Worlds of Design: Modus Operandi

In each instance of lengthy adventure fiction (and games), there’s usually a standard mode of operation, often including a vehicle/means of transportation.


Picture courtesy of Pixabay.
It’s not just a keel and a hull and a deck and sails, that’s what a ship needs but what a ship is…what the Black Pearl really is…is freedom.” — Captain Jack Sparrow, Pirates of the Caribbean

Operation vs. Transportation​

First, a few definitions. The Latin “modus operandi” means “mode of operations. Mode of operations is how protagonists typically go about their business. Modes of transportation are how they get around. The second often goes with the first; but the mode of operation could be (as in Harry Potter) just adventuring in the same place (the wizards’ school) over and over again. Or it could involve a common transportation mode.

For example, pirates usually travel to places in a ship, then do something at a destination, perhaps not on the ship, perhaps on it/with it. Science fiction adventurers often travel around in a spaceship and encounter adventures. Think Star Trek, Farscape, the game Traveller, often the D&D setting Spelljammer. Stargate uses the Gates as the “vehicle”. On the other hand, Star Wars including Clone Wars is not in this mode (though The Bad Batch and Rebels are).

Modern MO​

In the (pre-COVID) TNT series The Last Ship, an American destroyer and crew survive a highly lethal pandemic to try to develop and manufacture a cure. The program amounts to the crew of the destroyer visiting many places, often going ashore or boarding another ship, but always revolving around the destroyer.

There are many cases that don’t fit. Harry Dresden in the more recent Dresden Files novels for example (earlier he tended to live in and defend Chicago). James Bond though one man, occasionally with a second person (often a beautiful woman), travels all over the place. Perhaps because these examples are about just one person much of the time, they don’t fit a pattern that frequently works for groups.

Elementary (Sherlock Holmes modern day TV series) is about two people living in a NYC brownstone and sometimes venturing out to gather information. It both fits and doesn’t fit.

Fantasy MO​

In fantasy, sometimes the mode is “a group of people traveling across country,” usually on horseback as in the Belgariad, Malloreon, many others. Lord of the Rings is for half its length about travelling in groups but walking rather than riding. Sometimes it’s a group in a city that they almost never leave.

In many fantasy stories the hero gathers a gang together (often one by one) during his travels. They walk (or ride) to somewhere, having adventures with a particular goal in mind, though the goal may not be clear at first. I’m not sure this qualifies as a mode of operation, but it’s close.

D&D is frequently cited has having three modes: combat, exploration, and social interaction. Original D&D groups tended to be more exploration and combat: exploring fantastical “dungeons” and encountering adventures therein, something we might call “treasure-hunting.” There wasn’t much else, for many campaigns.

Mission Orientation​

The more mission-oriented an RPG campaign, the more likely there will be a dominant mode of operation. This is a likelihood, not anywhere near a certainty. By mission-oriented I mean there is some kind of story (whether originating with the setting, the GM, or the players) that has clear goals, that is more important than mere treasure-hunting or self-aggrandizement.


Where does mode of operation end and “formulaic” begin? This is a danger much more in fiction than in games, as in fiction the author is fully in control, while in games the players provide lots of variation. Yet formulaic fiction can be very successful. And in the end, “formulaic” tends to refer to the plot, where mode of operation is much less all-encompassing.

Messing with Modes​

What is the lesson for GMs? Pay attention to this aspect of your campaign. Maybe the players like a standard mode, then you may want to help them stay in it. Or you might want to change it just to make them experience something different.

Modes may change as a campaign progresses and characters gain more capabilities. Lower-level characters might be fine with dungeon exploration mode, but at higher levels they may want to become involved in politics and their lives may revolve around their stronghold or landholdings.

As characters do more as individuals rather than as a group (typically when characters are much more capable than at start), the mode is also likely to change, or there may be no dominant mode (as for James Bond/late Dresden?).

Your Turn: In your RPG experience, how often did the party stay in one “mode” for long periods of time?
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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio


Somehow I missed this one :)

I also just purchased a pdf of Privateers and Gentlemen from the venerable Fantasy Games Unlimited. While I have not read any of the nautical historical fiction like the Horatio Hornblower series, it has always been interesting genre to me. Perhaps because my grandfather wrote some historical fiction about David Porter and John Gamble. I also have (but have not played) Beat to Quarters. Perusing the rules for Privateers and Gentlemen, everything is centered around the ship, and attaining rank (mostly to improve said ship, and gain influence with the Admiralty or other privateers). In some ways, the ship and the crew are one.

I am somewhat surprised that naval stories aboard ships are not more common. I mean, who doesn't love stories about pirates? America's early history is littered with tiny "wars" dealing with pirates, and press gangs helped instigate the War of 1812.

Having a ship as another "character" has always appealed to me. I'd even be interested in games being a WW2 bomber crew member (though the opportunities for play would be relegated to the sheer terror of a mission, and on-base but no-combat life between missions). That's why I think Napoleonic and earlier era games would be very interesting because it would allow for much more varied stories when the crew had to go ashore. The similarities between Star Trek and historical nautical exploration missions are not coincidental.

I think there are other settings that could be mined where the mode of transportation is also the mode of operation. I don't think you could truly do justice to Viking sagas without treating longboats as being more than just a mode of transportation. Horse cultures aren't just for the Rohirrim, but the plains Indians of North America and the Mongols. What would a Western be without horses, and literally, the cavalry coming to the rescue (from the American point of view). By treating horses and boats simply as props, I think a lot of potential for story is wasted.

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