Looks about right

GMs are called apon to make decisions all the time. Sometimes we can make our choices off the top of our heads using common sense and our knowledge of the in-game environment/circumstances, sometimes we can be guided by the rules after identifying an analogous situation, and sometimes when both of these fail us, we can choose between alternatives based on which answer best serves the interests of the plotline and the entertainment value of the game for all participants.

And then there are those other times, when there’s no real entertainment differential, it makes no long-term difference to the plotline, there are no rules to guide you, and common sense doesn’t offer much of a guideline.

Color and Character decisions

Some GMs will tell you that if none of those guidelines apply, the decision doesn’t matter – pick an answer at random and get on with the game. There are times when that is the correct call, but this ignores any number of opportunities for the GM. Most of the decisions that aren’t covered by these tools are what can be described as “color” or “character” decisions.

“Color” decisions are those that add vibrancy and color to the game world. What is the name of that inn? What is on the menu? What are the patrons doing? What entertainments are on offer? What is the condition of the roads? What are the names of the roads? What’s the name of the village, and what’s the architectural style? There are endless decisions of this nature. Some of them you have time to mull over in advance, others need to be made on the spot, and those are the decisions that can really make you sweat.

“Character” decisions are about how the characters, especially the PCs, interact with the world. These involve helping the player get a better grasp of the unique individual inhabiting the game environment, and how that environment has shaped the character.

Comparing Color and Character decision-related articles

Through a vast number of articles here at Campaign Mastery, and elsewhere, there’s lots of advice out there on how to make Color decisions. The reasons for this are that these articles are relatively easy to write, and there are a lot of simple solutions. Rather than choosing one solution, GMs build up a library or repertoire of solutions and learn (over time) which suit them best, and which tools to keep in the back drawer until they are needed.

There are nowhere near as many articles anywhere dealing with the techniques of making Character Decisions. That’s because they are hard to write in generalities and broad principles while presenting any depth. In fact, they are hard to write, period. The techniques that may be provided are also hard for a GM to apply, because characters are the property of a specific player, and decisions affecting that character are the province of that player; they can’t be made unilaterally. At the same time, because the game world is involved, or rules decisions, the player can’t make these decisions either; they have to be solved collaboratively.

The General Principles of Character Decisions

There are a number of general principles that I employ when dealing with character decisions relating to a character’s player. They are:

  1. Remember your role
  2. Break down the question
  3. Develop a theory
  4. Develop Objective Guidelines
  5. Interpret these as ad-hoc rules
  6. Remember they are hints and shortcuts, not holy law
  7. Collaborate in applying these rules

I’ll start by looking at each of these steps, and then move on to a real-world example.

Remember your role

Your job as GM gives you the authority to make decisions about what the characters can and can’t do, not what they will or won’t do, nor how they will react to and adapt to, the restrictions that you impose on them. Your job description in this respect is purely to give the player the information they need in order to make their decisions in these latter respects, and to assist the player in interpreting the results.

Nor should these ad-hoc rules, no matter how relevant they might seem to be, ever be used to alter anything that is already covered by the rules; they should not play a part in combat, for example. The reason for this principle is very simple: these are, by definition, ad-hoc rules that have not had even the level of rigor applied with which one would normally craft a standing house rule.

If they work, they may become such house rules, but right now they are quick-and-dirty foundations for a decision and nothing more. They should be treated as such.

Break down the question

So the first job is to break the question down into the parts that are your responsibility as GM to answer, the parts that are your responsibility to provide guidance on, and the parts that are not part of your purview at all. That usually involves rephrasing the question in some manner.

Its often easier to make the question broader and more general, to start with. That enables you to develop a general line of attack on the problem – a theory to apply to more specific versions of the basic question.

Develop A Theory

In order for a player to accept the restrictions and character input that you are about to provide, you have to be able to justify your conclusions. In order to justify your conclusions, you have to take accepted facts and reasonable assumptions and transform them into a solution using logical connections. And that requires some reasonable theory to generate those logical connections, to create a logical path from accepted facts and reasonable assumptions to acceptable results (I’m sure this will become clearer after the example).

Develop Objective Guidelines

Now that you have some navigational references, it’s time to turn them into a road map – to turn your general theory into specific answers to more specific GM-province form of the original question. Once you have a theory, it’s time to develop a means of interpreting that theory in specific cases. These interpretations are usually in the form of mathematical operations or tables of results; the more you know about abstract and higher maths, the more options you have at your disposal. But most of the time, simple addition, subtraction, multiplication and division will see you through, so don’t panic if higher maths is not one of your strengths. Oh, and knowing how to square numbers and derive square roots is often useful, as are at least a basic understanding of geometry and probability.

Interpret the guidelines as ad-hoc rules

Rules have certain characteristics that make them rules. One big one is that they apply to everyone equally – NPCs and PCs alike. Another is that they don’t come and go without serious consideration. These ad-hoc rules may not be as functional or as developed as the standard rules, and may only apply to non-critical situations and hence may be disposed of with less impact or caution, but while they are in play, they should be applied equally, like any other rule, and should either be in force or be scrapped – no dithering.

These are all reflections of one key directive: be consistent. Before you come up with any more ad-hoc rules, make sure that the ones in place don’t answer to your need – at least enough to get the decision made and play underway again.

Remember they are hints and shortcuts, not holy law

It’s important not to enslave either yourself or your players to these ad-hoc rules. Their general purpose is to give you a foundation for a reasonable decision when one is needed and not provided by the formal rules. If a player feels that the results contradict their feeling of how their character would function and how they would apply themselves to a situation, if it’s not mandated by official rules, the player – and the GM’s common sense of what is acceptable and what is not – should over-rule the ad-hoc rules. However, it is then up to the player to describe how the character achieves this feat.

The ad-hoc rules thus provide a foundation for the roleplaying of unexplored aspects of the character, and their primary benefit lies in permitting the player to get that little bit deeper into the character’s headspace – while integrating the character that much more strongly with the game world.

Collaborate in applying these rules

As I said earlier, it’s not the GM’s job to tell the player how to play his PC. It is the GM’s job to describe the natural limits of the character based on a rational foundation and description of the world – and then let the player decide how to interpret the impact of those limitations on the character’s behavior, attitude, and approach.

Only if the player has given a prior indication of the character’s attitude toward a subject is the GM able to rephrase his results to suggest to the player certain possible consequences of that attitude that the character would be aware of. The GM can’t enforce any one particular consequence, though he may designate one as appearing most appropriate to the character’s nature as previously expressed; he can enforce the requirement that there be consequences.

The GM is guide, advisor, arbiter, and expert – not lord and master.

So let’s get practical – how does it work?

The Problem: I’ve been working really hard to keep the Zenith-3 campaign a little more episodic in nature, structuring everyday activities into the narrative, leaving gaps between adventures in which nothing (of importance) happens except what trouble the PCs may stir up for themselves, and so on. One of the difficulties to be faced by any even reasonably episodic campaign is that at the start of each new adventure, you have to determine where each PC is and what they are doing.

This is made somewhat easier by the fact that they are at the intersection of three bureaucracies (or possibly four, five, or six, depending on how you count them):

  • They are a field unit of their parent team and have to follow their policies and procedures to at least some extent;
  • The parent team, and all field units beneath them, are also enmeshed within U.N.T.I.L, who in turn answer to the U.N;
  • They are granted the exclusive use of their headquarters and the staff and support needed to run it, by a local government agency, I.M.A.G.E, who in turn answers to the local government and to the Imperial Civil Service;
  • And they have their own internal policies and procedures.

Depending on which of these agencies you ask, they are either an independent branch of an organization of superheroes, a paramilitary field unit of extraordinary capabilities and responsibilities, or a troupe of entertainers whose function is partially law-enforcement and partially to give the common people hope that whatever may be wrong, people are working to improve the situation – or a team of superheroes with paperwork and bureaucratic directives coming at them from three directions at once.

One of these is currently hot on the Japanese management techniques that were all the rage in the 80s and early 90s, another is big on holistic wellbeing in the workplace environment, and the third demands semi-militaristic, no-nonsense, problem-solving.

They are also about as popular as the Beatles were in 1969, when the group was breaking up.

So some of the activities of the team can be taken for granted – the demand for press interviews, dealing with solicitations and fan mail, and so on. Others need quantification before they can be used for the purposes of “What your character happens to be doing when we first see them in this adventure”.

For example, what is the character’s approach to paperwork? Satisfying these three bureaucracies takes some effort, but how does the character prefer to distribute that effort? How long can the character concentrate on something that’s mind-numbingly dull, or on a difficult decision or subject of interest? Do they take frequent breaks, do it in small lumps, dedicate as much time as possible to getting it out of the way as quickly as possible, or dump it in the shredder? Do they struggle heroically with the task but take any excuse to set it aside?

Step 1: Remember your role

This question, in its current form, is WAY beyond the scope of what is reasonable for the GM to decide. It has no intrinsic value in terms of adventures, but has considerable capacity for inducing interactions between the character and the ‘outside world’. It is, by definition, what I have described above as a ‘Character Decision’. So we have to start by deciding to reframe the question into a form that is valid for the GM to answer.

Step 2: Break down the question

What is a character’s capacity for paperwork? For that matter, what are the limits of a character’s ability to concentrate, and how does the degree of interest or importance of the subject matter relate to it? What is a character’s capacity for academic study that is not connected to an immediate problem – and how does the level of interest in the subject affect that? How should these values be combined with a character’s attitudes, philosophies, personality, experience, and skillset to determine an answer to the original question?

These are far more valid forms of the question; they are objective and deterministic. Developing some sort of a guideline as an aide to roleplay benefits both players and GM, so it’s worth doing.

In consultation with the player of a character, this sort of information – however unofficial and ad-hoc – can then be used to determine how that individual character will deal with the bureaucratic paper-shuffling and general nonsense that the game world will be sending their way on a weekly basis. That gives the character something to be doing when the adventure lands in their laps – instead of standing around waiting for something to happen.

Step 3: Develop A Theory

Are there any rules or attributes in the game rules already that speak to this point?

To start with, there are two skills, Administration and Bureaucracy, and there are two characteristics, Intelligence and Will. The latter also have a measurement on a universal scale, named the Intelligence Roll and Will Roll (and abbreviated INT# and WILL#).

  • Administration is defined as the ability to get what you want out of a bureaucracy. That’s a nice, deterministic, definition that relates to the sort of things a character will want to do with the ability most of the time. It doesn’t help very much with the current question. In fact, unless the character wants to achieve something specific like obtaining permission to do something, it’s clearly only indirectly related to the current question.
  • Bureaucracy is defined as the skill of being a bureaucrat. That’s really quite unhelpful as a definition; it doesn’t talk at all about the things that you can do with it. Nor is the original source material of any assistance – the Hero System has a skill, Bureaucratics, but every application listed for the skill shows that this is analogous to Administration, above, and unrelated to the Bureaucracy skill. Nevertheless, this is the skill that appears most relevant to the question.
  • INTelligence is defined as the character’s ability to comprehend the physical and metaphysical world around them, combined with his deductive ability, scholastic ability, and his ability to remember what he has learned or deduced. It is one of the fundamental building blocks of both of the skills discussed. This is also clearly related to the subject – you can’t answer a question correctly, let alone format that response in an acceptable manner, if you don’t understand either the question or the format.
  • WILL is A measure of the character’s determination and stubbornness, and his ability to concentrate and ignore distractions. All four of those aspects of the characteristic are clearly relevant, especially if the subject is not of interest to the character.
  • Like the Hero System on which it is founded, Characteristics in the homebrew system are not measured on any universal scale but are instead built on the basis of values appropriate to the in-game function they are to perform. A conversion system is employed to translate all characteristics into “roll values” on a universal scale – these are used directly for a character to make a check against a particular attribute, and as the building blocks of skill scores and skill improvement costs. The reasons for doing so are involved, complex and irrelevant to the subject at hand; what matters is that they are all concerned with the application and usage of an ability score in any practical way. So, while INT and WILL are relevant, it is INT# and WILL# that should be used in any solution.

In this way, the initial list of relevant character statistics has been distilled from the original five to three – Bureaucracy Skill, INT#, and WILL#.

There are two aspects to the basic question, as reframed: Capacity and Productivity. In other words, how long can the character persist with the activity in question, and how much will they get done in that time?

Phrasing the question to be answered in that manner permits the development of a general theory: INT# and WILL# determine how long before a break is needed, and Bureaucracy determines how efficiently the character works within that time frame.

Step 4: Develop Objective Guidelines

So the problem has been reduced to three specific goals:

  1. A method of objectively determining how long a character can do paperwork without taking a break;
  2. A method of objectively determining the consequences of continuing past that point;
  3. A method of objectively determining how efficiently the character works during the time-frame specified by (1).
Capacity For Paperwork

One of the characteristics of ad-hoc solutions is that you dive right in, without taking the time for rigorous thought. You want an answer quickly, not one that has been developed and described to the Nth degree – a guideline, not a hard-and-fast rule. So that’s what I did, based on the indoctrination and OHAS education I received when working for the Australian Bureau Of Statistics.

Here’s my chain of thought:

  • Paperwork capacity is a number of blocks of 10-minutes duration each that can be performed without taking a ten-minute break.
  • This number is equal to a fraction of WILL# plus a base amount, both to be determined.
  • OHAS guidelines for computer-intensive work are 50 mins followed by a 10-minute break. This duration is twice the actual requirement so that staff can miss a break when engaged in urgent activities with only slight reduction in their efficiency. Therefore, a typical human capacity should be somewhere in the 4-11 time units, assuming only slight reduction in capacity for exceeding the limit the first time.
  • WILL# has a minimum of -80 and a maximum of 120. The average human has a WILL# of -9. (Yes, I know. It was a compromise that was kept because in every other way, the system works.)
  • WILL#/10 +9 gives a minimum of 1 time unit at WILL 0, 9 at average human WILL, 10 at the normal human maximum WILL, 11 at the extreme human maximum, and 21 at the absolute maximum.
  • WILL#/20 +4.5 gives a minimum of 1 time unit at WILL 0, 2 at average human WILL, 5 at the normal human maximum WILL, 6 at the extreme human maximum WILL, and 11 at the absolute maximum.
  • The first of these is a little high, the second is a little low; the best answer will be somewhere in between. Rather than get all complicated, I’ll take the second answer and increase the unit size to 15 minutes of paperwork.

If I were developing a full-on set of rules for this, I would get all fancy and complicated about penalties for excessive paperwork, like reduced efficiency and increased chance of error. These are ad-hoc rules so I’m going to ignore all that and simply state that people want to take a break after they have spent the amount of time indicated above doing paperwork.


So that brings us to the question of efficiency.

  • It’s reasonable for a character with a better score in Bureaucracy to take less time filling out paperwork. Part of this gain will be wiped out doing things right when they would otherwise be done wrongly, in other words, correcting any errors.
  • As a rough rule of thumb, I want there to be some improvement, but I don’t want characters to be able to fill out forms at superspeed unless they’ve bought superspeed in the first place. A Maximum Benefit of completing a form in 40% of the time seems about right. So that’s multiply by 0.4 or divide by 1/0.4 = 2.5.
  • So that means that I want a Skill# of 150 (the maximum possible, including the bonus for having a specialty in the relevant organization’s paperwork) to give a result of about 2.5 or thereabouts and a Skill# of -9 to give a result of 1.
  • SKILL#+9 = 0 at average and 159 at maximum. But call it +10 for convenience.
  • 159/2.5 = 63.6. Call it 50 for convenience.
  • So (SKILL#+10)/50 gives roughly the answer we want.
  • Or does it? What happens at below average skill results? Well, the minimum possible result is -80, and that gives -70/50 or -1.4. And that makes no sense at all, since the objective is to get a number by which to multiply the amount of paperwork.
  • Obviously, we’ve used the wrong minimum value for SKILL#. There are two possible approaches: use the correct minimum and the desired value for an average skill level, or simply add 1.5 to the results we have now and see where we end up.
  • The latter is easier. It gives 0.1 as the minimum, 1.52 at average, and 4.7 at maximum. Which means an hour’s paperwork would take 10 hours, 39.5 minutes, and 12.7 minutes, respectively. That’s too close to superspeed for my liking.
  • So we have to do things the harder way, and start over.
  • SKILL#+80 = 0 at minimum and 230 at maximum.
  • 230/2.5 = 92, but use 100 for convenience.
  • So (SKILL#+80)/100 gives the right minimum and maximum answers. At average results (SKILL#= -9) it gives 0.71, so 1 hr’s paperwork takes about 1 hr 25 minutes.
  • That’s not as bad as it sounds. Most Civil Services recruit above-average candidates and train them in the Bureaucracy skill. Very few will be at the -9 “average human” standard. What SKILL# is needed for an efficiency of 1?
  • Well, 1=(SKILL#+80)/100, so SKILL#+80 = 100, so SKILL#=20. But a specialty in the specific bureaucracy is worth +30, so that lowers the SKILL# to -10. Which is not very far from the -9 average at all.
Putting it together

What we have, then, are three calculations:

WILL#/20 + 4.5 = 15 minute Units of work before a break is desired
Twice that = 15 minute Units of work before a break is needed
(SKILL#+80)/100 = efficiency; divide the typical time to complete the paperwork by this value.

Step 5: Interpret the guidelines as ad-hoc rules

This calculation is all about willpower, about getting through mindless drudgery. Doing anything creative tends to be far more fatiguing – but should be based on INT# as well as WILL#. So:

(WILL# + INT#)/40 + 4.5 = 15 minute Units of work before a break is desired; twice that= 10-minute units of work before a break is needed. And a skill roll should be used to assess the quality of the result.

Variations can be used for any desired purpose. (WILL# + INT# + INT#)/60 + 4.5 is a good estimate for the time that can be expended in reading and understanding complex bureaucratic instructions before the character needs a break. Probably 5-minute blocks, based on what I was taught about optimum study habits in High School and University. (WILL# + WILL# + INT#)/60 + 4.5 works for the amount of time (also 5-minute blocks) one can study a textbook before the mind starts to wander.

(CON# + WILL#)/40 + 4.5 could be used to determine how long a character could exercise – perhaps in the original 10-minute blocks. Or perhaps (END# + WILL#)/40+4.5 might be more appropriate – that’s what I’ll use.

(STR# + CON# + WILL#)/60 + 4.5 could be used to determine how long a character can participate in hard labor without physical distress – again 10-minute or perhaps even 5-minute blocks might be more appropriate than the 15-minute blocks used in the original “paperwork” calculation. Actually, I think I’m going to go with 2.5-minute blocks!

This is not about how long it takes to do something, it’s about how much like work it seems – and what the characters’ capacity is for doing it.

Step 6: Remember they are hints and shortcuts, not holy law

These are not robust game systems, but they are excellent guidelines to what a character can do. How the character makes use of this information is up to the player.

Step 7: Collaborate in applying these rules

Which brings me to the final step in this example. Blair, who plays St Barbara, the team’s leader (she didn’t step back fast enough when volunteers were called for, but has grown into the position), is the only person who has spoken to me about how their character approaches paperwork. According to Blair, she sees it as a necessary chore, to be completed each day at the earliest opportunity, leaving her free thereafter to handle more interesting tasks and situations.

St Barbara is a gymnast, so I would expect her approach to exercise to be more eager – and probably exactly the tonic that she needs after several hours of wading through red tape and paperwork. But Blair hasn’t actually indicated that – so I won’t make that assumption, simply suggest it as a possibility.

Let’s look at St Barbara’s stats and what guidelines they offer when interpreted through these ad-hoc rules:

INT 15, INT# 1%
WILL 15, WILL# 1%
STR 15, STR# 1%
CON 30, CON# 21%
END 100, END# 35%
Base Bureaucracy Skill 12%; Actual Bureaucracy Skill# 54%
Base Sketch & Plan Skill 65%; Actual Sketch & Plan Skill # 35%
Base General Aptitude 56%; Actual General Aptitude (used for studying) 61%
Base Acrobatics Skill 95%; Actual Acrobatics Skill# 120%

Now, the ad-hoc interpretations:

  • WILL#/20 + 4.5 = 1/20+4.5 = 4.55 (round in char’s favor to 5). St B can do paperwork for 5×15=75 minutes before she wants to take a ten minute break.
  • Twice that = 9.1 (round in char’s favor to 10). St B cab do paperwork for 10×15=150 minutes before she needs to take a ten-minute break.
  • (SKILL#+80)/100 = efficiency = (54+80)/100 = 134/100 = 1.34. In 75 minutes, St B can do aprox 100 minutes worth of paperwork. In 150 minutes, she can do aprox 200 minutes of paperwork.
  • Creative Tasks – St B can draw for 4.55 (rounds to 5) blocks of 10 minutes before she wants a break. That’s 50 minutes. Therefore, she can sketch for 100 minutes before she needs to take a break. In those times, her efficiency is (35+80)/100=1.15, so she actually gets 57.5 and 115 minutes work done. And she needs to make a sketch-and-plan roll to determine the quality of the results of each drawing.
  • (1 + 1 + 1)/60 + 4.5 is 4.55 again, which rounds to 5. So St B can study procedures and manuals for 5 five-minute blocks before she wants a break, ie 25 minutes – but can actually study this way for 50 minutes if she wants to. Her efficiency is (61+80)/100 = 1.41, so she actually gets 35 min and 71 min worth of work done in these times. So she is a quick study.
  • Because the numbers are the same when plugged into the formula, these are also the times for reading a text or reference book.
  • (END# + WILL#)/40 + 4.5 = (35+1)/40 + 4.5 = 5.4, rounds in character’s favor to 6 – so St Barbara can exercise for 6×10=60 mins before she wants a break, and can push herself for another hour before she needs a break. And, if she’s performing acrobatics in that time and not just calisthenics, she has an efficiency of (120+80)/100 = 2 – so she works twice as hard, or achieves twice as much, as the normal skilled amateur in that time frame.
  • (1 + 21 + 1)/60 + 4.5 = 23/60 + 4.5 = 4.8833… which rounds to 5 – so St B can perform hard labor or strength training for 5 blocks of 2.5 minutes each = 12.5 minutes before she wants a break – assuming she’s working to the limits of her STR. But if she really wants to “feel the burn” she would have to go to 25 minutes of strength workouts – at which point she will be completely wasted, in need of a break.

What do these numbers mean? Not a thing, really – but if I tell Blair that St Barbara has been doing paperwork for an hour before being interrupted, he’ll know there’s no problem; if I say she’s been hard at it for four hours without a break, he’ll know her thinking is starting to get fuzzy. And I can use the efficiency rating to estimate just how much there is for her to do in this way each day.


Another character I could have looked at is the NPC Kzin superhero who has joined the team (on a probationary basis, at least). I didn’t, because I didn’t want to complicate the example by bringing up the various additional factors to take into account.

Defender (he hasn’t told them his real name yet) is alien. He doesn’t think exactly the same way that humans do, and there could be all sorts of hidden assumptions in the design of paperwork for humans that he might not interpret correctly. On top of that, English is certainly not his first language, and while he speaks it passably, he is not quite as adept at reading it – though he is improving, and so far the team haven’t noticed. All of those complicate his values.

When working out paperwork values for Defender, entirely aside from stat values, I would apply a x2/3 factor to the efficiency, maybe even x1/2 or x1/3. It would depend on what he had to do. As for his personality profile, he’s a warrior – he’ll sign his name on the dotted line to say he’s read something and toss it in the filing without a second glance; if it was important, someone would have asked him in person. I’m sure this will catch up with him at some point. And of course, he does a pretty convincing imitation of a paper-shredder when he gets frustrated…


There are always going to be things that the rules don’t cover. Having some ad-hoc rules to guide you can take a lot of stress out of the need to deal with such situations.

The chain of thought described in the example actually took less than half the time to create that it now takes to read the steps. We’re talking five or ten minutes, tops. Doing the example numbers for St Barbara took even less – or would have, if I didn’t stop after each one to type out an explanation. It took literally 10-20 seconds each. It’s that speed that characterizes ad-hoc rulings. But a lot of GMs seem afraid that their ad-hoc rulings will be wrong, and so they characterize the questions as unimportant, or resolve it with a die roll; this diminishes their campaigns by ignoring a wellspring of vital color.

The next time this sort of question comes up, put something on the page. Look at the answers it gives. Tweak if necessary. Give the players another small window into the world your characters inhabit. Do it time after time, and watch the compound effects accumulate. The results can be astonishing!

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