to happen.

When you (or they) can’t stand it any more, or time is about to run out on the game session, there will be a “ding” from another room, which will contain a large movie-like screen but no projector; instead, there will be a whole mess of vacuum tubes and mechanical mechanisms behind it. The Instigator names it “The Perspectatron” and states that it is something that he has built out of spare parts to replicate a device that he created in the future from whence he came. As an element of the timeline stabilizes as a result of the actions and counteractions of the PC and the Oracle, this machine resolves an image of that change to the timeline at some future point where it becomes critical. It has a limited capability in terms of the number of subjects that it can deal with at any time, is not always reliable, and the information is usually cryptic at best, shorn of context and explanation. Whenever the device senses that it has resolved something new, relevant, and possibly meaningful, the bell sounds – at least in theory, he’s only just finished putting it together.

Just as he says, “lets see what’s going on…” the lights will go out, leaving everyone bathed only in the opalescent light from the screen.

Adventure #5: Feet Wet

Bombs that were placed by the Oracle’s Henchmen in a Niagara Falls power plant during construction have just been detonated to cut power to the time travel device. This would normally have left the time-travel facility helpless, perhaps for weeks, but one of the improvements that the Instigator from the future made was to construct a power reserve. He couldn’t obtain reserve generators with enough power – they just don’t exist in small enough size to be practical in the 1930s, and the process of building one required more advanced tools and materials than were available as well. But he was able to pre-design a backup that could be manufactured quickly using contemporary materials – so he has enough power to run the Perspectatron and for one more time jump to undo whatever has caused the problem. This is a mission that MUST succeed or the campaign is over, with the Oracle winning.

The power plant in question is Schoellkopf Station No. 3C, constructed between 1921 and 1924. The explosives have been built into the liquid-cooled transformer coils, the oil-cooling liquid replaced with a blend of oil and Nitromethane, which was not known to be an explosive until 1958.

With the PCs distracted by the power plant disaster – most of the work of which was done back in the early 1920s – that’s left the Oracle free to make a counterstrike, kidnapping the family of one or more PCs to blackmail the whole group into submission.

Adventure #6: No Need To Get Personal

A rescue attempt is made but ends badly. The team then have to travel back in time to a couple of days earlier and change the circumstances that led to the failure of the rescue. Once they succeed, the team get to roleplay the rescue attempt again, which succeeds, this time.

Adventure #7: It’s Raining Investment Bankers

The PCs are now free to resume dismantling the Oracle’s operation. They are told that the Oracle’s next significant move came in 1929, when he made significant investments – timed to as to counter the various prophecies of doom that triggered the great depression – which delayed the economic cataclysm until 1931, when it was even more catastrophic, but enabled him to increase his “master’s” fortune massively. The team’s job is to travel back to 1927 and bring about a stock market crash that the Oracle is not expecting. This is another of the critical missions that the team can’t afford to fail, or they will be reduced to damage limitation for the rest of the campaign (or so they expect).

Back in the 1930s, the unusual activity at the lab has attracted the attentions of a German industrial spy, who has snuck in, slugged the Instigator from behind, and taken extensive photographs of the installation and the blueprints of the time-travel machine… If he isn’t stopped from getting those plans to Germany, the Nazis will also have the time-travel technology! (cliff-hanger finish).

Adventure #8: The Fifth Column

The PCs pursue the Nazi industrial spy, have a big fight with stormtroopers and members of the US Bhund, and think they have succeeded at the end in capturing the film with the photographs of the time-travel equipment.

Back at the lab, they learn through the Perspectatron that they were only partially successful; while they recaptured some of the rolls of film, a second set that was made while The Instigator was unconscious were left at a drop point, and made their way to Germany. It apparently took until 1964 for the (East) Germans to make sense of them and build a functional prototype, but they got there in the end. Even more surprisingly (from a modern perspective), they managed to hide the project from the Communists. It seems the project fell into the hands of an Anti-Nazi underground faction who want to prevent the Nazis from ever coming to power, but their interference is poorly planned and researched and will have massive negative consequences (cliff-hanger finish).

The following should be converted into briefing notes for the players to read before the next Adventure:

There are many populist myths about the rise of the Nazi party to power, some the direct result of WWII propaganda but more which have simply occupied the popular zeitgeist. Five in particular are relevant: That the reparations following world war I were responsible for the collapse of the German economy in the 1920s; That the anti-semitic and extremist positions that the 3rd Reich came to embody originated with Hitler and his party; That the Nazis gained power because they promised to restore the German Economy and National Pride (a half-truth); That it was Hitler’s party machine telling him what he wanted to hear that led him to his greatest excesses; and that it was the propaganda machine of Joseph Goebbels that led to the near-fanatical belief in Nazism by the German People.

Each of these is an oversimplification and in combination, make it seem that Goebbels was the instrument of conversion of the Nazi Party from regional minority political party to national dominance and the direct cause of their becoming the arch-villains that they are now perceived as having been by history.

If anything, this collection of misinformation fails to paint a true picture of how villainous the Nazis actually were. Tackling them one by one:

Reparations and 1920s economic collapse
The roots of the economic collapse can be traced back to the decision of the Germans in World War I to pay for the war by borrowing money. France paid for it’s participation by instituting an income tax for the first time, in comparison, while war bonds raised money for US participation.

The Great Depression caused a cessation of loans to Germany, causing the Mark to be devalued relative to the dollar; this threatened and was compounded by an economy still in recovery from the war, and by an economy that was unstable in general; and further exacerbating the problems were economic practices within the Wiemar Republic – in effect, to print as much money as they needed – and rising unemployment from the resulting depression. It was a perfect storm of economic disaster. With the devaluation of the Mark, England demanded that reparations be paid in Gold or in Goods rather than Marks; at this point, the exchange rate had begun to stabilize at about 60 Marks to the Dollar, from a position of about 9 to 1 at the end of the War.

In order to buy foreign currency, which could be used for reparations, the Germans printed as many marks as they needed, the value of the Mark began to steadily decline before it stabilized at an exchange rate of 320 to 1 in early 1922. A series of conferences seeking a solution to the German problems restored some measure of confidence in the situation, and economics is as much a matter of public perception as it is a reality. When these conferences came up empty, the German economy resumed its collapse, entering a state of hyperinflation. By December 1922 the exchange rate was 800 to 1, and the cost-of-living had increased 15-fold in just six months.

Socialist strikes by workers accelerated the collapse, as did the occupation of the Ruhr by French and Belgian troops in 1923 to force the payment of reparations in goods, signaling that they had no confidence in the stability or capacity of the German Government to manage the situation. In response to this invasion, the workers of the Ruhr went on General Strike, while continuing to be paid by the German Government for “Passively Resisting”.

By November 1923, the American dollar was worth 4,210,500,000,000 German marks.

Ironically, given that the US solved it’s economic problems (in part) by going off the Gold Standard (something that Germany had done at the start of World War I), on November 16, 1923, the Germans restored their economy by issuing a new currency that was tied to the value of gold but not redeemable for hard currency, wiping twelve zeros off the prices of goods. Because the Germans refused to print more currency than they had gold to back, this new currency succeeded where previous attempts had failed. While the old Marks continued to decline in value, eventually reaching the point in August 1924 where one new Reichsmark was worth 1 trillion old Marks, but a phased conversion of the economy to the new currency progressively brought stability. By the end of 1925, the crisis was over.

The belief that this was one of the causes for the popularity of the Nazi party arise because a government Austerity Programme in 1931 created an entirely separate deflationary event, now known as the Brüning deflation and depression; The Nazis and many other anti-government groups were able to play on fears of a repetition of the 1920s economic collapse. So the period of hyperinflation was only indirectly responsible, at best, for the rise of Fascism in Germany.

Antisemitism and extremist politics
Radical anti-semitic attitudes and political extremism were rife in the Wiemar Republic from the early 1920s. To quote one paragraph of the Wikipedia article to which I have linked,

The German government during the Wiemar Republic era did not respect the Treaty of Versailles that it had been pressured to sign, and various government figures at the time rejected Germany’s post-Versailles borders. Gustav Streseman as German foreign minister in 1925 declared that the reincorporation of territories lost to Poland and Danzig in the Treaty of Versailles was a major task of German foreign policy. General Hans von Seeckt (head of the Reichswehr command from 1920 to 1926) supported an alliance between Germany and the Soviet Union to invade and partition Poland between them to restore the German–Russian border of 1914. The Reichswehr Ministry memorandum of 1926 declared its intention to seek the reincorporation of German territory lost to Poland as its first priority, to be followed by the return of the Saar territory, the annexation of Austria, and re-militarization of the Rhineland.

The list of ambitions in that memorandum should be familiar to everyone – it’s virtually identical to what the Nazis actually did.

Recovery of German Economy
The early 1930s in Germany were marked by a succession of governments appointed by President Hindenburg – four of them in four years, and a succession of failed economic policies which led to mounting unemployment. Hitler was able to parley people’s fears into an opportunity to implement policies that many Germans already believed in or desired, and the primary reason his government lasted longer than any of these others is that the Nazi party did two things – they blocked the opportunity to dismiss them by moving against Hindenburg, and they actually delivered on many of their promises, however grotesque, misguided, or unfair those policies are now deemed to be.

Instead of an economic recovery from the Great Depression, all Hitler really had to do in order to restore the economy was to moderate the Austerity programmes that had created the crisis while inspiring a wave of new confidence and self-pride in the German people. In just the same way as a lack of confidence can create an economic crisis from the smallest of kindling, so confidence can be translated into an economic boom, and so long as that boom lasts, confidence in their leadership will remain.

Hitler’s version of “The New Deal” – which can ultimately be simplified, at least in part, to massive investment in infrastructure – was in re-armament. This created jobs, stimulated the economy, and overturned the austerity policy that had created the crisis in the first place.

It was the delivery of the resulting economic and technological boom in the 1930s that led many in the US and elsewhere to admire Fascism and become Nazi Sympathizers. It seemed to work. And if it could have that effect in nations far distant, how much greater must the effect have been in immediate proximity? So long as he kept delivering the goods in terms of rising national pride and living standards, Hitler and the Nazi Party could do no wrong in the eyes of the public.

Propaganda of Goebbels
Arguably, then, Goebbels didn’t have that hard a job to do. The fact that anyone speaking against the regime was ostracized (at the very least), very probably reported as a subversive, and then taken into custody by the Gestapo or the SS and probably never seen again made his job pretty easy, at least until the wheels began coming off the German campaign, and even after that for a good while.

The more difficult task was in making the party a national political force in the first place, and the people most responsible for that did not include Goebbels. But I’ll come back to that in a moment.

Telling Hitler what he wanted to hear
By now, it should be clear that Hitler was very much a man of his times, riding existing sentiments and ambitions; the Nazis were a bunch of thugs who simply manifested what a number of people were thinking into actual policy and then implemented it utterly ruthlessly. Those who think that others egged the hierarchy on by telling them what they wanted to hear should remember the penalties for failure, and for subversive or disloyal behavior, which included pessimism about official policy and tactics. From a 21st century perspective, there was a strong resemblance between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, insofar as criticism was a crime punished with indefinite punishment without trial or appeal.

The results are a positive-feedback loop in which existing traits are inevitably amplified in a recursive fashion. The system is designed to tell people what they want to hear, and that makes excess in every trait impossible to prevent. Replacing the entire leadership of the Nazi party, if such a thing were possible, without reforming the underlying socio-political system, and nothing would change, save perhaps the ability of the leadership to deliver on the promises they were forced to make – or come close enough to be able to bluff their way through it.

The True Architects Of Misery
It can even be argued that while he provided the ideological foundations, and the demagoguery, Hitler himself was not ultimately directly responsible for the success of the Nazi Party in coming to power, completely lacking administrative abilities; the Nazi Party were a minor force in the region of Bavaria until Hitler entrusted party organization to the head of the secretariat, Philipp Bouhler, the party treasurer Franz Xaver Schwarz, and business manager Max Amann. These three created the infrastructure of what would become the Third Reich. Despite their efforts, however, the Nazi Party had received only 3% of the vote in the December 1924 Reichstag elections, falling to 2.6% in 1928. State elections produced similar results. From 1928 on, other nationalistic groups began to fade away, stifled by the ongoing recovery in the German economy that had given them impetus, and were absorbed into the Nazis – who had yet to adopt that name.

In fact, it was only in January 1928, when the Party appointed its propaganda head, Gregor Strasser, to the position of national organizational leader, that the Nazis began to grow from an irrelevance to a national organization. By 1929, the party had 130,000 members; in the September 1930 Reichstag elections, they captured 18.3% of the vote and became the second most powerful party in Germany. The SA was now a definite political force to be reckoned with – from being nothing just three years earlier.

In March 1932 Hitler ran for President against the incumbent, Paul von Hindenburg, polling 30.1% in the first round and 36.8% in the second (against 49 and 53%, respectively). By now the SA had 400,000 members, and its running street battles with the SPD and Communist paramilitaries (who also fought each other) reduced some German cities to combat zones. Paradoxically, although the Nazis were among the main instigators of this disorder, part of Hitler’s appeal to a frightened and demoralized middle class was his promise to restore law and order.

Although Hitler and Strasser (in collusion with Goebbels) had disagreed on policy matters since 1925, the real wedge between the pair began when Chancellor Kurt von Schleicher offered Strasser the offices of Vice-Chancellor and Prime Minister of Prussia in December 1932, hoping to divide the Nazi party. Although the offer was blocked by Hitler, it was at least partly successful in driving a wedge between the astute political management that had brought the party to prominence and the ideologues and fanatics loyal to Hitler personally. How Hitler learned of the offer is unknown.

Strasser was ultimately purged during the Night Of The Long Knives.

Despite the appearance fostered by the twin historical distortions of Allied propaganda and Nazi revisionism, Goebbels was not the most important man in gaining power for the Nazi party, and neither were Bormann, Himmler, or even Hitler himself, in my opinion; I think that even without all of them, the Third Reich would have prospered under the organization of Bouhler, Schwarz, Amann, and the leadership of Strasser. Hitler brought an element of “cult of personality”, and levels of conviction that came close to insanity; Strasser would have brought an icy efficiency and pragmatism to the position. Arguably, things would have been much worse if Strasser was in charge beyond 1932.

Speculation: It seems likely that two factors were ultimately responsible for Strasser’s downfall: the political rift exacerbated by the offer from Schleicher, and the presence of someone to step into his Shoes in the form of Goebbels. It’s even possible that Goebbels learned of the offer and reported it to Hitler before Strasser could decide in which direction his loyalties lay – his party, or whatever ambitions he may have held personally. It was in Schleicher’s interests to make the offer known publicly, so he may have been responsible for spilling the beans. However, it has to be said that up to that point, Strasser had been a loyal servant of the Nazi Party. so it is entirely possible that a slight delay would have enabled him to take the opportunity to prove his loyalty by reporting the offer and his refusal to be bought off by Schleicher to Hitler, healing the rift between them at least partially.

So: The Germans assassinate Goebbels in late 1932, thinking him the linchpin of Nazi success, but doing nothing but delaying Hitler’s discovery of the offer from Schleicher long enough for Strasser to publicly refuse the position, emphasizing his loyalty to the Party and its leadership, and condemning the attempted corruption of the will of the people through bribery. Strasser survives, and those loyal to him are not removed from office, and the Nazi takeover in 1933 is even better organized and effective. This puts Strasser in position to learn of the Rohm-Putsch, better known as the Night Of Long Knives, when Hitler eliminated all his political rivals, in advance – and to stage a coup within the party, on the grounds that the planned Putsch was being disloyal to the party (and suspecting that his name was on the list to be purged). The Third Reich becomes even scarier, because it’s now run sensibly and ruthlessly. A misguided attempt to change history results in things becoming much worse.

Adventure #9: Future (very) Tense

The PCs have to prevent the Germans from completing their mission.

When they return to the 1930s, they discover that the Instigator has made some very dangerous modifications to the machine that might – just might – permit the team to travel forward in time to 1964, and has located the German time-travel machine. They will have to get rendezvous as usual, get across the Berlin Wall into East Germany, destroy the underground time-travel facility (no half-measures, complete destruction is mandatory), then escape and get their hosts back to safety.

Of course, the world of 1964 bears very little resemblance to anything the PCs know… technology, politics, etc, will all be different. Note too that this will be a world in which the primary global conflict is The Oracle’s Amerireich vs the USSR – which (ironically) is closer to the 1930s in terms of personal freedom than North America under the Oracle.

They will also have a very limited time-frame to complete their mission before the changes they made back in pre-WWII Germany ripple up the timeline. If they take too long, the personal histories of their hosts will change and the world around them will suddenly become Nazi Germany, complicating an already-complicated situation.

Note to GM: Make sure this happens mid-mission!

Adventure #10: Whose New Deal Is It This Time?

From this point forward, the focus shifts to the out-of-time portions of the adventures, with no real action in the modern era aside from a little roleplay. This is intentional and should indicate that the campaign has started building toward a climax.

With the German time-travel facility out of commission, and the Oracle’s puppet reduced from being the undisputed wealthiest man in America to merely one of the top 100, the team can focus on derailing the Oracle’s attempts to convert his wealth into political power. He no longer has the wealth to buy that power outright, and so has been forced – according to the Perspectatron – to an alliance with another group with extensive infiltration into Government – the bootleggers and organized crime. Prohibition was made law in 1920 and the distribution of illegal alcohol gave criminals great wealth and a number of allies both likely and unlikely. Some opposed prohibition on ideological grounds, some could be bought, some went along for the ride, and some opposed it for political reasons. Others were induced to cooperate with the bootleggers by means of extortion. Most paid lip service in public – “It’s the law, I might not agree but it still has to be obeyed” – while quietly sheltering and protecting those who violated the law. Attempts to curb the illegal use of industrial alcohol by lacing it with poisons while knowing that the measure was ineffective as a deterrent attracted further opposition to the policy.

Starting by tipping off Capone where and when raids would occur, and supplying intelligence on various politicians who were susceptible to coercion and blackmail, The Oracle spent most of 1926 insinuating himself into Capone’s good books and eventually persuaded him into an alliance. This took place behind the back of his puppet, and marked the first moves against the puppet who was beginning to outlive his usefulness as a front and means of gathering power. In particular, the “official” plan was to recruit and support politicians who would strengthen the US militarily prior to the nation being dragged into the European Conflict that is now imminent, but these politicians would be of only limited usefulness to the Oracle; he wanted people who would propel him into a position of political authority from which to launch his coup. In other words, the people that he wanted were exactly the same people that Capone was targeting, though the Oracle was casting a wider net.

One politician would be key, Speaker of the House John Nance of Texas, who historically was persuaded in the course of the 1932 Democratic National Convention to drop out in return for being named FDR’s running mate. The Oracle made illegal contributions in the names of several of the backers of the (First) New Deal, then provided the proof of those transactions to Nance just hours prior to the attempt by FDR’s managers, James Farley and Louis McHenry Howe, to broker the deal with Garner. Instead of accepting the deal, Nance exposed the corruption and FDR – who had been leading every ballot by a significant majority but falling just a little short of the numbers required to finalize the nomination – was forced to withdraw, his bid in total dissaray. The New Deal coalition collapsed, and the other three contenders scrambled to get the numbers of the disaffected delegates. With advance warning, Garner was successful in picking up 60% of the delegates who abandoned FDR, while Al Smith picked up the majority of the remainder. This gave Garner momentum and he was successfully able to pitch a deal with Smith, despite the hatred the two had for each other, presenting a unified ticket on the fifth and final ballot.

The Oracle knew that the depression had tainted Hoover and the Republicans and that the Democrats could exploit public disaffection with Hoover’s economic management to ensure victory in the 1932 election. Post-election, Vice-President Smith, who had been backed by the Tammany Hall Machine, was put in charge of a full investigation and house-cleaning of the Democratic Party, and traced the corruption and fraudulent donations that had undermined FDR to the Oracle’s puppet, who was arrested, staining his reputation. This placed Smith in a difficult position because the Puppet was also a part of the Tammany Hall operation. Smith delayed releasing his findings to the public and to other branches of the Government while he considered his options, giving the Oracle time to leak it. Accused of attempting a cover-up, Smith was forced to resign. Capone and the Oracle then blackmailed Nance into appointing Capone ally William Hale Thompson to the office of Vice-president, while Capone himself ran for office in a brutal and thoroughly corrupt election to replace Thompson as Mayor of Chicago.

This is the rat’s nest that the PCs have to somehow undo. Step one is to prevent the circumstances, post-election, that led to Smith’s resignation. If they succeed, they force the Oracle into coming up with another scheme and weaken the alliance with Capone. This puts the Oracle on the defensive and buys the PCs time. How the PCs attempt to achieve this is up to them.

Adventure #11: Conventional Ideas Wanted

Win, lose, or draw in the previous mission, the PCs can then attempt to further undermine events by targeting the events at the 1932 Democratic Convention. Again, how the PCs proceed is up to them. If they succeed, they again place the Oracle on the defensive, though at a much earlier point in time, and save the New Deal.

Adventure #12: Gangland Gangbusters

Again, regardless of the outcome of the previous mission, they have a third chance to prevent the Oracle achieving the political subversion that led to all this drama – by preventing the alliance with Capone in the first place. If they succeed at this point, the Oracle’s master-stroke against his puppet will be thrown into total disarray, enabling what the players think is the last adventure in the campaign to proceed.

Adventure #13: Confrontation

Assuming that they have been successful in the previous mission, the PCs have now restored a timeline in which the Oracle has been blocked from betraying his puppet. The final mission is to separate the two once and for all with direct action against the Oracle at a point prior to the putative alliance with Capone.

To do this, they will have to invade one of the most heavily-fortified and defended homes in all of New York and take the fight to the Oracle – without harming the Puppet.

If they succeed, the timeline as modified by the original Instigator will have been stabilized, and the PCs will return to find themselves in the world described in their original briefing notes. Which leaves only the question of what to do with the Instigator and his time machine…

Adventure #14: The Price of Victory

…who will not go quietly, and who cannot be trusted. At least, that’s the judgment of President Ronald Reagan of the year 1982, whose office came into possession of the time travel device following the death of the Puppet of old age. Reagan authorized a Delta Force Black Ops mission back to the 1930s to destroy the machine and wipe out anyone who knew about it. This was a one-way trip for the squad selected. The PCs have just been deemed the bad guys by the future US Government!

How the PCs react to this and what they do about it – long term, and short-term – is up to them. This is the real final mission of the campaign, and it might well be that the PCs decide to agree with future president Reagan, and resolve to destroy the device themselves. They may also decide that the knowledge they posses is too dangerous, and ensure that they are caught in the destruction; or they might decide to form an organization to prevent future meddling by time travel in history. Whatever they decide is fine – but unless they destroy the machine, they will have to look over their shoulders for the rest of their lives…

PC restrictions in past bodies

Anything that is learned knowledge will be retained. Anything that is a learned physical skill (beyond the basics) will not, but may be regained in a week or so of wearing the new body, getting used to the new center of gravity, etc. Physical characteristics will be those of the host body, mental characteristics will be the average of the host and the PC. Any physical skill that the host body has but the PC does not, or has to a lesser degree, can be used by the PC as though they had it, provided they don’t stop to think about what they are doing or going to do – the body’s trained reflexes remember. As soon as the PC thinks about it, he will tend to suffer a catastrophic failure by getting in the way of those reflexes.

Host Body Backgrounds

It may be convenient to take another page out of Quantum Leap and permit the Instigator to identify the host and provide a very basic briefing on who he or she is after the PC has occupied it. This information shouldn’t be available immediately, it should take about an hour to retrieve; the PC will have to blend in on his own for a while.

Click this thumbnail to download a visually larger version (prints at this visual size at 300 dpi)

Click this thumbnail to download a visually larger version (prints at this visual size at 300 dpi)

Yesterday Once More – Coda

So there it is, for whatever it’s worth – a complete campaign outline. Part Sci-Fi, part Pulp, and altogether too ambitious for the existing Adventurer’s Club campaign. It should adapt reasonably well to any appropriate game system from James Bond to d20 Modern to Pulp Hero. It would be a lot of fun to referee, and should be just as much fun to play.

Note that in almost all instances, the background historical information provided is accurate, though there has been modifications to events where a time-traveler has actively intervened.

I liked the campaign logo that I put together as part of the illustration for this article so much that I’m providing a hi-res version (1000 x 1000). This is exactly the right size to print at 300dpi with the same visual area as the thumbnail above, or to be something close to a full-screen image. Just click on the thumbnail above to download.

Credit where it’s due: The image was constructed from clip art made available through from two far more talented computer artists than myself, Lori and Andres – no further details provided. But thanks to them both!

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Alien In Innovation: Creating Original Non-human Species

rpg blog carnival logo

This month’s Blog Carnival is hosted by my buddy (and ex-partner here at Campaign Mastery) over at Roleplaying tips.

The subject is Races and Species and everything that goes with these concepts.

This is the first of two articles I have planned and written for the Carnival.

How do you create an original alien species?

For Sci-Fi and Superhero games you have to do it all the time, and if you change the term to “non-human” then it’s not all that uncommon in Fantasy RPGs, either.

This article will share the three approaches that I use when I want to create a new alien species:

  • Embodiment,
  • Inversion, and
  • Ecological Twist.



Embodiment is the technique of taking some physical, political, or social principle and placing it into a different context to create something new. For example, I might wonder, “What if Twitter were a life form?” or “What if Facebook was a metaphor for the social and biological attributes of a life form?”. Or I might create a life-form that embodies Zeno’s Paradox somehow.

Once I have the basic concept – and none of those examples are anywhere near complete enough to serve in that capacity – I will think about three things: The origin of the species, the biology of the species, and the society of the species – not necessarily in that order, though social functions will probably come last.

I might take a basic piece of chemistry or physics and try to make it central to the structure of the life-form in some unexpected way. For example, why not a series of long-chain polymers in a closed loop which have points to which amino acids and other biological building blocks attach forming something akin to skeleton keys on a ring? Or the same concept as forming cogs in a wheel, with biochemistry happening when the right tooth connects to the right cog slot?

Or perhaps I want to find a new variation on an existing life-form trope. I might want to do something original with heat / fire, for example. In this case, I would start by thinking about the properties of heat and fire, how they work in the real world, and so on. I would do a little basic research, all the while looking for a new twist to put on the concept. For a fire to exist, three things are needed, referred to as the Fire Triangle – Fuel, Energy, and Oxygen. So flame could be expressed as a symbiotic relationship between these three elements if it were a life form. As soon as that occurred to me, my thoughts flashed to Isaac Asimov’s Novel, The Gods Themselves, from which I have repeatedly drawn inspiration in the past. With the concept of three life forms that exist in symbiosis and must come together to propagate the species, I would be ready to start taking a detailed look at the biology involved.

Genre plays an important part in deciding how fast-and-loose to play with the ideas. In a sci-fi campaign, you need to give serious thought as to the way things work; conceptual plausibility in the real-world is very much the standard to aim for. Consider real-world biology in an abstract manner and find analogues for each process. Then translate those analogous processes into behaviors.

In Space Opera and Superhero games, you can play a little looser with the reality. You don’t have to examine each major biological process in any sort of detail, something that sounds vaguely plausible will do.

Pulp games can be a little looser again. You only need think about the most essential biological functions and how this species performs them.

And in Fantasy, “just because” is permissible, if it doesn’t occur too often; having some vague semblance to logic still helps, however.

For example, here’s a creature I devised for the “Fire” Realm in The Cavern Realms Of Zhin Tarn (I adapted the entire “Earth” Realm into the standalone adventure presented in the The Flói Af Loft & The Ryk Bolti), exactly as I wrote it up for use in-game:

   Hot Earth ‘(deep underground environment)’. Horta*-like creatures ‘Hot Spots’ melt tunnels following veins of tar and oil and mineral which contain the nutrients they need. Convection from them keeps air moving through the tunnels. There are very few of these creatures. They are exceptionally tough, placid, and near-immortal. (Asexual reproduction). They each have great intelligence which is segmented, permitting them to think of multiple things at the same time. They use this intellect solely for the playing of mental ‘games’, living a solitary existence; each is of the opinion that they are the only sentient being in existence. Everything that is perceived is the invention of another segment of the mind and represents a game, the rules of which have to be discovered by the main mind through trial and error – they live in a perpetually-changing fantasyland that has no relation to the ‘real world’.
   Game Mechanics: Use a blend of Conflagration Ooze (MMIII) + Bulette (MM)

* The ‘Horta’ was a creature from the original Star Trek episode, ‘The Devil In The Dark‘ – for anyone who didn’t know.


The Great Red Spot as seen from Voyager 1. Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.


The “Inversion” process means taking some iconic or overused stereotype (in racial terms) and either turning it on it’s head or giving it a twist that completely reshapes the concept.

For example, the website “Sci-Fi Ideas” recently ran an article by Stephen Harrison which asked “Could Life Evolve Inside a Gas Giant?“, prompting David Ball to ask on Facebook how the concept might be applied in an RPG.

So, let’s do just that. I’m going to start with the Gestalt/Group Mind concept, which has become something of a cliché these days; it needs some overhauling to be interesting again, so it’s ripe for an inversion.

A failed concept

My first thought was to have an almost-microscopic disease which possessed not only a collective intelligence and was capable of “taking over” an infected host, but which was also part of a much larger collective mind that was capable of unifying the actions of multiple people hundreds of miles apart to fit a master plan. But then I realized that this was a little too similar in some respects to what I had done with Dopplegangers a while back (Pieces Of Creation: The Hidden Truth Of Dopplegangers), so let’s go the other way and think about a Gestalt between very large creatures instead.

Going in the other direction

I think you can see where I’m going – this is where the Gas Giant creatures come in. So we have gas-filled bags made of living material that are somehow connected into a group mind of some unusual sort. Each life form can function more-or-less as a giant Neuron in the nervous system, a brain cell. It feeds on currents of nutrient gases and even condensing organic liquids; it might also be able to extract liquids suspended in the air through some sort of active filter. This gives them mobility, and that’s a key difference to ordinary brains – these creatures can reconfigure the neural activity of which they are a component – the ultimate in neuroplasticity.

“Cell” communications – emergent intelligence

Thinking about how these entities communicate with one another means taking a closer look at how brain chemistry works. In a nutshell, each brain cell can send an electrical impulse to the next in a great relay, and can connect to several other such cells; the cells learn to route signals this way or that based on conditions within the brain that are, in turn, controlled by other neural elements and by external stimuli such as changes to the chemical resistance that has to be overcome for a signal to make the leap. Some of this stuff is still not clearly understood or is speculative; it’s also a fast-changing field of knowledge, and my information may be out-of-date. So take that process description with a grain of salt.

Each brain cell no more thinks for itself than a single bit in computer decides whether it will be a 0 or a 1, or whether it will be used for storage or for processing, or even sit idle, on standby. There is another process within the overall system that controls configuration and starts and stops processes. The running of a computer application or the thinking of a thought is an emergent property of the system and its structure. (In fact, I know this to all be an oversimplification, but it’s close enough).

Getting back to our life-form, physical proximity and variations in the local environment – a stream of X substance which has a high resistance vs a stream of Y which has low – permits an externalization of the effects at a cellular level within the brain. Thus, by physically moving, the Jovian Brain can dynamically allocate its resources – more RAM here, more processor power there – on a task-by-task process.

This is inherently more powerful than dedicating such things to one function and one alone, the equivalent of hard-wiring components into the computer. Aside from a base quantity needed to maintain essential functions, the potential ceiling for each is 100% of capacity. If you had a device with 10% of it’s memory dedicated to essential functions, with 80% transferable from task to task as needed, you essentially have 90% of the available memory as RAM and 90% of it as CPU – which adds up to 180%. Computer designers figured this out a long time ago, and designed computer infrastructure to use disk space as virtual memory, which is clearly analogous.

Overcoming the downside

But there are mitigating factors to consider. One is that it takes time to reconfigure the system completely – more time than electrically switching device states, because each “giant brain cell” has to physically maneuver into position. Another is that we have made no allowance for the retention of “non-essential” functions, meaning that these would have to be relearned from scratch each and every time, unless some more permanent form of storage exists. Without such dedicated storage, it’s impossible to really conceive of this life-form possessing any sort of higher intelligence, and we need that to make it more interesting. So let’s invent one.

One of the densest forms of information storage is DNA. By encoding each piece with one of four different amino acids (G, A, T, C), it effectively uses quaternary encoding rather than the binary that our computers use. What’s more, the information contained in DNA can be accessed by a life-form incredibly quickly. Is there a way to use DNA as our retained memory?

One idea that leapt to mind right away – far more quickly than the time it took to type the preceding paragraph – derives from another aspect of human biology. We have, in fact, shared our biology with other creatures for so long that we have evolved a relationship that is at least partially describable as symbiotic – I’m talking about the essential bacteria in the human digestive system. Why can’t our Jovian life-form have something similar that consists of a header (with replication instructions for the symbiote) and then a long “DNA tail” that encodes information from the primary life form? Fairly standard cellular processes duplicate the DNA – with occasional errors – a million fold, so if one particular copy gets “consumed” by the act of reading this long-term memory, there’s plenty more where that came from. In practice, parallel decoding would occur – instead of “tell me three times”, which was a safeguard often referred to in early 20th century sci-fi, we might have “tell me 100 times and I’ll accept the consensus”.

This illustrates the geometry of the situation. It's sheer coincidence that the rendering looks like the One Ring and the geometry resembles a Great Eye, I swear!

This illustrates the geometry of the situation. It’s sheer coincidence that the rendering looks like the One Ring and the geometry resembles a Great Eye, I swear!

Super-sized Superorganism

How big could such an organism grow, how intelligent?

Jupiter has a radius at the equator of a little under 71,500 km. For convenience, let’s assume that this is a relatively equatorial life-form, unable to go much further than a latitude of plus-or-minus 30 degrees. That means that the volume we care about is a cylinder open at top and bottom, with curved walls. Furthermore, at the extreme outer edge of the atmosphere, life would be untenable – the top of our cylinder would have it’s top somewhat below the surface, so the radius of the habitable volume would be smaller than that of Jupiter itself. Nor would it extend all the way to the planet’s core; it might be a relatively thin sheet. Humans live work and exist only on the bottom 3% of the earth’s atmosphere, or so I seem to recall – though the definition of where the atmosphere ends has been subject to technical change in recent years (it actually extends beyond the moon’s orbit, it’s just very thin out there).

So, let’s say that 97% of the radius of the cylinder is also inaccessible to this life-form. Below that and the pressure is too much or the winds too strong or whatever. Next, we need to decide how far down the top of our “inhabited zone” is. Earth’s atmosphere is (“officially” – refer to my previous comments). I’m going to select the altitude at which the atmosphere becomes dense enough to produce noticeable effects on reentering spacecraft, i.e. 120 km according to Wikipedia’s entry on the atmosphere.

Since we know Jupiter’s radius, we can now know the size of the our cylinder. Sort of. (I’m ignoring the fact that Jupiter is the least spherical of all the major planets, even though that’s a major source of error).

What's been decided so far

What’s been decided so far

Rj = Jupiter radius = 71,500.
71,500 – 120 = 71,380.
0.97 x 71,380 = 69,238.6. Again, let’s use 69,240 for convenience.
So the thickness of our habitable band in one hemisphere is roughly 2,140 km.

Next, we can decide whether or not to ignore the bulge. Just how big an error might we get? For a baseline of any length, the hypotenuse of a triangle at an acute angle of 30 degrees is 1 / cos (30) times that length. That’s roughly 1.155, or about 15%. So we’re looking at an error of somewhere between 0 and 15% – call it 8% as an average. But, what we gain on one side of the curved cylinder, we lose (in part) on the underside – visually, on the diagram above, it looks to be about half. So that drops our error to about 4-5%.

If we increase the volume we calculate by about 5% we should be in the ballpark. But hold on – the flattening of Jupiter is also about 5% the other way, which will eat up most if not all of that error. The two sources of error just about cancel out – near enough for a rough estimate anyway.

Hollow angled cylinder from two solid angled cylinders

Hollow angled cylinder from two solid angled cylinders

The illustration shows how you can determine the volume of a hollow cylinder’s walls by subtracting the internal volume from the total volume, even though one wall is at an angle.

The geometry, further simplified

The geometry, further simplified

All we need is some basic geometry – the stuff most people get taught in high school. We know e, and we know two of the angles, one of which we have defined as a right angle. In fact, we have two values for e – 71,380 km and 69,240 km. The values we need are d, which work out to 35,690 and 34,620, respectively, and b, which work out to .

With those four measures – inside, outside, and defined top and bottom of 2.140 km, we can get the cross-sectional area of half our toroidal volume:

A = 2140 x (35690 + 34620) /2 = 75,231,700 sqr km. Now we double that for the second hemisphere to get 150,463,400 sqr km. All that we have to do now is multiply by the average radius of Jupiter at the depth we want – midway between 71,380 and 69,240 – to get the volume:

V = 150,463,400 x (71,380 + 69,240) /2 = 10,579,081,654,000 cubic kilometers. Call it ten-to-the-thirteenth power km3.

Answering the question

If the total environment each brain-cell beastie needs is a cubic kilometer, including its own volume, that’s 10-to-the-thirteenth specimens. The human brain has been estimated to contain 15-33 billion neurons according to Wikipedia – but here we run into a problem: is that an American Billion or a British Billion? In other words, is it 15-33 times ten to the ninth or times ten to the 12th? The Wikipedia page on “Billion” suggests that it’s the first of these, so we get (worst case) 3.3 x 10^10 brain cells. So our Jovian beastie, collectively, is as smart as 320 people concentrating on a single task. Now we allow for the super-efficiency and increase this to 180% of the total to get 577.

That’s not a lot, but a cubic kilometer is a LOT of space per beastie. If they only needed 25m space (in all directions)we get 11,754,547 people concentrating on a single task. And if they need only 10 cubic meters, 183,664,804 people. At human size – roughly 1 cubic meter each – we could have as many as 183 billion people – all working in perfect harmony.

Even allowing for their environmental handicaps, that makes this beastie anywhere from a large human research team to frighteningly super-intelligent.

So, what’s it good for?

The answer is not very helpful – “it depends”. Think of this beastie as the world’s most powerful supercomputer. It’s tethered to it’s environment like very few others ever could be. Or is it?

Postulate one of these cells taken on-board a human vessel in some sort of pressurized life-support container. It gets fed information from the on-board terrestrial computer and sends them back to Jupiter via radio link, where a cybernetic “implant” takes the place of the cell that’s been removed. Perfect storage and intensive analysis of everything that’s ever been discovered. Oh, and it’s effectively immortal.

The plot potential should be fairly obvious – there’s the discovery of the intelligence, first contact, establishing diplomatic relations, the discovery of potential mutual benefits, and so on. Humans are sometimes untrustworthy, but I doubt this beastie’s collective mind would ever learn to lie – it wouldn’t even have the concept, because there is no-one to lie to. How long would it be before someone did something greedy, stupid, or both – and the beastie decided it needed to take over for our own good? Especially if it’s somewhere near the higher limit of potential intelligence?

You’d have to at least wonder if we wouldn’t be better off under “new management”. It’s easy to imagine a human civil war over the question – a war that the side backed by Jupiter would probably win (there’s that brain-power again). But having fought a civil war over the question, and lost, would those who opposed alien control of humans give up quietly? Again, I doubt it.

Whatever this beastie turned its attention to would make great strides. The question is, who decides what questions to ask it?

Unanswered Questions

Personality is a big question. At least part of the answer would come from the solution to another: what stimulus led to the development of intelligence in the first place? What did it use it’s super-colossal computing power for before humans came along? Are there others like it in other Gas Giants?

We already know that Jovian Gas Giants plus are all over the place. Of the solar systems we have discovered beyond our own, they ALL have one – that’s because they are much easier to detect, in relative terms. Jupiter-beasties could be the most common form of sentience in the universe.

But one is enough to force a close look at all sorts of human questions, about who we are as a species. If you view humanity as a single organism, complete with all its contradictions, what conclusions would you reach?

How to roleplay it?

I would take a hard look at the Thuriens from James P. Hogan’s Giants series, especially the first three or four books, because they share a lot of the characteristics that I would expect to find – a lack of understanding of human deception and violence, curiosity, advanced intellect, and so on. I would throw Fred Hoyle’s The Black Cloud straight on the reading list as well, since it features a profoundly non-humanoid intellect and its perspective. You can’t look past the Moties from The Mote In God’s Eye by Niven and Pournelle, and the sequel, The Gripping Hand, also known as The Moat Around Murcheson’s Eye. And lastly, I would add Diane Duane’s Spock’s World for its examination of how Humans might react to such a non-human intelligence and how we might influence each other. (These are all old favorites for the reasons cited and more).


Ecological Twist

The final technique that I employ is to construct an exotic ecology, fill each of the major environmental niches, and then employ stepwise refinement to evolve the whole into something exotic. This was the approach that I used in creating all the Cavern Realms except the first, and there is no clearer example than that of the Water Realm.

Step One: Describe environment

I use as many key words as possible and avoid complicated sentence structure and parsing. This represents my initial stockpile of ideas. For the water realm, the list was: Liquid Ice Solid Cold Boils Surface Currents Impurities Drifts Fish Coral Reef Storm Hurricane Elemental Algae Plankton Barnacles Leak Drip Raindrop Swim Whale

Step Two: List Ecological Niches to be filled

These definitions should be as brief and functional as possible. For the Water Realm, the list was:

  • Biological Energy Source (The equivalent of the sun)
  • Energy Distribution (the equivalent of sunlight)
  • Plants, subdivided into
    • Small e.g. flowers
    • Algae
    • Medium e.g. vines & bushes, and
    • Large e.g. trees
  • Herbivores, subdivided into
    • Small
    • Medium
    • Large
  • Carnivores, subdivided into
    • Small
    • Medium
    • Large
  • Carrion Eaters
  • Recyclers

Note that many ecologies would also have omnivores as a category.

Step Three: Generate & Revise Ideas

Using the key words, assign a concept to each ecological niche in a manner that suggests the core of an idea. Don’t fret about any unused keywords, don’t be afraid to change your mind, don’t necessarily start at the top. Go through the list several times, refining and replacing things that don’t fit the emerging ecological concepts. Bear in mind the prey-predator dynamic, the evolution of natural defenses against predators (including the defenses of plants against herbivores), the competition between predator species, the natural pyramid of species (i.e. the larger the creature, the fewer the number of species), and the potential for micro-climatic variations.

Unfortunately, this was mostly done on scratch paper, so I no longer have the list of keyword allocations in the case of the Water Realm, though some can be reasoned by working backwards from the species that populate that niche.

Step Four: Create the species

Work from the bottom of the ecology up. If you get stuck, go from the top down. Convert your raw ideas into species concepts. We’re not worried about game mechanics yet; we are still designing the ecology and its constituents conceptually. When you have the whole populated, work in the opposite direction to check your logic, and don’t be afraid to make tweaks to the ideas. Original and unique ideas are to be preferred over old or clichéd ones, but consistency and logic are even more important. If you come up with something that sounds “cool” or “interesting”, try adding it to the appropriate species, but be prepared to take it back out if it doesn’t work or it destabilizes the ecology too much.

Then look at the ecological pressures on each creation and how they would tend to change as a result. Advance each species an evolutionary step or two. Now reassess your ideas. It’s possible that this will lead to a depopulation of a species except perhaps in sheltered micro-climate pockets; when this happens, look for the neighboring species in either size or in category with the same size, and determine whether or not a variation on that species would evolve to fill the empty slot.

Repeat this process as many times as necessary to evolve unique ideas for each slot – these will tend to happen without active prompting, simply because the stimulus in – evolution – stimulus out chains are going to be unique.

In the case of the Water Realm, once again this work was carried out in a scratch document and does not survive.

Step Five: Finalize descriptions

By now, you should have a clear idea for each species and an evolutionary history. Some vestigial features may remain from past variants. The concepts should be rich, detailed, and original – or at least variations on the normal.

Here are the creatures that I came up with for the Water Realm (slightly edited for clarity, expanding some descriptions with additional notes):

  • Biological Energy Source -
    Acidic Solution providing electrical potential flow, i.e. electricity. Gravity is always towards the center of the Realm where one pole of the resulting Battery is located.
  • Energy Distribution -

    Veins of Metal run through cavernous walls, electrically charged; Salt “Towers”; current varies with metal conductivity.

  • Plants:
    • Small -

      Coral Bridges form natural structures connecting different strands of metal when they are close enough. The Coral gains energy directly from the electrical charges that derive when they connect two different types of metals. In effect, each colony consists of a cattle-prod with a living coral ‘handle” (would actually be “H” shaped). The Coral also fixes Nitrogen, each colony expelling clouds of “fertilizer”. The Coral is therefore an animal colony performing an ecological function normally handled by plants.

      Ion exchange means that the metal veins are perpetually dissolving/corroding away and being replaced through electrolytic salt deposit – they twist and gnarl and change shape over time.

      An Iron Loop which leads to the center of the “droplet” gets very hot because of electrical resistance, melts other metals which drift too close (breaking down veins) & boiling the water in vicinity – creates atmosphere of “steam” in the center of the environment.

      Heat breaks salts down into pure metal+water vapor+oxygen + hydrogen.

      Turbulence creates frequent electrical storms of ‘massive’ scale, which in turn strike the iron loop (which effectively surrounds the storm at all times), which generates the heat, which boils the water, which creates the turbulence.

      Electrical current travels through the iron bar and arcs to any metal that gets too close, which splits the water into hydrogen and oxygen. While some of the gas will then dissolve into the water, maintaining the acidity of the solution and oxygenating the water as though it were a fish-tank, most will bubble toward the “surface” where the passage of lightning causes hydrogen explosions.

    • Algae -

      Algae colonies consume the “fertilizer” and all dead creatures (would also infect any wounds). Clouds of algae therefore form a halo around a coral colony, trailing with the water currents. The Algae in turn form the fundamental food supply of the ecology, in symbiosis with the

    • Medium -

      Floating giant “clover” 1m across trap rising gas bubbles, breathe the oxygen and use the hydrogen to give them “jet propulsion” to carry them up to where they are struck by lightning, destroying the individual plant but scattering seeds all over the surface.

    • Large - None in this ecology.
  • Herbivores:
    • Small -

      “Glass Bubbles” 2m in diameter that appear to be filled with foam. The “Glass” is soft to the touch and will be attracted to the exhalations of creatures and to any concentration of algae such as that surrounding burns or wounds that have become ‘infected’. They contain various digestive juices (count as acid attack).

    • Medium -

      Snake-like creature 4m in length with blunt, peg-like teeth for chewing up the remains of exploded “clover”. These are therefore always near the surface. The will only attack to defend themselves and use constriction.

    • Large - None in this ecology.
  • Carnivores:
    • Small -

      Grasshopper-like vermin which attack in the hundreds at a time. Swarms of these amphibians “fly” through the atmosphere from one clover-leaf to another and prey on any Snakes that come too close.

    • Medium -

      None in this ecology.

    • Large -

      None in this ecology.

  • Carrion Eaters -

    Algae (refer above).

  • Recyclers -

    Algae (refer above).

Step Six: Game mechanics

With enough experience, you can re-skin existing creatures with whatever game mechanics are required to simulate your conceptual creations on the fly. If you aren’t comfortable doing that. the next step is to assign whatever values you consider necessary to get the job done.

And don’t forget to write up a description of the environment for the PCs, now that you know what is going to be there. Here’s the one for the Water Realm:

Environmental Description / Player Introduction:
Surprisingly, you have a definite sense of “up” and “down”. The water is slightly acidic, stinging any exposed flesh. Veins of pure metal twist and wind back and forth like arm-thick ropes. Different colonies of coral form bridges across different veins of metal. Surrounding the coral is a “halo” of specks which trail off with the current. A dim light can be perceived radiating in the distance ahead. The surface around the water is mud-like and composed of fine silt with numerous rocky outcrops. Bubbles of gas rise from the surface of the veins of metal, which shows considerable signs of pitting and erosion. The metallic veins are twisted and gnarled and in constant (if slow) random motion, and form an ever-changing maze. Sparks frequently jump from a metal “vein” forming part of one coral colony to a “vein” of a different metal belonging to a different colony.

Three Answers

So, there you have it – three different ways of generating original non-human species: One that builds on a single central concept or idea as a variation on what has been done before, one that works by twisting or defying expectations and clichés and the established patterns, and one that views the creature as a product of its environment and ecology. Don’t rely on just one approach, mix it up for best results.

If you want more advice on generating societies that “fit” the species, I refer you to one of the first series here at Campaign Mastery, Distilled Cultural Essence.

Creating new species and new creatures is always lots of fun, so stretch those creative muscles and don’t let the players think they know it all just because they’ve memorized the Monster Manual (or equivalent)…

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“I know what’s happening!” – Confirmation Bias and RPGs


I was watching a documentary the other week. (I know, it seems like I watch a lot of TV. I actually watch less than it might seem, but I’ve gotten a number of articles out of what TV I do watch.)

Anyway, the subject in this case was the investigation of the crash of a Singapore Airlines jet in which – under extremely adverse conditions – the crew had attempted to take off from a runway which was closed for maintenance, when a very telling statement was made by a Human Factors expert interviewed for the show.

He said “The human brain is always trying to convince itself that it has a complete picture of what is going on, and so … when contradictory information comes in, there is a tendency called Confirmation Bias to ignore it, and to concentrate on what you think is happening.”

My first association, on hearing these words, was with the way in which many optical illusions work, with the mind seeing part of the picture and filling in the rest of the “story”; and the second was with the way in which witness statements can be flawed, unintentionally overlooking things that don’t fit the preconception of events. And the third was with the way Confirmation Bias explained and identified a phenomenon that I have observed a number of times as a GM:

The players come up with a theory as to what is happening, which either fits all the evidence that they have gathered thus far, or explains away contradictory evidence. So convinced are they by this theory built around an incorrect picture that they ignore or reject, as attempts to mislead them, subsequent contradictory evidence that should expose the flaw in their logic.

Has this ever happened to you? I’d lay odds that it has. It has certainly happened to me several times.

When Confirmation Bias strikes your game table, your options are limited, but perhaps more far-ranging than you think – though some come with steep price-tags. In fact, I’ve identified nine possible ways of handling the situation:

  • Option #1: Do Nothing
    • …until new evidence is found
    • …until they spot the error
    • …or an NPC figures out the truth
    • …until the last possible second
    • …until the 13th hour
  • Option #6: The Players Are Right
  • Option #7: Correct the error Immediately
  • Option #8: Die Roll Saviors
  • Option #9: Complicate the mess

This article is going to examine those solutions, the compromises and price-tags that they carry as baggage, and the pitfalls of each.

A necessary assumption

It’s necessary to assume that the solution the GM has in mind makes sense and has no logic holes. This, unfortunately, won’t always be the case; if the players’ logic for rejecting that solution seems compelling to the GM when it gets made, he has a whole different problem to deal with: fixing the hole in his logic, and only then seeing which of the solutions offered below will be the most effective way of patching the adventure with the logic upgrade.

A matter for serious consideration

Note that most of these solutions imply that they will be consistently employed in any similar future circumstance as a matter of campaign policy. While this policy is subject to change under different circumstances, establishing one in-game approach as the default and then not employing it on some future occasion is either a great big hint to the players (if they notice) or a potential undermining of their trust in the GM’s fairness.

This choice is not one that should be made lightly; it can have ramifications and consequences that go way beyond this individual adventure or even this particular campaign.

Options #1-5: Do Nothing

This basic solution is reflective of a particular gaming philosophy, that can be stated:

The players are in control of the PCs and make the decisions for them. If the players make a mistake in interpreting a situation, the PCs make the same mistake, and both sides have to live with the consequences. This option is the price that has to be paid for giving the players total freedom to play their characters as they see fit. If they are the ones making the decisions, then they also have to take the responsibility for making those decisions the correct ones.

There will be a lot of people who agree with that fundamental philosophy, at least in general terms. Others might argue that the GM knows the game world better than the players, and that the PCs have different capabilities to those of their players, and hence this hard line needs some watering down, some softening. What’s more, the GM has a much better view of the big picture, while the players have – at best – a distorted, compromised view, as explained in Monday’s article, Layers Of Mis-translation.

Finally, it can be argued that the GM has a responsibility to the campaign to save the players from themselves because a campaign that collapses is no fun for anybody.

So far as I am concerned, these are all valid arguments to at least some extent and that is why this is such an important, even defining, decision in terms of the campaign. I always give the question thought when creating a campaign and – at the very least – drop hints as to what the policy is going to be within a campaign, if it isn’t stated explicitly. I tailor the choices employed within any given campaign to the design of that campaign. And I will occasionally vary that choice based on in-game circumstances.

But, even if the core philosophy is to let the players make their own mistakes and live with the consequences, there remain options for softening this hard line to varying degrees. That’s where the terminus variations within this general option come in.

Option #1: …until new evidence is found

The softest variation is to let them continue in their erroneous thinking until they discover a piece of the puzzle that doesn’t fit, then use it (through an NPC) to cast doubt on their theory, hitting them over the head with the logic error until you break through the Confirmation Bias. This leaves them with two viable theories – the one you started with, and a variation on their flawed one with appropriate adjustments and corrections to plug the wound made in it, but no certainty as to which is correct.

This solution suffers from a very human problem: it ignores the fact that the players are people with human feelings and deliberately humiliates them to some extent whenever they make a mistake. While some players may be fine with such treatment, most will dig in their heels and resent it. There are two solutions to this related subproblem: water down the “hit them over the head” part of the proposal, risking the effectiveness of the solution to the original problem, or taking this option off the table except in unusual circumstances.

Option #2: …until they spot the error

Players can sometimes break through Confirmation Bias all on their own, especially if something that doesn’t fit is forcibly brought to their attention (a-la the “new evidence is found” sub-option) and they are left to draw their own conclusions. If you can somehow drop a hint that some NPC is deliberately trying to make them (and anyone else) think that the PCs original conclusions are the truth, the combination is sometimes enough to eventually break through the Confirmation Bias.

This is often a good solution to employ in conjunction with one of the other options, because it gives the players the opportunity to fix their mistake while still erecting a safety net of some sort. It’s big flaw is that it doesn’t always work; the players might assume that the apparent deception is in fact a deception being used to double-bluff them into thinking their solution is not the correct one. Engaging their paranoia just enough is only a hair’s-breadth line removed from going way too far. You can actually end up doing more damage to the campaign than if you had kept your mouth shut.

Option #3: …or an NPC figures out the truth

One such safety net is having an NPC figure out that the PCs have made a mistake. The question then becomes, what will they do about it? The NPC can’t just up and lecture the PCs – that’s just another way of humiliating the players using the NPC as a proxy. No, the NPC needs to make one of the PCs aware that he thinks something may have been overlooked but doesn’t want to make a fuss about it until he investigates, then have the NPC try to verify the real solution and get in over his head.

Eventually, his absence / lack of messages will alert the PCs that there was at least some merit to his concerns, or he will be badly injured in the course of his solo wanderings (same result) or whatever – something will happen to him that lends credibility to his alternate theory of what’s going on.

This is entirely fair game, establishing the philosophic principle that if the players get their sums wrong, other people will suffer, and this can include friends and allies. In other words, there is a price that they have to pay, albeit indirectly, for being wrong. (This is a lot more effective in some campaigns than others). Genre, PC personality, player personality, empathy for NPCs – there are a host of factors. But it’s definitely worth considering.

Option #4: …until the last possible second

If you’re going to make the truth a revelation because the players have blinded themselves to truth, why not go the whole hog? “The last possible second” is defined in this case as the last point at which the PCs can undertake the correct action to stop whatever is really going on. It only takes a slightly overconfident villain leaping up at that moment and exclaiming “You were so easy to deceive, until now, it is too late to stop me, Bwahahaha!” and the problems resulting from the Confirmation Bias go away.

The problem with this solution is that it requires the right mental attitudes on the part of the players, because they have to be able to figure out the solution to their problem without being fed it by the GM. If they are in a mental state that says “Yeah, you got us good, there’s nothing we can do about it anymore,” then the whole adventure, and possibly the campaign, will collapse in a heap. If they are strong-willed, determined, problem-solvers who will take that pronouncement as a challenge, then this option can work, and work brilliantly – up to the point where it becomes overused.

It’s vital that the villain’s pronouncement be the final event in the day’s play so that the players have until the start of the next game session to reevaluate the situation and come up with a plan. The GM can hint at the solution but can’t deliver it on a silver platter.

And there should always be a cost involved in last-minute desperate solutions. If there’s no pain for their characters as a result, the players will learn nothing from the error. An adventure post-mortem is definitely called for – perhaps partially in the form of a player-GM bullring, in which the causes of the mistake can be looked at from a metagame level, followed by a roleplayed partial in-character post-mortem, possibly built into the start of the next adventure – though tacking it onto the current one, and ideally onto the adventure play session which includes the climax is probably a better option.

Option #5: …until the 13th hour

Let the PCs make their mistakes until it IS too late and the villain wins. Then segue into an adventure in which the PCs undo the victory at the 13th hour. This lets the players take the frustration, anger, and humiliation that has been dumped on them by the NPC and return the favor – leaving the GM in the clear.

It’s vital, when employing this technique, that the solution be timed properly, and that afterwards it be emphasized that the PCs got lucky in that there was a way back from the abyss – they might not be so lucky the next time.

I didn’t have to use it, but for one Zenith-3 adventure I carefully prepared an outline of a solution to just such a problem in case it was needed. (I’m going to leave the details vague because I might retool it for use some other time):

  • The first hour of the next session would have been consumed by the PCs escaping, convinced that there had to be a way out of the mess.
  • The following 30 minutes was going to be a synopsis of three months under the heel of the victorious dictator while the PCs were on the run – not played in-game – and the cost to innocent bystanders and allies of the team.
  • Finally, the conclusion to the second hour was going to be the villain making his first major mistake and the PCs realizing that he had made a mistake.
  • An hour or so of planning and investigating how best to take advantage of that mistake, deciding just what their objective had to be, then one-to-two hours of putting that plan into action.

There were actually going to be two ways to take advantage of the mistake – one was more certain but left the last three months events (game time) intact, the other an alternative that was riskier but could undo everything all the way back to the 13th hour and prevent the original victory by the villain – at a price.

I would have expected the PCs to attempt both plans simultaneously – a problem of coordination of efforts, but worth the effort, giving them two simultaneous bites of the cherry.

I was then going to put the villain into a position where he could attempt to stop ONE of the two plans, and make his second mistake – he would underestimate what the time-travel option could achieve and block the contemporary-events targeting group. Upshot: the PCs find themselves back at the moment of total victory for the villain with one slim hope of stopping him.

Note that none of this was going to come easy for the PCs, this was not a deus-ex-machina, it was something they were going to have to sweat bullets to pull off. I was going to give them a chance to correct their mistake, not an easy way out, and with no guarantees of success. I also had contingency plans to extend the in-the-future segment by another game session or even two, if the players found themselves getting into it.

That’s how you structure a 13th-hour solution.

In the past, I’ve had such solutions in place for other adventures.

A possibility at one point was a KGB mole taking over the President of the US with Mind Control, and being stopped just as he begins the nuclear launch sequence after re-targeting the nukes at US targets. All but one of the missiles would be harmlessly self-destructed, that last one could be stopped by one of the PCs, depriving her of her powers at least temporarily in a “radiation accident”, but leaving the President hopelessly insane, elevating a corrupt Vice-President to the oval office, and leaving the US vulnerable to nuclear attack from the Soviet Union unless the PCs acted immediately. There is always a price to be paid for a 13-hour solution.

The biggest downside of the 13th-hour solution is that you can’t employ it all the time, and there is always a risk that the PCs will fail in their 13th-hour bid for victory. Other notable dangers are the effects of the price to be paid – it has to cause real harm to the PCs capabilities or it’s not a deterrent, but that can impact other adventures down the track. It’s often an all-or-nothing throw of the dice for the campaign. It’s wise to have a plan C in case the PCs fail.

Option #6: The Players Are Right

So far, the alternatives have all been variations on “The players are wrong and will eventually come to know it”. It’s time to cast a wider net and consider more radical solutions.

One obvious choice that I’ve used a couple of times is to rewrite the rest of the planned adventure, on the spot, in such a way that the players are right. When I like their theory better than the plans and motivations that I employed to determine the events on which their theory is based, and in particular when it opens the door to one or more future adventures that I hadn’t even considered, this is one of the first options that I consider.

The problem with this solution is that you usually have very little time to make up your mind. As Johnn Four wrote for Campaign Mastery some years back, “Say Yes, but Get There Quick.” The trick to being able to make a reasoned snap judgment is two-fold; (1) Know what is going on, according to your original plan, and how the events that the PCs have discovered fit into that sequence of events; (2) consider each element of the players’ theory as they develop and expound it, looking for both flaws and plot potential. By staying only a heartbeat behind the players, and developing pro- and anti- arguments as you go, the GM is in a position to render a quick decision while still investing considerable thought on the question.

Every fact always has three possible explanations: it’s a true fact, a mistake, or it’s a deliberate deception by someone for a reason. Employing this logic to retroactively change the status of events and “facts” uncovered by the PCs, it is always possible to construct an alternative theory as to the cause of events, and what is going on. All that needs to be done to switch from one scenario being “true” to the other is to recast the conflicting points of information as errors, incorrect assumptions, or deliberate deceptions.

That beings about a secondary problem, however; the deception has to make sense to whoever is responsible. After all, the adventure has just gone from a case of one stream of events and an interpretation of those events by the players to one stream of events plus an active deception – one set of real events has become two. It doesn’t matter how much sense the players theory makes if the hypothetical deception is so improbable or counterproductive or nonsensical that it would never occur. This is one of the most significant assessments that the GM has to make in evaluating the potential of the player’s theory, and this is what the GM should pay the maximum attention to.

You can trust the players to police the internal logic of their theories, at least to some extent. You’ve hopefully prepared the internal logic of what you originally intended to happen, in advance. So it should be possible to focus your concentration on the player’s theory and whether or not the surrounding events hold logical water. This is one of the most important criteria to employ in determining whether or not this is a viable option.

Option #7: Correct the error Immediately

One reason why the decision about Option #6 has to be made so quickly is because it is mutually exclusive to this alternative. The best time to dispel Confirmation Bias is immediately you become aware of it. “You’re trying to convince yourselves, but something just doesn’t ring true.” “There’s something you’ve overlooked.” “You’re reaching.” “Interesting speculation but it relies on too many unvalidated assumptions, so don’t lock your thinking in stone.” “Wishing won’t make it so.” “It seems over-complicated as theories go.” “That seems too simplistic an explanation.” Any of these phrases can be used to puncture the theory as a hypothetical description of reality, but only if they are delivered before players convince themselves and Confirmation Bias gets locked into place. They are all shorthand, polite GM code for “You’re talking nonsense”.

Option #8: Die Roll Saviors

Players are not their characters. The environments in which players and characters are trying to make sense of events are completely different. The same logic used to justify Option #1 can also be turned to permitting characters dice rolls to work out when the players are putting nonsense into their mouths and minds.

While I have an aesthetic dislike for this solution, it is a viable option that has to be considered, and that I have had to employ on more than one occasion. It’s especially appropriate when there is a great disparity between the intellectual capabilities or life experiences of players and characters; but it has the tremendous drawback of letting a die roll replace ROLE-play.

After all, if you’re going to let die rolls decide everything, what do you need players for?

Option #9: Complicate the mess

Douglas Adams wrote, in “The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Universe”, “There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable.” This option is offered in the same spirit.

Essentially, it assumes that as soon as the players lock their minds in stone about what is going on, both their theory and the plot from which the GM has generated the events about which the players are theorizing become equally invalid, replaced by something even more complicated, and the first thing that the GM has to do is elevate the state of confusion.

For example, let us presuppose that a family heirloom – a diamond necklace – was broken down and sold piecemeal because the artistry of the setting was particularly bad and detracted from the overall value of the piece. Now the son who sold it off without his family’s knowledge to solve his gambling debts is stealing back the gems to reconstruct the necklace before its theft is discovered. So he steals a piece of jewelery, removes the stones from their setting, keeps the one he wants, and dumps the rest at the scene of subsequent crimes in order to confuse the authorities about what is happening.

The players figure out that the thief is stealing to obtain specific gems from each item, but are at a loss as to the significance of those gems until one of the players notices that one of the gemstones is “3 carats” and another weighs “1.4 grams” and a third is “0.027 inches in diameter” (all randomly chosen numbers) and evolves the theory that mystic numerology is involved relating to the embedded digits of pi (3.1415927), and therefore the next theft will involve a stone which contains some measurement with a value of “15” or “1.5” or something along those lines. From there, the speculation moves on to the mystic significance, an answer is contrived involving opening a portal to a hypothetical other plane of existence, and before you know it, the PCs are looking for a sorcerer and numerologist.

As soon as that happens, the GM rules (in his own mind) that both explanations are spurious and the truth is even more complicated. Back when they were part of the same necklace, a secret formula for the unlocking of great power was micro-etched by laser into the surfaces of the diamonds as a means of smuggling that research out of the hands of the foreign power who sponsored the research for use as a weapon. He got the necklace out, but was captured and has spent the last twenty years in prison. Finally, he effected an escape, but in the meantime, the jewels were broken up and sold piecemeal – his artistry in designing the setting left something to be desired. He has spent a further five years in tracking them down, and now has only two more to find.

But his M.O. is about to change. One of the gems has been re-cut, and in a rage, he is going to kill the jeweler with the victim’s own gem-cutting equipment and then steal his entire stock in order to buy what expensive equipment he needs to replicate his research that he is going to be unable to steal. And the PCs, in the act of investigating, are going to encounter the son of the jeweler, a fine red herring, who has been secretly smuggling blood diamonds to his father for re-cutting, and an uncut stone will have been given to a witness, a streetwalker, in an attempt to buy her silence; when she attempts to sell the diamond, it’s provenance will be immediately recognized and she will be detained. At which point, the deal she made with the jewel thief is off, and she will attempt to make a new deal with the authorities for her freedom. Next, the criminal needs to find a buyer for his loot; he sells some of it in a pawnshop, but is long gone by the time the connection is worked out, and makes contact with the Russian Mafia in an attempt to sell them the rest.

He makes the mistake of telling them too much, and they decide to back his research – whether he likes it or not. So the diamond robberies stop, and a new series of brazen and violent high-tech robberies by the Russian Mafia take their place. Meanwhile, from the description provided by the streetwalker, including information about accent and unfamiliarity with American slang, the PCs identify the thief and establish the provenance of the original series of stones – this builds the path to the original solution to the crimes into the new plotline. By now, the original theory of the players, to which they were becoming wedded, has been blown apart; there are too many things that it doesn’t explain. They identify and recover the last two of the original stones and discover the secret to unlocking the hidden code micro-engraved within them, and enabling them to start figuring out what’s now going on.

Meanwhile, an FBI deep-cover mole within the Russian Mafia connects some of the dots for the PCs, and they start putting together the real story. They determine that the hidden code has something to do with the angular momentum of charged spinning black holes, and are able to deduce the rest from the list of equipment stolen. By constructing an artificial microscopic black hole, with a charge, and spinning it by transfer of angular momentum while feeding it just enough high-energy fast-moving particles in a fixed directional stream with an electron gun (as used in any old-style TV set) to keep it “alive”, energy can be siphoned from the black hole by firing a second string of particles to just graze the edge of the event horizon; the particles are spun at incredible speeds, tearing them apart; some components are absorbed by the hole, but the rest leave with more velocity than they arrived with because of the transfer of angular momentum, carrying enough energy to initiate a small fission-fusion reaction in deuterium atoms, splitting apart hydrogen atoms and colliding the parts with enough force to cause them to fuse into helium, releasing heat energy which can be turned into mechanical work.

What happens from there depends on the genre. So far, the adventure could be superhero, neo-pulp, super-spies, sci-fi, or cyberpunk. The researcher, under pressure to deliver results from the Russian Mafia, is about to make a second mistake by incorrectly replicating part of the original formula, but what the outcome will be is dependent on the genre. All you can do without that information is characterizing it as a danger and an immediate threat. Naturally, this will occur just as the thief is distracted by the PCs raiding the premises in order to arrest him, then turn him states’ witness against the Russian Mafia. But whether the villain gains superpowers by his machine running amok, or it becomes a bomb on a short fuse, or it really does rip a hole into another continuum, it still provides a suitably spectacular ending to what has turned into a much bigger and more complicated adventure than the original very human and low-level story of perseverance in the face of incredible adversity that the GM had in mind.

This example was included to make a point as well as illustrating the process. The unexpected development jars the complacency that sets in as a result of Confirmation Bias, the confidence that the PCs know what’s going on, but it also makes the adventure bigger. In order to overcome the Confirmation Bias, it’s not enough to throw unexpected plot developments at the PCs, there needs to be some sort of escalation beyond what they were expecting, and that in turn needs a more over-the-top conclusion as a pay-off to the bigger build-up. Without that escalation, the players will waste time and effort trying to integrate the unexpected development into their pre-existing analysis – something that’s always possible by ruling the unexpected item as an attempted deception to throw authorities off the scent. It’s only by making the unexpected development too important for such a minor function, ie escalation, that the cracks in the Confirmation Bias can be wedged permanently open.

I know what’s really happening!

Confirmation Bias is a very real problem for the GM, one that he will encounter repeatedly, but it can be overcome. Just remember the usually-misquoted line from Shakespeare and let it be your guide: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

The players may think they know what is happening, but you really do know what’s going on – even if you change your mind!

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Layers Of Mis-translation: RPGs and Dubbed TV


I was watching a repeat of Iron Chef the other day, and (not for the first time) ruminating on the evident personalities of the three chefs. Sakai always comes across as the friendliest of the three, Chen with an impish sense of humor, and of course, Michiba is the oldest, and in many ways, the most venerable. While still approachable, his personality seems more paternal than the others.

And, not for the first time, I wondered how much of the personality being expressed derived from the men themselves and how much from the voice-over men who dubbed their words into English.

While an interesting question, it’s one that seems incapable of complete solution without actually meeting and getting to know the men personally. So, as is usually the case, I was about to set it aside and think about something else, when it unexpectedly connected with another association, one that holds direct relevance to Campaign Mastery.

If the Chefs are the equivalent of the personalities described on a character sheet, the voice-over artists are analogous to the players!

Struck by this thought, I decided to spend this article examining the concept…

Personality on the page

A character sheet for many types of RPG is completely devoid of personality. Some systems, like the Hero System, include quirks of the psychological profile of the character, but these typically don’t define the character, and don’t express why these traits form part of the character’s makeup. At best, you can get some idea of the influences on the personality.

Racial Profiling can be applied in some cases to get a first-draft of the personality that completely ignores any possibility of individual variations. Other forms of stereotyping can also be applied in a similar manner.

It takes a player to put all these ingredients together and integrate them into a coherent persona, one who belongs in the environment from whence he derives; this is often more difficult at the start of a campaign, when the player doesn’t have sufficient context to connect the character with his native environment.

The Limits Of Interpretation

I have written several articles, and read many more, on the subject of interpreting characteristics and other dry facts on the character sheet. But while many aspects of behavior may be dictated by the character sheet, the most important elements are always provided from a source other than the dry facts; they need to be interpreted by the player, in the same way that a script has to be interpreted by an Actor or Actress.

In the world of television, this is a saving grace; it means that several different writers can provide scripts, each of whom have their own perceptions of the character, and by filtering these scripts through the perspective brought by the actor, something reasonably coherent can emerge and be recognizably “this character,” week after week.

To some extent, actors have an advantage over players in an RPG, in that they often have an incomplete set of facts about the character, and hence have greater freedom to be creative. In other ways, players have twin advantages over actors – they not only have concrete statements of the character’s ability in various ways, but they get to create the characters from start to finish, instead of simply interpreting someone else’s creations.

But both have restrictions and limits the their respective interpretations.

Personality within the game

Things get even more complicated when you consider that no personality can exist in isolation; personality is revealed only in interaction with other characters, with the environment in which the character exists, or with both in combination. That means that, at least partially, a player is not enough; he needs the GM to provide situations in which aspects of the personality can be expressed, to furnish the context within which a player’s choices of words and actions can be interpreted into a personality.

The Gestalt personality

In many ways, then, the player character is a gestalt of many different sources – the Campaign World and stimuli provided by the GM, the foundations deriving from an interpretation within the world-context of the raw numeric measures of the character sheet, compounded with the genre elements that shape all of the above, and all coming together in the “hands” of the player.

Yet, there is little or no sign of this multiplicity of sources and influences when any given character is discussed or considered. So ubiquitous is the filter and interpretative power of the player that all else is diminished or dismissed completely in any discussion. At all times, it is the player who is given authorship, acknowledgement, and ownership of the character, even though it is everything else that makes the character important.

Campaigns have changed game systems before, and the normal measure of successful implementations of this type of transformation is the degree to which the concepts, manifestations, and expression of the player character becomes compromised. If the change results in little or no impairment, it is deemed successful, or at worst, neutral; if it results in the potential for further avenues of expression of the original character and further depth and refinement of persona, it is a definitive success; and only if the change impairs one or more modes of expression of the character’s individuality, impairs the rendering of the persona by the player or worse yet, forces a change to the central concepts that underpin the persona, it is deemed a failure.

There are other ways of measuring the success of such implementations, such as the GM’s ability to craft adventures that the players find interesting, but these ultimately manifest themselves in terms of character expression, so the same criteria can usually be employed; the only distinction is between primary and secondary causes of the impact.

Similarly, characters can experience an out-of-genre adventure, or even a complete transformation of genre, and continue unchanged, or even be reinvigorated as a result; or can migrate from one campaign to another, under a completely different GM, with great success, provided that enough supporting infrastructure remains unchanged to permit the character as he was to connect to the new campaign.

The Interpretation Spin

It is thus the singularity of perspective of the player that is central to the definition and depiction of a character. This can be demonstrated in real-world terms by the differences in persona demonstrated by the character of Blackwing in my Zenith-3 campaign, which has had three different players (You can read the full story, highlighting the differences in interpretation, in the section “Example: The Blackwing Evolution” within The Moral Of The Story: The Morality and Ethics of playing an RPG, about 1/3 of the way down the page).

Each interpretation is radically different and distinct, and yet, they are all reflections of the one character. In creating adventures for the group, I react to the persona displayed by the player, so it is the campaign, and the game world, which is transfigured by the player, not the other way around. The relationship between player and GM is a two-way street, and in many important respects, the player is the dominant element of that relationship.

Side-note: Why do the words “let me tell you about my character” create such universal dread and loathing amongst other players and GMs the world over? I would argue that it is because the character is presented bereft of the context provided by the game world, and thus the usual recitation is of flavorless game mechanics and anecdotes without relevance – leaving only the most boring and disinteresting elements of the gestalt. Don’t tell me about the character, tell me about the world he lives in, how he interprets it, and what he has done to make that world his own. How has the environment affected him? How has he affected the environment, the history? How does he reflect the underpinning philosophy of the world? What makes him interesting?

The player’s interpretation of all the other ingredients that contribute to the character thus “spin” those elements into a character-driven context.

Which brings me back to Iron Chef and the original thought it inspired.

Perception and “Reality”

The only “cast member” of Iron Chef that I have ever seen in any way outside of the context of the show is the time Hiroyuki Sakai appeared on an episode of Masterchef Australia in Season 2. Unlike the episodes of Iron Chef that had been translated and dubbed by the Cooking Channel in the US, Chef Sakai spoke English for himself.

It was a very strange experience, and responsible for first raising the question given at the start of this article in my mind. It was as disconcerting as having Hugh Jackman opening his mount and the voice of George Burns issue forth, reading Jackman’s Lines. No matter how appropriate such a blending might be for any given role being portrayed, the incongruity has to be overcome before you can wrap your head around what you are hearing.

In terms of the actual experience, what I noted was that the content of what he was saying, his philosophy on food, was largely consistent between both sources, but the characterization and emotional content were just a little different, though with some resemblance. What I have realized after much reflection is that everything that could be read from tone of voice, and analyzed therefore from the subjective viewpoint of the listener, was the result of a hybridization of the personalities of the two individuals involved – Sakai’s personality generated the original responses, which were then interpreted by the voice artist who dubbed the English translation. The emergent personality expressed on Iron Chef was a hybrid of the two, and a hybrid that could only exist within the context of the circumstances generated by the directors of the show.

The parallels between this situation and the description offered of a character in an RPG are pretty clear.

Extending the metaphor I

So an RPG is like a TV show or movie dubbed into another language. While an insight worth something in it’s own right, it doesn’t seem to have a whole lot of practical value. Perhaps if we extend the metaphor, we can find other aspects of resemblance between the two that will be of more worth in a practical sense.

The Game World on a page

The first thing that comes to mind is the difference between the game world as it appears in the GM’s notes and as it is in actual play. Here it’s the players who are the transformative element; not only is the world perceived through the eyes of the characters that they play, it is filtered through the capabilities of those characters. Furthermore, the world – as it is experienced – is also a function of what the players choose to explore and how, and what they choose to ignore; and a fourth function lies in their assumptions and the context placed on the world by their experience and real-world knowledge. Throw in the constrains of Genre and the fact that everything they perceive comes as a communication from the GM, adding his capabilities in expressing the “ideal” world in a tangible way, and the restrictions imposed by the adventures that he writes, and it is very clear that no matter how well delineated a world might be on paper, it is going to be a lot more inchoate and vague once play actually starts.

This is like a game of Chinese whispers. You start with a clear written description, but it is interpreted by the GM for the creation of an adventure. The game world is also interpreted by the GM to provide descriptions to the players which are, in theory, what the PCs can perceive. But the players have to take those descriptions and integrate them into a coherent world-view in order to understand what is going on and what options they have to intervene or take advantage of. The words go from the printed page (or digital analogue) to the GM to the PCs to the Players, with Genre and Game Mechanics – and the understanding of them – impacting the process at both the GM and the player stages.

Described in this way, it becomes utterly amazing that any coherent view of the world is even possible, let alone one in which the players and GM agree as to the fundamentals. There are simply so many failure modes that it’s impossible to guard against them all. It is therefore a certainty that the players will have an incomplete or incorrect understanding of at least some aspects of how the game world works.

There are several ways in which the Iron Chef Dubbing can be used as a metaphor for this circumstance.

You could describe the game world as being the original dialogue, and the GM’s descriptions of the interactions with that world as the dubs, highlighting the fact that the world as perceived by the players is a synthesis of many perspectives and elements, Equally, you could ruminate on the differences between a theoretical description (the one in writing) and the reality, arguing that the world on paper doesn’t matter, it’s the world as experienced that’s significant.

You could talk about two different GMs taking the same published setting and interpreting it in two completely different ways, neither more valid than the other.

Manifestations Of Misunderstanding

All these become vitally important when the players make a decision that the GM thinks is wrong or foolish. Before treating it as such, and penalizing the players or their characters for a mistake, the GM needs to be certain that the decision is not rooted in an incorrect or invalid understanding of the game world – tricky to do without dropping hints that the players are doing something they will regret.

One way of circumventing this problem is to insert test problems where the results of failure are non-critical. This enables the GM to test the player’s understanding of one or more critical aspects of the game world before they are forced to make a more serious decision based on that knowledge.

Another choice is to explicitly assume that the players don’t necessarily know what their characters would know from living in the game world. Thus, when a player makes a bad decision, the GM can simply announce, “[Character X] would probably think that was a bad choice because…” – that “because” is all important because it connects the misunderstanding with a correct interpretation. But, while this deals with the immediate problem, it subtracts from the player’s opportunity to make decisions that he knows are bad but that he thinks his character would think correct.

To get around this issue, there needs to be some understanding between the player and GM concerning who decides how much of the world and its workings the character understands, and that’s not a simple question to answer. Or perhaps the GM and player can develop a protocol by means of which the player can communicate to the GM, “I know this is a bad idea, but it’s what I think my character would do.” Part of this protocol should be an understanding that when this happens the GM will punish the character but not to the fullest extent to which he is capable; the character should be given the opportunity to learn from a mistake made voluntarily by the player for roleplaying reasons.

In other words, if the GM thinks the bad decision is being made because the character misunderstands the world, he should refrain from bringing the full load of bricks down in the character in question, but should not intervene to correct the decision. If the GM thinks the decision is flawed because the player misunderstands the game world, he is obligated to speak up and to intervene before the decision is final. And if these decisions were as black and white as this makes them seem, all would be well. Frequently, though, decisions will fall into a gray area in which the GM is uncertain as to which of these policies should apply.

The only solution at such times is to pose the question rather bluntly. “If you are doing this because your character thinks it right while you know better, I’ll require the decision to stand. But if you genuinely think this the right thing to do, then I will give you the opportunity for a do-over while explaining whatever it is that you haven’t understood about the game world.” And if that means that the GM permits the players to make mistakes and be punished for them less often than should be the case, that’s just bad luck on his part – coddling the PCs that little bit is far better than the alternative.

These problems generally become less frequent over time, as the players gain a more thorough understanding of the game world.

Extending the metaphor II

That’s not the only direction in which the metaphor can be extended. There is also the question of announcer Kenji Fukui, whose dubbed voice (by Bill Bickard) is one of the few that doesn’t appear to fit the appearance of the original performer; but Bickard’s voice is so unquestionably a part of the show, bringing an element of over-the-top humor, much of which originates with him, as this compelling interview makes clear.

And so we once again revisit the same questions, with some additional data. Once again, the performer we hear is improvising his performance based on a translation of what the original announcer said in the original foreign-language broadcast, but is explicitly adding things to that performance, resulting in a synthesis between the two that is neither one nor the other.

This precisely parallels what happens when a GM reads flavor text or other narrative from someone else’s adventure. What players may not realize is that even experienced GMs find themselves doing the same thing even when they read from their own script: a touch more explanation here, an attempt at a defter turn of phrase there, a change of emphasis, or the insertion of some parenthetical comments, either as part of the narrative or as a metagame intrusion into them for added context. The same thing often happens when encountering prescripted encounters, especially if the players don’t follow the “script” that the encounter lays out for them.

All of these changes bear a striking resemblance to the humorous turns of phrases that Bill Bickard inserted into his dubbed narration for Kenji Fukui, which in turn has a striking effect on the overall character of the show.

It can also be described, in the GM’s case, as the difference between a live performance and a studio rehearsal. Ideally, it transforms scripted but lifelessly dry narrative into something that is more spontaneous, more dynamic, and more responsive when it reaches the ears of the audience – in this case, the players. It blends a literal recitation of planned statements with communications between GM and player to produce something that is a synthesis of both. If the spontaneous, dynamic elements go too far – and it happens – the adventure also begins to diverge from the script. Sometimes, this is for the better, because the GM is responding and modifying his performance based on the reactions of the players, sometimes it is not because it diverges from the internal logic of the plotline contained within the adventure in ways that may be unrecoverable.

A good thing can become a bad thing, in other words, if not employed judiciously, with restraint, and with an awareness of the effect that it has on a multitude of levels of experience.

Great GMs will know instinctively how far they can go and not exceed that restriction. Professional GMs will understand the plot and the motivations of the characters and know through experience and judgment how far they can go, and will usually not exceed the restriction imposed, but will permit as much freedom within those boundaries as possible. Good GMs will exceed the restrictions regularly, but be adept enough at their craft that they can get things back on track, or simply find a resolution to the in-game situation that results.

Of course, there are other talents that GMs bring to their craft beyond this single criterion; a GM may be only ordinary in this respect but a genius at expressing distinct NPCs, employing different voices and accents at will. Others may be adept at painting a visual image with words, or at creating magnificent props, or any of a dozen other areas of excellence. (I regard myself as a good GM who works hard to bring a level of professionalism in this respect, FYI).

The biggest trick, in this area, is knowing when you’re about to go too far in improvising. Quite often, the limit isn’t obvious until you’ve already crossed it; the challenge then is to get the adventure back onto a course that has some internal logic without forcing decisions onto the players.

Example: The Jimmy Fingers Story

In the early days of the Zenith-3 campaign, I introduced an NPC by the name of Jimmy Fingers. This character existed to serve a defined and definitive plot function, but the players decided – based on a hint that I inadvertently dropped during my improvising – to use him as a source of intelligence on the world in general, and kept him around. That meant that I had to expand on the original defined role in a hurry and improvise a depth of characterization that wasn’t required of the original function that he was to serve.

So I improvised reactions to each of the members and began to develop relationships between him and them. This expanded role immediately disrupted the planned next step in the adventure I had worked out, because the way that the PCs learnt certain facts was supposed to actually be the trigger for the main adventure. I literally had to rewrite the rest of the adventure on-the-fly in such a way that this NPC could function as a conduit into it.

Once started down this road, natural progression kept Jimmy turning up in adventures. In particular, he developed an entirely-improvised crush on one of the PCs, which led him to get himself in over his head trying to prove his worthiness to her as a suiter. Because he didn’t come out and reveal his affections, having a massive inferiority complex – ordinary teenaged boy vs superheros – it took a long time before the reason why he would never “look after himself and keep himself safe”, no matter how often she lectured him about doing so came out.

Several times, he became the conduit for making the PCs aware of a situation of vital interest to them (ie a plot hook they couldn’t ignore) as a result. Eventually, he left with the undeclared intention of making himself worthy of her love and got himself caught up in something that was way over his head, re-entering the campaign in the worst possible way. This pattern repeated itself a couple of times before it began to show signs of stagnating; he was seriously injured a number of times, and came close to death on one occasion. As soon as it started to become predictable, it was time for him to inadvertently (while incoherent) reveal the motivations that had been driving him for years.

After that revelation, which forced the PC to reevaluate many of the encounters between the pair, he took advantage of an opportunity to travel space and time in pursuit of superpowers of his own. He hasn’t been seen or heard from since, but it’s a certainty – now that the PC in question is in a relationship with another PC – that he will eventually return and a complicated love triangle will emerge. They’re all waiting for that shoe to drop – and very aware that if they say or do the wrong thing, he might become a vengeful super-villain, one privy to a lot of their secrets. That shoe hasn’t dropped yet, but everyone knows it will eventually happen!

This NPC worked because I was prepared to let the PCs exceed the bounds of the plot, and was then able to expand on the personality in such a way that his continued involvement in the campaign (which is what the players wanted at the time) was justified. He went from streetwise delinquent to hanger-on to lovesick teenager to self-declared intelligence operative to victim to potential ally or obsessive enemy in the course of play. The character, the relationship, the adventure, and the broader campaign were all reshaped as a result of an off-the-cuff comment that the players decided to make central to their approach to the adventure in which he first appeared.

With Jimmy Fingers it worked out well. There have been other occasions on which I have had to scramble to correct some piece of improv that’s gone awry!

Extending the metaphor III

There remains one final interpretation of the gaming experience that can be perceived from a new perspective using the “Iron Chef” experience as a metaphor, and it is possibly the most complex of them all.

A player in an RPG doesn’t perceive the world directly, he receives a description of that world from the GM. But that description then has to be interpreted; the player has to filter the description he receives through his awareness of the restrictions of his characters perceptive capabilities, his understanding of the game world environment, the context provided by game history, recent game events, and his past experience as a player. To this he adds his own education and experience of popular culture, everyday reality, and genre, to arrive at a unified perception that is a synopsis of many sources.

No one player’s understanding and visualization of a scene will ever quite match that of any other player, and none will ever accord precisely with the understanding and visualization of the GM who furnished that description.

Each player’s interpretation of a scene is unique, and therefore even if they each had the exact same character to play, the way each such character would be directed by their player act and react to any given scene would also be ever so slightly different – though those differences might never be publicly discovered.

This is not that far removed from the compounded perception of the dubbed TV show, in which phrasing, emotional content, nuance, clarity, performance, and even body shape can be suggested by voice alone. Multiple voices can deliver the same lines and give a completely different impression of who is speaking, why they are saying it, and what the speaker is thinking and feeling. Cultural context and subliminal cues also play a part in these interpretations; that is one of the challenges of translation, for what is not stated explicitly and yet is required for full understanding must be conveyed by the translation. This would be all but impossible if it were not for the capability of incorporating an appropriate cultural subtext for the audience hearing the translated version into the translation itself.

“Somehow, it reminds me of a tale one of my aunts used to tell about how she encountered a human in a faraway land and inquired if he were a native. ‘I ain’t no native!’ she was told. ‘I was born right here!’ I quite agree with her that the only proper response when confronted by such logic was to eat him.” This brief passage from M.Y.T.H. Inc. Link by Robert Asprin clearly illustrates the point I’m making; what is described as ‘the only proper response’ makes no sense to us (because we aren’t Dragons) but obviously makes perfect sense to the Dragonkind of the series of novels. In the novel in question, it is used to emphasize the differences in cultural values between humans and dragons, played for shock value and humor. When speaking of the dubbing of Iron Chef, the cultural cues on film are Japanese, which gives them a closer resemblance to those of the audience hearing the dubbed version, but there will still be differences and nuances that would not survive a direct translation.

Did the original show have anything approaching the sense of humor and lightheartedness overlayed on the serious competitive aspects of each episode? Or was it more akin to Iron Chef America (which took itself far too seriously in the only seasons to be aired on Australian Free-to-air TV, or seemed to,) or Iron Chef Australia, which mixed that seriousness with the occasional element of humor that fell completely flat? I will probably never know – the only clues I have are the two appearances outside the show that I have encountered, the appearance of Sakai on Masterchef Australia and the interview with Bill Bickard linked to previously, and they suggest that the original was indeed far more serious than the dubbed version. This opinion is reinforced by the final season or two of the show, after Bickard retired; the dubbed version lacks the same added “punch”, the game show quality that he brought to the gestalt. It’s far dryer, more serious, less exuberant – and less entertaining.

It’s easy to demonstrate the power of the voice to add nuance. Take any famous line of dialogue by Darth Vader and “dub it” yourself with an accent of some sort; it will just feel wrong (and will often be funny as all get-out). Or try it with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s most famous line, “I’ll be back” – without his Austrian accent, it changes completely.

Getting back to the RPG sphere of activity, there’s many an occasion when I have given a description of a scene or circumstance to the player whose character was the only one to perceive/observe the salient details and then had them report their observations back to the group. On every occasion, there were critical omissions, frequently there were insertions of new material, and the message was usually garbled almost beyond recognition.

This occurred because they weren’t stating what had been described to them, they were relaying their understanding of the scene they had observed. The gaps in that understanding created the omissions and the interpretations and assumptions were reported as what the characters had supposedly observed. They were “context added” – with the player’s interpretations reported as fact every bit as solid as the actual scenes witnessed. It’s a direct result of their individual synthesis of the many sources of material compounding to compile an overall perception. They “see” the game world through the eyes of a gestalt of sources, part player, part PC, and part GM-derived.

Visual aids like illustrations, photographs, battlemaps, props, diagrams, and more extensive and detailed narration all serve to unify perceptions of a scene or situation in various respects, driving those differences in interpretation into the shadowy recesses of irrelevance – most of the time.

A shared activity (conclusion)

Gaming is a shared activity which relies on communications between the players and GM, communications which are inherently fallible. Both GM and players have to interpret what is communicated to them from the source material through a number of filters and synthesize that interpretation with other material to romanticize the partial picture into a holistic “reality” within the imagination. The entire process is error-prone, and can catastrophically impact on the logic of perceived situations. Remaining aware of these factors is vital to rational choices of action on the part of the players and interpretation of those actions by the GM.

Whenever the players seem about to make a horrendous mistake in judgment, be sure to allow for the possibility of a failure of communications; if the situation were properly understood, the course of action proposed might well be very different. It behooves a good GM to validate the player’s understanding before applying an iron fist to flawed and erroneous choices.

Make allowances for mis-communications and insert corrective mechanisms into your GMing style, and the results will be a better gaming experience for all concerned.

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Ask The GM: Seasoning The Stew (making races feel distinctive)

Today’s question comes from all the way back in June 2010 – I’m sorry it’s taken so long to answer it!

Ask the gamemasters

The question comes from Brett, who wrote:

“I am an extremely new DM, but I have played for 7 years now. I am looking to put my players in conflict with Drow. At one point in time you said,

‘One of the key objectives that I have for the Drow in any of my D&D games is to distinguish them from Elves. I don’t just mean with attitude and ritual and dwelling and so on, I mean the way it feels to PCs when they interact with the race.’

Why do you do this? They are formed from the same culture that formed elves, should they not be similar? And, can you point me to some good resources about Drow?

The quote is from The Gold Standard: Mike’s Top Twenty 3.x Supplements (parts 2, 3 & 4), in referring to “Drow Magic” by Mongoose Publishing.

So, Why make Drow feel distinctive? How does this reason impact the handling of other races & species in a game? And where can readers find more information on Drow and Dark Elves in general?

Because this question was actually asking me to amplify on a point made in one of my other articles, I decided to answer it myself. If any other players or GMs wants to add something to what I’ve said, the comments section is at your disposal!


Mike’s Answer:

This is a difficult question to answer, because it always seemed so obvious to me that I had never subjected the question to much scrutinity. Breaking it down, we have a specific question about Drow vs Elves; we then have a general case of non-human races in general to consider (or reconsider) in light of that specific question; and we end with a request for resources, and those will fall into four teirs: Drow, Elves, other specific races, and finally, general resources deriving from the discussion, both theoretical and practical.

That’s quite a work order, and I don’t know how far I can get through it, but nothing will get done at all if I don’t get started.

Drow Vs Elves

Americans are exactly the same as Britons. The Puritans were exactly the same as the Europeans from which they derived. Everything that changed as a result of the Norman Invasion made the Englanders of the day exactly the same as the French from which the Normans derived. Drow are just like Elves. The first three are patently untrue, so why should we expect the last to hold water?

American Independance

When the American Colonies rebelled against British Rule in 1775, there were economic and political justifications but the bottom line was that the colonists no longer thought the same way as the people from which they had derived. The act of unforced immigration itself selected for people with a particular mindset; these were either oppressed minorities seeking freedom of expression (or forcibly exiled) or opportunists seeking a better lift for themselves and their descendants. Those who survived the ordeals of colonial life were forced to become more self-reliant and less prone to look to higher authority to solve their problems for them; the movement to a more democratic social and political system was, to some extent, inevitable.

Norman Invasion of England

Similarly, the invading Normans brought French social and political beliefs to England, but these had to compromise for reasons of practicality with what was already there; the result was a hybridization of attitudes that was inevitably a little different from those of Normandy at the start, and grew more divergent with every passing year and generation. England had more space, more people, more resources, was an island nation seperated from the European mainland by the English Channel, and had an indigenous population of Anglo-Saxons. Each of these was a point of difference between the two that could not have any effect other than produce social, cultural, political, and – eventually – religious divergance.

For that matter, the Normans themselves derived from Viking conquerors, and the very fact of their assimilation into France shows that the act of seperating from a parent culture leaves a population subject to change and divergance.

The Puritans

The Puritans were extremist activists that split from the Protestant Church of England who were tied up in the first English Civil War, and who came to America seeking religious freedom. Their social practices and beliefs were immediately divergant from those of their parent culture, because that was the whole point of the emigration!


Which brings us to the Drow. Something led them to split with Elvish Society, and that was a pivital moment in the histories of both. They migrated into a completely different physical environment, which they had to conquer, and which may well have been populated by some other underground species at the time. Their social structure and practices are completely different from those of Elves. They evolved radically different religious beliefs and practices, either before, during, or after the split. There are no shortage of reasons why the division might have occurred, and how long ago, but the fundamental fact is that it happened. No matter how similar or divergant they may have been at the time of division, it’s absolutely inevitable that they think differently to Elves, that they will have radically different goals, priorities, options, standards of behavior, and in any given situation where there is room for a difference of opinion will make choices different to those of an Elf.


I won’t go into details here, but suffice it to say that in Fumanor there was divergance in viewpoints from long before the Division, which led to an act of Genocide against another branch of the Elvish population and consequent exile from the main population. From that point, the differences only grew more extreme.

Shards Of Divinity

In my Shards campaign, the Drow are a radicalized subversive terrorist cult within Elvish Society. There are Drow Enclaves which are extremely divergant from mainstream Elvish society, but most are indistinguishable from Elves as a deliberate act of Subterfuge on the part of the Drow. There has, as yet, been no Division between the two, in terms of their history. They came close at one point, when there was a Civil War between the racial branches, but the Cult was smashed, driven underground, and (seemingly) supressed.

Drow recieve a slightly different education, and recieve specialist training and theological instruction, but the major difference between the two is in the way that they think. They are currently experiencing a resurgance and gathering strength, as a result of the PCs getting in over their heads early in the campaign; they released an Elvish Prince who was Drow – the original leader of the sect, in fact, who had been seduced by Lolth, who had led the attempted coup, and who had been confined for his crimes, a thousand years earlier – and then, under his direction, awakened an Enclave of his subjects who had been confined at the same time. Both had been subjected to a form of Stasis that had slowed time to a crawl for them, so they have not yet done anything with their new-found freedom, but 10,000 radicalized Drow and their once-charismatic leader are now infiltrating Elvish Society.

In other words, the Drow are on the path that will eventually lead them to become the Drow of the game sourcebooks, but who have yet to commit an act so unforgivable that they will become the Mortal Enemies of Elvenkind. Right now, so far as most are concerned, they are nothing but an occasional public nuisance.

Manifesting The Differences

There are three spheres of activity in which these differences should manifest. Roleplayed encounters with individual Drow, Adventuring within a Drow domain, and Battle.

Individual Drow

The first usually casts the Drow in question as a spy, sleeper agent, or subversive element of some kind, formenting trouble for whatever reason. Overtly, their behavior would and should be indistinguishable from those of any other Elf (or whatever they are pretending to be). Until revealed, their “Drowness” lies hidden, and is more about motivation than anything else; when revealed, their true nature should become manifestly obvious because it telegraphs that motivation to the players. His mindset and loyalties should obviously become distinct from those of “ordinary” Elves at that point.

Yes, Drow will always have some characteristics in common with the parent race, but that only means that the points of distinction between them should be emphasized.

In A Drow Place

One of the themes through the original “Magician” by Raymond E. Feist and the subsequent “Empire” trilogy co-written by Feist and Janny Wurtz is the awareness on the part of the protagonists of the collisions of cultures. “You only get to see us as we are in your world, subordinated to your culture; at home, we are very different. If you respect those differences, you will come to value aspects of our culture that would, if replicated in yours, benefit you and your people,” to paraphrase this recurring theme.

If there is anywhere that Drow can be Drow, it’s when they are at home and the PCs are the interlopers. This is where and when any admirable characteristics of Drow Society can be made manifest rather than simply serving as motivation for troublemaking amongst a society that is alien to them.

Why bother going to the trouble if Drow are exactly the same as Elves? You want to emphasize and play up the differences between the two so that the viability of the adventuring environment is manifest to the PCs. The price of obtaining the benefits may be too high for the PCs to countenance, but there should be such benefits that can be respected, and even admired.

It might be the sense of peace that comes from knowing exactly your place in society, your responsibilities, and the rewards that fulfilling them will bring. It might be a deep sense of faith that comes from being convinced that you have all the answers. It might be the efficiency that results from a total ordering of society. In order to be truly arrogant (and Drow are nothing if not arrogant), you have to have something to be arrogant about!

Drow are not Elves. In order to manifest the differences in their society and habitat, you have to understand the points of distinction that differentiate between the two, then emphasize them so that they can be communicated to the players in a relatively efficient manner. Doing so, in turn, helps get into the heads of the individual representatives of the race when you roleplay them.

In Battle

Drow have different abilities, equipment, objectives, motivations, and attitudes to those of Elves. This means that they should behave differently in combat, making different choices that reflect their personalities, which in turn exist within the context of the points of distinction between the two.

Does anyone remember the old “dungeon bash” computer games of the 80s and 90s, where the only differences between encounters were the numerical differences of stats – so big, so strong, so much capacity for damage? “There’s an [X] in the room. It draws its weapon.” – “I attack the [X]!” Same thing every time with different stats.

Why bother? You may as well just play cards, or dominos – they at least have more tactical options.

The big difference that existed between a by-the-numbers computer game and a tabletop RPG were the points of individuality and distinctiveness that characterize each race, and the capacity for interaction and freedom that players had with the game. These days, computer games have become more sophisticated, and are now roughly the equivalent of a “play by numbers” adventure book – they are better at simulating differences in personality on the part of the encounters, and different choices on the part of the player can yield different outcomes in the game. There are often no more right or wrong choices in terms of getting from “A” to “B” within the adventure. But you are still dealing with either a random element, or with a set of fixed plotlines, no matter how well hidden; the capacity for the players to influence the style and direction of a campaign remains the greatest point of distinction between computer RPGs and tabletop RPGs.

That’s why World Of Warcraft became such a huge success; most of the encounters were with other “live players” and the results of these encounters were always unpredictable; multiply them ten-thousand-fold and they can reshape the game world. In effect, the gsme software and those responsible for it became the GMs, with thousands of players.

Unless you properly distinguish Drow from Elves, encounters with either will be more shallow than it could be, and so will your game.

The Bigger Picture

Four aspects of the bigger picture, i.e. the entire campaign, are directly affected by this reasoning: Longevity, Creativity, Background, and Adventure Potential.

Campaign Longevity

One of the reasons why my campaigns last as long as they do is that they have enough depth to support many years of play without the players getting bored. They are complex, rich in detail and ideas, and designed to offer opportunities for adventure. Why? Because those are the types of Campaign that I like to play, and like to GM. This philosophy manifests in an imperative to distinguish one race from another as clearly and succinctly as possible. If you don’t, the campaign won’t last. And that general statement is exemplified by being able to differentiate between Drow and Elves as readily as you could Dwarves and Mermen.


I’m always looking for ways to exercise my creativity in creating campaigns. The differences between races is an obvious avenue for exploration. Even if you use exactly the same map for every campaign, they can all be rendered astonishingly different by interpreting the races differently. But that won’t make any difference unless those interpretations manifest in differences in play, so that the players can percieve and interaction with the differences.

Campaign Background

The split between the branches of Elves is one of those pivotal iconic moments that is so profound, in terms of making a difference to the current status within a campaign that it must always be considered. Yet it offers so much room for variation that it can reflect even the most abstract differences in campaign concept, through changing the reasons for the split, how it occurred, and how those abstract and philsophical distinctions manifest within the game that it can be used as a cornerstone of the entire campaign – it’s an event with concrete outcomes that is sensitive to nuances in campaign concept and background.

It’s always possible to have a campaign concept that has absolutely no impact on the campaign background or on the day-to-day circumstances exprienced by the players. It’s always possible to have a background that doesn’t reflect the concepts apon which the campaign has been based, or that makes no difference to the environment in which the adventures take place. Both waste the potential of these ingredients, so I am always looking for intersection points where these things will yield tangible differences within the game. The differences between Elves and Drow are one of the few such that are always “there”, so it makes a natural starting point for connecting game with background for the players. And, as I noted in the preceding subsection, it makes a great jumping-off point for the creativity of the GM, forging a path into the game world for the players to follow.

Adventure Potential

A campaign goes nowhere and does nothing without adventures. The best adventures aren’t tacked on, they grow out of the campaign’s foundations of concept and background organically. The differences between Drow and Elves and inherant potential for conflict between them is an obvious source of adventures within the game, something not to be thrown away lightly, which is what would happen without highlighting those differences.

Homogeneity gains you nothing but blandness. Accentuating the differences creates interest and excitement, a foundation for originality and adventure.


Which brings me to the hard part – resources. Why so difficult? Because I never – well, hardly ever – use them directly, or as written. Instead, I absorb as many ideas as I can from many different sources and then extract ones that go together, matching the general concepts that I have decided to put in place within the campaign.

I have well over 200 RPG supplements and sourcebooks, but there are very few that I can point at and describe as a “Great” sourcebook, especially with topical restrictions. But I’ll do my best….

I started formulating concepts for Drow from long before I ever heard the term with things like Warner Brothers cartoons and Enid Blyton fantasy like The Wishing Chair, Hans Christian Andersen‘s fairy tales, and so on. You see, Elves & Drow in D&D owe about half their natures to stories of the “Little Folk” of English, Irish, Scottish, French and German Myth (see ” Fairy“), with transfusions from Nordic/Scandinavian Myth; and about half to Tolkien, the concept of Orcs as “Corrupted” or “Fallen” Elves, with infusions of the Goblins in The Hobbit.

Put all of that in a blender and push “Puree”, then filter out the bits that were turned into Fey, and all you’re left with is the basic concepts.

In later years, the Elves and Moredhel from Raymond E. Feist’s Riftwar Saga also played a major role. Readers might also find value in Feist’s Faerie Tale, though I usually use it for Fey inspiration.

Then there are all the D&D referances – you can start with just about every link on this Wikipedia page (including the page itself); and then there are the pages on this list, which will fill in most of that mythology that I mentioned earlier, and this page on Dark Elves In Fiction, which is the last link on the list I just mentioned.

A little closer to home, large parts of the Orcs and Elves Saga here at Campaign Mastery should give ideas; both Elves and Drow are central to the plot. There are also some specific articles here that I can point at.

In The Gold Standard: Mike’s Top Twenty 3.x Supplements (part 5), I made a fuss over Dezzavold, Fortress Of The Drow from Green Ronan, and in part 2, Drow Magic from Mongoose Publishing made the top twenty.

I used a Drow Spy encounter from my Fumanor Campaign as an example quite extensively in Ask The GMs: Rubbing Two Dry Words Together. And I can’t recommend Creating Alien Characters: Expanding the ‘Create A Character Clinic’ To Non-Humans highly enough when it comes to a process for creating a new interpretation of Drow for yourself.

Elsewhere on the web, a Google Search for “Drow” turns up 1,390,000 referances, no doubt including the Campaign Mastery articles listed above. From the front page of listings, I found nine sites that might be useful, with everything from SRDs to Name Generators.

Of course, the referance that cannot be left out or ignored is Underdark, but everyone uses that as a foundation.

Of course, this list only scratches the surface – if I started listing books and supplements about Elves, Dwarves, and other races, we’d be here all day, and for the most part they don’t matter anyway – because I use those referances in exactly the same way as I do the referances regarding Drow. It’s all just grist for the mill.

The Wrap-up

I started this article with one of my readers quoting me:

‘One of the key objectives that I have for the Drow in any of my D&D games is to distinguish them from Elves. I don’t just mean with attitude and ritual and dwelling and so on, I mean the way it feels to PCs when they interact with the race,’

and asking the question “Why?”

The answer is because making Drow differ from Elves creates far more opportunities than it does headaches, is often outrageous fun in the creative sense, and helps tie a campaign together; and making the differences manifest from the point-of-view of the PCs also makes them available to the Players, and that gives the players a connection through to those abstract, philosophic, and conceptual campaign underpinnings and the campaign background that has resulted. Those are potent rewards for doing something that’s fun.

Of course, there’s another side of the coin, too. I haven’t played in a D&D campaign for a while now, but if I did, one of my first objectives as a player would be to find out how the GM was handling Drow. It’s going to far to describe the “Drow Proposition” as a representative exemplar of the GM’s entire style, but there’s more truth than fiction in such a statement. The first step in understanding how the characters are going to relate to the game world is understanding the GM and where his developmental focus lies, and this is a great tool for at least embarking on such a journey of exploration.

And that’s why, if asked the question, I would have to answer, “Why wouldn’t you!?”

About the contributor:

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 at this site. You can find him on Twitter as gamewriterMike, and find out more about him from the “About” page above.

Next in this series: What’s the best way to convey campaign background to players?

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Tourism in Sleepland: Sleep management for GMs & other creative people


If you listen to the advice of the experts, you can spend a third of your life sleeping. If the average life expectancy is 78 years (a number chosen for convenience), and ignoring the first 15 as unproductive due to youth, that’s 21 full years down the spout. Even a 1% saving in sleep required gets you almost 1840 hours more productivity over your lifetime – that’s equivalent to almost 46 forty-hour working weeks, or a full year (not counting annual leave). A 5% saving gets you an extra FIVE YEARS of effort.

Sleep Management is one of the great skills that very few talk about. It’s something that comes naturally to some people and not at all to others. But any improvement yields big results on a cumulative basis. It can also yield huge benefits in the short-term, when you really have to hit a deadline, regardless of whether it’s self-imposed or the result of external factors.

My sleep regime (or lack thereof) is – depending on your point of view – either notorious or legendary amongst my family and friends (including my players in the latter group). When I was much younger, I once put in 7 days continuous effort in campaign and game prep (no sleep whatsoever) and then GM’d for 18 straight hours on the 8th sleepless day. And, at the end of it, the game was concluded not because I was running out of steam, but because my players were. Admittedly, I then slept for 23 hours straight.

I doubt I could do that these days, but the mere fact that this was humanly possible without resorting to illegal substances – or even over-the-counter medications – means that I know a thing or two about sleep, and the lack of it, that I’ve learned the hard way. As little as ten years ago. I would routinely go without sleep once or twice a fortnight on non-successive nights. Sure, I had to sleep a little longer when I did hit the hay – an extra two hours, say – and I did lose perhaps an hour to stay-awake measures and another to sleep-deprived inefficiency – but that’s still an extra four hours of productivity when it mattered.

In this article, I’m going to share some of the lessons that I’ve learned over the years, including some quite recent ones. In some cases, this is backed up by modern medical science, in others it seems to contradict that science, or even not to have been tested experimentally. Which means that YMMV when applying any of these techniques. These are patterns and tips & tricks that work for me, or that I have personally observed as applying to me. They may apply differently to you.

I should state up front that I am not a medical professional, and this should be taken into consideration when assessing the advice and techniques contained in this article.

I strongly recommend that you do not operate heavy machinery or motor vehicles in a sleep-deprived state.

Apply common sense and a safety-first attitude when considering any of the techniques provided before you start, and if you suffer any ill- or unexpected effects, stop and consult your doctor.

restfulness spectrum

Alertness Levels

Something that needs to be clarified up-front is the difference between alertness and being able to function in a low-intensity situation like GMing or performing game prep. Alertness is something that enables quick responses to changing situations and is what you need to operate motor vehicles and the like. Functionality is not enough for such purposes; though it can seem sufficient under ordinary circumstances, responsiveness to any sudden changes in the situation is compromised. The goal of these techniques is to restore sufficient wakefulness for low-intensity purposes; any improvement in alertness levels is strictly limited, short-term, and unreliable.

You can be in a fit state to function creatively without being fully rested if you have to. Your thinking may be slowed, it may take longer and more double-checking may be needed to eliminate errors, but the whole point of a low-intensity situation is that you are able to take as much time as you need to. Only when tiredness reaches the point of exhaustion, bringing a person to a state of confusion where thinking itself is fuzzy and difficult does it become impossible to perform at this level.

This establishes two end-points in an entire range of “tiredness”, from being sufficiently rested to be fully alert to having just enough functionality to get you home and into bed without falling asleep en route. The techniques that will be discussed range in effectiveness from:

  • Methods sufficient to get you past the point of exhaustion and back into a state somewhere in the yellow-green zone for a medium-short period (say, 3-4 hours) despite being in the Red Zone; to
  • Methods of sustaining a reasonable level of alertness for a protracted medium term of a week or two on reduced sleep; to
  • Methods of reducing sleep requirements by a more modest degree over a longer term period.

How Much Is Enough Sleep?

This is an impossible question to answer definitively. There are so many influencing factors – individual metabolism, diet, general health, comfort, long-term exhaustion, activity levels in the preceding wakeful period… there are simply too many variables and not all of them can be adequately quantified.

Nevertheless, collective human experience can be applied to achieve a statistical foundation that will broadly apply to everyone.

How Alert is Alert?

It must also be stated that individual capabilities vary considerably. Some people can be more creative when almost flat on their backs from exhaustion than others seem to achieve at the best of times. Cognition and Reasoning vary tremendously from individual to individual. The more you have, the more you can sacrifice to tiredness while retaining an acceptable degree of capability.

But impairment from lack of sleep is also something that varies from individual to individual. So even that general statement, rubbery and qualified and vague as it is, can’t be relied on as a broad statement, only as a trend or probability, something that’s likely to be more true than not, more often than not.

Objective measurements tend to come in three or four subcategories – physical activity capacity, reflexes and responsiveness, logic & memory, and analytic capacity & problem-solving. There are no agreed standards for what levels of each define which levels of alertness, leaving only subjective statements and personal experiences as general guidelines.

That said, great strides have been made in the understanding of brain activity during sleep, and most sleep research has stepped over these vague but real-world-functional measures directly to definitions based on the easily-measurable and quantifiable measurements of such brain activity, which is then related back to the real world by correlating subjective effects and statements with measured brain activity.

The Sleep Cycle

Sleep can be broken into two parts: a 30-minute part and a 60-minute part. These two form a repeating cycle while you sleep, from the moment you actually fall asleep. The 30-minute part is light sleep, the 60-minute part is deep sleep. The 30-minute section can restore alertness temporarily without impacting actual tiredness. The benefits are superficial typically short-term, relative to getting sufficient deep sleep to actually recover.

One question that has not yet been adequately answered is the degree of individual variation in these time-frames. Some people under some circumstances might require only a 15-minute period of light sleep before entering deep sleep, some people might have a deep-sleep span of 50 minutes instead of the full hour, or 70 minutes. What’s more, without brain-activity sensors, it would take many years of consistent documentation of sleep patterns for the individual to determine their own sleep cycle. Since most of us don’t have access to such equipment, the best that we can do is assume that we’re average, and then adjust based on subjective experience and experimentation.

The wake-up window

If you are awoken from deep sleep, you feel tired all day. It follows that the 30-minute part of the next sleep-cycle defines the “window” within which you want to awaken. Some studies have found that the effects of waking from deep sleep are equivalent to foregoing an entire sleep cycle.

This effect grows progressively smaller with each completed sleep cycle. Interrupting the first deep-sleep phase in a night’s sleep? You might as well not have gone to sleep at all. Breaking the second deep-sleep phase of the night is almost as bad. Breaking the third is bad, and the worst result that might actually be considered tolerable – though you will suffer for it all day, and will tend to need an extra sleep cycle the next night. Breaking the fourth is somewhat better, and is experienced frequently by those who – for one reason or another – complain about not having gotten enough sleep, the next day, and being somewhat irritable as a result. Breaking the fifth is a fairly mild outcome, and if the person hasn’t accumulated a sleep deficit prior, can actually be overcome for the full day (or at least most of it) using normal morning wake-up routines. Breaking the sixth is prone to inducing a sensation of oversleeping – it feels the same as having broken the third or fourth cycle.

Furthermore, breaking a deep-sleep has a greater effect at the start of that deep-sleep phase than doing so toward the end of the phase, in my experience.

Determining when your wake-up window will fall is a critical element in Sleep Management. It can actually be better to delay going to bed for twenty or thirty minutes, no matter how tired you feel.

The drowsing offset

You can’t simply state that you want to wake up some multiple of 90 minutes after you go to bed, plus a margin, however, because very few of us go to sleep the instant our heads hit the pillow. Instead, there is a period of drowsiness that precedes our actually falling asleep. This can be restful in and of itself, but we can’t assume that it will be adequate in any way for purposes of rest. What we actually want is to wake up O + n . {90} + M minutes after we go to bed, where

  • O is an offset equal to the length of “drowsy time” before we go to sleep, in minutes;
  • n is the number of sleep cycles we experience in a night’s sleep; and
  • M is the margin we allow for us to come out of deep sleep, i.e. how far into the subsequent light-sleep phase we want to be when we actually wake up to maximize the chances of waking in the light-sleep period.

The problem is that it’s impossible to anticipate how long O will be on any given night. If you’re not tired enough, or are under stress, or worried about something, or have a problem that you are trying to solve, or are uncomfortable, or aren’t breathing properly, or any of a hundred other things, it might be quite lengthy.

You can show, mathematically, that O and M should total 30 minutes by thinking of the Offset as “eating into” the 30-minute light-sleep awakening window. You can also show, mathematically, that with no Offset, M should be 15 minutes to maximize the probability of avoiding the deep-sleep zones on either`side of the Window, and that therefore the perfect M is 15 plus the offset.

You can make an allowance for your subjective impression of how long you usually toss and turn, but such impressions are extremely unreliable. I achieve best results assuming an offset of 5-to-10 minutes and a 10-minute margin.


If you aren’t asleep in ten-to-fifteen minutes, get up and do something for ten-to-twenty minutes before trying again, resetting alarm clocks appropriately, so that you reset the Offset. If you don’t, you risk crowding your wake-up point into the following deep-sleep phase and feeling more tired all day than you would getting one sleep-cycle less.

Seven-point-five hours plus adjustments: A full night’s sleep (5 cycles)

The traditional advice is that you should try for a full eight hours of sleep. Understanding how the sleep cycle works in the real world, with an offset at the start and a 30-minute window at the end, this begins to make sense. However, aiming for a full eight hours means that your wakeup point is crowding the next deep-sleep phase dangerously close, especially if you have a low offset on any given night. That’s because 7.5 hours plus a full 30-minute window totals eight hours; the offset, by delaying the start-point of the window, also leaves a margin of the same size at the end of the eight hours.

If we could be assured of a fifteen-minute offset each and every time, this would be ideal; as it is, for a full night’s sleep, I target 7 hrs 50 minutes.

If I’m extremely tired and want to crowd an extra sleep cycle into the night, the target would be 9 hrs 20 minutes. I’ll come back to this sleep-target later in the article – it is actually significant.

Six hours plus adjustments: Alertness (4 cycles)

Take another look at the Alertness Level graph. If you assume that it represents total recovery from however tired you were to being fully rested, and that this requires 5 sleep cycles, you can estimate the effectiveness of a shorter period of rest. Four-fifths of the way up is therefore an approximation of how rested you will be after 4 cycles. The result is roughly 1/4 of the way up from “Rested, Alert”.

Another way to look at it is in terms of wake-time. If we fit a full night’s sleep into a natural 24-hour cycle, and a full night’s sleep is approximately 8 hours, that leaves about 16 productive hours. In fact, we can usually work on for hours longer than that, but this is still a useful rough indicator; 4/5ths of 16 is 12.8 hours. So, as a rough indicator, going without one cycle of sleep leaves you roughly as tired after approximately 13 hours as you would normally be at your usual bedtime.

If you can normally work – on occasion – two hours beyond your usual bedtime without excessive tiredness, and another hour with some diminishment due to fatigue, adding 13 hours gets you to a full 16-hour working day on one sleep-cycle less. Plus, of course, you get to work for that extra sleep-cycle, a further 90 minutes of productive time.

What this shows is that it’s possible to work 17.5 hours every second day without noticeable ill effect. In a seven-day week, even reserving one for catching up on lost sleep, that’s still 4.5 extra hours every week, or roughly – wait for it – 5.85 extra working weeks a year.

And it’s even possible to use this pattern in a more extensive way, because it never takes as much additional sleep to recover from a lack of sleep as the total amount you are short. Two additional sleep cycles once a week can make up for four or five missed cycles during the week, especially if the loss is diffuse. You could forgo one cycle each for five nights in succession, and then make up the shortfall with one extra cycle on each of the remaining two days, or both on the 6th day of the cycle. That’s a time saving of 1.5 x 5 = 7.5 hours a week, less three, giving 4.5 hours per week, once again, which we have already established as sustainable; it’s just a different way of organizing the sleeping patterns.

But that’s to fully rested condition each week; there’s absolutely no reason why you can’t forgo an extra sleep cycle on top of those, each week, and make up the shortfall once a month or so. In fact, spread out this way, you can gain 3 extra sleep-cycles a month, for another 4.5 hours a month on top of what has already been saved from the sandman – carrying the total saved to more than seven extra 40-hour working weeks a year (or more than eight 35-hour weeks, if you prefer!)

Four-point-five hours plus adjustments: A half-night (3 cycles)

This gets you just above half-way between “Wakeful” and “Rested, Alert”. This is the minimum amount of sleep you should have before being safe to operate machinery – for a while. Using the waking-time analysis shows that you are about as tired after 9.5 hours as you would be after 16 hours effort on a full night’s sleep. Adding the three extra hours on top of that gets 12.5 hours, plus the 4.5 hours or so of sleep, gets a total of 16.5 hours. This is 3.5 hours short of a full 24-hour cycle, which is rather a large shortfall, and more than that 3 extra hours, which indicates that this is not sustainable long-term.

However, if a way can be found to re-energize you enough to get you through that extra 3.5 hours – and I offer a number of such techniques later in the article – then this is definitely sustainable in the short-term, and perhaps even the medium term. If that’s the case, then there should be examples of people using this sort of cycle out there somewhere.

The 8-on-4-off, 4-on-4-off, 6-and-1/3-for-30 patterns

And, in fact, there are. Fishing boats and naval vessels in wartime use this sort of pattern all the time. In fact, there are a number of variations. The best known of these is probably the heel-and-toe watch where people work four-hours-on and then have four hours off.

I’ve only ever heard of this pattern being employed in emergency situations of sustained duration in an acutely short-handed situation, or when cramming for major exams. Even though the proportions are exactly the same as a normal night’s sleep, the four-hours-off phase is insufficient for 3 complete cycles. In essence, this is 2 sleep-cycles twice a day, leaving those who experience it one sleep-cycle short per day. Now, that’s already been shown to be sustainable, but this pattern of sleep cycles has three substantial flaws:

  1. It makes no allowance for recovery time, and so accumulates sleep debt;
  2. It incurs at least twice as much overhead because you have to go to sleep twice as often; and
  3. It almost certainly involves waking from a state of deep sleep, inducing a condition known as Sleep Inertia.

As best I can determine, this pattern was proposed as viable following the determination that astronauts had trouble sleeping for a full eight hours in zero gravity, and consequently suffered varying degrees of impairment as missions progressed in duration. In fact, it appears to be a simplified interpretation of Segmented Sleep (see below) shown to be effective during NASA experimentation based on this problem. This was recommended to me while I was attending University as a method of maximizing study time when under pressure, the suggestion being made that it was much easier and more effective to study for 90 minutes and then take 30 off, repeat four times, then sleep for four hours, than it was to sustain study for a longer time span. The theory seems to have been that this accumulated enough study for the brain to be able to process what was learned during the shortened sleep period, like backing up a hard drive more frequently.

It didn’t work for me at the time, and I can’t recommend it as a technique for the reasons listed above. If things are really that bad, there are more effective approaches.

Heel-and-toe watches were often stood in the World Wars. I don’t know about other times. They are reportedly at their most effective when the “on” part of the cycle involves high stress and intensity of activity, which one would expect to encounter during wartime, because people could not sustain their attention levels to the required degree for longer periods. The “four hours on” thus becomes the operational parameter used to determine the sleeping patterns required. If there were three shifts of staff for each position, a 4-on-8-off pattern would be possible, though I suspect that people would have trouble falling asleep only four hours after waking; this would then become a 4-on-8-off-4-on-8-sleep pattern, which is something close to normality. The unanswered question would be whether eight hours of non-sleep recreation would sufficiently restore attention levels for this approach to work; personally, I would have my doubts.

However, in a military situation during wartime, three shifts is a luxury that can’t be tolerated. That extra shift can accommodate an extra gunner, or fire control officer, or pilot, or whatever. Which brings us back to the basic 4-on-4-off heel-and-toe pattern.

This suffers from all three of the flaws listed in the previous section. 4 hours of sleep might be better than none, but that’s about all it has going for it.

I had never heard of this approach until I saw it on a documentary – I forget which one, it was something that I caught the tail-end of by accident. A week or two later, I saw it tested on Mythbusters in the segment ‘Crab Napping‘. Essentially, it is a 20-minute nap every six hours for 30 hours straight, which is reportedly enough to be twice as good as no sleep at all during a similar timespan. This brutal schedule is routinely employed on Crab fishing vessels by the crew since it totals only 5.26% time lost to sleep over that 30-hour shift.

Astonishingly, as you will see if you follow the link above, the myth that these regular power naps were twice as good as sleeplessness was confirmed by the experiment performed by the Mythbusters team – fully rested, the two subjects scored 100 out 100, fully sleep-deprived, they scored 27/100 and 34/100 respectively, and (after recovering) employing the power-nap method the scores were 64/100 and 81/100, respectively. However, to say that they didn’t feel alert at the time is an understatement, and since confidence is such a large element of successful GMing, I would reject this approach – unless you really, really, need it.

Polyphasic Sleep – exotic Patterns
Of course, these are just a few of the wild and sometimes wacky sleep patterns we humans have experimented with. In fact, there are a whole slew of proposals, each of which has its supporters and adherents, as a read of the rather fascinating Wikipedia page on Polyphasic Sleep will show.

Do they work? That’s a very big question. Let’s just say that they might work for some individuals under some circumstances at some times of the year and leave that surprisingly complicated question at that, okay?

In actual fact, I employed a 3-cycle sleep pattern for many years. It IS sustainable over quite a long period, provided that you accept that inevitably your body will revolt and you WILL sleep 12 hours or so, whether you want to or not. The trumpet of doom won’t wake you, when that happens. On the other hand, once you realize that this is inevitable, you can actually schedule it in advance – say, once every 2 or 3 weeks, you let yourself sleep “until you can’t sleep no more”.

There is a second price to pay: such a lengthy sleep will inevitably throw your body clock out. This can be incredibly useful if you need to achieve this effect – for example, transitioning from an unemployed state to an employed state – but it can be a real pain at other times. In effect, this costs about 6 hours of extra sleep every 3 weeks – but gains you an average of 3 hours a day extra, 7 days a week, the rest of that time, for a net gain of about 18 hours a week. That’s roughly 936 hours extra productivity a year – or more than 23 extra 40-hour working weeks in the year.

It also takes time to get used to, and you can lose that adjustment in a single week of holidays.

Even then, you will eventually need to revert for a solid month or so to a normal 8-hour cycle or suffer long-term effects. You therefore have to ask yourself if it’s worth it? At the time, my answer would have been ‘yes’. At my current stage of life, where my sleep is disrupted by medical issues (unrelated to this practice), it is no longer sustainable, so the answer is ‘no’.

Three hours plus adjustments: The minimum? (2 cycles)

While heel-and-toe and other 4-off methods might theoretically represent 4 hours of sleep, or 2.5 cycles, in practice that could only be achieved if the handover and transition from “on” to “off” was instantaneous. Since it can’t be, what we’re really talking about when discussing such a sleep pattern is a 2-cycle sleeping pattern.

Now, two cycles, three times a day – which is to say, 4-on-4-off – in theory actually gets you one more sleep cycle than you would normally get in a standard 16-on-8-off 24-hour day. That’s probably a small concession, given the disrupted sleep cycle, the potentially-lengthy overheads three times a day, the mental fatigue from periods of intense concentration, etc.

But how about if we take all that high-impact concentration and stress out of the picture? Would it then be possible to cope on a single two-cycle sleep period a day and then put in a full day’s work, or something approaching it?

The answer is yes – with caveats.

This is working an extra 4.5 hours past your normal bedtime in a day, then getting back up at your usual hour the next morning. If you map that out on the restedness graph, you will find that it gets you exactly to the “Wakeful” mark – enough to write or plot or GM, at least for a while, but not enough that you should operate machinery. Using the “proportion of 16 hours” calculation, you wake up as tired as you would be after putting in a ten-hour regular day. That leaves 6.5 hours of regular day before you’re as tired as you normally are when you go to bed, another 2 hours of capacity beyond that, and one final hour of extremely-diminished capacity. But it does mean that over a 48-hour period, you get 30 hours of work done.

Whereas, operating normally you would only get… 32 hours of work capacity?

What this does is sacrifice two hours of activity capacity on the second day to get an extra four-and-a-half hours of work done on the first day. And it does pretty much mandate that you will need an extra sleep cycle on the third day.

In the long term, then, this is actually less efficient than getting enough sleep, and much less efficient than managing to sneak an extra sleep cycle every second day. It’s what you do when you have a deadline that you absolutely have to hit.

My experience is that 3 hours after your usual bedtime you start to zone out, and need to refresh yourself. When you do so, you actually gain more than the 1.5 hours remaining – you usually gain another 3 hours of alert time, if not more. And you can repeat the refreshing process a number of times. You can’t stave off sleep indefinitely, but you can come close to it – for a while.

And that makes this sleep pattern pretty much worthless.

One-point-five plus adjustments: Worse than nothing? (1 cycle)

And if 2 cycles a day is worthless, 1 cycle is doubly so. You wake up in a state equivalent to half-way between “wakeful” and “minimum function” and feel more tired than if you had actually gone without sleep. At best, you awaken as tired as you would normally be three hours before your normal bedtime. This puts you solidly in the red, “Sleep-deprived” zone – so ineffective the next day that you might as well be asleep. And falling asleep is something that you will have to fight against repeatedly, all the next day. You will have periods in which you completely zone out, or actually doze off. Forget it.

No Sleep At All: Not the worst case

Which brings me to the final configuration: No Sleep At All. There are ways of repeatedly restoring you to almost full alertness – say, to a bit above the “rested” mark – at the price of accelerating progress towards the “Minimum Function” mark each time. This also builds up your total sleep deprivation, meaning that when you do finally sleep, you will need extra cycles, probably for a couple of days, to recover.

These methods don’t work as well after 1-2 cycles of sleep, for some reason.

Broken Cycles

Let’s assume for a minute that circumstances require you to get as much sleep as you can, but to wake up in the morning with an incomplete deep-sleep cycle, which will make you feel tired all day – defeating the purpose of the “as much sleep as you can get” notion. This sort of thing happens when you know that tomorrow is going to be a late night, but you have a fixed wake-up time that can’t be altered – which makes it more common an event than you might think.

Recovery from a broken sleep cycle begins with the next complete sleep cycle. However, the second sleep cycle is often deeper and more regenerative than the first. Given these facts, it becomes clear that the plan for being as rested as possible is to have your third sleep cycle be the one that is broken, not the last one of the night.

To determine what time to set your alarm to in order to break your sleep at the right time, count forwards from your expected time of going to sleep by three hours; that’s the earliest point in time. Then count backwards from the wakeup time required by an hour-and-a-half, plus twenty minute waking margin in the middle. That’s the latest point in time. If the two are more than 90 minutes apart, move your “latest” point back another sleep cycle, so that the pattern is cycle-cycle-broken cycle-break-cycle-cycle. You will be far more alert the next day and into the following evening than you would be with a cycle-cycle-cycle-cycle-broken-cycle pattern, even though you have lost 20 minutes sleep in the middle of the night.

That leaves only the question of what to do in that twenty minutes. I recommend (1) use the bathroom; (2) 10 minutes light reading; (3) drink half a glass of water (not too cold); (4) go back to bed. It will probably take you longer to go back to sleep than it did when you first retired for the night; these steps are intended to help you relax and overcome this problem.

Staying Awake

It’s not easy going without sleep for a night. It can be done, and almost all of us have had to do so from time to time for whatever reason, but most people try to avoid it. When I was younger, and the sleep that I did get was of much higher quality, I was a bit of an anomaly because I did this regularly, squeezing extra hours of creativity into the day. Even now, I sometimes get so wrapped up in the creative process that I lose track of time and discover that it’s way past the time I should be in bed.

When you set your own schedule, as I can now do, that’s not a big deal – the worst that might happen is that I sleep through something that I wanted to watch on TV; but when you’re part of the majority with “daytime obligations” – work, appointments, whatever – that can quite often mean that there’s not enough time to actually sleep before you have to get your normal day underway. I used to be part of that majority, and evolved a number of techniques that have gotten me through the day that follows.

The Gray Zone

My experience is that at some point, tiredness will lead you to zone out. If you can get through that period, you will be rejuvenated and able to carry on until your usual bedtime rolls around again – and a couple of nights of normal sleep is all that you then need to recharge your batteries. Alternatively, an extra sleep cycle when you do hit the sack can be enough. So a lot of these techniques can be considered “Gray Zone” survival techniques, where the goal is simply to refresh yourself for long enough to get through the period where you are in danger of dropping off.

None of these techniques will do better than restoring you to “Rested, Alert” status, and you will travel back down the tiredness scale more quickly; if you get through the gray zone before again reaching the orange status between wakeful and minimum functionality, your tiredness will stabilize at the new level. If not, you need to apply one of the Gray Zone survival tricks, successive use of the same technique gives diminishing returns.

Depending on just how exhausted you are, employing one Gray Zone technique may not be enough. Eventually, you will run out of steam. You need to time it so that this happens at your normal bedtime, or exactly one sleep cycle sooner, or your body clock will get out of sync and you’ll have trouble getting enough sleep for a few nights. When that happens, often the best solution is another sleepless night. One of the most effective ways to reset your internal body clock is, in fact, the all-nighter that gets you to bed at the right time.

Adrenalin Rush

Excitement can go a long way. I don’t recommend thrill-seeking as a way of staying awake, but playing a video-game with a lot of action can serve the same function in a more socially-acceptable way. The big problem with the Adrenalin Rush as a Gray Zone survival technique is that it wears off very, very quickly. So this usually needs to be combined with another technique, one that lasts longer. In effect, you are buying time for that slower treatment to kick in and get you through the rest of the Gray Zone.

The Beverage Refreshment

Coffee and Tea can go a long way, especially if they are taken with a reasonable level of sweetener. Drink them black, because warm milk has a soporific effect that can undermine the whole point of the exercise. Use cold water if you need to adjust the temperature of the beverage.

These need to be stronger than you normally take the beverage, because your body is accustomed to that normal level of stimulation. I’ve gotten into the habit of making my usual tea and coffee about half normal strength – a level teaspoon of instant coffee instead of a heaped one, for example – so that I have that margin for a stronger cup when I need it.

Cold drinks which contain caffeine can also be effective when the environment is especially hot or cold, but I find they are less so than ordinary coffee, simply because much of their kick comes from sugar content – and the sugar rush wears off almost as quickly as Adrenalin.

Thermal Impact

The more comfortable the temperature, the easier it is to go to sleep. It follows that – within reasonable limits – thermal discomfort can help keep the Gray Zone at bay. However, heat is less effective in this capacity than cold.

This has given rise to my current “favorite” technique, the Thermal Shock Shower. I take a shower and get the water to a comfortable temperature. I then turn the heat up gradually until it is as hot as I can stand – a value that changes depending on conditions and mindset – and hold it there for a minute. Then I turn the hot water off (or at least way down) with a single movement, and leave it cold for as long as I can stand it, then turn the hot water straight back up to where it was until I’m no longer cold. This “shock treatment” is good for between two and four hours at something better than “rested, alert” status.

The Cold-Water Splash

Splashing cold water on the face and hands, or on the back of the neck, has been a treatment for tiredness for many, many years. That’s because it works, at least for a while.

Food and Sleep

The larger the meal, the more tired you feel. When you’re already heading for the gray zone, this can push you over the edge.

For many years, I did not have a refrigerator. Since I was unable to preserve food, and because it was more economical, I got used to eating one large meal a day – and existing on nothing but tea and coffee the rest of the time. That one big meal, four to six hours before bedtime, got me through the day.

What you eat also has a big effect, second only to the total quantity of food. Some sugar is good for a quick boost, but too much leads to too big a crash when the sugar rush wears off. Too much carbohydrate can also be problematic; it takes energy to actually digest such food, and even though there is a net energy gain at the end, the short-term effects when in the Gray Zone can overwhelm your system. A light breakfast cereal – one that doesn’t contain too much sugar – with ice-cold milk can be very effective at buying you an extra hour or so to get through the Gray Zone, especially if combined with a beverage.

The Walk Restorative

This works best in winter, or late at night in summer. Walk up to the nearest corner and back, or around the block. Dress appropriately for the conditions, of course. It doesn’t have to be a long walk, but most creative activities are carried out sitting down – getting the blood circulating (in combination with a little thermal shock if possible) can be very restorative.

You aren’t walking enough to consider it exercise, except of the very lightest variety. You don’t want to trigger a massive adrenalin rush because that is usually accompanied by a wave of exhaustion when it ends. It’s nothing more than stretching your legs. But it works.

For many years, this was my favorite technique. Physical disability means that even a walk this long is a struggle, and that makes this too strenuous an activity to get me through the Gray Zone except on my very best days.

Light Exercise

This ups the ante on the restorative walk. The idea is to perform just enough exercise to get the heart-rate up and the adrenalin flowing when you find yourself starting to drop off, then return to whatever you were doing. Repeat as necessary. Sixty seconds of jumping jacks, or jogging on the spot, or whatever, can work wonders.

There are a couple of caveats, however; if there is any gap between the end of the exercise and resuming work, your body can take this as a signal to crash. Plan your exercises accordingly. And, number two, it’s very easy to go too far, exercise too hard or for too long. Stop as soon as you feel more alert!

Any sort of exercise that is carried out sitting down, with the possible exception of an exercise bike, is usually less effective than one that involves moving around.

Shampoo Your Hair

Why this works, I’m not entirely sure, but a vigorous shampooing – even of clean hair – can be unexpectedly restorative. I have a number of plausible theories to explain the phenomenon, but wouldn’t bet on any of them being correct, or even being part of the story.

We’re used to not going to bed when our hair is wet. That’s one. Another is that most heat loss occurs through the scalp, and that oily/greasy hair retains more of that heat, inducing greater drowsiness. A third is that the “vigor” of the shampooing is enough physical activity to qualify as light exercise, or is sufficiently stimulating in it’s own right. The truth could be any or all of these, or none of them. All I know is that it works, especially if combined with a shave (for the men) and the Thermal Shock Shower described earlier (which should follow the shampooing for maximum effect).

The Power Nap

A power nap is a short sleep period that doesn’t last long enough to enter the deep-sleep phase. Fifteen or twenty minutes shut-eye can keep you going when all else fails.

Power Nap success hinges on three factors. First, you need to be comfortable, especially in terms of the temperature, so that you can fall asleep quickly. Second, you need to shut out external factors that carry an awareness of the time – travel masks to shut out light are cheap on the internet (my current ones cost just 45 cents Australian). And last, you need a bullet-proof way to wake yourself up – a kitchen timer can work because it can be quickly set to twenty or thirty minutes, but if you sleep through it, you’re toast.

The bathtub snooze

I used to use this technique regularly, but my current bathtub is too small. You need a tub of exactly the right size – one that lets you lie down comfortably but with Zero chance of your head slipping below the waterline when the tub is filled to chest height. Run the water hot and just relax. You can doze off if you like – the whole point of the bathtub size is making sure that it’s safe to do so. The water will cool while you sleep, becoming just uncomfortable enough to wake you at the end of a single sleep cycle (at worst) or a power nap, in effect combining the Thermal Shock technique with a power nap. This technique can be good for six to eight hours of further activity, the best of any of the techniques given here; it was the unavailability of this tool that led me to come up with the Thermal Shock shower.

The impact of illness

I don’t recommend using any of these techniques when you’re unwell in any way. Illness makes us feel tired because your body is diverting resources to fighting off the bug, forcing it not to do so will only make matters worse. What’s more, one of the impacts of sleep deprivation is a weakening of the immune system, which is a double-whammy when you’re already under the weather.

Injuries, on the other hand, can be quite useful; pain is a known stimulus. However, it’s also a distraction; what good is it to gain thirty percent more activity time if you are only 50% effective throughout the day? It follows that this is walking a knife-edge between side-benefit on the one hand and negative impact on the other.

It follows that if you are injured, you can try and take advantage of the fact, spinning an existing negative into a positive, however minor; if you aren’t, don’t court an injury, the risk is not worth the reward.

I have a back condition that gives me moderate to severe pain almost continuously; I’ve experienced just one completely pain-free day in three-and-a-half years (and I dread such, because it’s an invitation to overdoing things, making the subsequent day agony). To deal with this pain, I have prescribed surgical-grade painkillers. Because excessive activity makes the condition worse, and at least some part of that worsening is permanent, I avoid these painkillers as much as possible; pain serves as an early warning when I’m pushing my limits. Secondary considerations are that painkillers can be addictive, and that the body builds up a tolerance to them; when I do need to take one, I don’t want it to be ineffective. So I save them for when I really, really need them.

Still, I don’t think this is what they have in mind when they talk about suffering for your art.

Combinations and effectiveness

Some of these techniques are good for a quick pick-up, but don’t last very long. Others are less effective at restoring flagging energies but can produce a longer-lasting effect. But their greatest levels of effectiveness are only realized when they are implemented in combinations, and can’t actually be predicted by their effects in isolation.

While I have no evidence to offer on the point, I suggest that each person will respond differently to both effects in isolation and effects in combination. One point that definitely makes a difference is timing – I try to establish a rhythm or routine. One technique “each hour on the hour”, as it were, is more effective than implementing them at set intervals.

The Pattern of Habits

The human mind loves to construct habits, patterns, and routines. We are wired to do so by evolution because these all enable essential activities to be done by “autopilot” leaving cranial capability available for the unexpected, like noticing the sabretooth lurking in the brush up ahead. In terms of the way our minds process visual signals, this is the basis of all optical illusions, and also relates directly to the flaws in humans as witnesses.

This propensity can be turned to our advantage.

The Wake-up Routine

Having a distinctive wakeup routine for the mornings enables us to repeat that routine later in the day when tired, fooling the mind into waking up again – at least for a while, for example.

My habit is not to lie in bed, but to get up as soon as I awake. I shower and brush teeth, grab the coffee cup and start making a coffee on my way back to the bedroom to get dressed, starting the power-up procedure on my laptop/computer on the way, complete the coffee-making procedure when dressed for the day, and then visit the various websites that I need to check daily in a routine sequence. Only when all these steps are complete, in this fixed sequence, do I start my activities for the day.

The Sleep-ready Habit

In my experience, there are actually two different habits that tell the mind to prepare to shut down for the day. The first is that we get used to shutting down for the day a certain number of hours past our major meal of the day; the mind can sometimes be fooled by replacing that meal with the first of two much smaller, lighter, meals. This habit can also be tricked if we develop a habit of always finishing our meals with a particular beverage, with dessert, or with a specific activity; by skipping that activity, the brain is fooled (for a while) into thinking that the meal is not yet finished, and therefore the clock to bed-time has not yet started counting down.

The second is that we develop shut-down routines. Avoiding these doesn’t help keep you awake, but failure to carry them out can make it harder to actually fall asleep when we do go to bed, and that can in turn play hob with getting the expected amount of sleep, impacting on our wakefulness the next day. That means that whenever you DO call it a day, it’s important to finish your day in the exact same way that you usually do.

Side-tip: Jet lag
I’m lucky, in that I don’t suffer very much from jet-lag, despite not sleeping very much when traveling by plane. It’s just like staying up late, and the same tricks can work. By combining the wake-up techniques with an appropriate time-shift on the sleep-ready routines, it’s not that difficult to manage what jet-lag I experience. That said, my international travel is relatively limited in terms of destination, so I can’t guarantee results. A better and more effective technique is to start to shift your bedtime to what you want it to be in the new time-zone before you travel.

The influence of daylight

For untold millennia, humans were adjusted to a day-night cycle regulated by the sun. Even the invention of fire didn’t change that very much, because away from the fire, it was still dark. Things only started to change with the electric light bulb, when – for the first time – it became possible to bathe the environment in light, shutting out the night.

A lot of people think that we’re still ruled by the influence of this day-night cycle, and that our sleep-ready countdown is actually based on the onset of twilight rather than the eating of the main meal. My experience is that there is an influence, but that the meal is the larger factor, simply because after a heavy meal we’re always a little sluggish and tired. However, this is very much an urban perspective, and I’ve lived long enough in the country to recognize that the degree of impact of this influence varies with where you live.

The way I see it, when it’s dark out and you are surrounded by light, it creates an isolated environment around you. It doesn’t matter how dark it is outside, so long as it isn’t dark where you are; this just hides the environment from your perception.

That said, this pattern, too, can be manipulated to benefit our alertness when tired. My current residence starts to get dark inside relatively early in the day – there’s a wall between it and the afternoon sun – and that can trigger “twilight” in the subconscious. Being aware of this, I turn my lights in the work-room on at about 3 PM each day, replacing the fading light with a subjectively-equal degree of illumination. As a result, I don’t actually experience twilight, and my body continues to tick over in “daylight” until I’m ready for it not to do so. I can trigger “twilight” just by going to my kitchen without having turned the lights on, engaging the secondary habit of “sleep is X hours away”; this is because there is a street light just across the street outside of the kitchen window that provides some light but not full illumination.

In my old apartment, the situation was quite different. It had very good natural afternoon light until quite late in the day, and the kitchen was effectively in the same room as the work-room/living room. Again, I turned the living room light on just before twilight began to fall – about 5 PM in winter, about 6:30PM in summer – but to trigger “twilight” when I wanted it, I used a lower wattage of light bulb in the bedrooms. There was also a lot less illumination from outside.

I’ve also found that a pair of mild sunglasses can be used to trigger “twilight” even during daylight hours.

Designing a “twilight trigger” depends on your individual circumstances, and careful attention to developing the pattern that you want to experience. Complicating things is that sunset moves each day, and the amount of change depends on your latitude, altitude, and surroundings. Nor are the benefits all that clear-cut; they certainly aren’t enough on their own, but by making other stay-awake techniques that little bit more effective, there can be big yields in return for the effort.

The vagaries of body clocks

I’ve heard and read a lot of nonsense about body clocks over the years. I discovered way back in the early 80s that everyone has their own body clock, their own preferences for when they want to sleep. I learned the hard way that if I need to routinely get up early in the morning, I need more sleep the night before; I am a natural night owl. This factor alone is worth an extra sleep cycle per day.

This same phenomenon means that some people adapt to working a night shift more readily than others.

My preferred cycle is to awaken between 10 and 11 AM; that permits me to get by on 4 sleep cycles in complete comfort, and when I was younger, I could routinely get along on three cycles every second day. For every 2 sleep cycles or part thereof that I move this wake-up point back in time on a regular basis, I need to add one cycle to the total amount of sleep per night. Let’s see how that works:

  • Wake at 10 AM – get up after 3-4 sleep cycles of 90 mins each – bed at 4 AM / 5:30 AM alternating.
  • Wake between 8:30 and 10 AM – get up after 4-5 sleep cycles – bed at 1 AM / 2:30 AM alternating.
  • Wake between 7 and 8:30 AM (start work at 9AM) – get up after 5-6 sleep cycles – bed at 11:30 PM / 1 AM alternating.
  • Wake between 5:30 and 7 AM (start work at 8AM) – get up after 5-6 sleep cycles – bed at 10 PM / 11:30 AM alternating, and an extra sleep cycle on the weekends to make up for not-quite-enough sleep during the week.

Let’s interpret that another way: how many non-sleeping hours are in my day, and how many are left after 3 hrs/day on maintenance (eating, traveling, hygiene, etc) & travel and 8 hrs a day work?

  • Wake at 10 AM: 18 and 19.5 hrs, alternating; 7 to 8.5 hrs, alternating.
  • Wake at 8:30 AM (start work at 10AM): 16.5 to 18 hrs, alternating; 5.5 to 6 hrs, alternating.
  • Wake at 7 AM (start work at 9 AM): 15 hrs to 16.5 hrs, alternating; 4 to 5.5 hrs, alternating.
  • Wake at 5:30 AM (start work at 8 AM): 13.5 hrs to 15 hrs, alternating; 2.5 to 4 hrs, alternating, and less 1.5 hrs per week.

Project out that difference over a 50-week working year: ideal, 2712.5 hrs non-working awake time; worst-case, 1062.5 hrs. Productive time lost per year just by getting up earlier: 1,650 hours. One thousand, six hundred and fifty hours.

Now, everyone is different. My mother’s an early bird, for example, and – for that matter – so is my father. I have a friend who follows the same basic pattern as I do – but who needs between 1 and 2 extra sleep cycles a night. Unless you just happen to get lucky, as I did back in 1981, it can easily take six months or more of diligent efforts to find the setting your body clock prefers. The benefits of doing so can repay that effort – unless you are already at, or close to, your optimum window.

Voluntary Waking

One benefit of finding your ideal body clock setting – for me at least – comes in the form of voluntary waking. If I know, going to bed, that I need to wake up at a certain time, and I set my alarm clock accordingly, I will usually wake up just before the alarm goes off. It’s not quite reliable enough to discard the alarm completely, but it has been enough to save my bacon a number of times when there’s been a power failure of some sort and the alarm fails to function.

Oversleeping The Mark

As a general rule of thumb, if you need an extra sleep cycle, you are better off going to bed early and getting up at your usual time. This enables you to step straight back into your usual routines without upsetting your body clock. Quite often, tacking an extra sleep cycle onto the end of your night’s sleep will confuse those internal cycles and you will not only wake up tired for several days after, but will encounter difficulties getting to sleep when you want to.

Too late To Sleep

There are profound implications in that fact for sleep management. When it becomes too late in your personal “day” for you to get the amount of sleep that you need and still wake up at something approaching your usual hour, you have only a very limited margin before it becomes less tiring in the medium term to stay up. Failure to do so will often result in that terrible situation in which you are so tired when you go to bed that you have trouble going to sleep. When this happens, it can result in as much as an entire sleep cycle going to waste, and the near certainty that when you wake up you will still be tired and have a disrupted body clock.

The impact of Age

As we age, our sleep requirements go up (as a general rule of thumb). As you age still further, your capacity for deep sleep changes, and you need more frequent sleep in the course of the day. Instead of 90 minutes, you might find that you get 30 minutes of deep sleep in a cycle that’s anywhere from 60-90 minutes in total. The result is that you tend to repeatedly power-nap during the day, whether you want to or not, because the total minutes of deep sleep don’t actually change, they just come in smaller servings. Again, everyone is different, and there are multiple parameters that vary from individual to individual – degree of impact, degree of responsiveness to changing sleep patterns to accommodate the impact, age at which different degrees of impact take effect, and general health and fitness, to name just a few.

What this adds up to is that what works for you in one decade of your life might not work as well a decade or two later, or might be more effective – and that this assessment will no longer apply a decade or two after that.

Manipulating The Patterns

Once you recognize the patterns that apply to you and how they impact your need for sleep, you can start to manipulate these patterns to your advantage. I’ve already touched on various aspects of this practice, but there is still more to the art of effective sleep management.

On the timing of meals

Meal management is also a part of sleep management. The size and timing of meals plays a big part in dictating when we feel ready for sleep, which in turn is a big part of sleep management. I’ve already touched on the impact that the main meal has, but you can actually add to that effect by manipulating the size and timing of the other meals of the day.

Choosing what and how much to eat when you are actually hungry is the worst possible time to make such a decision. It’s far better for weight management to make such decisions before you reach that point. Similarly, it’s far easier for sleep management to make your timing decisions by counting back from when you want to sleep. You get used to eating your main meal so many hours before you go to sleep, and also get used to eating lunch so many hours before the main meal.

These decisions and needs are also affected by the waking time relative to your body clock, because you consume far fewer calories when you sleep. When I can follow my optimum body clock, I rarely eat lunch, and if I do, I subtract those calories from what I consume in my main meal of the day; but if I’ve already been up and around for 5 additional hours because I’ve had to get up for work, I need a substantial lunch, and because I’m sleeping more, a lighter main meal.

The Use of Naps

Naps throw body clocks into a state of confusion, because they are the same as both going to sleep and waking up. It’s what happens afterwards that “resynchs” the body clock and gives the act context – if you go into deep sleep then it’s a “going to sleep” event, if you go right back to work (or better yet, swing into a repetition of your morning routine) then it’s a waking-up event.

One of the big questions in sleep research is just how much deep sleep you actually need, and how effectively naps can be used to make up the rest of your daily sleep requirement.

To be honest, I haven’t used naps often enough to be able to offer much advice here. The few occasions when I have done so suggest:

  1. that the body has 90-minute “alert cycles” that are the waking equivalent of sleep cycles – an hour of intense ability preceded by 30 minutes of more superficial capabilities;
  2. that it’s easier and more effective to go to sleep in that half-hour window than it is in the hour; and
  3. that a nap restarts the clock on these cycles.

But I would not, and cannot, swear to any of these impressions.

It’s clear that power naps work. So does a siesta that contains a full sleep cycle. Beyond that, and the personal observations given above, I can’t offer any guidance on using naps.


If you wear prescription glasses – I do – clean them when you first start feeling tired. It’s astonishing how much harder the mind has to work compensating for blurry vision.

If you don’t do this in time, your eyes will start having difficulty focusing. It can take as much as thirty minutes for them to recover from eyestrain, and that’s if you catch it early – you can do long-term damage to your vision. If you are experiencing eyestrain but for deadline reasons have to keep working, try using a larger font until the very last step in the writing process. But often you will be better served taking a break and focusing on something at a different optical distance.

Personal experience also says that working on any form of digital artwork involves much greater optical concentration, and is more prone to triggering these problems, especially if you are using a small screen. Take that into account.

Sleep Triggers

When you are really tired, there are a few things that help make you drowsy, and therefore encourage you to drowse off when you are tired. I try to avoid these, or to at least plan around them.

Warmth & comfort
The number one triggers are warmth and comfort; both are bad, and in combination, they are worse. Your first instinct when tired is to put your feet up and relax; and if the room is a comfortable temperature, this can be a recipe for sleep-management disaster.

As soon as I feel like getting comfortable and relaxing for a few minutes, I turn my heater off (in winter) – summer is more problematic – and get a drink that is inclined in the direction of discomfort – a hot drink in summer, a cold drink in winter – and then hold out for ten or fifteen minutes. Or maybe I’ll go for a two-or-three minute walk if it’s substantially cooler outside than in the warm environment inside (again turning the heater off).

So long as it is neither hot nor cold, water is a known soporific. If it is at a temperature extreme that is still safe for consumption, it has a reduced effect, but can still have that function, especially if it moves your body temperature a little more towards comfort.

Warm Dairy Products
Warm milk is another soporific which has assumed almost mythological status, but it really works. Whether that is true of low-fat milks or any of the 99-other variations on dairy product, I don’t know. To play it safe, avoid any hot foods with a creamy sauce when tired!

While exercise can trigger an adrenalin response that wakes you up, when that wears off, you can slide into a lethargic state that leaves you more prone to involuntary sleep.


All these effects can be mitigated with a little advance planning. Have your water in the form of a mild coffee and accompany it with a biscuit for the sugar rush, or have an ice-cold soft drink. Immediately precede your exercise period with a snack that will provide both short-term and longer-term energy, and so on.

Tea actually has more caffeine than weak instant coffee. A LOT more. But it seems to be metabolized more quickly. Plan accordingly.

Supplements & Substitutes
There have been rare occasions when I have resorted to (legal) over-the-counter medications like caffeine pills or Energy Drinks. While these can get you past a bump in the sleep-management road, they suffer from a number of problems – they are not as effective as the other techniques offered in this article, and you have serious problems trying to turn them off when they are no longer needed. Finally, protracted use can cause long-term health issues, and that’s without taking the addiction potential into account. With due care and planning, these can supplement your armory, but save them for last resorts.

The drawbacks are amplified with anything stronger. I don’t recommend it except on specific medical advice – and even then, I would get a second opinion.

There is one other type of supplement that deserves a mention here: Multivitamins. It might be my imagination, but I have noticed an increase in drowsiness 15-30 minutes after consuming a dose, sometimes preceded by a short-term increase in alertness. I can only put this effect down to the product supplying some “urgent” need of the body, causing a short-term regenerative effect but increasing physical comfort and well-being not long afterwards – if it really exists at all.


You may be alert, but there are still consequences to not having an ideal amount of sleep. These side-effects are not dangerous unless perpetuated over the long-term without a recovery period – more on that in a little bit – but they are still worth noting. Always have some plan for compensating or protecting against these problems.


This is a big-ticket item. Insufficient sleep is known to weaken the immune system, and being alert and active for longer periods than usual places additional demands on some of the bodily systems, depending on exactly what activities you pursue. You may require a slightly different diet, for example. Monitor your health closely, take extra precautions against colds and influenza, and be sensible about your health.


When tired, memory functions are diminished in clarity, in function, and in speed of recall. In other words, expect your memory to be a little more fuzzy, for you to be unable to remember some things, and for it to take longer to remember what you can recall.

Less obviously, this also affects recall of any events that transpire while your capacities are diminished by tiredness, even when attempting to recall them after sufficient sleep. It’s as though the mental filing clerks get sloppy at every aspect of their job, including filing new memories away.


It’s called “woolly thinking” for a reason. Your cognitive abilities are impacted by tiredness; thinking takes longer, and is more prone to error. Whenever thinking seriously about something, always build at least one reality check into the process if you are tired. And triple-check any decisions that will have a significant effect on your life if your capacities are in any way diminished. And don’t be surprised if you make some downright silly decisions.

Alertness & Reactions

Reactions will be slower and less precise, more prone to over- or under-reaction. This doesn’t matter too much if all you have to do is roll a dice, but can be dangerous if you’re driving.

This is equally true of emotional and psychological reactions, something that is often overlooked. That’s why humans tend to grow short-tempered when tired, but that is only the most overt response; all emotional reactions tend to be exaggerated. Laughter can be triggered over things that we normally would not find humorous, sadness and melancholy and depression are all also less controllable.

Any pre-existing psychological conditions may also be triggered more easily, amplified, or experienced for a longer duration.


All of this adds up to a greater propensity for making mistakes when tired. Every aspect of cognition is impaired to some degree, and that degree increases as you grow more tired. If you have to make major decisions in these conditions, make them early in the day when you are least-affected.

Dealing with, and preparing for, mistakes is at least as important an aspect of sleep management as any other.


There is a big difference between successful sleep management and sleep deprivation. The goal of the first is to keep you functional on no more sleep than you need without causing the second.

Ultimately, there is no better cure for insufficient sleep than sleeping, and human beings are too variable for long-term sleep management without a safety valve.

The Quality of Sleep

How well you actually sleep at night has a major impact. Any sort of injury or health problem impacts directly on this element, entirely aside from the fact that we heal faster while sleeping than awake, simply because the body can devote more resources to the problem it is`trying to overcome.

I suffer from four long-term conditions, each of which impacts on the quality of sleep that I enjoy, and this is a major factor in my inability to get by on reduced sleep relative to my younger life. The degree of impact can be minor when only one of these conditions is ‘acting up’ to massive (when all four are causing trouble at the same time). The near-certainty is that one or more will be a factor on any given night.

What’s more, insufficient sleep and poor-quality sleep are aggravating factors in at least two of these problems. So one problem can trigger another the next day, which in turn impacts the quality of sleep the following night. The upshot is that I need one more sleep cycle now, most nights, compared to – say – a decade ago.

The limits of Endurance

Everyone has a different tolerance for sleep shortage. As far as I can determine, this capacity in the long-term has absolutely no relation to the short-term ability to function on less sleep.

No matter how carefully you manage your sleep, the combination of variables means that you will slowly erode your capacity, and eventually – usually without warning – you will reach your limits of endurance. All sorts of other factors impact on that capacity – everything from quality of sleep to stress to what you ate the day before.

When you reach that limit, no matter what you do, your body will override your desires and sleep. This might involve simply falling asleep, or it might involve sleeping through alarms. It can be almost impossible to wake someone up when they reach the point of exhaustion.

Plan your recovery

The sensible thing to do is therefore not to let things get to this point in the first place. Every two, three, or four weeks (depending on your personal capacities), designate one night when you will go to bed one cycle early and let yourself sleep until you awaken naturally. This WILL throw your body clock out of sync, so it’s best to make this a Friday night so that you can return to something approaching your normal schedule on the Sunday, ready for work the next week.


When I foreshadowed this article, in a sidebar within Bullet To The Point: The Secrets of Stylish Narrative Part 2, I ended with “You will be more creative, more productive, more healthy, and more happy if you get enough sleep.” This remains true, but no matter how necessary and beneficial sleep is, it remains “unproductive time”. Any reduction in that overhead for the maintenance of physical and mental health and efficiency yields big benefits in the amount of productive work that you get done. By a rough estimate, Sleep Management has given me more than a decade of extra productive time over the course of my lifetime – time spent, in part, on improving my work-life balance, and, in part on my campaigns and my craft as a GM.

Are you a better GM now than you were a decade ago? How much better would you be if you had been able to dedicate that decade almost exclusively to improving your skills and creativity?

Sleepland is a nice place to visit, but its not somewhere to linger any longer than necessary. Life, as they say, is too short.

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