Month: July 2014

Beyond The Wall: Laying Out The Scenario

After Playbooks I promised something on Scenario Packs.

You’re already sick of me waffling on about monomyths and stuff, so I’m going to keep the words to a minimum and let the diagram do the talking:

Scenario Pack

I did the diagram to make some order out of the scenario pack format and work out the correct sequence of events the players should experience. As previous noted

  • there is a domestic phase to the scenario that happens in the village, and an adventure phase that happens Beyond the Wall
  • we lay the scenario out for the GM like this to help them Pace the game
  • pay attention to Transitions
  • consider Subverting the cycle, e.g. what happens if you bring the Ordeal to the village (say, someone in the village is stirring up trouble, and the village itself becomes unstable?)

I plan to rework one of my old LotFP scenarios into this format (keep it gothic, but a bit less grim). Spreadsheets and example to follow.

Beyond The Wall: Monomyth Errata

OK, before I dive into my process for forming a scenario pack, a few amendments.

BtW Spreadsheets and Stuff

First, I’ve revised Joel Priddy’s blank spreadsheet to include various cues and comments for monomyth stuff.

Second, this is my new playbook, The Tiktok Child, as an example. It’s in raw spreadsheet form, but hopefully that won’t hurt the content too much.

How is it supposed to work? Well, you start with your concept, then your class and starting attributes (parts 1 to 3), then you work through the various stages (parts 4 to 8).

The “Fiction!” sections for each stage are for you to write down roughly what happens to the character in this area, with a view to the monomyth. For example, in The Tiktok Child the flow was:

  • The child grew up with the other villagers (Ordinary World)
  • Something forced or enticed the child to leave the village (Crossing the Threshold)
  • They met their creator, who turned out to be a wrong ‘un and had evil plans for them (Road of Trials)
  • Their friends came to the rescue (Ordeal)
  • They were welcomed back into the village and shown that they were wanted there and belonged there (Reward and Return)

Next, translate the fiction into a useful question. We know something forced them from the village; don’t ask if it happened, ask what or why they left.

Since the fate of the creator is ambiguous, there’s a potential future baddie. Also the symbols on the badge are unexplained. Future hooks.


I’ve also updated my prelude diagram to include a fifth stage.

I realised there was one vital piece missing, which is the Return with the Elixir stage, or “what does your skill mean to the rest of society?”

It’s sort of the counterpoint to the Ordinary World section. In fact, both are viewpoints on the Ordinary World: at the start of the cycle the character’s viewpoint will have been from the POV of innocence (or ignorance). At the end, it’s from the POV of experience.

So, start at the Reward (around 8 o’clock) and

  1. work counter-clockwise to work out what sort of Ordeal you had to go through to get that knowledge, and why you did it (or were forced to do it)

  2. work clockwise to consider what having this skill means in the context of your society, e.g.

    • does it confer status
    • does it make you suitable for a particular job
    • does it put you in touch with particular people
    • does it make you responsible for someone or something


Working Back revised

Beyond The Wall: Building Playbooks

I make no apologies for gushing about Beyond the Wall and Other Adventures. It’s an innovative OSR game in a field of me-toos (much as I respect the movement), it’s focused on the only fantasy genre I really care for, and the authors have paid attention to the current trend for pick-up RPGs: the playbook-style approach of *World games. And it’s eight dollars for the pdf. You should buy it.

Also like *World games it’s customisable. The authors have released several packs of playbooks and a scenario, Colin Chapman has donated the What Lies Beyond beastiary, and last month Joel Priddy published a blank playbook for custom characters.

So, after yesterday’s excess of words and theory, something of slightly more practical use. I’d like to talk about the process of writing playbooks.

Joel Priddy’s Blank Worksheet is a great resource if you want to build your own playbooks, mainly because he’s done all the hard work of crunching the numbers for us. My only complaint with it is it’s rather terse. Of course if you’re brimming over with ideas then you’ll probably fill in all those cells in a flash… but if you happened to spend the previous evening in a bottle of Tanqueray and are now suffering for it, here’s a bit of help to get your creative thoughts in order.

Since Joel’s template already has all the numbers you need, the aim is to complement with a bit of mythic structure. Unsurprisingly I’m going to use Joseph Campbell’s monomyth. If you don’t know what that is, here is the Wikipedia page. But even better, read Campbell’s book. James Wallis recommends it.

As I said earlier, I like to think that characters have already completed at least one mythic cycle before play even begins. That skill, experience and wisdom must come from somewhere. And we know from Vogler that the Hero’s Journey not only provides a useful external plot arc, it’s also good for internal character arcs too.

I’m only going to consider five stages, rather than the full twelve (or seventeen). These are:

  • The Ordinary World
  • The Call / The Mentor / Crossing The Wall
  • The Road of Trials
  • The Ordeal
  • The Reward / The Return

Here’s a nice diagram:

Playbook Cycle

I’ve already talked about the duality of Worlds — the Ordinary World and the Magical World — and the Transition between them. For this example I thought it fitting to call them The Village and Beyond The Wall respectively.

The Ordinary World and Meeting the Mentor both happen in the world of innocence, The Village; then the Road of Trials and the Ordeal happen in the world of experience, Beyond The Wall. The last stage (Reward and Return) sort of happens on the cusp of the two worlds.

Ordinary World

These are the character’s early years, expressed in the first three tables. The PC hasn’t yet realised what sort of hero they’re going to be; at this point, they have the potential to be anyone.

The stock tables from Joel’s spreadsheet are “who raised you”, “how did you distinguish yourself” and “an influential person”. Note that the influential person is not the mentor (at least not for the purposes of this cycle). Note also that “early years” are relative, and need a bit of reinterpretation for demi-human playbooks.

Call, Mentor, and Crossing

This is a combination of the stages Call to Adventure, Meeting the Mentor (a.k.a. Supernatural Aid) and Crossing the Threshold.

It’s the Mentor that inspires the character to cross the threshold (the Wall) and take the “Road of Trials” that shapes them into a warrior, initiates them into the world of magic, or teaches them to be a self-reliant rogue.

The mentor doesn’t have to be living, or human. All the mentor does is push the dithering hero over the threshold. The following could all be seen as Mentoring stages:

  • the moment you realised you were different from the others
  • finding wisdom in a book
  • having a dangerous situation forced upon you and succeeding
  • vowing revenge after something is taken from you

Most importantly this stage foreshadows the class the character is going to join in the next stage. Note that some of the playbooks reverse the order of the tables for this stage and the Road of Trials.

This table is paraphrased as “how did you come to your class?” in the worksheet. Obviously there’s a lot of implied stuff to cram into one line item in the table — but being able to cram a lot of implied history into a single line is a good skill to practice!

The Road of Trials

Now we’re into the realm of Experience, this Road of Trials is the hero’s development within her character class, and is the point where the character’s skills, spells and knacks are defined. We assume some trials happen, and the character learns and gains strength from the experience.

This table is called “a significant event, influence or specialisation relating to class” in the worksheet.

The Ordeal

The most important lesson the character learns is the value of friendship during a crisis. This is the table for “A Previous Adventure” that involves the player to the right.

These don’t have to be violent ordeals; they can just as easily be domestic events like resolving a love interest or coming to terms with one’s nature. What’s probably most important is the role of the friend in overcoming the ordeal which is otherwise too much for the character to handle alone.

Reward and Return

This is the denouement to the cycle. It’s part Reward following the Ordeal, and part Return with the Elixir. The table is “you acquired a distinctive possession, resource, or ally”.

Note that if the character acquires an ally it’s probably as a consequence of growing spiritually and forming a relationship they could not have formed had they not gone through the Ordeal. If they have formed such a relationship, this is potentially a future mentor figure.

Developing The Playbook

A Playbook complements a Character Class by providing a sort of prelude plot arc.

Each stage of the plot arc corresponds to a stage in the monomyth cycle as discussed above. When we come to design the playbook we already know what the outcome of each stage is. For example for the Apprentice Sorcerer the outcomes for each stage are:

  • Ordinary World: growing up with nobility (common with other playbooks)
  • Call / Mentor / Threshold: your mentor was a magic user
  • Road of Trials: you learned a style of magic from him
  • Ordeal: you witnessed something happen to him
  • Reward / Return: you found something in his lab

Or the Reformed Bully, which raises interesting questions about who the mentor is:

  • Ordinary World: early childhood (common with other playbooks)
  • Call / Mentor / Threshold: you turned into a bully
  • Road of Trials: you were a particular kind of bully
  • Ordeal: you realised you didn’t want to be a bully any more
  • Reward / Return: you were forgiven

To complete the tables we need the details of exactly how these outcomes happened, and a question that reflects the outcome — our question assumes that the outcome will happen. Sometimes the question needs to be phrases as a statement to set the scene, and then a question.

Hacking Existing Playbooks

I believe Vincent Baker said the Apocalypse World playbooks came about from hacking the Brainer playbook.

While I can use the cycle to create arcs from whole cloth, there’s already so many examples provided in the existing playbooks that it should be straightforward to tweak the existing books. Let’s say I want to create a new playbook called The Silver Spoon. This character is a favourite son or daughter who has always had their way. Their cycle will be one of fall and redemption through friendship.

That sounds a lot like the Bully, so I’ll just tweak that. The outcomes I want are:

  • Ordinary World: childhood cycle, as per other books (substitute nobles cycle if it suits)
  • Call, Mentor, Threshold: rather than being a bully, the character is scheming and manipulative.
  • Road of Trials: we learn exactly how this character has put their manipulative nature to evil use. Crime? Forcing others to do terrible things?
  • Ordeal: the point at which the character sees the harm their selfishness has caused.
  • Reward and Return: forgiveness.

I’m going to have to pick the right questions and then populate the table, but it’s clear that I can take a lot of inspiration from the Bully (clearly this character is just a bully by another name, possibly in richer clothes).

Names For New Playbooks

You could do worse for new character inspiration than pick a name like “The adjective noun”, e.g.

  • The Reluctant Knight
  • The Reckless Priest
  • The Vengeful Shepherd


Here are some adjectives I thought I might turn into playbooks:

reluctant, reckless, aspiring, solitary, uncouth, unruly, vengeful, rebellious, silent

And here are a few nouns:

princeling, knight, priest, apprentice, miller

OK, that’s it for this post. The next one will discuss how to tackle developing scenario packs.

The Roleplayer’s Guide to Apotheosis*

*Or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Monomyth

This post came about for a couple of reasons.

I’ve been enjoying John Dodd’s Million Word Man blog recently. Between unwelcome intrusions of real life, reviews of razor blades and kicking off the inevitable holy war between D&D 5e and Pathfinder boxed sets, John continues to focus on his goal of a million words in one year. Good luck, John.

Back in June, John heaped praise on Joseph Campbell’s Hero With A Thousand Faces as a tool for aspiring writers, primarily because it’s not about writing. He also mentioned Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey, of which he has a slightly lesser opinion.


we call it vog-camp for short

Then just recently James Wallis published his game narrative reading list, and Campbell’s book was at the top. “HERO is quite old hat these days” says James, “but a core text”. Well, OK.

Then there’s the third reason. I’ve been thinking about the application (and limitations of) the monomyth in RPGs. Specifically the mythic structure in Beyond the Wall, which is my new favourite game. I have some ideas. But before I can properly put them into words, I need to write down some theory first. And it’s quite long, so sorry about that. But there are some nice diagrams you can look at.

Edit: Since this is a long document, I’ve added a table

1.0 Monomyth for Gamers
1.1 Mythic Cycle as a Shared Journey
2.0 What the Monomyth Can Do For You, and what it can’t
2.1 Not a Novel
2.2 Premise
2.3 Short and Long Cycles
3.0 What Is It Good For?
3.1 Microcosm and Macrocosm
3.2 Preludes
3.3 Transitions
3.4 Structure and Pace 3.5 Subversion

1.0 Monomyth for Gamers

There are plenty of places to learn about the Monomyth: the wikipedia page, for one. There’s also a separate page for Vogler’s stripped-down analysis in The Writer’s Journey. Really you should read Campbell’s book anyway, because James Wallis says so.

I don’t want to get heavily into the comparisons between Campbell and Vogler, so here are the hilights:

  • Campbell has 17 stages which Vogler shortens to 12
  • Campbell’s 3 phases are Departure, Initiation and Return; Vogler calls these Acts I, II and III, and gives them a 30-60-30 page count
  • Vogler’s method is much more focused on human trials and glosses over the metaphysics such as meeting the goddess, atonement with the father, apotheosis and the mastery of two worlds
  • However Vogler also includes Archetypes, which arguably have a similar spiritual function and serve as reflections of the hero herself.


1.1 The Mythic Cycle as a Shared Journey

I’m going to start by assuming the monomyth can be used to describe the structure of an adventure. Because this adventure has multiple participants (the party) I’ll call it the Shared Journey.

Let’s think about the three stages in the context of traditional roleplaying games.

Act I: Departure This is the preamble before the adventure where the players are trying to find reasons for their PCs to go adventuring. Their Ordinary World is a base of some kind; maybe a town or village (fantasy), or an espionage bureau (mission-based spy games) a Fortress of Ice (supers), etc. There’s often a surprising amount of activity going on in this segment: plenty of planning and second-guessing the coming adventure (some of which is a Refusal of the Call), interacting with Mentors, and domestic roleplaying that is really just an affirmation of the Ordinary World.

Act II: Initiation This is the “adventure” (as drafted by the GM) that happens in the unfamiliar, magical world. Allies, Enemies and Tests turn up in the wilderness on the way to the dungeon, the characters penetrate the dungeon and Approach the Inmost Cave where they undergo the Ordeal which they (hopefully) transcend death by surviving, to be Rewarded for their efforts.

Act III: Return This is the section we so often take for granted; the GM will usually conclude with “you got the treasure, you go home” and close the rulebook. And usually we’re satisfied with the treasure. But in the context of a wider campaign where the party is battling some great evil, a denouement where the party Returns with the Elixir and sees evidence that they have made a difference may be desirable. But even the act of returning home is desirable; it’s reassuring (the PCs move from a position of danger to safety, and can gather resources), and it places trials in context.

I’ll admit this framing is very traditional; the first thing I’d want to do with this setup is subvert it!

Interestingly it also assumes the bulk of GM preparation is the dungeon itself, i.e. Initiation. The Departure may well have lots of roleplaying, and yet it’s frequently unstructured. Does this say something about the player vs. GM priorities?

2.0 What the Monomyth can do for you (and what it can’t)

Let’s consider limitations.

You can (indeed, you should) read some of the objections to the Monomyth on its Wikipedia page. Campbell’s approach picks and chooses stories with differing cultural contexts and homogenises them into one global concept of trial and heroism. Academics have accused the myth of lacking robust support for the theories, as well as being too abstractive. David Brin considers SF as antithesis of the Monomyth, which is a significant statement given who the main consumers of myth and fantasy fiction are.

Of course being roleplayers, we’re comfortable with abstractive systems. We don’t expect them to be perfect, but we expect them to be useable.

2.1 Not a novel

We know that RPGs are not linear stories. The narrative should emerge through play, which means you can’t depent on the players following a pre-determined path through your scenes.

The narrative is also multi-threaded. There’s a big macrocosmic view that’s provided by the GM, but then there are microcosmic cycles contributed by each player. While everyone in the game tries to make those cycles visible to the other players as part of collaborative storytelling we do, it’s only the originators who fully understand the trials involved. More on this later.

This means that even if the monomyth really works for you as a template for the trials and adventures of your PCs, you can’t rely on the players feeling the emotion you want them to feel, learning the lesson you want them to learn, or choosing the path that fits with your story.

2.2 Premise

In Chapter 4 of Ron Edwards’ Annotated Sorcerer (which you should have by now, since you’ve had two opportunities to get a copy via the Bundle of Holding) Edwards discusses four “ways” of orienting the game: Dungeon, Squad, The Hard Way, and “No Way”. I’m paraphrasing the last one since Edwards originally calls this the “dumb way” based on assumptions at the time of writing the first draft, an opinion he revises in the annotations:

The squad way is the one I wanted to stomp into
the ground, and in retrospect if any of them deserve the label “dumb” relative to Sorcerer play, that one’s
it. (Annotated Sorcerer, p72)

Let’s consider these four modes:

Dungeon The PCs are together for mutual support in addressing some threat or danger, knowing that if they can overcome it they will all benefit.

Squad Characters are part of an organised unit, acting at the behest of some agency or other, and tasked with missions by their employer.

Hard Way There is no formal in-game relationship; instead, the GM interleaves the players’ backstories together, in the hope that they will find each other and self-organise.

No Way The characters have no reason to be together and are roped together in a situation which they then deal with. There’s no reason to stay together. Edwards initially considers this “dumb” because there’s no reason for any narrative to develop; but later revises his opinion, saying that it can work fine if supported by the various character definition diagrams.

The mode you choose will determine how suitable the monomyth is for modelling your game narrative. But even then the monomyth is likely to degenerate and be subverted; the mode you choose will only determine how soon that happens.

2.3 Short and Long Cycles

Consider a Short Cycle game structure: every week the party will leave their relatively safe Ordinary World, Cross the Threshold to do the mission, survive the Ordeal, get the Reward and Return. The Dungeon and Squad modes fit this model pretty well, the primary difference being on an organisational level (self organising for fun and profit vs. some imposed team identity).

This Monster of the Week formula has plenty of fans. Of course the Ordeals and Rewards are usually literal and probably not very satisfying in the long run, and that’s why we have the Long Cycle.

The Long Cycle is your series arc, and represents an overall goal or transformation (stop the evil spy network, cure the zombie infection, vampires achieve Golconda, etc.). The Departure and Return of this cycle exist at the very start or end of the series or campaign. More importantly players are already assumed to have Crossed the Threshold before the start of the game, and the Ordinary World is an ideal. Sometimes it’s simply not achievable, either. In Call of Cthulhu the Long Cycle describes a promise that is never delivered because once the PCs learn about Mythos they never truly “go home”.

If you’re running an episodic game (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, perhaps) with both long and short cycles, the Ordinary World of each individual Short Cycle is entirely contained within the Magical World of the Long Cycle. The cast accept certain norms that are absurd and unbelievable to outsiders. Yet they still move between relative positions of security and danger within this framework.

Long and Short Cycle

Sooner or later the difference between Ordinary and Magical World becomes irrelevant and the Threshold blurs. You can see this happening with most long-running series where at some point the arc plot takes over and the individual episodes pay lip service to the Short Cycles at best. And yet, people still enjoy these series because what they’re actually invested in are the internal trials and cycles of each character and how they grow.

None of this invalidates the monomyth as a model, but sooner or later it will disintegrate. If the No Way / Hard Way modes can be ascribed to a cycle at all, it can only be the Long Cycle, and more often than not these approaches subvert the mythic structure rather than rely on it.

3.0 What is the cycle good for?

Those are a lot of objections. With that in mind, what can we use the cycle for, then?

  1. Preludes. Understanding that all PCs have already gone through their own Journey before the game has even started, and will continue to develop.
  2. Transitions. Appreciating the transition between the safe Ordinary World and the dangerous Magical World, and establishing why the party may or may not return to the Ordinary World and what the consequence may be.
  3. Structure and Pace. We know where we’re going with the cycle, but what’s holding us up? And do the players want us to go faster or slower?
  4. Subversion. Fantasy games already look like the mythic cycle, so we don’t really need a process for that. Knowing how to subvert the cycle on the other hand is pretty useful

3.1 Microcosm and Macrocosm

The monomyth as applied to the game narrative is bound to become irrelevant. But at the same time what both the audience of a work of fiction and the players of a RPG are truly invested in are characters.

Vogler’s tool centres on one hero, and all the other characters are there to reflect that hero, performing roles in the service of the narrative via the eight Archetypes. This is fine if you want to tell a story centred around one life or perspective, but it’s a questionable tactic — in long-running pieces of fiction we’re frequently invested in an ensemble cast, and to reduce them to mere Archetypes in the service of one hero ceases to make them characters.

In a linear story fixated on one hero the Hero’s Journey is a macrocosmic event — it defines the entire narrative that we witness. But logically all the well rounded characters in an ensemble cast are progressing through their own Hero’s Journey, passing into unfamiliar territory, being tested and developing as a result. Individual characters arcs are microcosmic, but no less significant.

The problem with the microcosmic, personal cycles is the only person fully aware of them is the player of that character. But you can get around this by having players freely talking not only in character but about their character’s arc and how it fits the whole narrative, and taking a “director stance” as they jointly form the narrative with the rest of the party.

3.2 Preludes

Even before the “adventure” begins, each PC has already completed a round of the Hero’s Journey. Perhaps not on a formal or conscious level; but it’s true even for characters generated in the most mechanical, cynical fashion. I can’t think of anyone who would consider their character completely naive or incompetent, so… where does this competence come from?

The character at the start of play has already undergone trials that have rewarded them with experience and capability. They left their own Ordinary World and then returned (possibly more than once) and now they’re equipped with the necessary skills and experience they’re ready to participate in this adventure and collaborate as necessary.

The fad for “preludes” went mainstream with Vampire. Admittedly the VtM approach relies heavily on illusionism:

Let the players make lots of rolls so they feel like they are doing something… but don’t give them much time to think. (Vampire 1e, p56)

But the idea is sound. In fact the Monomyth fits the vampiric cycle like a glove: meet the Mentor/Sire, be embraced and cross the first threshold, come to terms with undead self (Atonement, Apotheosis) and maintain humanity (Master of Two Worlds). All this happens before the coterie assembles.

Let’s consider another example: Ron Edwards’ Sorcerer. In this game the Sorcerer has just bound a demon, which they consciously decided to do. There is no victim, no get-out of “the Demon posessed me, poor me!” It’s on them.

Go back to that point about the distinct differences among the three levels of a Sorcerer player-character: a person, a person who’s a sorcerer, and a sorcerer who faces a Kicker. Don’t mix them up or fold one into another. Most especially, “I just bound a demon!” cannot be the sole content of a Kicker. (Annotated Sorcerer, p34)

So, the sorcerer is a person. This is their Ordinary World. At some point they realised that binding a demon was possible; that’s the Call to Adventure. Their decision to bind a demon for fun and profit is where they Cross the Threshold. Actually binding the demon is their Apotheosis, the point where they Grasp the Sword. At the end of it all they’ve returned to the normal world and are Master of Two Worlds.

Then, and only then, comes the Kicker. The Kicker is in fact part of a completely separate cycle; it’s a new Call to Adventure that shakes up the sorcerer’s Ordinary World — a world in which they have bound a demon, at some cost.

There’s no reason we can’t do this for all characters, if we have the time and inclination. Even D&D characters must have done something to merit a transition from zero to first level; and arguably the heroic cycle is even easier to apply to generic fantasy. Defining a Mentor, establishing what Threshold was crossed in the backstory, what Ordeals (social drama, conflict, a difficult period of training) and what Rewards (knoweldge and skill, physical posessions, relationships) should be all you need.

If you’re going to consider such a cycle for your newly-minted D&D5e PC, you should note that most character generation is all about deciding on the Rewards you character has picked up (skills, gear, life experience). As such it may be easier to work backwards:

  • You have these skills — what Ordeal did you have to go through to get them?
  • What caused you to Cross the Threshold and better yourself?
  • Before you Crossed the Threshold, what was your Ordinary World like?

Working Back

3.3 Transitions

The transition between Ordinary World and Magic World is paramount. In the mythic cycle it signifies decision-making and awareness. But there’s a much more practical significance we can take for RPGs, which is general resource management and safety.


Here are the things that change when going from one world to another:

Stability The first rule is that the Ordinary World is stable, and the Magic World is unpredictable. The point of transitioning back is a return to a predictable lifestyle. It may be a pretty miserable lifestyle of course, like a dystopian future where the PCs must scavenge to survive — but the lifestyle alone isn’t going to kill them.

Safety What will kill the PCs is going outside that stable environment. And by “stable environment” we mean conforming to its behaviours and expectations. As soon as you break the rules in your dystopian world, well — you’re no longer in the Ordinary World.

Resources Inside the Ordinary World stuff is “free” but limited. You can assume a base level of existance, even if it’s a miserable or boring one. As soon as the characters pass into the Magical World, they’re responsible for all their own resources — but at the same time, they may have access to much more exotic stuff.

Relationships In the Ordinary World people — even sworn enemies — will associate with one another without conflict. Once that world is upset — say, the Ordinary World is tossed into the unfamiliar territory of a zombie apocalypse — lines start to be drawn, factions are established. Why do people freely associate with each other in the Ordinary World? Because they have to live together, because there are consequences of acting on their grudges that will destabilise the world they depend on.

Options The characters are “free to live” in the confines of the Ordinary World, but that may be stifling. Leave the settlement, and you will see things you’ve never dreamed of (just before you’re eaten by a grue).

This transition doesn’t have to be voluntary. We normally think of our hero leaving a physical place of her own volition to answer the call (hmm, that didn’t come out quite right…) but crossings get forced on characters all the time. The aforementioned zombie apocalypse, unfair laws in your dystopian future, your neighbour suddenly decides to act on the grudge they’ve been nursing for years.

3.4 Structure and Pace

So let’s say you’re running a game that’s pretty traditional. It conforms quite well to the monomyth cycle, in retrospect: your PCs have set up a base, established norms of interaction with each other, and are listening for a Call to Adventure at which point they will dash off and get stuck into the next Ordeal.

You still can’t force the party to take the decisions you want them to take and conform to your story arc (well, you can, but we really don’t approve).

What you can do is make use of the elements of the cycle to help with pacing and structure. We can look at the crude Shared Journey with its three Acts and consider the individual stages within, and their role in helping the players make decisions.

The Departure

We said that the Departure is frequently unstructured; it’s the resource-gathering phase the party likes to go through before it commits.

Call to Adventure

Most gamers I know will leap on anything with the merest whiff of adventure. If it’s the adventure you have planned out for them, all well and good, but if it’s something else… that’s a distraction.

Refusing the Call

There are plenty of reasons the PCs may refuse the call, including

  1. too risky / not enough reward
  2. didn’t hear the call (too subtle)
  3. distracted by false calls

One of the roles of the Mentor is to help the hero get over the first one; so we’ll get to them in a minute. As for not hearing the call, well… call again.

Distractions are a different matter. If the players have found something that smells of adventure then they will pursue it. It may sidetrack the game away from your prepared encounters. It may turn the game you thought you were going to run into a competely different one. What you as GM must do is decide how far it takes them away, and if it involves crossing a completely different Threshold to the one you thought they were going to cross. If it does, go to the Initiation.

The lesson here is that players will refuse the call all the time, and we shouldn’t take it personally. They can’t see our plans, and even if they can they’re not obliged to like them.

Meeting the Mentor

This is the wisdom, the supernatural aid that helps the hero get into her groove and take the first step on the Road of Trials. All the Mentor really does is tell the dithering hero to get on with it. The Mentor has a promenant role in the Squad mode of play; in such scenarios the Mentor and the Call are one and the same.

Another thing about the Mentor: in a Squad style game where there is a collective identity, players may step into the leader role and become the de facto Mentor. And if they can do that, they can also transform into Vogler’s other Archetypes.

The Initiation

This is the part that is usually structured. In the dungeon metaphor the Allies, Tests and Enemies will be found outside the dungeon, the Approach to the Inmost Cave will be the dungeon, and the Ordeal will be the boss fight.

Tests, Allies and Enemies

You can think of this as a resource gathering phase, before the dungeon proper. Perhaps not apt for classic fantasy, but certainly true for espionage and detective games. You could say that Call of Cthulhu is one long Tests segment.

Approach the Inmost Cave

It should be pretty obvious, but the transition between the Tests and the Approach is a mini Crossing the Threshold in itself. Just like the previous Threshold, this is a decision the PCs can make, or it can be made for them.

There’s not much to say about the Ordeal or the Reward; it’s either overcome, or it isn’t.

The Return

What’s the purpose of the Resurrection in a roleplaying party? In the monomyth it’s the province of trancendental figures, or at least characters who have achieved a physical/spiritual balance. Vogler calls it the climax, and equates it with a number of things — sacrifice, a final stab at atonement, catharsis. How do we even attempt to include this in a game?

Crucially the Resurrection comes after the Road Back (or Crossing the Return Threshold) so any decision the party makes at this stage must be in their Ordinary World; and yet it has the potential to make a permanent change. If the heroes have returned with a weapon that could be used to destroy their enemies, it’s their decision to see it used, for example. If there’s responsibility to be taken, it’s here.

Mostly though the Return with the Elixir and back to the Ordinary World is all that’s needed to put the Ordeal into context. In other words, the characters need to come home to reflect on where they’ve been.

3.5 Subversion

Now you know how to use the elements of the cycle, consider how it might be subverted. What if…

  • no-one listens to or respects the Mentor, even in a Squad?
  • the Mentor doesn’t have the PCs best interests at heart?
  • no-one actually wants to do the structured adventure; they’re rather stay in the Ordinary World and gossip with the other villagers?
  • the players hear a completely different Call to Adventure to the one you thought you were giving out, and instead of dealing with the local brigands violently they mobilise them into a political force, and take down the local oligarch in the region’s first ever democratic election?
  • the PCs turn back just before the Ordeal, because they’ve got enough treasure?
  • the PCs don’t like their Reward?

We need to be ready for this.

Martial Truths: Savage Stuff, Ponsonby!

Les boxeurs

See that illustration? That is not a display of Queensberry Rules, no matter what the Telegraph thinks.

The fact that the Telegraph can take Gericault’s Les Boxeurs, 1818, and caption it “Marquess of Queensbury” (sic), a fellow who wasn’t even born until 1844 and only endorsed Chamber’s rules in ’66 or ’67 (sources differ) says something about the Telegraph’s ability to do basic research; but also how pervasive “Queensberry Rules” are in our image of pre-20th Century boxing. This even happened to me a few weeks back when someone insisted that Queensberry Rules were a Regency invention and to my embarassment I couldn’t remember the actual dates to set them straight.

Let’s be clear, then. Les Boxeurs is a late Regency piece depicting a bare-knuckle fight in a ring of onlookers. The illustration was appropriated for George MacDonald Fraser’s Black Ajax and could be Tom Molineux and Tom Cribb from their 1811 bout except Cribb’s facial hair is wrong (too much ‘tasche, not enough mutton chop; I wonder if the fellow is an American) and the ring looks characteristic of fights of the long 18th Century, whereas the Cribb/Molineux bout probably took place on a stage with rails per the period cartoons.

Queensberry Rules introduced 3-minute rounds with a rest between, no grips, wrestling or chancery1, and gloves or “mufflers”2. But also, all this formality gets conflated with Victorian sensibilities and repressed emotion, such that Queensberry boxing seems terribly effete now. Patent nonsense, when you consider that Dempsey and Ali and Tyson and their peers all fought (and continue to fight) according to the similar rules, but there you go.

Prior to 1743 bare-knuckle fights were pretty much unregulated. Supposedly there was plenty of gripping below the waist, tripping, eye gouging and all other kinds of nasty stuff, though not as awful as some of the descriptions of brawling in the Southern states (warning, that link is brutal). Then George Stevenson died in 1741 following his bout with Broughton, who formulated his rules. Notably rounds were not formalised, the only requirement that a fighter knocked down had to come to scratch in half a minute (Rules II and IV). Perhaps the most important point was a downed opponent was not to be struck (Rule VII). Aside from that all kinds of grips and throws (cross buttocks and hanging trippets) were allowed, just with no grips below the waist.

Sport vs. Combat

In modern MA we must have rules in place to prevent injuries, bad behaviour and bad feelings that arise from different expectations when MA groups meet to compete3.

Historical fencers are frequently down on modern sporting equivalents. Take modern sabre, for example: when two thrusts land simulaneously, the point is awarded to the fencer who straightens her arm first4. It makes sense in a sporting context but with sharps it’s a moot point if you run your enemy through and then they do the like to you a fraction of a second later.

Truthfully, though, we’re almost as bad. Historical fencers may fight with good form right to the moment when they perceive they’ve scored a hit; at this point they suddenly stop and look not at their opponent, but the judge. There is no fencer who has attended a tournament and has not done this, at least once.

This codifying of rounds and above all, this stop-start in bouting means hobbyist fencers aren’t tested to a realistic degree regarding endurance and the need for fitness. Granted, boxing sits at the extreme end of this spectrum, but all fighting arts are basically periods of waiting and concentration between bouts of intense rapid exertion, much like a series of sprints.

There is one very significant factor that still sets boxing apart from playing with swords, and that is when to call it a day. Swordplay is fairly clear-cut in terms of scoring, even when it degenerates into contre-temps and exchanges. Three points scored against the loser will settle the bout in our school, with a strike to the head or thrust to the body counted as triple. But for pugilism this is less credible, and bouts tend to either be for fixed time or conceded by one side. And to force a concession one actually has to beat the other side up, just a bit. Blows are pulled, masks and gum-shields are worn, but still, being punched in the face is an unpleasant experience, so much so that eventually one side gives up.

Conditioning and Mindset

(This is the part where I deviate a bit from historical treatise and go into personal anecdote.)

Just as there are no short-cuts to expertise (10,000 hours of practice) there is no substitute for base fitness5.

I have done some endurance based training. I used to run, and now I cycle. I’ve even done a century. None of this is like spending 3 minutes in a ring fighing another person. The repeated sudden, explosive movements are exhausting. But it’s mentally draining as well, because you need to be prepared to go forward and risk being punched in the face.

Silver’s Governors include the twofold mind to press in and offend one’s enemy, while being prepared to go back as security demands. But the consequence of being hit with a sword in a fencing bout is mainly to my pride, nothing more. Thus the mindset I have when bouting with swords cannot be the same as when bouting with fists, where I know I am at real risk of (temporary) hurt.

One of the best combatives instructors I met prioritised mindset above all, followed by tactics, then technique, and finally gear:


That’s to say a mindset to actually cause harm will trump anything else. Or to paraphrase another instructor, black belts get beaten up by artless brawling thugs all the time.

Constituents of a Boxer

Let’s talk about something all RPG players and designers can grok: attributes.

The numbers of attributes drift between three and seven depending on which boxing manual you read (and who it’s plagiarised from). Terminology varies also. Fewtrell’s Science of Manual Defence provides a comprehensive discussion on the seven attributes. These are:

Strength, art, courage, activity, the power of bearing blows, a quick eye and wind are the constituents of a complete boxer. (Fewtrell, p17)

Strength vs Science

The debate on whether art (or science) can make up for a lack of brute strength is a feature in Silver, and persists in many boxing manuals. The fact is strength always helps. But what is strength? For us gamers it’s either power to wound or strength to carry gold pieces. But “strength” needs to be considered in light of the physical activity. Dancers are undoubtably strong, but perhaps not suited to delivering or warding blows.

Fewtrell handles this diplomatically but quite rightly, saying strength comes first, not because it’s superior but because it’s impossible to display art without it; however he then goes on to comment that “Art is intitled (sic) to a preference over Strength” in the view of “the most intelligent professors, and the best seconds”.

Courage and Bottom

“Plenty of contenders. Old warriors, young pretenders. Lord Bilsborough, say — party chairman, too old and too familiar, tainted by a thousand shabby deals. Michael Samuels — too young and too clever. Patrick Woolton — bit of a lout, bit of a bully-boy. Yes, it could well be Woolton. Henry Collingridge — the people’s favourite, a well-meaning fool, no background and no bottom.” (Frances Urquhart, House of Cards)

Fewtrell says “there are men who seem peculiarly formed for bottom”. True, the glutes of the LSD’s pugilists have been the source of much comment in the WMA community and beyond — but that’s not what Fewtrell meant. Bottom, which “the old school6 furnishes a surprising instance of” is the Power of Bearing Blows. It’s the willingness to be punched in the face, over and over again.

Since Fewtrell separates Courage and Bottom, it implies the latter is purely physiological. In my view the two are the same, and it’s Bottom above all that embodies the mindset that is so critical. Hardly surprising then that the old school, lacking a widespread science of boxing, depended so heavily on willingness and capacity to endure hurt in pursuit of victory.

Activity, A Quick Eye, and Wind

The last three are fairly obvious. Activity or Shifting is the capacity to move and avoid blows, Wind is overall fitness and endurance and “a quick eye” is the ability to perceive openings and threats. No-one can dispute the usefulness of all of these. However there are overlaps. A Quick Eye should be synonymous with Science, as is Activity (harking back to Silver’s Governors). And depending on definition, Wind may be a component of Strength or Bottom.

Top Thumps

Now we have a few attributes, we can maybe design a game around it…



…and someone already did.

The black box was the final print run with “The Good Old English Custom Of Deciding A Quarrel” on the front. The two pugilists are (I believe) Mendoza and Humphreys. The White box was the original mock up and has a picture of James Figg on the front. Why do I have it? Because the designer is one of our students (I have a very nice singlestick he made, too).

The game references Egan, Fewtrell, Godfrey and Scrogins. For the five attributes he chose Strength, Shifting, Science, Bottom and Striking. Savage stuff, indeed!

(Sadly I think the print run is long since sold, but if I bump into the author and learn otherwise, I’ll amend this post)


1: Chancery includes the informal definition of “(Of a boxer or wrestler) with their head held, contrary to the rules, between the opponent’s arm and body and unable to avoid blows”; clearly this definition is a post-Queensberry Rules one.

2: Mufflers were an invention of Broughton for his own academy to “effectually secure them from the inconveniency of black eyes, broken jaws and bloody noses…” but weren’t used in the professional ring prior to Queensberry rules.

3: There are some individuals who can be real jerks; they take their competition too seriously, they delight in inflicting real pain, and they don’t respect the feelings of their opponents. When it comes to whole groups however, you need to be careful not to confuse individuals “being a dick” with the established norms of that group re: degree of contact and competitive behaviour. Perfectly respectable groups get the reputation of being rough because of mismatched expectations between their members and other groups when meeting up at tournaments; the reality is, these “hard players” don’t want this repuation, nor do they want to cause harm to anyone. Rules are a big part of managing expectations and behaviour and avoiding upset, so they’re a good thing.

4: this is to do with Priority).

5: I won’t get into how fitness drops off. Let’s just say it’s a truth most of us are in constant denial about. If we want to relive the glories of our youth in the ring, we need to keep training, stop smoking and drinking and eating all the pies.

6: Three ages of pugilists are documented in Fewtrell, beginning with Broughton and concluding with “the moderns” including Mendoza and Humphreys.

We Are Detective

Our friends all think we’re MAD!
But we know better ’cause the spy is BAD!

I suspect the first investigation genre RPG was not Call of Cthulhu but TSR’s Top Secret (by a whole year). Top Secret’s USP is enabling players and GM to set up their own espionage settings, but with the PCs lumped into Bureaus (the TS analogy to character class, I guess) that include Investigation, some detective element is implied.

Admiral Rabalias of the Black Armada has written about the investigation genre before, partly in reference to the Gumshoe system and its trail-of-breadcrumb approach.

I’m on his side regarding the railroading nature of Gumshoe’s approach to investigation design, although the counter-argument is that it cannot be avoided; the investigation must involve clues and the players following up on those clues.

Let’s think about the design needs of a RPG. You need some kind of structured framework in which to “tell the story” (storygame appropriation of that phrase aside, it works for me); you need a system of adjudicating dramatic scenes (i.e. when to roll the dice); and you need some kind of reward that gets the players to keep on playing.

Rewards in Call of Cthulhu are a little screwed up, by design. The paltry SAN regains for seeing cosmic evil thwarted rarely offset the losses suffered during the investigation, and the skill improvement gains really aren’t necessary with CoC’s point-buy system1. Gaining spells and % in Cthulhu Mythos (with associated SAN decline) often becomes the distinguishing feature of long-term CoC investigators, and for some players that’s the reward (it is for me).

Now, the reason most of us play RPGs longer than one session is to see our characters develop. But if gaining power isn’t a primary motivation for investigative games, what do we consider “character development” in an investigator?

First there’s world experience. The PC has “seen things” as defined by their skills and experience. This is what might motivate a player to develop their PC’s Cthulhu Mythos skill, even though it’s ultimately detrimental.

Then there’s a series of accomplishments, which is “world experience” itemised into adventures. The journal of adventures is what places the character in world context. It’s no less important for, say, a fantasy adventurer; but for a fantasy character this tends to be a chronicle of a rise to power, whereas for the investigator it’s a gradual ordering of facts into some kind of objective sense of the world.

Let’s consider that second point more closely. In a fantasy game, PCs are climbing the ladder to power. In some cases that journey will (perhaps should) involve making some difficult choices. Few adventurers keep their hands clean on their ascent, even if their slaughter is legitimised by the things they kill being “evil”.

This is almost the complete opposite of what investigators do. Sure, they may also get their hands dirty, and the will probably face peril. But their job is to uncover the dark deeds of other agencies on the ascent, to bring them to some kind of “justice” even if it’s only holding a candle up to show the world just how nasty they are.

Furthermore if you view the fantasy hero’s rise it often looks like indiscriminate chaos, where the character hops from one location to the next killing their opposition and seizing power, and this is pretty much the behaviour that investigators are against.

So, if you want to construct your investigation with motivated villains who (as the Black Armada suggests) cause ripples that give rise to the investigation, you could do worse than to consider those villainous agencies as just another group of PCs. And like any competent PC party these characters won’t hang around to be “triggered” by the investigation.

I like to manage my investigation games sandbox-fashion. Players are given clues and must follow up on them as they see fit. But it’s not enough to have each location as an isolated “dungeon” waiting for the PCs to explore. At some point the trail will go dry and the PCs will suddenly be twiddling their thumbs, unsure of where to look next. This is the time the GM must be prepared for, so as not to be suddenly on the back foot regarding their campaign. Being able to fall back on the motivations of the enemy, creating new ripples is what will keep the trail alive and at the same time consistent with the rest of the investigation.

In summary, the art of the investigation game isn’t the clues. It’s the constant flow of information, and it’s giving the players the sense that they can choose which leads to follow. That information flows from agencies that are not static; they are in motion, and they are motivated. And if you want a good model for an evil agency, fantasy “murder hobos” aren’t a bad start.

For a real example, one of the best investigation games I played in was Dawn’s “ICESP” (the acronym escapes me now). The schtick was the familiar “an agency, looking into paranormal activity”. What made the game work was the way we received our information; we were presented with a series of case files (as actual handouts) and were left to manage the case files in the priority we saw fit. Every session the GM piled on more pressure with new case files. Not only did this mean we were never short of something to do, we also had the satisfaction in closing individual case files. It was a near-perfect example of an investigation reward structure, with the constant flow of new files as our proactive enemy.

  1. It would be a different story if CoC investigators started off mediocre in almost everything like RQIII’s adventurers, of course. 

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