My Cthulhu Christmas

(with some awkward writing, assisted by rum)

Here's a Christmas memory with some Cthulhu in it. My friends all know this one; my friends out in yon Internet should know it too.

It was about thirty years ago. We lived in a rental house (low 400s on Miller Boulevard) in Havelock, North Carolina within easy driving distance of MCAS Cherry Point (where my father was stationed) and easy walking distance of Reader's Haven, the used-books/comics/game-shop where I stationed myself much of the time (in the "Slocum Village Shopping Center," a sad miniature strip-mall on the west side of Park Lane leading up to West Main). There were also two convenience stores and a small public library within easy hoofing, so it was a nice little spot to be a newbie gamer with a burgeoning research addiction.

It was to be my first Christmas completely alone. My parents had broken up years before, and my father had a long-term girlfriend in Virginia, and he'd decided he wanted to spend Christmas with her and her kids that year, leaving me the run of the house.

I oscillated between feeling sorry for myself for my first lonely Christmas, and feeling like a mouse in the proverbial cat's-away position for my first Christmas To Do Whatever I Wanted, but mostly I just felt the alone parts. I had some gamer-friends from school and from the shop, but they all had their own families to deal with and nobody needed an extra teenager hanging around, especially those weird ones with their TARDISes and X-Mens and things.

I spent Christmas Eve constructively (doing some game-mapping and comic-book reading and MTV-watching) but woke up on Christmas morning feeling a little under the weather both physically and emotionally. While I was only a teenager, I had, from my perspective, a lifetime of experience of Christmas Morning being this joyful, family thingy which culminated in food.

I was the cook of the house (Dad could make ice cubes or sandwiches if you left him a clearly-written recipe), but cooking a Feast For One didn't feel legit, so I made some Rice-A-Roni and a chunk of Mooki Meat (an oval patty of ground beef, seasoned with such eccentricity that it had to be the work of the infamous Mama Mooki, an imaginary cook I made frequent reference to because I was a weird teenager).

And then I got my jacket on, and walked to the base library. I'd read in the base paper they'd be open on Christmas Day, and being at the library (which I loved) sounded way better than just belching up Mooki Burps in an empty house on Christmas.

The walk did me a world of good. My under-the-weather glum got replaced by full-blast enjoying-the-weather brisk, and it was a walk of about 2.5 miles, which I suppose took me an hour. I enjoyed that route, in through the main gate (as a dependent, I could get in with my Marine Brat ID), past the base McDonald's (Google Maps says it's still there).

I didn't know what to expect. Being open on Christmas wasn't normal for the library; it's not very normal for any library, but I would learn that two of the librarians had just realized they had no big holiday plans, so they decided they'd donate their time to offer a little cheer to Marines who couldn't get home for the holidays.

So the scene was this library, with only half the lights on, and two librarians, and four young Marines far from home, and me. And, with further thanks to those two kind librarians, there was a tray of cheese and crackers, and a carton of eggnog, and some punch.

And I could barely keep from crying, I was so grateful. We sat in a circle of random library chairs and introduced each other and just chatted about nothing in particular and Christmas in general and we just thanked the librarians over and over.

I didn't keep from crying, exactly. I just held off 'til I was alone in the stacks, because these two angelic librarians didn't stop at cheese and crackers and refreshment. They said, if we wanted, we could check books out, too.

I picked two: one of the time-travel novels of George Alec Effinger, and one of the old Arkham House collections of H.P. Lovecraft stories.

I'd already been an Effinger fan for a few years, having consumed many of his short stories in the pages of IASFM since my first subscription around '84 (stories like White Hats and the Beast From One-Quarter Fathom, if I recall), but this would be my first time reading his novels.

Lovecraft, I'd never read before. But I had been reading a certain Chaosium roleplaying game, and Call of Cthulhu was stern and clear: I shouldn't consider GMing the game until I'd read at least half of [LIST OF RECOMMENDED STORIES] and lo and freakin' behold, this Arkham House book contained right around half of those, so: score. I could finally, legally be a Keeper.

And as the librarians ran the books through the magnetic thingamajig and I shook the hands again of the young Marines and thanked everybody and wished everybody a Merry Christmas, we just stood there as the lights went out, recognizing that without a doubt, we were having one. And it became the best ever, in a way.

The walk home was a mixed bag. Those two and a half miles felt a bit longer with only the empty house to get back to, and it was later, and darker, and colder, and I was carrying books. Plus, that under-the-weather-feeling from earlier? Turned out it wasn't just me being glum, it was me feeling the first pangs of some kind of viral crud.

My bedroom was on a corner and got colder than dad's, so I decided I'd go ahead and swipe his for the night, with blankets from both to keep warm, and I curled up all snug, getting sicker and reading Lovecraft stories and then falling asleep to my first-ever genuine HPL nightmare. Pretty sure it was The Picture in the House that did it. Here, young Sir, don’t git skeert. Victuals, etc.

So maybe not the best ending, and maybe not the best beginning, but right there in the middle, it was a beautiful Christmas. I'm not done being grateful for it, and I don't plan to be. Thank you, angel librarians. Thank you, young Marines with your stories of home. And even thanks to the pulpiest of the pulpsters for giving me nightmares, and the great and lovely Effinger for that novel and so many others. Still so very grateful.

Hope today finds you well, whenever today turns out to be.


My Memory Has Peed

Okay, so I'm dashing this out in the moment to record what just happened in my brain because my brain is ridiculous.

I've got a wallpaper right now that's a screenshot from Dishonored 2, because of course I do, and it's a night shot alongside the Dreadful Wale, looking in to the lights of Karnaca.

I like it as a wallpaper because it's a bit dark and because the hull almost frames my left-hand Windows icons (not shown), none of which is relevant.

I'm staring idly at the wallpaper deciding if I should work next on Intruder Moon or one of my Risus projects or the Shadow River map or something else, and I notice the little areas of flat white foam along the surface of some of those waves in the water, and I think "that's a nice little bit of water-detail" and I briefly wonder if the water surface has just one texture or multiple textures and if it's multiple how they're layered and so on ...

And then my brain just jumps to something I haven't consciously considered since approximately the 5th grade: a pen-and-ink-drawing of ocean water in a cartoony style that had cool little arcs in the linework to indicate those same flat areas of foam or comparable variations in the water's reflective surface. And I remember it was an interior illustration from a book-and-record set starring Popeye.

And I remember that this illustration was the work of an artist named George Peed, because (A) the audio part of the book-and-record told me so, every time I listened to it and (B) Mr. Peed had a very clearly-legible signature on most of his work, and I had noticed it also on some of my other children's records, back in those merry days of vinyl.

And I'm stunned at my weird-ass memory for suddenly remembering George Peed when I know for certain he's not crossed my mind since 5th Grade, in my bedroom back in Cumberland, Maryland (which, if you were wondering, yes).

So I grab my phone and Google him because I'm certain the Internet will have George Peed fan-pages or something (right now as I'm typing this it occurs to me to look for Roy Doty as well, because apparently my brain was hoovering up illustrators' names as a child and I just never paid any attention to how much attention I paid). And yes, the Internet does.

But that's when the actual weird part happened. It occurs to me, right now, in the winter of 2018, that back in 5th Grade and 4th Grade and prior grades when looking at all those George Peed drawings, it never occurred to me to find his name funny.

Note That Clear Signature on Yon Merrye Tombstone


Five Elements of Commercial Appeal in RPG Design

Would-be reader Jeff Bernstein, from the inbox today:

Hello. I'm reading an essay on convention game session design and there's a glowing reference to your "Five Elements of Commercially Viable RPG Design". Is this available anywhere for download?

And that, dear readers, is probably going to be how I decide which old articles are plucked from the wreckage of the Blue Room.

Here's a re-posting of a distilled re-telling of something I wrote more than twenty-five years ago in a letter to Loyd Blankenship, and related nonsense I was spouting on convention panels and in emails with friends and colleagues for a few years thereafter. It is, in some circles, mildly infamous, mainly for my determination never, ever, ever to publish it. Ever-ever, amen.

As you'll see, it's pretty innocuous. Like the Necronomicon or Monty Python's “Killer Joke,” it's something that's only sinister if you keep it off-stage. I never intended for it to be sinister, it just became so because - well, mainly because one of the nice folks who attended one of the convention panels never forgot it, and brought it up every now and then online. He even offered to pay me to write it into an article, once (guess I should've taken the offer - d'oh). Also, some colleagues (Bruce Baugh, Kenneth Hite, others I'm forgetting) have talked about it to others.

I finally published it to the web in 2008, after fifteen years of avoiding it. Why? We'll get to that after. Here goes:

If we examine the games and game-worlds that have come and gone, patterns emerge and it becomes easy to spot dozens of elements shared by those with the widest appeal. Here are five I consider crucial:



The value of cliché - the use of stock imagery and other familiar elements - is accessibility and mutual understanding. If the Game Master tells you the new campaign is to be set in the "Duchy of Crows" and concerns an evil priest gathering the Hill Ogres to his cause, that may sound a bit threadbare, but it also provides a reliable common ground. Everyone can jump right in and focus on what the game is really about: the PCs and their adventures. If, by contrast, the GM tells you the new campaign takes place in the Shining Tertiary Plane of Tsalvanithra, a science-fantasy blend of Mayan mythology, Depression-era satire, 16th-century French politics and Japanese courtly manners, you're in for some research before you dare put a mark on the character sheet. The most popular games rely on stock images as a language for skipping to the good parts (and for sharing in a celebration of things gamers enjoy celebrating). Games that make a point of shunning cliché tend to be more niche.


Nothing's very dramatic (or funny, or scary) without some kind of conflict, and RPGs thrive on every sort. But the specific value of combat depends as much on game-structure as the visceral appeal of a fight scene. In gameable terms, most forms of conflict are best defined as a single instant (sneaking past a guard, casting a healing spell) - we gain nothing by breaking the action down into its component steps, because the steps themselves are seldom infused with drama without forcing the issue. But in a fight - whether it's swordplay, a tavern brawl, a superhero slugfest or a psychic showdown - every swing of fist or sword, every blast of energy, is something dangerous and potentially important. That packs a fight with a series of choices and consequences, providing fertile ground for enjoyable game mechanics. What's more, it provides a stage on which the PCs can cooperate and act as a team. Only a few other kinds of action can rival this under the right conditions, and none can trump it with any consistency.


RPGs are an ensemble medium; the core experience is that of a fellowship of PCs cooperating (more or less) toward a common goal. The most successful RPGs embrace this, provide tools to enhance the group experience, and build system and setting assumptions around it. This means providing for variety, both in terms of character concepts and their viability (it's well and good to say you can play a Librarian, but the game-world must also provide opportunities and challenges appropriate to the Librarian's skills). This element skews the genre-leanings of successful RPGs to some extent, because there are some popular genres (espionage and mysteries, most notably) that require some re-tooling before they comfortably support the concept of a half-dozen diverse PCs working together. Similarly, some stock character types (lone-wolf vigilantes, burglars, assassins) become notably chummier in RPGs, seen more often clubbing with a team than brooding indulgently in the shadows. RPGs gain a lot of mileage and color from the ubiquity of "strange bedfellows."


RPGs need rules at the table level, but they thrive on anarchy at the character level. The most successful RPGs are built on the assumption that - once the adventure is in full swing - the PCs are on their own, free to make their own solutions. Games that impose chains of command, or require PCs to check with "headquarters" before they do anything questionable, limit their audience in the process. Even a Call of Cthulhu session set in the straight-laced reality of 1920's New England is traditionally an exercise in the ritual abolition of order - In the early stages of the adventure, it's all urbane wit and let's-call-the-police, but once the tentacles start dragging people screaming into the dark, propriety and legality evaporate to irrelevance, and it's an anarchic fight for survival and sanity. Games with a military or pseudo-military premise likewise benefit from this kind of collapse. This taps into what may be the most unique feature of RPGs: tactical infinity. In Chess, the White Queen can't sweet-talk a Black Knight into leaving her be; in Squad Leader, a group of soldiers can't sneak through an occupied village dressed as nuns. In an RPG, you really can try anything you can think of, and that's a feature that thrives on anarchy.


The quality of enigma is - inevitably - the most elusive of these elements. In literal terms, it means any quality of the game-world that the Game Master is presumed to understand on a level the players never can. In many worlds, this means magic. In others, it may mean an alien society freshly met from another galaxy, or the labyrinthine mysteries of conspiratorial politics. Beyond the enduring appeal of a mystery, this is a quiet, foundational tool for the Game Master, who can exploit this consensual "shadow zone" as a spawning ground for scenarios that play fun even if they wouldn't otherwise make sense, and a place where plot-threads can vanish if they become distracting instead of exciting. From within the enigma the GM can pluck both questions and answers, making adventure design and campaign management less of a chore. The benefits to a game's appeal are vast, because any RPG that eases a GM's stage-fright (and opens up his creative latitude) is an RPG built to please.

These elements aren't keys to quality ... a game can be crummy with them and excellent without them. They are, though, a useful window into the appeal of RPGs as games, into the conventions of RPGs as a fictional medium, and into the considerations that make the design of a game world a beast distinct from other kinds of world design.

Okay, the original was a lot longer, a lot ramblier, and went on at the end into some of the many other elements (power-climb, exploring social fantasies, etc). The original was a mess - a fun mess in its way, but a mess, and I don't feel like digging into my archives for it anyway. Worth noting, though, is the absolute lack of the word "the" in the title. There are a lot more than five such elements; these are just five I feel are worth attention in that special tummy-rub way.

The reason I'm finally publishing it is because Kenneth Hite is basically outing me on it. I got an email recently [this is me back in 2008, you understand] from a guy publishing a - I guess a kind of coffee-table book of game-related observations. Mostly pretty basic stuff, but it looks fun enough. Might be a good conversation piece. Anyway, the guy had asked Ken to provide some digestible insights, and Ken told him about this thing (among others), and -- in a nice way, I'm sure -- basically threatened to contribute his own version if I wouldn't agree to contribute mine.

I'm pretty sure Ken didn't mean it to feel so ultimatum-ish (Ken maybe just wanted to get me included - we may not be buds anymore but we maintain a mutual respect for each others' writing). But, regardless of intent, it did create a bottom line: see someone else say it, or say it myself. Okay, then.

So, that's why it's here. This is the micro-distilled version I wrote by invitation for the coffee-table thing. But why did I never want it to be here - or anywhere? What's so big and scary about yet another pithy, piddly little bullet-list of RPG overgeneralization in a world chock full of 'em? Probably nothing, I know. But ...

Here's one reason I'm uncomfortable with it: nobody I've ever told it to seems to get that it isn't about good gameworld design, or at least it isn't meant to be. It's entirely meant as an eye squinted curiously at those things that make a game the most commercially viable, which is - as far as I'm concerned at least - an axis unrelated to a design's value at the gaming table. I'm not an anti-commercial cynic - I don't think commercial viability harms quality, but I also don't think it indicates it. They're different things, easily conflated in advertisements and proselytizing - but beginning back in the day with Loyd Blankenship and continuing to last week with that email from the book guy, this has been characterized/responded to as some kind of game-design or setting-design guide/principle thingy. It isn't one.

So, I beg, seriously: take heed of that closing paragraph in the thingy itself. A game can be crummy with 'em and excellent without 'em. This isn't - at all - about quality (the degree to which it overlaps with quality concerns is the question it's meant to stimulate thought on - not any kind of conclusion it's meant to encourage).

And yeah, it's an overreaction; I know. But I fret because I love, and gaming's one of the loves of my life (not on the Sandra level, obviously, but she's much cuter than gaming). So there's that. Anyway, hope you like this distilled version because, I gotta say - I think I do, now that it's in front of me. I'm glad it's here, and (despite my kvetching) I'm glad you're here to read it. Hi! Drop me a line sometime; we'll chat about design!


My Favorite Holiday Stuffing

Another recipe rescued from the Blue Room, a season-appropriate follow-up to the last one:

This is a pretty old-fashioned recipe. No prefab 'stuffing crumbs' - just fresh homemade bread with better flavor, texture, and price. Simple ingredients and simple preparation. Take this and run with it: modify, add, and experiment to your heart's content, and to the joy of those you love.

The Basic Recipe

  • 2 sticks (a half-pound) of butter
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon thyme
  • 1 teaspoon sage
  • 1 level tablespoon salt
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons black pepper
  • From 2-1/2 to 3 lbs of fresh bread, cubed or torn
  • 1 bunch celery, chopped or sliced thick
  • 3 cups cold, unsalted liquid (broth, milk, etc)

Melt butter in saucepan and sauté onion, thyme, sage, salt and pepper until the onions are barely tender. Place celery (uncooked) and bread cubes in a very large mixing bowl.

Remove onion/butter/herb blend from the heat and add the cold liquid to it. Pour mixture over bread/celery mix, and blend thoroughly and gently with a wooden spoon or wooden spatula (or a pair of them, tossing it like a salad).

Bake in greased foil or casserole pan(s) for 30-60 minutes in a preheated 325-degree oven, until the stuffing reaches an internal temperature of 165F or has the crust you want (whichever comes last). If you're feeling old-fashioned, you could also stuff a turkey with it and bake it directly in the bird, but most folks agree it's safest to bake the dressing separately. The recipe makes about a gallon of stuffing, enough for a family of eight as part of a holiday feast.

Choosing The Bread

Fresh (or gently stale) homemade bread is ideal, and I recommend it strongly. If you're uncomfortable with bread-baking, however, any bread with a bit of substance to it can work. A reliable supermarket substitute is plain bagels. Seriously, bagels! Bagels tend to have more body than the loaves of bread they sell at most supermarkets (many of which feel firm at the crust, but are just glutinous, plastic air on the inside and which lends stuffing an unpleasant texture). If you have access to a good bakery, toss in whatever else feels right: mixing in some pumpernickel or rye will change the flavor, but sometimes that's just right. Cornbread is a great addition, too, as are stale biscuits/soda bread, even some kinds of crackers. Dried prefab "stuffing crumbs" are the work of Beelzebub and should be avoided, except in the context of heavy metal concerts, where the works of Beelzebub are welcome and appropriate.

Notes and Options

One large onion is good for about 2 cups chopped, and 1 bundle of celery makes 3 cups chopped. A turkey-sized roasting pan, devoid of poultry, can handle a heaped-up-piled-up double batch if you're seriously into your stuffing. The thyme/sage blend can be replaced with a quality brand of "poultry seasoning" if you prefer. What's in ``poultry seasoning'' varies widely from brand to brand (some of the sketchier brands contain cheap filler). McCormick's is a pretty good blend, favoring thyme.

Optional Seasonings: The basic recipe takes care to avoid over-herbing or over-spicing, but that doesn't mean you have to! The addition of any or all of a pinch of marjoram, 4 tbsp lemon juice, 2 tsp celery seed, 1 1/2 cups parsely, 3/4 cups bacon bits, 1/4 tsp cayenne, 1/2 cup chopped leeks (replacing onion entirely), "seasoned" salts replacing some or all of the plain salt, 1 tbsp Chinese Hot Oil, 4 tbsp olive oil or 1 tbsp savory will certainly enhance it.

Further Additions: Putting a little extra substance in the stuffing is good. Try an egg, or 1 cup chopped mushrooms, 1 cup of diced ham, a handful or two of chopped nuts, or 3 slices of chopped, crisp bacon, or double or triple any of the above! Diced, cooked giblets work well, but I think they're better used in making gravy (below). Some hot italian sausage (cooked, then chopped and distributed as thoroughly as possible) does nice things, too.

Chilled Stuffing: Make the ``raw'' (unbaked) stuffing a day in advance, and keep chilled in the refrigerator overnight before stuffing the bird and/or baking the stuffing. This allows the flavors to blend, and can save prep-time and counter-space on a busy feast-making day.

Charlie Brown Stuffing: Don't knock this 'till you try it, and the kids will love you for it if you remember to tell them what they're eating: Add 1/2 cup crushed potato chips and 1/2 cup broken pretzel sticks to the sauté at the same time the broth is added.

Stuffin' Fluffin': This stuffing has some backbone. I'd call it "middleweight," the kind you can reasonably slice when it's chilled. If you prefer it drier and fluffier, cut the butter and/or liquid down, to as low as half the given values. If you like your stuffing much denser, increase them by 50% or more.

Stuffin Muffins: Bake the stuffing in muffin/cupcake pans; one batch will make about 30 half-cup croquettes (or 24 heartily-filled ones). This will reduce baking time by 10-20 minutes, depending on how crowded the oven is. This is my favorite way to prepare the stuffing lately; it makes portion-measuring super-easy and increases surface area (so there's more crusty-bit edges).

Stuffin' Muffins

Giblet Gravy

  • giblets and/or neck parts
  • 1/2 cup chopped onion
  • 1/2 tsp Thyme
  • 1 tsp black pepper
  • 6 cups cold water
  • 1/2 cup turkey fat (from pan drippings)
  • 1 cup flour
Place giblets and/or neck in a pot with onion, thyme and pepper. Add the cold water. Bring to a boil and skim, then simmer, covered, while the bird roasts.

When the bird is done, strain broth into a bowl and discard solids. Salt broth at this point if desired; I recommend 2 teaspoons to start (commercial-standard saltiness would be 3, but always start a little low ... it's easier to add salt than take it away). Add drippings or milk to the giblet broth to bring it back up to exactly 6 cups of fluid. Collect 1/2 cup of pan-drippings from the bird and make a roux with the flour. Cook the roux lightly and add the broth (slowly, a half-cup at a time) to it to make gravy. Serve immediately; giblet gravy brings the awesome to dressing, sliced turkey, and mashed potatoes!

Happy Holidays to everybody . . . cook because you love to see them eat. Make them watch themselves because you love to see them healthy! Which, unfortunately, means going easy on things like stuffing . . . Ah, heck. It's just once a year . . !


Medieval Demographics Made Scarce

One of the side-effects of shutting the Blue Room and original Cumberland sites down is seeing how much email their demise has generated, and seeing which of those old URLs are bringing the most people here.

On that latter point, the #3 biggest road in is Risus: The Anything RPG, but the Risus folk are pretty well set; the game is doing just fine and Risusiverse is an excellent nerve-center for the fandom. Risus still has a bright future, and in terms of new readers (and IOR members) it's been accelerating.

The second-biggest hit is the Big List of RPG Plots but that got immediately restored right here on Rolltop Indigo and remains available in PDF. No problem for fans of that.

But the #1 page, by this metric, and by a large margin, is the one for Medieval Demographics Made Easy, one of my oldest articles, which still gets a lot of action in some circles, and (judging by all the email) was popular with a lot of gamers who never just printed it out, because boy howdy they are letting me know, both indirectly (through all those hits) and directly (with emails ranging from the sad and puzzled to the angry and entitled) that they were kind of expecting that article to be there and now it's not.

And for them, there's no consolation just yet. But, there will be. And I'm going to do a little experiment with it, since it feels like a unique opportunity.

Nothing complicated. I'm making a nice PDF version (arguably, that's long overdue), and it'll be annotated and everything, and I'll really do it up proper. It'll probably weigh in at 4-6 pages soaking wet, but it'll be made with care (I've already started). And it'll be free, of course.

The experiment is that I'm just going to send it to wander the Internet on its own. It won't be published at DriveThru / RPGNow. It won't be hosted on any site I control, either. It'll just be found wherever people feel it should continue to exist. If you'd like to be part of giving it a continued life online, please let me know so I can include you [UPDATE: the experiment is now underway, so if you'd like to take part, hit the Googles and find a copy! From now on, the file's continued existence is down to the fickle whims of the wild Internet.]

I'm not releasing it into the public domain or anything like that. It's just, after the initial work of creating it and providing it, I'm letting it fall backward into the crowd, to see if it can't surf. It'll be a self-contained little article-capsule, complete with all the legal info and such anyone might need to understand what to do and not-do with it.

So that's on the way soon. I might finish it tonight; I might finish it sometime in the next few days, but I'll get that out there. And by this time next year, Googling around may just find it, here and there, or not. Time will tell.

Yes, I'll Do A New High-Res Chamlek Map, Too.

On the earlier point - the general reaction to the death of the sites - I'd be remiss if I didn't link to the beautiful sentiments posted by P.D. Magnus on the matter. And thanks to everyone who's emailed and PM'ed and so on. Believe me, I don't like seeing it happen either. But I'll keep blogging here, and for as long as it can be, my inbox will be open.


Update: I finalized the PDF and sent it out into the world (with thanks to the volunteers!) so with a little luck, Google will start finding it easily very soon. Keep an eye peeled!

If the page design doesn't look like this image, it's the wrong PDF. There are some bootlegs out there of earlier, less-polished versions. Grr.


Basic Bread

Correspondent Heather Eggleston emailed to ask what became of my Basic Bread article. Here it is, almost exactly as it was on the Blue Room:

Bread is fundamental food, and the ability to bake a good loaf of bread is one of the cornerstone skills of any good cook. And why not? There's nothing - and I mean nothing - that gives a home a more comfortable smell than fresh bread baking in the oven, and no food that is so universally loved when it's done right. But, to the newcomer, bread baking can be scary. So, I wrote this page, encouraged by the steady positive feedback on my sourdough article. That article is for experienced bakers. This article will help you become one . . . Once you master basic bread, you can move on to rolls, soft pretzels, bagels, fancy braided challah - anything you like.

The modern world has many conveniences that we benefit from, but for a long time, it looked like one of the casualties of the modern age would be good bread! The pitiful stuff they sell in bags in supermarkets re-defined the word for a long time, but lately, the trend has happily reversed: Good bakeries can be found in many supermarkets, and more and more people are baking even better bread at home.

My wife Sandra and I use this basic recipe for our day-to-day baking. We typically bake two batches per week. The process is very very easy! I've included lots of step-by-step detail to help you through the first couple of times, but basically it all breaks down to: mix it up, let it rise, make a loaf, let it rise, bake! Before you bake the bread for the first time, read the entire recipe (and the notes that follow); that way you'll be comfortable with each step.
  • 1-1/3 cups very warm water
  • 1 rounded tbsp. sugar
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 2 tbsp. butter (vary as needed; see below)
  • 4 rounded cups flour (nearly 5 level cups)
  • 1 tsp. active dry yeast
Stage One, Mixing and Kneading: There are two general methods for making these ingredients into good bread - the "machine-mixed" method and the "mixed by hand" method. There is no real art to mixing - it's brute-force work best left to a machine. So, if you have a heavy-duty stand mixer (like a KitchenAid), a bread machine, or a food processor, I recommend the first method. Even if you have nothing more complex than a large bowl and a wooden spoon, though, you can make bread (it's just a little more tiring that way!)
  • Machine-Mixed Method: The best machine for bread mixing is a bread machine. They make lousy bread, but they're great for mixing because they mix, knead, and provide a warm place for the bread to rise, all in one. Simply assemble the ingredients in the machine's bucket, in the order listed, and use your machine's Dough cycle. When it's done, skip ahead to Stage Three, below. Mixing dough in a food processor or with a standing mixer is a lot like mixing it by hand - so read the instructions for that, but let the machine do all the work!
  • Mixed by Hand Method: In a mixing bowl, dissolve the sugar salt in the water, and sprinkle yeast on top. Stir to dissolve, and allow to stand for 10 minutes before stirring again (set the butter out to soften during this time). Add the butter, then about 2/3 of the flour to the mixing bowl, a half-cup at a time, and mix until the dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl. Use the tail-end of a wooden spoon, or a sturdy case knife (the dull table-knives that a lot of folks call butter knives). Turn the dough onto a floured bread board or countertop and flour your hands (if you're using a machine for mixing, just leave it in the machine). With your fingers, gradually work in remaining flour while kneading the dough into a smooth mass (about fifteen minutes - or about half that with a machine). If at any point your hands start to get sticky, put flour on them!
Stage Two, The First Rising: If you're using a bread machine, this step is handled automatically by the Dough cycle, so you can skip ahead to Stage Three. Otherwise: Place dough in a bowl greased with 1/2 tsp. butter (turning once to butter the top). The best way to grease a bowl is to put the butter in a paper towel, and use the paper towel to rub the butter on all sides of the bowl. This gives a nice even coverage and doesn't get your hand greasy at all! Cover the bowl with a towel, and place it in a warm place. A sunny spot in your kitchen will do on a summer day, but I prefer a slightly warmed oven. Warm your oven by turning it to the very lowest setting. It should be noticeably warm, but cool enough so you can press your hand against the inside of the oven door without burning yourself. Turn the oven completely off before putting the bread in to rise. Keep the oven closed during the rising-time to keep in the warmth.

Allow about 45 minutes rising time (this can vary a bit with the climate, the yeast used, and other factors - allow for a 20 minute "fudge factor" in either direction); the dough should grow to twice its normal size. When a finger inserted into the top of the dough leaves a tunnel that doesn't begin to "heal," the dough has finished rising.

A Snapshot From Back in Denver, 2014

Stage Three, The Loaf: Punch the risen dough down completely (pretend it's somebody you're mad at) and give it a quick kneading on the bread-board or countertop. If it's too sticky at this point, add a dusting of flour. Shape dough into a fat cigar-shape about 12-13 inches long. Re-warm the oven if need be for the second rising.

The loaf should be placed on a flat cooking surface - a series of baking tiles, or a pizza stone, or a cookie sheet. Dust the surface with a light dusting of cornmeal, then gently place the loaf on it. If you like, slash the top of the dough once down the middle of the top, or in several short, diagonal slashes across it. This will help keep the loaf from splitting along the side, and it's attractive, too (it's a tradition from the Middle Ages, when the distinctive slashes helped French peasants tell their loaves apart, since bread was baked en masse in communal ovens owned by the lord of the land . . .)

Stage Four, The Second Rise: This one's real easy. Cover the loaf lightly with paper towels and stash it in the warm place again. Let is rise for another 45 minutes, until the loaf is doubled in size and ready to bake.

Stage Five, Baking The Bread: Place the loaf in the oven (if it isn't already there, rising) and turn the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Do not preheat the oven! Bake the bread for 30-45 minutes, until it turns a deep golden brown. Baking time varies because all ovens are different. Check your bread first at 30 minutes, and again every five minutes until it looks done. The finished loaf should sound hollow when tapped on the bottom with the flat of a wooden spoon.

Remove the bread from the oven and brush the top and sides lightly with olive oil or melted butter. Cool on a rack for one hour; the bread is then ready to serve or store (if you don't have a rack, any improvised surface that allows a little air to circulate under the bread will do - if you're completely stuck, cool it on a pile of kitchen towels!)

Notes and Variants

This basic recipe can be altered in dozens of simple ways to change the texture, flavor, appearance and aroma of the bread. I've also included a few notes here on why our recipe is like it is.

Water or Milk: For a richer, slightly softer bread, use whole milk instead of water. For a few added nutrients but no real difference in flavor or texture, use reduced-fat or skim milk.

Herbs and Spices: Just a pinch of basil, or black pepper, or cayenne, or any of a hundred other herbs and spices added to the mix along with the sugar and salt will give a distinct flavor and character to your bread. The only rule is don't overdo it . . . Even the tiniest amount can have a dramatic effect on the flavor and aroma of your bread. Also, keep in mind the ultimate purpose that the bread will serve: If you're serving it sliced hot with a hearty meal, a little black pepper or oregano will make it taste great (especially if the bread is served with a little soft butter). But if you're going to be making peanut-butter-and-jelly for the kids' lunches tomorrow, that black pepper is a bad idea. When in doubt, leave it out.

Butter and Other Fats: The amount of fat given - two tablespoons - will produce bread of pleasant texture and flavor. But, so will nearly double that amount, and half that amount, and no butter at all! Experiment to find your taste. I often enjoy my bread entirely fat free (like French bread), but many dislike a hearty, solid crust and prefer their bread softer. Fat is the single most important factor in the softness of bread (see "Crusts," below). Note that other fats, from lard or baconfat to vegetable shortening and even oils; can substitute for the butter. Every fat, and every amount of that fat, will give you a different flavor and texture. Experiment!

Flour: Either all-purpose flour or unbleached white flour can be used in this recipe, but you'll find you get better texture and flavor from the unbleached (sold as "better for bread" and so on at the supermarket, for a few pennies more than all-purpose). By replacing up to half of the flour with whole-wheat flour, the recipe can be used to make a nice wheat bread.

Note that flour given is approximate; flour varies in absorbency and slight adjustments may be necessary. The dough should be smooth and elastic while kneading; sprinkle on just enough additional flour as necessary to prevent the dough from sticking (if it's sticky at all, it's too moist and needs a sprinkle of flour).

Yeast: Note that this recipe uses a lot less yeast than most recipes . . . Many recipes using as little as 3 cups of flour call for "one package" of active dry yeast - and that's about double the yeast we use (a package is 2-1/4 tsp.). This is mostly a matter of convenience, since yeast is traditionally sold in "packages" that were designed decades ago, scaled for an era when home-baking meant larger batches (usually two or three loaves at a time, at minimum). If you're doubling the basic recipe given here for a two-loaf batch, then using "a package" will be just fine . . . But using that much for a single loaf is wasteful, and can give your bread an unpleasantly yeasty aftertaste and smell. The best way to buy yeast is in jars. They cost about $5, and contain enough yeast to make more than thirty loaves of bread (despite the claim on the label that they just contain enough for 16 . . .) Also, note that jars labeled "bread machine yeast" contain ordinary fast-rising yeast (yeast with ascorbic acid added to make rising faster) that will give you identical results to any other - the labeling is just the companies cashing in on the current popularity of bread machines.

Scale: This recipe scales easily in any direction. For a smaller loaf (one that won't go to waste if you're a light eater living alone, for instance) use 1 cup of warm water, 3 rounded cups of flour, and either adjust the other ingredients microscopically or just leave them as they are (it won't make much difference). Doubling the recipe will make two big beautiful loaves, or a batch of rolls fit for a family reunion (see "Shapes," below).

Note that the 3-cup version will fit in a standard loaf pan, if you prefer square-base bread to freeform loaves. Grease the pan lightly, and otherwise follow the recipe normally.

Preheat, Or Not Preheat, That Is The Question: For most purposes, I'm an advocate of "cold oven" baking, where the baking temperature is moderate, and the oven is not preheated. This style of bread-baking was in vogue decades ago, but gave way to preheated, hotter ovens in attempts to imitate bakery bread. I don't usually try to imitate bakery bread, so cold-oven baking works best for me - it gives the loaf an extra rise as it begins to bake, and makes for a more pleasant, even texture. If you want a crisper bread, or a chewy one, increase the temperature by 50 to 100 degrees, and experiment with pre-heated baking. This is essential for French-style breads.

Crusts: If your preference is for soft bread, brush the top and sides of the loaf with oil or melted butter immediately upon removing it from the oven. If you prefer a crunchier, harder crust, brush the crust with nothing at all . . . and a dusting of flour on top at the beginning of Stage Four will give a nice "old world" look to the bread, too. For a chewy, French-style crust, use a hotter, preheated oven (see above), brush the loaf just before baking with ice water, and mist water into the oven (aim away from any heating elements - go for the oven walls) every 15 minutes or so throughout the baking.

Crusts can be glazed by brushing an egg-wash on them: Whisk a single egg with a teaspoon of water to create the egg-wash; brush it on just before baking (use milk instead of water for a slightly softer crust). A wash made of lemon juice and sugar will give a pleasantly light and fruity air to a bread. A wash made of honey or sugar and water will make a glossy and sweet glaze. Topping any of the above with a dusting of caraway or other seeds can add a nice touch, too - especially if you've shaped the loaf into a fancy braid!

Shapes: This recipe can be used to make all manner of breads and rolls. Dividing the loaf into 8 equal parts in Stage Three will make excellent sandwich rolls (perfect for hamburgers, or as the basic roll for guinea grinders). Flatten the rolls into a hamburger-patty shape, and arrange them on the baking surface to rise (for hot dog rolls, divide the bread into 12-16 pieces and shape them into hot-dog shaped loaves!) By dividing the bread into 36 balls, dipping each one in melted butter, and putting three each into muffin tins, you can make cloverleaf rolls. Dividing the bread into three long ropes and braiding them makes lovely braided bread, and so on . . . Be creative. Keep in mind that the more you divide the dough, the shorter the baking time will be . . . from 20 minutes for kaiser-rolls or hamburger buns down to 15 or even 10 minutes for small rolls (parkerhouse style or others).

And More . . . 

This article will provide a new baker with a lifetime of interesting breads and rolls, but naturally there are many more possibilities: more grains and flours, specialty breads like bagels and pita, and so on. The goal of this article is to provide you with a foundation in breadbaking, so that more advanced recipes and cookbooks will make sense to you, and hide fewer discouraging setbacks. After a few loaves, you'll find that you begin to develop an instinctive "feel" for the baking process, and a new recipe becomes a fun challenge, not an intimidating chore. If you've enjoyed this article and want to talk about it, my inbox is always open!

This Was Just Stage One of some Thanksgiving Stuffing!


The Big List of RPG Plots

What follows is a scrap of trivia . . . my collection of RPG plots, in abstract form. I built this by examining the premises of hundreds of published adventures for all systems (including those systems dear and departed from print), trying to boil them down to common denominators. The results are presented here: arbitrary, and sometimes redundant. Nevertheless, I turn to this list when I'm stuck for a fresh premise for next week's session of my campaign, whatever that campaign might happen to be about at the time. It helps me keep from falling into thematic ruts (my least favorite kind). With any luck, it might serve a similar function for you.

Note: The "plots" are arranged in alphabetical order by title. Since the titles are arbitrary, this serves no useful function at all. And if you want shakespearean five-act hoozits, plot trees, Man Versus Himself and other Serious Literary Bunkum, try Writer's Digest. This ain't Oxford, baby.

Any Old Port in a Storm

The PCs are seeking shelter from the elements or some other threat, and come across a place to hole up. They find that they have stumbled across something dangerous, secret, or supernatural, and must then deal with it in order to enjoy a little rest.
    Common Twists & Themes: The shelter contains the cause of the threat the PCs were trying to avoid. The shelter houses a Hidden Base (q.v.). The PCs must not only struggle for shelter, they must struggle to survive. The place is a legitimate shelter of some kind, but the PCs are not welcome, and must win hearts or minds to earn their bed for the night.

Better Late Than Never

Some bad guys have arrived and done some bad guy things. The PCs were none the wiser. The bad guys have now made good their escape, and the PCs have caught wind of it in time to chase them down before they make it back to their lair, their home nation, behind enemy lines, etc.
    Common Twists & Themes: The bad guys escaped by stealing a conveyance that the PCs know better than they do. The bad guys duck down a metaphorical (or literal) side-road, trying to hide or blend into an environment (often one hostile to the PCs). If the bad guys cross the adventure's "finish line" (cross the county line, make the warp jump, etc.) there's no way to pursue them beyond it.


Usually through trickery (but sometimes by digging into the PCs' past), an antagonist has something to hold over the heads of the PCs and make them jump. This could be any kind of threat from physical to social, but it depends on the villain having something - even if it's information - that others don't have. Now, he is pulling the strings of the PCs, telling them to do things they don't want to. The PCs must end the cycle of blackmail, deprive the villain of his edge, and keep him temporarily satisfied while doing it.
    Common Twists & Themes: The adventure hook involves the PCs doing the villain a good turn, which allows him to take advantage of them (very cynical!). To succeed, the PCs must contact other folks that are also being used. The PCs aren't the victims at all, but somebody they care about/are charged to protect, is.

Breaking and Entering

Mission objective: enter the dangerous place, and retrieve the vital dingus or valuable person. Overcome the area's defenses to do so.
    Common Twists & Themes: The goal is not to extract a thing, but to destroy a thing or interfere with a process (kill the force-screen generator, assassinate the evil king, stop the spell from being cast, wreck the invasion plans, close the portal). The goal has moved. The goal is information, which must be broadcast or otherwise released from the area as soon as it is found. The job must be done without alerting anyone. The PCs don't know the place is dangerous. The PCs must replace the thing with another thing.

Capture the Flag

The PCs must secure a military target for the good guys. There are bad guys there that prefer not to be secured. The fundamental tactical scenario.
    Common Twists & Themes: The PCs must assemble and/or train a force to do the job with them. The PCs are working with flawed intelligence and the target zone isn't as described. The PCs must coordinate their own efforts with an ally group (possibly putting aside rivalries to do so). The target zone includes a population of innocent people, fragile goods, or some other precious thing that mustn't be harmed in the crossfire.

Clearing The Hex

There is a place where bad things live. The PCs must make it safe for nice people, systematically clearing it of danger.
    Common Twists & Themes: The bad things can't be beaten with direct conflict. The PCs must learn more about them to solve the problem. The Haunted House. The Alien Infestation. The Wild Forest.

Delver's Delight

The PCs are treasure-hunters, who have caught wind of a treasure-laden ruin. They go to explore it, and must deal with its supernatural denizens to win the treasure and get out alive.
    Common Twists & Themes: The treasure itself is something dangerous. The treasure isn't in a ruin, but in a wilderness or even hidden somewhere "civilized." The treasure is someone else's rightful property. The treasure turns out to have a will of its own.

Don't Eat The Purple Ones

The PCs are stranded in a strange place, and must survive by finding food and shelter, and then worry about getting back home.
    Common Twists & Themes: The PCs must survive only for a short period of time, until help arrives, the ship and/or radio is repaired, or some such thing (in "repair" scenarios, sometimes the PCs must discover some fact about the local environment that will make such repairs possible).

Elementary, My Dear Watson

A crime or atrocity has been committed; the PCs must solve it. They must interview witnesses (and prevent them from being killed), gather clues (and prevent them from being stolen or ruined). They must then assemble proof to deliver to the authorities, or serve as personal ministers of justice.
    Common Twists & Themes: The PCs are working to clear an innocent already accused (possibly themselves). The PCs must work alongside a special investigator or are otherwise saddled with an unwanted ally. Midway through the adventure, the PCs are "taken off the case" - their invitation/authority to pursue the matter is closed (often the result of political maneuvering by an antagonist). The climax is a courtroom scene or other arena of judgment. The scale is highly variable for this type of adventure, from a small-town murder to a planetwide pollution scandal.

Escort Service

The PCs have a valuable object or person, which needs to be taken to a safe place or to its rightful owner, etc. They must undertake a dangerous journey in which one or more factions (and chance and misfortune) try to deprive them of the thing in their care.
    Common Twists & Themes: The thing or person is troublesome, and tries to escape or sidetrack the PCs. The destination has been destroyed or suborned by the enemy, and the PCs must take upon themselves the job that either the destination or their charge was meant to do when it got there. The person is a person attempting a political defection. Safe arrival at the destination doesn't end the story; the PCs must then bargain with their charge as their token (exchanging money for a hostage, for instance). The PCs must protect the target without the target knowing about it.

Good Housekeeping

The PCs are placed in charge of a large operation (a trading company, a feudal barony, the CIA) and must, despite lack of experience in such things, make it work and thrive.
    Common Twists & Themes: The PCs are brought in because something big is about to happen, and the Old Guard wants a chance to escape. The peasants, neighbors, employees, etcetera resent the PCs, because their method of inheritance looks outwardly bad and everybody loved the old boss.

Help is on the Way

A person (church group, nation, galaxy) is in a hazardous situation they can't survive without rescue. The PCs are on the job. In some scenarios, the hook is as simple as a distant yell or crackly distress signal.
    Common Twists & Themes: The victim(s) is (are) a hostage, or under siege from enemy forces, and the PCs must deal with the captors or break the siege. There is a danger that any rescue attempts will strand the rescuers in the same soup as the rescuees, compounding the problem. The rescuees aren't people, but animals, robots, or something else. The "victim" doesn't realize that he needs rescuing; he thinks he's doing something reasonable and/or safe. The threat isn't villain-oriented at all; it's a natural disaster, nuclear meltdown, or disease outbreak. The rescuees can't leave ; something immobile and vital must be tended to or dealt with at the adventure location. The PCs begin as part of the rescuees, and must escape and gather forces or resources to bring back and proceed as above.

Hidden Base

The PCs, while traveling or exploring, come across a hornet's nest of bad guys, preparing for Big Badness. They must either find some way to get word to the good guys, or sneak in and disable the place themselves, or a combination of both.
    Common Twists & Themes: The PCs must figure out how to use local resources in order to defend themselves or have a chance against the inhabitants.

How Much For Just The Dingus?

Within a defined area, something important and valuable exists. The PCs (or their employers) want it, but so do one or more other groups. The ones that get it will be the ones that can outthink and outrace the others, deal best with the natives of the area, and learn the most about their target. Each competing group has its own agenda and resources.
    Common Twists & Themes: The natives require the competing factions to gather before them as pals to state their cases. The valuable thing was en route somewhere when its conveyance or courier wrecked or vanished.

I Beg Your Pardon?

The PCs are minding their own business when they are attacked or threatened. They don't know why. They must solve the mystery of their attacker's motives, and in the meantime fend off more attacks. They must put two and two together to deal with the problem.
    Common Twists & Themes: The PCs have something that the bad guys want - but they don't necessarily realize it. The bad guys are out for revenge for a dead compatriot from a previous adventure. The bad guys have mistaken the PCs for somebody else.

Long Or Short Fork When Dining On Elf?

The PCs are a diplomatic vanguard, trying to open up (or shore up) either political or trade relations with a strange culture. All they have to do is manage for a day or so among the strange customs without offending anybody . . . and what information they have is both incomplete and dangerously misleading.
    Common Twists & Themes: The PCs were chosen by somebody who knew they weren't prepared for it - an NPC trying to sabotage the works (pinning this villain might be necessary to avert disaster).

Look, Don't Touch

The PCs are working surveillance - spying on a person, gathering information on a beast in the wild, scouting a new sector. Regardless of the scale, the primary conflict (at least at the start) is the rule that they are only to watch, listen and learn. They are not to make contact or let themselves be known.
    Common Twists & Themes: The target gets itself in trouble and the PCs must decide whether to break the no-contact rule in order to mount a rescue.


Someone is gone: they've run away, gotten lost, or simply haven't called home in a while. Somebody misses them or needs them returned. The PCs are called in to find them and bring them back.
    Common Twists & Themes: The target has been kidnapped (possibly to specifically lure the PCs). The target is dangerous and escaped from a facility designed to protect the public. The target is valuable and escaped from a place designed to keep him safe, cozy, and conveniently handy. The target has a reason for leaving that the PCs will sympathize with. The target has stumbled across another adventure (either as protagonist or victim), which the PCs must then undertake themselves. The missing "person" is an entire expedition or pilgrimage of some kind. The target isn't a runaway or missing/lost - they're just someone that the PCs have been hired to track down (possibly under false pretenses).

Missing Memories

One or more of the PCs wakes up with no memory of the recent past, and now they find themselves in some kind of trouble they don't understand. The PCs must find the reason for the memory lapse, and solve any problems they uncover in the meantime.
    Common Twists & Themes: The forgetful PCs voluntarily suppressed or erased the memories, and they find themselves undoing their own work.

Most Peculiar, Momma

Something both bad and inexplicable is happening (racial tension is being fired up in town, all the power is out, the beer supply is drained, it's snowing in July, Voyager still has fans, hordes of aliens are eating all the cheese), and a lot of people are very troubled by it. The PCs must track the phenomenon to its source, and stop it.
    Common Twists & Themes: The PCs are somehow unwittingly responsible for the whole thing. What seems to be a problem of one nature (technological, personal, biological, chemical, magical, political, etc) is actually a problem of an alternate one.

No One Has Soiled The Bridge

The PCs are assigned to guard a single vital spot (anything from a mountain pass to a solar system) from impending or possible attack. They must plan their defensive strategy, set up watches, set traps, and so on, and then deal with the enemy when it arrives.
    Common Twists & Themes: The intelligence the PCs was given turns out to be faulty, but acting on the new information could result in greater danger - but so could not acting on it, and the PCs must choose or create a compromise. The PCs learn that the enemy has good and sympathetic reason for wanting to destroy the protected spot.

Not In Kansas

The PCs are minding their own business and find themselves transported to a strange place. They must figure out where they are, why they are there and how to escape.
    Common Twists & Themes: They were brought there specifically to help someone in trouble. They were brought there by accident, as a by-product of something strange and secret. Some of the PCs' enemies were transported along with them (or separately), and now they have a new battleground, and innocents to convince which guys are the good guys.

Ounces of Prevention

A villain or organization is getting ready to do something bad, and the PCs have received a tip-off of some sort. They must investigate to find out more about the caper, and then act to prevent it.
    Common Twists & Themes: The initial tip-off was a red herring meant to distract the PCs from the actual caper. There are two simultaneous Bad Things on the way, and no apparent way to both of them - how to choose?

Pandora's Box

Somebody has tinkered with Things Man Ought Not, or opened a portal to the Mean People Dimension, cracked a wall at the state prison, or summoned an ancient Babylonian god into a penthouse. Before the PCs can even think of confronting the source of the trouble, they must deal with the waves of trouble already released by it: monsters, old foes out for vengeance, curious aliens who think cars/citizens/McDonald's hamburgers resemble food, and so forth.
    Common Twists & Themes: The PCs can't simply take the released badness to the mat; they have to collect it and shove it back into the source before it the adventure can really end. The PCs are drawn in to the source and must solve problems on the other side before returning to this one. A secret book, code, or other rare element is necessary to plug the breach (maybe just the fellow who opened it). A close cousin to this plot is the basic "somebody has traveled into the past and messed with our reality" story.

Quest For the Sparkly Hoozits

Somebody needs a dingus (to fulfill a prophecy, heal the monarch, prevent a war, cure a disease, or what have you). The PCs must find a dingus. Often an old dingus, a mysterious dingus, and a powerful dingus. The PCs must learn more about it to track it down, and then deal with taking it from wherever it is.
    Common Twists & Themes: The dingus is incomplete when found (one of the most irritating and un-fun plot twists in the universe). Somebody already owns it (or recently stole it, sometimes with legitimate claim or cause). The dingus is information, or an idea, or a substance, not a specific dingus. The PCs must "go undercover" or otherwise infiltrate a group or society, gaining the dingus by guile or stealth.

Recent Ruins

A town, castle, starship, outpost, or other civilized construct is lying in ruins. Very recently, it was just dandy. The PCs must enter the ruins, explore them, and find out what happened.
    Common Twists & Themes: Whatever ruined the ruins (including mean people, weird radiation, monsters, a new race, ghosts) is still a threat; the PCs must save the day. The inhabitants destroyed themselves. The "ruins" are a derelict ship or spaceship, recently discovered. The "ruin" is a ghost town, stumbled across as the PCs travel - but the map says the town is alive and well.

Running the Gauntlet

The PCs must travel through a hazardous area, and get through without being killed, robbed, humiliated, debased, diseased, or educated by whatever is there. The troubles they encounter are rarely personal in nature - the place itself is the "villain" of the adventure.
    Common Twists & Themes: The place isn't dangerous at all, and the various "dangers" are actually attempts to communicate with the party by some agent or another.


The PCs are on a hunting expedition, to capture or kill and elusive and prized creature. They must deal with its environment, its own ability to evade them, and possibly its ability to fight them.
    Common Twists & Themes: The creature is immune to their devices and weapons. There are other people actively protecting the creature. The creature's lair allows the PCs to stumble onto another adventure.

Score One for the Home Team

The PCs are participants in a race, contest, tournament, scavenger hunt or other voluntary bit of sport. They must win.
    Common Twists & Themes: The other contestants are less honest, and the PCs must overcome their attempts to win dishonestly. The PCs are competing for a deeper purpose than victory, such as to keep another contestant safe, or spy on one, or just to get into the place where the event goes down. The PCs don't wish to win; they just wish to prevent the villain from winning. The event is a deliberate test of the PCs abilities (for entry into an organization, for example). The event becomes more deadly than it's supposed to.

Stalag 23

The PCs are imprisoned, and must engineer an escape, overcoming any guards, automatic measures, and geographic isolation their prison imposes on them.
    Common Twists & Themes: Something has happened in the outside world and the prison security has fallen lax because of it. The PCs have been hired to "test" the prison - they aren't normal inmates. Other prisoners decide to blow the whistle for spite or revenge. The PCs are undercover to spy on a prisoner, but are then mistaken for real inmates and kept incarcerated. The PCs must escape on a tight schedule to get to another adventure outside the walls.

Take Us To Memphis And Don't Slow Down

The PCs are on board a populated conveyance (East Indiaman, Cruise Ship, Ferry, Sleeper Starship), when it is hijacked. The PCs must take action while the normals sit and twiddle.
    Common Twists & Themes: The "hijackers" are government agents pulling a complicated caper, forcing the PCs to choose sides. The hijackers don't realize there is a secondary danger that must be dealt with, and any attempt to convince them is viewed as a trick. The normals are unhelpful or even hostile to the PCs because they think the PCs are just making matters worse.


A bad guy (or a group of them, or multiple parties) is kicking up a ruckus, upsetting the neighbors, poisoning the reservoirs, or otherwise causing trouble. The PCs have to go where the trouble is, locate the bad guys, and stop the party.
    Common Twists & Themes: The PCs must not harm the perpetrator(s); they must be bagged alive and well. The bad guys have prepared something dangerous and hidden as "insurance" if they are captured. The "bad guy" is a monster or dangerous animal (or an intelligent creature that everybody thinks is a monster or animal). The "bad guy" is a respected public figure, superior officer, or someone else abusing their authority, and the PCs might meet hostility from normally-helpful quarters who don't accept that the bad guy is bad. A balance of power perpetuates the trouble, and the PCs must choose sides to tip the balance and fix things. The "trouble" is diplomatic or political, and the PCs must make peace, not war.

Uncharted Waters

The PCs are explorers, and their goal is to enter an unknown territory and scope it out. Naturally, the job isn't just going to be surveying and drawing sketches of local fauna; something is there, something fascinating and threatening.
    Common Twists & Themes: Either the place itself is threatening (in which case the PCs must both play National Geographic and simultaneously try to escape with their skin, sanity, and credit rating) or the place itself is very valuable and wonderful, and something else there is keen on making sure the PCs don't let anyone else know. Other potential conflicts involve damage to the PCs' conveyance or communication equipment, in which case this becomes Don't Eat the Purple Ones.

We're On The Outside Looking In

Any of the basic plots in this list can be reengineered with the PCs on the outside of it. Either the PCs are accompanying other characters in the midst of such a plot (often being called on to defend the plot from the outside, as it were), or they are minding their own business when the others involved in the plot show up, and must pick sides or simply resist. For instance, with Any Old Port In The Storm, the PCs could already be enjoying (or native to) the shelter when a strange group arrives. If the "the PCs are unwelcome" variant is employed, then perhaps the PCs will be the only voice of reason to still the religious fervor, racial prejudice, anti-monster sentiment, or whatever else is the source of conflict.
    Common Twists & Themes: The PCs find themselves on the receiving end of the adventure. Take any of the plots here and reverse them, placing the PCs in the position where NPCs (often the villain, fugitive, etcetera) normally are. Instead of hunting, they must be hunted. Instead of fixing, they must avoid getting "fixed" themselves (ow). Alternately, leave a classic plot intact but turn the twists upside down, making them twistier (or refreshingly un twisty).

Tips and Tricks

Surrender yourself to metaphor. I've written the plots in the language of (typically very physical) action-adventure genres, because that's the basic form of roleplaying adventure - but if you're playing on more levels than that, the list can still punch its weight. Just remember that every thing, place, and foe can really be a piece of information, person, and unhealthy attitude, as surely as a space station can be a dungeon and a magical residue can be a fingerprint.

Double up. A nice basic method is the chameleon game, where an adventure presents itself as one type of story in the "hook layer" but reveals itself as something else. Sometimes, the switch is innocent and natural - Don't Eat the Purple Ones, for example, makes a good hook for Running the Gauntlet, and Most Peculiar, Momma is a logical lead for Pandora's Box. Sometimes, the switch is something more sinister or deliberate, with NPCs selling the adventure as one thing when it's really another. This can still be innocent, in its way, if the NPCs have been duped themselves, or if they're just desperate for help and worried that nobody will be eager to tackle the real problem.

Throw yourself a curve. Your players will, anyway, so practice early. Pick two random entries from the Big List and make your adventure on those, no matter what comes up - the first one is the hook layer; the second is the meat of the adventure. If the same entry comes up both times, go with it! Two layers can have a similar structure but very different roots or details.

Double up, part two: Some very satisfying adventures weave two separate (or thematically-related) plots together. An easy way to make this work is to make one plot physical and the other plot personal. That way just one of the plots puts demand on the PCs' location, while the other one can tag along anywhere. For example: the PCs are hired to escort a prince to a summit so he can appear before the masses and end a war (a physical and simple example of Escort Service), but on the way, they realize that the poor guy is suicidal because state obligations have ruined his love life, and must prevent his self-destruction by either fixing the problem or convincing him to shoulder the burden (a personal and metaphorical example of Ounces of Prevention).

Don't Panic. A lot of GMs come to the Big List only once they've begun to panic. Don't crucify yourself just yet! In particular, don't fuss too much over plot, as many GMs do. All of the plots here can provide a tried-and-true, simple structure, and structure is all you need a plot for in a roleplaying game.

Remember to play to the strengths of the medium - most all of which are about character, not plot. Only in an RPG can you experience a fictional character on a personal, first-hand level. Outline your adventures to make the most of that. Any plot that contains more than a basic structure is more likely to pull attention away from character, and that's burning the bridge for firewood. All you need to do is be ready to roll with the curves and have fun hamming it up. Relax. Game.

And finally, here's The Little List of Nearly-Universal Plot Twists That Work With Almost Any Plot Ever: The PCs must work alongside an NPC or organization they'd rather not pal around with (those who are normally rivals or villains, or just a snooty expert sent along to "help" them, etc). The victims are really villains and the villains are really victims. The PCs meet others who can help them, but won't unless the PCs agree to help them with their own causes. The villain is somebody the PCs know personally, even respect or love (or someone they fall for, mid-story). The PCs must succeed without violence, or with special discretion. The PCs must succeed without access to powers, equipment, or other resources they're used to having. The villain is a recurring foil. Another group comparable to the PCs has already failed to succeed, and their bodies/equipment/etc provide clues to help the PCs do better. There are innocents nearby that the PCs must keep safe while dealing with the adventure. The adventure begins suddenly and without warning or buildup; the PCs are tossed into the fire of action in scene one. The PCs must pretend to be someone else, or pretend to be themselves but with very different allegiances, values or tastes. The PCs can't do everything and must choose: which evil to thwart? Which innocents to rescue? Which value or ideal to uphold? The PCs must make a personal sacrifice or others will suffer. The PCs aren't asked to solve the problem, just to render aid against a backdrop of larger trouble: get in a shipment of supplies, sneak out a patient that needs medical help, or so on. One of the PCs is (or is presumed to be) a lost heir, fulfillment of a prophecy, a volcano god, or some other savior and/or patsy, which is why the PCs must do whatever the adventure is about. There is another group of PC-like characters "competing" on the same adventure, possibly with very different goals for the outcome.

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This revision of the Big List is the result of several additional years of gaming, game writing, and what hopefully amounts to accumulated wisdom. It's also the result of letters from several readers who poked me in the ribs when I had overlooked something important! Any suggestions for expansion to this list should be directed to me via email, and they will be welcomed with open arms and slobbery kisses. You can also download this article in a spiffy PDF form.

The Big List of RPG Plots is dedicated to the many, many fans who've let me know how helpful it's been, and especially to those who've helped make it better: Peter Barnard, Glen Barnett, Colin Clark, David Lott, Jason Puckett, Marc Rees, Carrie Schutrick, and Jeff Yaus, plus a few mysterious heroes who never let me know their true identities. This is for all the GMs out there logging the hours to give their players an enjoyable game.

All contents of this page Copyright ©1999, 2002, 2018 by S. John Ross


Fantasy Cartography: Just Add Something Blotchy

It's been a while since I've done a graphicky post, so here's a new one for the chilly weather. Over on the doomed platform of magnificence known as Google Plus, reader Michael Lee tagged me to ask:

I remember reading about you taking a lot of pictures that you store away to use as textures and reference for the work you do on your art. If you have an article kinda going through your process on using those photos in a piece, I'd love to have a link to it. If not, is it something you wouldn't mind sharing?

I do make extensive use of snapshots in my graphics, and the technique is so simple it's almost embarrassing, but that makes it super-easy to share, and something even a Photoshop novice can fiddle with as long as they're comfortable with the basic Layers palette.

To demonstrate the effect from the ground up, we'll need some ground. We'll take a chunk from one of my finished maps.

From the Scott's Landing Article
(Uresia: Lore and Curiosities)

I've left the Layers palette visible to show the dance-steps, and in particular I've highlighted the Layer Group called "Texture Bundles," seven grouped layers of varying transparency and blending modes. To see what those layers are actually doing, we'll now turn them off.

All The Graphics in This Post Are Embiggen-Able, But Do So Somewhere With Unmetered Bandwidth; They're Big Images

It's still the same map, but ... smoothier. Soapier. A bit more plainly digital, with those nice-even gradients and Cloud filters and so on.

Having stripped the image of its textures, I'll need a new one. Flipping through the snaps on my phone, my eyes are drawn to this delicious cheat-day indulgence from several weeks ago, so I send it to my laptop and whip it into a tile by copy-pasting the good bits over and over on itself (use the Offset filter and avoid the edges):

Seriously look at how thin that crust is.
It's draping over the lip of a PAPER plate.

Why the pizza snap? It's blotchy, without too many large zones of overtly-different contrast (there are no pepperoni slices, for example). I don't always use food ... I use snapshots of rocks, leaves, vegetable skins, supermarket bins of almonds, dirty painters' drop-cloths, broken concrete ... pretty much anything blotchy or grainy or streaky (remember that Oscar the Grouch song about trash? Like that).

I did some great textures once from a frying pan I'd ruined with a grease fire. Sad day for the skillet, but that was a fine mapping texture. Anyway we just flood that pizza-tile into a new layer:

And that's not helpful, but it's amusing. It becomes helpful when we choose a blending mode for the pizza layer. Three of my favorite blending modes for map-textures are Soft Light, Screen, and Overlay. Here are all three, each at 100% opacity.

Soft Light Mode
Screen Mode
Overlay Mode

Compare. Contrast. Consider. The overly-digital gradients of the base are now crudely and productively interrupted by the contrasts of cheese, sauce, and dried herbal flakes. This one layer, made from a phone snapshot, adds some legitimate character to the map.

It also changes the colors quite a bit, giving it an autumnal vibe we may or may not want. But if we want it to look different, we can just de-saturate or hue-shift the pizza layer. Or we can invert it to a negative-image of itself. Or we can reduce its transparency, or cross-cut two different versions of the same texture (one rotated 90 degrees, for example) or (as I did in the original map) include it as just one transparent texture among many. Or any of a million permutations or combinations of these or other effects.

Some Quick Variations. There's So Much More You Can Do.

This is why Photoshop is one of my favorite videogames. Just one simple "trick" becomes the basis for a thousand looks, and the best way to get there is just play with it. Play and learn.

Hope that gets your juices flowing and/or gets you supporting a local pizzeria. Thanks to Michael Lee for the prompt, and remember: my inbox is always open.