Challenge, Response, and Secret

This article describes how I develop information for my campaign. The focus is on events and entities (characters and things), but it does have more far-reaching effects when applied.

The techniques described here are based on an article written by Dariel Quiogue, in turn a synopsis of research and theory by an historian named Arnold Toynbee. It also tieds in ideas form the Dungeoncraft column, originally written by Ray Winninger in Dragon Magazine.


The premise of the original article was that all things are done for a reason. The reason might be as important as ‘if this is not done, we will all die’, or as simple as ‘this is how it has always been done’.

Toynbee posited that all things done by a society are because of a challenge the society faced. For instance, many early societies were nomadic in large part because the creatures they hunted moved around during the seasons. Thus, there is the challenge or acquiring food regularly when the food source moves around, and the response of simply packing up and following the food source as necessary. This has knock-on effects — this leads to the challenge of finding shelter when they move around, which may be solved by the response of living in portable shelter such as teepees, wigwams, or wagons.

This can be extended to other endeavors. A town at the top of a cliff over a river is a pain to get to and suffers some trade difficulties because of it. However, this is a fairly common situation because originally a fort or castle was built in this location for defensive reasons. The original security was worth the inconvenience. Since then, the town has grown around the fort, partly for security and partly for commercial reasons. The town has stayed where it is, even though the war is over or because the surrounding area is safe from attack simply because it is too much trouble to move.

The process can be reversed as well, to find the reason something is. For instance, it may be the custom in a place that only humans are allowed in the city. This is the response to some challenge — a war with the elves, plague brought on by goblins, religious dogma saying that humans are the chosen race and all others are to be destroyed, whatever.

The Challenge-Response cycle can be used several times for the same entity. The town mentioned above may have several iterations; these iterations may be based on each other. See the Fort Alrod example below for an expanded series of challenges and responses


One idea that has stuck with me from the Dungeoncraft articles is that of secrets. The column suggests that every significant entity created for a campaign should have at least one associated secret.

The secret can be almost anything, as long as it is not generally known in the campaign world. That the secret exists might be known (‘the Duke is obstructing us; why?’) or the secret’s existence itself might be a secret (‘the maid is the bastard daughter of the king’).

In addition, the secret may be a secret for almost any reason. It may be that the person who knows it does not wish others to find out (‘my father and elder brother didn’t die of the falling sickness, I poisoned them to gain my position’), or it may just be that no one knows (‘the temple of Augror is located directly above a cavern containing Erasthyrul, a great dragon who has been locked in slumber for the last three centuries… and is getting hungry’).

Secrets are often plot points. They can influence how characters behave. The homicidal noble above may still feel guilt — or not — about his actions; he might be paranoid about being poisoned himself, or incredibly harsh with people who make comments that could be construed to refer to his poisoning his family. Secrets might instead affect events in the campaign more directly when they are discovered. If knowledge of the poisonings gets out things will probably change for the noble; when the dragon awakes things are bound to get exciting in the area.

Application of Theory

My application of these two ideas is fairly simple. I group together challenges, their responses, and secrets about them. Whenever possible I try to make sure I have all three pieces of information. It isn’t always feasible. Sometimes I have trouble coming up with a secret, or coming up with a challenge; coming up with a response is not usually a problem. In fact, not having a response can be a benefit — it’s an ongoing or unresolved problem that can be used to set the scene.

Challenge, response, and secret can be done in almost any order. I usually come up with either the challenge or the response, then fill in the rest. I wanted there to be a special agent of the king; there are rumors that he exists, but who exactly it is is unknown. See the King’s Hand for the expanded CRS list. Similarly, much of the Cosmology example was derived from the responses I wanted — I justified ‘the way things are’ with ‘the way things were and what happened’.


Campaign Cosmology

This example is drawn from the Campaign Cosmology article I wrote.  It describes the reasons and reasoning behind the events and structure of the cosmology.

Challenge: Younger Gods Could Not Survive Amorphia

The younger gods lacked the personal power to survive in amorphia that the elder gods do.

Response During the maelstrom that created the early greater gods they found each other and cooperated to resist the amorphia and create a safe haven. Later gods and weaker gods were drawn to this haven when they were created and were better able to survive. This place was known as Paradise (as closely as can be translated).

Challenge: Paradise was Unstable

In spite of — or perhaps because of — the power of the gods present, Paradise was not entirely stable and was subject to being affected by amorphia. Unpredictably, of course.

Response The gods decided to combine their power for a great project, the creation of a better haven, one large enough and strong enough that they would no longer be subject to amorphia.

Challenge: Making a Safer World

This project would take huge amounts of matter in a stable framework.

Response The gods created the elemental planes to collect and make elemental matter available for use. For stability in amorphia they were placed in a tetrahedral arrangement (like a d4); this also provided something of a framework to stabilize their work area.

Challenge: Gods Needed a Place to Work

The gods needed a place to work ‘outside’ their final home and safe from amorphia.

Response The gods created the Ethereal Plane. It touches the Prime Plane in all places but it not truly part of it. It is very plain and simple, but is a convenient place for them to work.

Challenge: Moving Around the Firmament

Even for a god, getting around the firmament is pretty tedious if they have a long way to go. It wasn’t entirely safe to teleport around because things were changing so much, and a mishap would be devastating.

Response The gods created the Hall of Doors, a more or less mental structure resembling that of a large (very, very large) building full of doors. Each door is a gate to a particular place on a particular world.

Secret These doors are indistinguishable from one another to mortals. To a god’s greater range of senses they are easily differentiated — they can fairly easily see where each door leads. Mortals can still navigate them with some degree of confidence because their relation to each other is static.

Secret Some mortals, typically very powerful ones, are capable of creating new Doors into the Hall. None have been able to create doors leading out of the Hall, however.

Challenge: Amorphic Maelstrom

A maelstrom struck after the creation and stabilization of the elemental and Ethereal planes, and the creation of the Prime Plane, but before work on the Prime Plane was completed.

Response The gods aborted the project in order to save themselves. This resulted in the Prime Plane not being strong enough to bear the long-term presence of the gods.

Challenge: Paradise Lost

The gods were unable to keep Paradise stable and intact when the maelstrom struck.

Response Paradise split (‘shattered’ would be closer) and the different groups of gods were (mostly) able to keep these smaller planes intact. Some of the places and their inhabitants were destroyed or warped by amorphia.

Challenge: Picking up the Pieces

Some gods want to continue their great project, or start it over. This requires more power than is available to the gods of any single plane.

Response Various pantheons are using mortal agents in the Prime Plane to find other pantheons and try to ally with them.

Secret Some of the gods were twisted by amorphia when Paradise shattered. The gods are very cautious about dealing with other pantheons because of this. Much of the contention between the various religions is because of this caution.

Secret The whole thing, really. The gods have (generally) not shared the truth of their origins, nor the nature of the outer metaverse. Some religions have deduced, inferred, or outright guessed about amorphia.

Example: Fort Alrod

This is a partial description of the history of a small town located in a province near the nation’s border.

Challenge: More Farmland Needed

A nation needs more arable land.

Response Settlers expand beyond the boundaries of the nation; the nation expands its boundaries.

Challenge: Restless Natives

The region expanded into was populated by goblinoids, who became very happy to see the settlers… after their own fashion.

Response The king moved troops to the region being settled to protect the settlers.

Challenge: Where to Put the Soldiers?

A place is needed to station the soldiers at and to shelter new settlers.

Response A hilltop above a river is cleared and a small fort built. The hill and river both help increase the defensibility of the fort, and the river helps logistically by making it easier to transport troops, settlers, and goods to the fort.

Secret This location was the home of a small god (the spirit of the hill). It was pacified and laid to rest by a shaman, but is close to reawakening, disturbed by the changes wrought to his hill. He will probably be some kind of grumpy when he wakes up.

Challenge: Provisioning is Hard

Ferrying goods to shore and getting them from the river up the cliff to the fort is an arduous task.

Response Docks are built at the bottom of the cliff and a lift or crane inside the fort inside the fort to lift goods and people from the docks to the fort.

Challenge: Finding a Safe Place to Settle

People are looking for a new, reasonably safe place to settle.

Response A village forms near or below the fort (depending on the terrain).

Challenge: Merchants Seek a New Market

Merchants are looking for a new market.

Response They move into the village near the fort and cause it to become a town.

Challenge: Town Vulnerable to Attack

The town is vulnerable to attack.

Response A new wall is built around the new section of the town to make it more secure.

Secret The easternmost wall is shoddy and will collapse under serious attack. The town council knows about this and is waiting for an opportunity to tear it down and rebuild it.

Note This expansion occurs several times over the life of the town, resulting in a number of wards. They are not concentric.

Challenge: Royal Lift Unavailable

Dockyard activity is increasing and the baron no longer allows civilians to use the fort’s lift because doing so allows too many foreigners into the fort.

Response A new lift is built above the docks in the civilian area of town.

Secret The merchant who paid for the lift to be built (and is profiting quite nicely from it) is in the employ of the neighboring goblinoids. His ships are offloading crates full of weapons for mercenaries filtering into town. They will capture the gates and open the town to the goblinoids.

Example: The King’s Hand

I want a covert agent of the king. Some people know — or at least strongly suspect — the existence of such a person but cannot prove it.

Challenge: Covert Agent Needed

The king needs certain actions performed without being overtly linked to them.

Response A person is selected to perform these tasks. The identity of this person is known only to the king and the person selected.

Secret The identity of the King’s Hand, and that such a person really exists, is a secret kept between the king and the King’s Hand.

Secret The first King’s Hand was an adventuring companion of the king from his younger days.

Secret In fact, the current King’s Hand (some one hundred and thirty years later) is the same man. The god of oaths heard him swear to ‘serve the kingdom body, mind, and soul as long as the king’s line lives’ and made him undying.

Secret After the first few times the King’s Hand survived situations and damage that should have killed him, he came to realize th situation he was in. That he did not age normally was further evidence.

Challenge: Insurance Needed

The King’s Hand is in a dangerous position. It is possible that he could be killed (well, not really; see above) or otherwise be unable to perform his job.

Response As a precaution, the King’s Hand chooses and trains one of his senior agents to take his place should it become necessary.

Secret The King’s Hand keeps his true position a secret from the agent. The agent undoubtedly realizes that he is working for someone high in the hierarchy because of the tasks he is assigned, but not that the man he reports to is in fact the King’s Hand. He may suspect, though; stupid agents don’t make it this far.

Secret The Hand has never acted directly against one of his agents unless the agent was a threat to the kingdom, but protégées have never survived long enough to take the position. This is, after all, a dangerous position.

Challenge: Revolution!

A revolution occured and the throne was usurped.

Response A later king (about fifteen years ago) was very decadent and weak. His policies were becoming dangerous to the kingdom and a threat to its neighbors. He was assassinated (apparently by one of these neighbors) and the heir abducted and presumably killed. Duke Arlington, one of the most powerful nobles in the country, took the crown, united the kingdom, and stabilized the situation.

Secret Duke Arlington in fact arranged the assassination and abduction. The Hand has strong suspicion of this, and some evidence, but no proof.

Secret The heir did survive, but in escaping suffered a head wound that took his memory. He is currently working as second mate on a trade ship.

Secret The Hand suspects the heir is still alive, for the simple reason that he himself has not died (he swore to serve the kingdom as long as the royal line survives and has been kept alive for an unnaturally long time; it is a reasonable conclusion on his part that when the terms of his oath are met he will be released). He has agents looking for the heir, or proof of his death, so he can know what happened and decide what to do. The agents, of course, have not been told who they’re looking for.

Secret The Hand has decided that the duke’s ruthlessness better serves the interests of the king than the weakness of the line of kins had been demonstrating over the later generations. If the heir is found, the Hand doesn’t know whether he’ll try to engineer his return to power or just have his throat cut and the body dumped in a ditch somewhere. He is tired of life and wishes to escape from his oath. If the heir is of stronger character than his father was, though, reinstating him to power may be enough to give the Hand interest in life again.

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