I guess you had to have been there

This isn’t a storytime, but it is rambling about fun old role playing game sessions, so, what’s the difference?

I heard something on the radio this morning that reminded me about a really fun role playing campaign I ran back in the day, and I wanted to share.

One thing I miss is having gaming friends to hang around with and swap stories of “This one game, man, you should have been there, it was awesome, here’s what happened…”

There are basically three layers of flavor to role playing gaming.

There is the fun of creating the characters, settings and stories, and imagining the fun you’re going to have.

Then there are the actual game sessions, where you try and not only survive but thrive despite whatever tricksy scheme your evil bastard of a GM has planned.

And then there is the telling of tales about how awesome those game sessions were. “You remember that one time Ryan’s dwarf was supposed to be Mannys’ wizards’ bodyguard, leading the way into danger to protect his young charge, and when the magic flying dagger whipped across the room at Ryan, he announced “I duck”? Boy, the expression on Manny’s face was just priceless as he took a dagger right to the chest, wasn’t it?”

I don’t gots no group here to BS with… so I guess that means you’re stuck with it. Sorry.

This story doesn’t really have a point, except to prove I’m a mean GM and I’ll go to really stupid lengths for a joke. But then, you knew that already.

Back in the grand old days when I was in the US Marine Corps, no matter what duty station I found myself, I quickly gathered together a group of like-minded gaming deviants.

I put together my first such group when I was stationed in grand old Twenty-Nine Palms, California, for electronics school. 

The groups weekend activities were based around a set schedule, including two of the key desert activities.

You see, in the High Desert, there were basically two key activities; drinking and exercise. We simply added a third; gaming.

Our gaming group on the weekends had a marvelous tradition we followed for the entire year we were in electronics school together. We would work out, running or rock climbing or playing racquetball and lifting weights. Then we’d hit the beer garden, and grill steaks and lobster tails slathered with honey butter, wrapped in foil. When the butter started steaming out of the foil, tails were done. We’d eat the steaks, lobster, and drink beer (Fosters or Keystone Light) and down some Fuzzy Navels over ice until it was time for Doctor Demento to come on the High Desert radio station. Yes, that’s right, the ONE High Desert radio station. Then we’d listen to the Doctor, followed by gaming until daylight. That would be daylight of the second day, of course.

It was a rough life.

For gaming rules, we liked to swap around systems just like everyone back then did, but one that stood out was Palladium. If you put together all the hinky character creation rulebooks, like Heroes Unlimited, Ninjas and Super Spies, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and whatever, you could end up with, and I did, a humanoid white begal tiger martial artist with super speed and super strength and natural claws. Just to see what you could whip up. This was before Rifts came out, or at least before much in the Rifts product line came out.

With such wide open wackiness, the campaigns tended towards outrageousness.

Well, the name of the campaign was “Black Ops and Ninja Trollops”. The players all made characters that were to be part of this super high powered secret government-sanctioned agency out to protect the country from things that usually only appeared on the pages of the National Enquirer. The bad guys AND the good guys wanted to operate under the radar, but things tended to escalate rapidly. Usually involving high explosive and rocket launcher duels in downtown Miami. There is a lot GOOD to be said about rocket launcher duels when riding jetskis, or when on skies towed by a speedboat.

Every time the heroes returned to base, located in South Florida, I made sure that it was wildly different, and not a little frightening, especially any time they had to visit the dreaded “R&D”. I ran R&D as some nightmare of frightening mad science, with a lethality-for-humor rating straight out of Paranoia. Every mission, there was some reason they just HAD to visit R&D, for experimental weapons testing, or a new detecting gadget to find the MacGuffin, or, and this was critical, a new vehicle.

You see, I started a running gag where, every mission, no matter what they did or how they tried, their vehicle would get blown up.

These characters are super-secret super spies with super awesome gadgets. AND they’re played by Marines who love electronics. AND Palladium had extensive rules for designing awesome super cars and weapons systems.

You put those things together, and the players spent more time trying to design a vehicle that could blend into the Miami lifestyle AND be imprevious to me blowing them up than they did trying to beat the bad guys.

They tried spending all their money on super armor and weapons, they tried security systems, they tried driving stripped down crap AMC Gremlin hatchbacks (on the assumption that the characters were already suffering enough, so I’d let the cars survive… umm, wrong) they tried taking buses, they tried avoidance of collateral damage (having the agency send NPCs to ferry them to the drop off by helo, on the assumption I wouldn’t kill the vehicle if it was filled with innocents… ummm, wrong), they tried all sorts of things.

This went on for quite some time. It was really fun, having this running theme as a sub note to the campaign. Well, fun for ME, anyway.

Then, they went for psychological warfare.

One of my favorite movies, then and now, is Vanishing Point.

The main theme of the movie is one man having had enough with everything, all the rules and the petty bullshit, and pretty much taking off on a 100% pointless road trip across the country, hell bent for leather and letting nothing stop him, and in the process pissing off every law enforcement agency in the country. He has no destination that means anything except to him. He’s the driver, Kowalski with a K, and he’s gonna make it to his destination on time, and screw the world. He’s screwed up his career, his life, his love, his racing… he’s done. He’s gonna get this one thing right or die trying.

The car he drives in the film is an iconic white 1970 Dodge Challenger, one of the last of the pony cars.

The guys sat down, and out of game designed a rebuilt 1970 Dodge Challenger, white in color, graphing it out and everything. Reinforced kevlar woven body panels, bulletproof glass, concealed rocket and machine gun ports, all carefully and painstakingly drawn out and detailed with exploded diagrams.

They sprung this on me, as something that their characters in the game had spent 6 months designing and building, and their finished paperwork was beautiful. They really poured their hearts into this thing.

They were pretty confident that this time, they had me. They figured there was simply NO WAY that I would have the balls to destroy my favorite iconic muscle car of all time.

I had to applaud their ingenuity, and their keen insight into applied psychological warfare as it pertains to role playing game GMs.

Their very next mission, they took the car.

Accordingly, their very fnext mission with the car, I placed them in the position of having to choose, themselves, whether to use their car to intercept a missile fired at the main highway that links the Florida Keys, or let the missile hit, RIGHT when there was a busload of nuns destined to be at point zero.

That’s right, I pulled out the busload of nuns bit.

They had to think about that one out of game for quite some time, and it wasn’t a unanimous vote by any means.

They drove their car to the point of impact, blasted the afterburners, rocketed the concrete barrier between elevated highway and open water, and blasted off the highway out over open water, bailing out just before the missile struck the airborne car, blowing it into itty, bitty pieces.

I am a bastard.

But, effort of that magnitude has to be rewarded.

I have a reputation, in my games, that the harder I make the players suffer, the greater the eventual reward. If they are really, really miserable and suffering, they actually get happy, trying to imaginewhat wonderful thing I could possibly be planning to reward them with.

This is a truly cruel act of training on my part. The worse my players suffer… the happier they get. This is wrong, but I can’t stop the process.

I also go the other way. My players tend to learn quickly that the better things are going, the easier things are for them in the game, the worse it’s gonna get. Players get to expecting that the cute little bunny rabbit is actually a death bunny with vorpal fangs, and blow it away on spec. Which, considering the effects of Monty Python on your average gaming group, is probably a smart move.

So, I made THEM make the choice to sacrifice their own car. That’s even worse than blowing it up myself.

BUT… when they called back to base to wail that they had no ride, R&D showed up personally at the scene of destruction to take over clean up… AND promised to rebuild their original ride.

That’s right… R&D. Taking over cleanup. And promising to rebuild the ride. Something that had never been done in game before. R&D never came out of their caves at base. Ever.

The horror that crawled over the players’ faces was astounding. I felt such pride at having crushed them to such a thorough extent.

The players fell all over themselves to get assurances that R&D would rebuild the car, but would add nothing new. Nothing! No death rays, no wings and rocket packs, no teleportation, nothing. They were having none of my games. They knew exactly what they wanted, and they forced the head of R&D to promise that they would rebuild the white challenger to the state it was before it blew up. 

I swore, both in game and out, that R&D would not isntall some kind of gimmicky gadget that would destroy the car again. I promised.

Then, slowly, you could see the hope begin to creep in. They’d suffered, hadn’t they? They’d earned a car, right? A car? Something the characters could get some token feeling of Miami Vice-ness out of? Maybe just this one time?

For the next few weeks of game sessions, the players had some really crappy loaners, up to and including the Goodyear Blimp, issued to them for their missions. And every mission, they checked in at R&D to see how reconstruction was coming along.

I never let them see the car being worked on, but they could see the doors to “Lab 3”, and they could see crews rushing parts in through the doors, and sparks blasting out of the doors as they opened fro welders hard at work, and generally always got the impression that some serious shit was going on to rebuild their white challenger.

They got status updates on the percentage of rebuild completion. They got told that, due to the nature of the explosion being over water, finding all of the pieces was very difficult, and the biggest delay was making sure, as new parts were fabricated from scratch, that they matched the originals without deviation to six sigma levels.

They were being very diligent to remain strictly with the original design.

Finally, I could hold off no longer. The players had been very patient, but enough is enough. It was time for the unveiling.

The head of R&D proudly led them to Lab 3, where they were permitted to enter and view their white challenger for the first time…

The reconstructed space shuttle Challenger.

I am proud to say, even after all these years, that I have never crushed a man’s spirit quite as thoroughly as I crushed ‘El Destructo’ on that day.

Some people cried. Some laughed insanely. One lost it and sprayed Fosters all over my damn room.

El Destructo just kept repeating, in stunned shock, over and over to himself, “I told him a white challenger, and he gave me a white challenger. Why didn’t I say Dodge? Why oh why didn’t I say Dodge? I said white challenger, and he gave me a white challenger…”

It took a LOT of beer to get them through that crisis, but in the end, well…

I blew that one up too.

I still, to this day, cannot think of gaming in 29 Palms without remembering that proud moment, the unveiling of the white challenger. It was my Mona Lisa, my prime creation, my grand belief in mindscrewing the gamer brought to full, vibrant, luxurious life.

It was my triumph. 

There shall never be a finer gaming moment for me, and when I am old and grey, rocking on a porch at the nursing home looking back at all of the insanity that has been my life, I know that this, this one shining moment, will be one of the ones I treasure the most.

Military units and ranks for RPG game design

The purpose of this article is to establish a baseline understanding of ranks and numbers of a modern military force structure, in order for a GM to be able to knowledgeably develop their own military forces in alternative fictional settings. 

This breakdown is for use only as a comparison, when determining what ranks may be desired for various unit sizes, and to help in using the most common terminology when describing force sizes.

It should be remembered that even though there are numbers listed for unit sizes, these numbers do not reflect the reality of a unit on active duty. They are ‘optimal’ numbers. At any given time a unit’s actual force will be reduced in size by having some soldiers in transport to and from the unit, being deployed on temporary additional training exercises, or out of service due to sickness, wounds or as casualties awaiting replacement. Even in garrison duty during peacetime every unit has a certain number of personnel that will be out of action due to training injuries or accidents, plus the additional reason of scheduled vacation or home/shore leave.  

When developing a set of forces, the GM should also address a comparative strength of a force and its reputation through more than just numbers. Experience will vary between units, training methods may differ drastically, the morale and cohesiveness may vary depending on how long a unit had worked together and what they had accomplished together, and depending on the game world your units may have a greater or lesser chance that a given unit will posses seasoned combat veterans.

Additionally, no matter how seasoned a unit, some personnel will be inexperienced recruits taking the place of those that have come to the end of their current tour of duty, have been transferred to other units, or have fallen in combat.

Finally, any force of Company size or greater generally has a large, possibly very large number of support personnel who accompany the unit. These support personnel do not themselves directly fight, but provide essential duties including supply organization and logistics, battle surgeons and medical aid, and administrative assistance (ptracking who gets paid, and making sure it gets done).

As a commentary on the importance of these functions, when deployed into enemy territory, no large force can effectively fight  and manuever while at the same time living off the land or hunting for their food and water. Food, clean water, armor and weapons and the facilities to repair them, bandages and medicines, all of these things are vital, and the more effective a unit is at managing and protecting their supply lines the better.

The size of Support Detachments can vary greatly depending on their competence. They can number anywhere from half the size of the fighting unit to three times their size or more.

*Special Note – As another example, in modern times it often takes as many as 15 non-combatant Support personnel to enable one soldier to fight on the front lines. This is absolutely true, and is usually portrayed in movies as a clear division between those who stay safely ‘in the rear with the gear’ in support roles, who keep their uniforms pressed and boots shiny and generally have no conception of the realities of the serious business of war coming face to face with the weary grunt fresh in from the field who looks like he slept in his uniform for a month and has a much-loved hobby of rolling in mud puddles. How fair such caricatures may be depends entirely on the leadership of both the support elements and the front line elements, and how well they work together to reduce friction resentment.

Unit and rank breakdowns

The following numbers and organizational breakdown are not meant to be historically accurate to any one particular time period. The numbers ARE accurate, and were drawn for the most part from US Army designations circa 1945. Where certain ranks and units were modified during the Korean and Vietnam conflicts, I have picked those changes and forms that seemed to work best in simplifying the general breakdown to promote clarity, and to aid the GM in making their own choices for use in a science fiction or fantasy setting.

Where possible, I used US Marine Corps ranks, because I happen to be prejudiced in that direction. Have no fear in using this list, however, because if you describe a company as being composed of around 150 men of fighting spirit, led by a Captain and with an able Lieutenant as his Executive Officer, you will be very nearly dead-on in describing most US forces of our last century.

This breakdown does not take into account Naval ranks. That is a topic for a more science-fiction/space opera based storyline.

Army Organization

# Warriors Title Led by Executive Staff
10,800 Division CO: Major General  5 Officer Planning Staff (not in COC)
5,400 2 Brigades per CO: Brigadier General 5 Officer Planning Staff (not in COC)
1,800 3 Regiments per CO: Colonel XO: Lieutenant Colonel
600 3 Battalions per CO: Lt Colonel or Major XO: Major or Captain
150 4 Companies per CO: Captain XO: Lieutenant
50 3 Platoons per CO: Lieutenant XO: Senior Sergeant
12/12/13/13 4 Squads per Squad Leader: Sergeant Asst Squad Leader: Corporal
6 or 7 2 Strike Teams per Fire Team Leader: Corporal or Lance Corporal  

 Total number of men in One Division; Officers and Warriors

1 Division: 1 Major General, 5 Staff Officers.
2 Brigades: 2 Brigadier Generals, 10 Staff Officers.
6 Regiments: 6 Colonels, 6 Lt Colonels.
18 Battalions: 18 Lt Colonels or Majors, 18 Majors or Captains.
72 Companies: 72 Captains, 72 Lieutenants.
216 Platoons: 216 Lieutenants, 216 Senior Sergeants.
864 Squads: 864 Sergeants, 864 Corporals
1728 Strike Teams: 1728 Corporals or Lance Corporals.

 10,800 Warriors led by 642 Officers

11,442 men in total

That total does not include Support Detachments, which can have wildly varying sizes. Many officers wear multiple ‘hats’, or take on the duties of leading support sections in addition to the normal duties of leading their unit, especially in smaller units.

Support Detachments

Supply (food storage and cooks, uniforms, armor and weapons, miscellaneous gear)

Intelligence (Spies, paid informants, Forward Scouts and Pathfinders, Cartographers)

Medical (Doctors and Battle Surgeons, Nurses, full medical supplies and herb gatherers)

Maintenance (Armorers, Weaponsmiths, Blacksmiths, full mobile smithies, Bowyer/Fletchers)

Communications (Signal/Banner Corps, Pigeon Corps, Runners and Horn Carriers)

It should also be noted that the Military Band of a Unit or Battle Group comes from the Warrior Corps. They carry small instruments in their field packs such as pipes, flutes and small drums, and play during the march or formal functions. They do not get special consideration for this extra duty, except the appreciation of their peers.

Military Rank Structures

Generalized Officer Grades

 General – Highest ranking officer in the military force. Senior Staff Officer.

 Lieutenant General – Staff Officer, with experience in multiple types of engagements.

Major General – Can be a Staff or Field Officer, usually too senior to be allowed to lead men, when his experience can be better used in developing overall strategy rather than implementing tactics in the field.

Brigadier General – Field officer, responsible for a Brigade in the field.

Colonel – Regimental Commander, or member of a General’s Planning Staff.

Lieutenant Colonel – Battalion Commander or Executive Officer for a Regiment.

Major – May be either a Battalion Commander or Battalion Executive Officer.

Captain – The wild horse, can be employed as a Company Commander, or ‘detached’ as the Commanding Officer of any number of ‘special assignments’. The first officer rank where true leadership has been demonstrated and experience has been earned to get this far.

Lieutenant (or 1st Lieutenant) – Platoon Leader or Company Executive Officer, given responsibility for the men in his command, but expected to rely on the proven experience of his Enlisted Executive Officer, a Sergeant Major or Senior Sergeant, to show him how to get the job done.

2nd Lieutenant – honorary grade of an Officer in Training. Lower than pond scum.

Generalized Knighthood Officer Grades

Knight-General – rank of the Commander in Chief of an Order of Knighthood.

Knight-Commander – senior field Commanders of an Orders’ forces.

Knight-Captain – highest rank an independent Knight can attain without declaring oath to a liege.

Knight-Lieutenant – rank achieved after the Knight has completed a Holy Quest.

Knight – the rank of every Knight, no matter how skilled, who has not as yet taken a Quest.

Enlisted Grades

Sergeant-Major – Highest ranking enlisted soldier in any Military Force. Not part of a General’s Planning Staff or an Executive Officer of any unit larger than a Company, but still present in the leadership of every single Battalion, Brigade, Regiment and Division as the senior most enlisted leader, normally responsible for planning the actual nuts and bolts operations of the enlisted men in his unit. It has been said that the role of a Commanding Officer is to decide what needs to be done; it is the role of the Sergeant Major to make it happen… somehow.

Master Sergeant (Top) – Senior field soldier in charge of cavalry or infantry forces.

Bowyer Sergeant (Strings) – Senior field soldier in charge of archer forces.

Gunnery Sergeant (Gunny) – Senior field soldier in charge of heavy artillery (catapults, ballista).

(the three above ranks are counted equal in hierarchy, but in different military specialties)

Senior Sergeant (or Staff Sergeant) – First enlisted rank where the management and coordination of the men under his command is his primary responsibility, and actually kicking them in the ass and showing them how to get things done takes a back seat. Often forced to delegate the hands-on leadership of sections of his men to the Sergeants.

Sergeant – The old man of the service. Traditionally, once a man becomes a Sergeant, through years of experience and accomplishing his assigned missions, he can expect to remain a Sergeant for at least eight to ten years before rising to the next rank. In times of combat, that changes drastically, but during peacetime, it is extremely common for most men to end a tour of service of 8 to 12 years as a Sergeant. It is the Sergeant who is primarily responsible for training his men, personally leading them, and acting as surrogate father figure to them. Even though he may be only 24 or so, to the 18 and 19 year olds in his unit, he is old as Methuselah, and his word is the word of the lord, because if you ignore it, the wrath of god falls on your poor head.

Corporal – First enlisted rank where the responsibility to lead other men, namely Privates and Lance Corporals, is delegated. It is where possible future Sergeants get their initial training, and gives the Sergeants and Lieutenants a chance to evaluate the leadership potential of a man without handing him a Squad of 13 men to get killed..

Lance Corporal – Experienced enlisted soldier.

Private First Class – Rank given mostly to reassure the soldier that he really isn’t a fresh-scrubbed raw recruit anymore.

Private – A fresh scrubbed raw recruit, either in initial training (Boot camp, Initial Combat Training), or just past it. In the 1940s, a Recruit in Boot Camp was technically already a Private, and was called a Private. Among other things. In modern times, he is listed as a recruit, and does not become a Private until graduating from Boot Camp. And he is still called other things.

When looking at these ranks, don’t see it as “I must use such and such in my forces”, but instead think of it in terms of “which roles will be needed depending on the size and purpose of my force, and what rank names or titles shall I use to describe them?” This is your opportunity to determine your own rank names, and to eliminate entire ranges of ranks and force sizes depending on how small your forces may be in comparison.

Differences between officers, knights and enlisted men

When discussing Officers and Enlisted, there are many different ways they can be differentiated. I’m not even going to try to provide a definitive breakdown of them all, but I will give you some examples.

First, it is common that in most militaries, the lowest ranking Officer is of higher position in the chain of authority than the highest ranking Enlisted Person. There is a certain amount of professional respect and courtesy due between ranks, especially in the relationship within a unit of the new Lieutenant and the experienced Sergeant Major, but when it comes to who is required to obey the orders of another under military law, a direct lawful order of an officer has higher precedence than that of an enlisted man. The chain of command is stringently observed, and it’s importance cannot be understated.

In some armed forces, the officers obtain their warrants directly from patrons as signs of favor, as if gifts, opportunities for that officer to gain prestige and reknown through the success of their units. In those cases, it may be common that the vast bulk of the actual work may be done by the enlisted, with token appearances and guidance from the officer in question.

In many medieval armed forces, the officers came from the nobility, and part of the duty of their noble rank was the raising and leading of units composed of locals, peasants, farmers, and indentured servants from their lands. In those cases, the rank of the officer frequently derived either from their societal rank, or from the size of the force they could muster. You can see different levels of this, as well. Many settings show the peasants as being little more than property, and not permitted to touch arms or to be trained in their use. In those settings, only the officers themselves and their personal men at arms compose the force the officer brings to a battle. As the situation changes, and the noble can draw on more members of their personal lands, as armed and trained soldiers, so too does personal liberty tend to grow among those people. 

Let’s move past the historical generalizations and examples, and describe a very simplified origin of enlistment for a fantasy campaign setting, based on a society of mostly free citizens but with a distinct upper class or aristocracy.           

The enlisted warrior joins the military straight from his (or her) former life, passes physical and mental testing, and becomes a recruit (or Private). He is trained in whatever standard branch of service his superiors chose for him or her, and progresses up the ladder of rank as his experience, skill, strength of character and leadership become recognized. The enlisted warrior can progress to the highest ranks of the enlisted structure, but unless personally knighted or singled out for recognition, they will never advance to the officer ranks.

The officer is of noble or wealthy birth, and usually has an excellent education. He has had access to personalized tutoring in theory and history, as well as advanced (and expensive) personal training while growing up. Traditionally, he is sponsored to a specific Military Organization or Branch of Service by his parents, who pay for the cost of his outfitting and continuing education. The forces he leads may consist of ‘household troops’ raised from the lands his family controls, he may bring with him to a larger unit a small force of personnel from his homeland as men-at-arms, or he may travel alone or possibly with a squire or servant.

There is a common plot in fantasy literature for a free man without aristocratic ties or bloodlines to become an officer, and that is by pursuing the path of knighthood. Most knights are in fact members of the nobility that are included in religious orders, but in a fantasy setting a religious order can act independently from the nobility, and choose for themselves who does or does not qualify to be raised as a knight based on individual merit and worthiness in the eyes of their deity. This is especially likely for a religious order with a militant arm, when skill and talent in the service of their god matter more than technicalities of birth.

In a fantasy campaign, using feudal styles of nobility, it is usually impossible for anyone not of the nobility, or a certain wealthy class of merchant, to become an officer or Knight. In fact, it was a source of great class conflict that only those born to the nobility were given certain privileges, including that of training in the Knightly Arts. So in a very strict campaign, either the common man has no legal means to own arms or armor or be trained in their use at ALL, or in more lenient campaigns to become an Officer or a Knight. In those situations, it may be that the GM will decide it is possible for a member of a Religious Order to legally become a Knight and recognised as such by the landed nobility.

It’s up to the GM to decide how the politics within the game world affects the possibilities for advancement. It is usually only when a society is faced with great change or dire threat that the prescriptions against armed civilians are relaxed enough to allow the common man to mobilize and train in military skills.

In some political or campaign settings, especially those with the possibility of direct divine intervention, the Knighthood may exist not as a coordinated military unit or as an appendage to the nobility, but instead may be possessed of it’s own mystique and authority seperate and even above that of local rulers, answerable to higher centralized authority but guided by their own spirit. You can use that kind of situation to allow your Knights to assume the roles of traveling Sheriffs, similar in concept to the old Texas Rangers, covering a wide range of territory, possessing certain legal powers and acting as local judge, jury, and perhaps executioner, depending on what the source of their authority derives. As a sterling example, the Clint Eastwood movie ‘Hang Em High’ demonstrates what a Knight that has powers to apprehend, but not to convict or execute sentence, may have to endure to see justice done.

The changes in a military force, and the pressure of needing to raise more than a handful of knights can be a plot hook for change in your campaign world all by itself. Many ‘popular uprisings’ or ‘peoples revolutions’ begin when a government feels firced into training and arming a peasant population. A conflict between nations forces a repressive government to mobilize and train the peasantry to serve as soldiers in the nations’ defense, and then once the war is over, the peasants don’t just ‘forget’ that the nobles get decapitated and bleed just like the normal folks do. Plus, the peasants have a lot of tools to work the farms and fields, and most of those tools have very sharp edges.

Building on GM Fundamentals I – Plot Structure

The first in a (probably very) short series of suggestions for a GM planning a tabletop or PBeM RPG game. Oooh, acronyms!

When planning a new RPG campaign, you should start with having a goal for the game. What are you hoping to achieve?

In most games, the goal is to have a lot of fun playing characters while taking part in a good story.

There are two parts to consider here; players enjoying playing their characters, and players experiencing a good story.

To accomplish both of these goals generally means a single storyline campaign will last several game sessions, covering weeks and maybe even years.  

Your mission as GM? Prepare a story that will provide your players with short term enjoyment of playing their character each session, medium range enjoyment by giving them opportunities to advance or improve their characters over time, and long term enjoyment by giving the players a feeling that they have taken part in a rich saga with a fulfilling conclusion.

Sound impossible? Not really.

When you plan your plotlines, think in terms of a triple layer of overlapping plotlines.

  • A) Short Term Plot.
  • B) Character Growth.
  • C) Multi-Episode Story Arc.

Short Term Plot

Each game session should be considered a single encounter. For the players? No, for you! You have your own mission for every game session; that the players be presented with a challenge, work to overcome it, and then enjoy the results so they have a sense of accomplishment prior to tossing the empty pizza boxes in the trash and going home. 

The short term plot is nothing less than your plan for the very next game session. You should think of it in terms of having a start, middle, and ending. It takes place within the overall story arc, and drives the overall story forward, but is in all respects a mini-adventure.

The short term plot can be so many things, and often will be driven by the players themselves as they take the initiative to play their characters. Your purpose in this is to keep in mind that it is rewarding to have a sense of completion at the end of each game session. If the party has to travel over long distances, plan on having each game session start with traveling to set the scene, take them over a portion of the journey rapidly, and then engage them with whatever encounter you have planned, and deal with the conclusion before the end of your session. If at the end they are still traveling on, they will still feel a sense of accomplishment at having completed the mini-adventure.

Likewise on searching a city for information, or chasing a villain, or shopping for items in the bazaar. Plan for something short, brutal, surprising or urgent to happen that can be resolved in one session.

The purpose of the short term plot is to provide an obvious short term goal for the characters to achieve, and the characters should be able to defeat the villain/solve the problem using pre-existing capabilities.

Character Growth

In the Character Growth portion of your plot, plan in advance on building in specific minor challenges targeted directly at each character. Your players are actors in an ensemble cast, but every player wants to feel like a true star in the spotlight now and then.

Start by having your players write some backgrounds for their characters, and encourage them to put down a little soul searching as to the hopes and dreams, and fears, of their characters. You won’t want to plan to fulfill their every hope in the way they would expect, but you CAN use it as a starting point for finding ways to really give them opportunities to grow their own way. 

During the course of the game, take the time to let each player feel that there was a special moment where the success or failure of the group rests on them. Put the burden on them, let them feel that pressure, and give them a chance to either succeed or fail on their own. Either way, it usually results in that player feeling a deep sense of inclusion in the group.

For you, the purpose of the Character Growth plots are to encourage each character to develop a unique personality. They should not regularly be life threatening, or always play a major role in the Short Term Plot, but they can lead to bonus abilities, new contacts, or special knowledge if properly handled. If the player fails, it can often lead to new short term plot hooks for you!

Some examples of character growth planning are to provide times when special skills are needed to advance, and opportunities to learn new skills are offered… for a price. One character may dream of being presented to the royal court, and will pursue that goal if given half a chance, while another might wish for nothing better than to study under the greatest swordsmaster of the age. You have to tailor each character growth opprotunity to the character, but it is incredibly fulfilling when a player’s character becomes such a core part of the story.

Multi-Episode Story Arc

The final portion of the triple plot is the Multi-Episode Story Arc, also known as the big quest. What is the huge adventure everyone is on? What is the big goal?

This is usually the easiest part of the process. Most GMs have some idea of what they want to do for a big, awesome campaign story, in general terms. What you want to do is break that huge story up into episodes, in segments, the venerable bite-size pieces.

It can help if you think of your campaign as if it were a TV series, not one of those cheesy ones, but something brilliant like J. Michael Straczynski’s Babylon 5.

Each night’s episode should be enjoyable all on it’s own in repeats, taken out of the story and made to stand cold and lonely under the spotlights of harsh examination. But if you put the whole thing together, there is a larger story that continues to grow, and gather meaning. Something your players move towards. Or away from. Or around in circles. Or blow up. Or join and become evil overlords and worry about changes to their tax base.

Best yet, along the way, each character has an opportunity to grow, and develop a richer, more interesting personality.

However you like to run your own campaigns, I hope that this has given you a few ideas to think about in planning ahead and making your own life just a little bit easier. And if you’ve already developed this technique on your own as an art form and never saw some git put it into words before, well then, I’ve done my bit to show that you can set rules to anything.

Stay tuned for my next exciting episode, where I explore the joys of recurring NPCs… the good, the bad, and the just plain annoying.