Roleplaying Tips Weekly E-Zine Issue #480
Combat Hazards II
This Week's Tips Summarized
Combat Hazards II
- Stone Shingle Slide of Death
- The Pit of Death
- The Cliff and Kitten
- Ice Trap
- Necromantic Focal Points
- Tall Grass
- Saw Mill
- Light Bombs
- Ice Sheet
- Random Teleporting
- Steep Hill
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Return to Contents
A Brief Word From Johnn
Q-Workshop dice are pretty neat
I have a big dice collection. Before I purchased a pound of
dice two years ago (for players who forget theirs, to use as
counters, to appease my inner self, etc.) I already had
several sets. However, Q-Workshop's dice look pretty neat
and I was intrigued.
They sent me a few for review, and I'm glad I had a chance
to see them in person.
Many of the designs on their site worried me because they
appeared unreadable. However, once I had one of the more
ornately styled dice on the table, I found I could read the
results. Barely. So a word of caution there. If the dice
look hard to read in a picture, they are in real life.
However, the coolness of the designs outweighed the
usability for me.
For the dice that are easy to read, they offer a double-
benefit: usable and cool.
For gamers who just need randomizers, then any old dice will
be good for you. For gamers looking to add panache to their
results, or perhaps another prop for the GM, I recommend
checking Q-Workshop dice out. I find they do make results a
little more special. But then again, I'm a sucker for neat
dice (and pet dice - I have a collection of favourites I use
You can see a pic of the dice Q-Workshop sent me here.
(The d30 is beautiful and my favourite of the batch.)
Visit Q-Workshop's site to see all available sets.
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Combat Hazards II
Following are more great entries from the Combat Hazards
contest. Thanks again to everyone who participated. Stay
tuned for a new contest in an upcoming issue.
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This combat hazard changes the heroes, altering how they
interact with the environment. Provided a GM prepares for
it properly, this encounter type can be a refreshing change
from the usual hack-n-slash.
The transformation could come from a radiant pool, a
drifting cloud, an old dolmen, or maybe a potent curse. The
effect could be item-based, such as a mysterious roving orb
or alien mechanical device - an artifact the adventurers
might have to seek out later.
Nothing challenges adventurers like a reduction of size.
Normal objects and mundane environmental details become
monumental obstacles. A simple rat warren is now a mazy
dungeon with mammoth inhabitants, and a walk across a small
town or busy harbor becomes a near epic journey. A viewing
of Pixar movies such as A Bug's Life, Ratatouille, and Wall-
E should get the creative juices flowing.
Another transformation polymorphs our heroes into one or
more types of animal or monster. Stock creatures and
monsters can be used, or the GM can invent completely new
ones. Monster templates become useful here, and adding odd
physical traits, quirks and vulnerabilities can also be as
fun and challenging as new capabilities for players.
The GM should choose a creature that best fits the
character's abilities and persona and match the power levels
as closely as possible. Spellcasters can gain the benefit of
having components temporarily suspended or gain new
abilities for the duration.
A lesser form of this transmogrification is to give
characters one or more monstrous traits and abilities
instead of transforming them completely. The GM can
potentially leave the adventurers to find a cure later.
The environment can add greatly to the exotic flair of this
encounter, one example being aquatic creatures for an
undersea melee. The style of encounter is another option,
such as using unseemly and visceral mutations for a real
taste of horror.
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2. Stone Shingle Slide of Death
PCs are fighting their foes on a steep, slate-roofed
building. With each step, cracking noises sound, debris
rolls down to the edge and drops a long way down to the
earth, and the PCs feel the stone shingles buckle and snap.
There is a 20% chance each round (35% each time a move or
move-equivalent action is taken) that the PC will step on,
break, or otherwise dislodge a stone shingle. If a shingle
breaks free, the PC must be agile or lose his footing.
If a PC loses his footing, his foot shoots out from under
him along with the slate, and he begins slipping down the
roof toward the edge.
Spells capable of structural damage can also knock slates
loose, precipitating slipping. Spellcasting while slipping
requires good concentration or a spell might be lost or
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3. The Pit of Death
Take a 20 foot square (5x4 5-foot squares) area with each
square numbered 1-20, and designate it as the Death Pit.
Each round, roll 3d20. The numbers that came up are the
squares where a trap is set off - a spike, a spray of fire,
This also forces PCs to move a little and use the various
combat options and strategies that sometimes you tend to
forget about when using a game mat.
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4. The Cliff and Kitten
One of the most dangerous situations to put a group of well
armed and skilled adventurers in is a cliffside track no
bigger than two abreast in the dark, and loose a small cat -
nay a kitten - into the mix.
The test is to not trip over the cat and take the rest of
the team with you. Sound effects, small scratching of claws,
and things weaving in and out of the party's legs will
ensure a calamitous experience for at least one PC.
In the darkness, PCs might hit one of their own team when
trying to escape the thing passing through their legs.
This is not really intended as a lethal encounter, but for
the sheer joy of player squirm, I've never seen one better.
It's worse when the PCs find they killed a kitten at the end
of all that, and then momma cat and her pride happen along.
Of course, if the group just catches the little kitten
instead, momma cat is far more likely to let them pass.
Otherwise, it's another fight, in the darkness, beside a
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5. Ice Trap
First, you will need an ice dungeon. Take your standard
"floor trapdoor over spike pit trap" and craft it all out
of ice. The trap door is actually a thin piece of ice and
is triggered by any increase in temperature, such as an
adventurer's body heat. Once the trap is triggered, the
adventurer falls to the ice spikes below and is impaled.
These ice spikes, however, are on a pressure plate that is
triggered by the sudden weight of the ill-fortunate falling
adventurer. This pressure plate causes a piece of the
ceiling just above the opening to fall down and seal the
impaled adventurer inside of an icy tomb.
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6. Necromantic Focal Points
Somewhere between obstacle and combat environment is
something I call necromantic focal points (aka NFPs). NFPs
can be created anywhere linked with the dead or where
necromantic rituals have taken place.
NFPs are very small but intense in power. Most NFPs are
centered around a specific grave, urn, relic or remains.
NFPs should have a faint visual effect to warn keen-eyed PCs
and act as a way for PCs to avoid the areas once they figure
out they are hazardous.
An NFP is 5 to 15 feet in diameter. The size of the point
should scale with the size of the room to allow for you to
place multiple NFPs in the same room, and allow PCs ample
room to maneuver around and between the points. The key is
to keep at least 50% of maneuverable space open to PCs.
Mechanically, an NFP should grant the following effects to
those within its area:
- Undead receive attack and damage bonuses
- Undead receive save bonuses and are tougher to turn
- Undead take less damage from all sources
- Undead heal damage each round
- Undead take only 25% damage from positive energy effects
- All living creatures in the area of effect receive
attack and damage penalties
- All living creatures in the area of effect suffer save
- All living creatures in the area of effect receive 25%
of normal healing effects
- All living creatures in the area of effect take damage
each round spent in the NFP
Constructs and undead can use the NFP to their benefit in
combat, while the PCs are best served by avoiding these
areas and trying to lure the creatures into more PC-friendly
sections of the room. NFP based encounters are usually more
fun with multiple undead of mixed types.
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7. Tall Grass
There are places in the grasslands where the grasses grow
6'-8' high in dense thickets, and the ground is very soft,
almost swampy. They are often low-lying areas where water
collects; there might be a stream or river nearby, but not
always. These areas are prime nesting ground for rare and
valuable birds, and other native plants and animals.
Travel through one of these areas is difficult, and combat
is terrifying. Visibility is limited to 10', and even a foe
5' away has partial cover. Noise is also muffled and
distorted, so distance penalties for listening are doubled.
The ground is soft, often opening unexpectedly into small
mudholes and water-filled pools 2'-3' deep. Movement is
slowed unless the person moving is willing to take damage
per round to move normally, slashed and cut by the sharp
grass edges. Moving fast or running will thus inflict
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8. Saw Mill
You can build a saw mill out of paper props, balsa wood and
drawing on the mat. It can be powered by a large windmill or
river with a water wheel. This allows players or enemies to
pull levers and activate the mechanical devices:
- Large and small circular saw blades
- Wood rails
- Pulling chains
- Stacked wood
- A pile of loose boards
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9. Light Bombs
The PCs are in a cave with small glowing rocks all over the
walls and ceiling, and a few on the floor. This could be a
temple to a lightning god or the tomb of a lightning
Periodically, the glowing rocks explode. They do damage, but
only in a short range. However, the flashing light is so
bright it temporarily blinds anyone within a certain range.
The first few times this happens the effect is so unexpected
that anyone hit by it risks getting disoriented and ends up
actually facing a different direction than they thought they
To make an encounter more difficult, the foes might know
about this risk ahead of time and be prepared. For example,
whoever sent the foes might have sent only those with blind
fighting ability. Or the foes might be wearing black cloths
over their eyes, which diminishes their sight normally, but
gives them a better chance to not be blinded by the light
Decide ahead of time what causes the glowing rocks to
detonate. Is it proximity to magic items or spells?
Proximity to a living creature? Perhaps nothing is directly
setting them off, but they are going off because the cave is
collapsing or going through some other transition, and if
the PCs don't stop the effect the whole mountain will blow
Even if the rocks detonate due to some other cause, decide
whether they have the same effect if physically hit, or if
struck by a magic effect. Can they be removed from the wall
and carried away?
Give the PCs a chance to figure out what's causing the rocks
to explode, especially if they observe this prior to the
battle. They can try to avoid the effect or even
deliberately set it off to aid their attack or retreat.
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10. Ice Sheet
Either just before or during combat, a great sheet of icy
water flows across the ground and immediately freezes. The
ice sheet could be caused by a trap, an ice-breathing
monster, or a high-level magic user.
Anyone standing on the ground when the ice covers it must
react fast to avoid having one or both feet frozen into the
ice. If they fail, they're stuck in place, and take cold
damage to each foot each round until they can free
Anybody engaging in melee combat faces attack penalties.
The recipient of any melee attack, whether it does damage
or not, is pushed backwards at least five feet, sliding on
the ice. All opponents must balance carefully every time
they hit someone or are hit by someone, or risk falling
down. PCs who are trapped in the ice don't risk sliding
around or falling, but face a more serious penalty to
attacks and defense.
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11. Random Teleporting
The magic user whose lair the PCs are exploring was
experimenting with strange magical effects, and it seems
that something went horribly wrong (which probably led to
Throughout the building are strange effects like odd
zappings and humming sounds. Then the PCs are surprised to
see a small animal appear in front of them (a cat, or rat
maybe), as if teleported. But who would bother to teleport a
Soon afterwards a bunch of rats are fleeing as the party
enters a room, and the PCs could swear a couple of them just
vanished. What the PCs don't realize until later is that the
magic user's experiments lead to creatures randomly
teleporting around the building. The effect doesn't happen
often, but it is more likely in places where the magic user
cast more spells, and also more likely if anybody casts more
The PCs confront their opponents in a room where much
magic was done, and where more magic is likely to be used
during the combat. This means it's likely combatants on
both sides will disappear.
The first time a PC disappears, the ones left behind will
fear the worst. However, the transported PC ends up in a
randomly determined spot elsewhere in the building, whether
someplace the party hasn't explored yet (in which case he
might not realize he's in the same building), or in the
next room. Remember that the opponents also have the same
chance of disappearing.
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12. Steep Hill
A steep hill is not a very exotic combat scenario, but this
can be an advantage. It's easy to include in almost any
campaign, without requiring any special explanation. It's
also easy for the players to imagine.
It certainly makes combat more difficult, but mistakes and
bad luck aren't necessarily deadly. Finally, it allows for a
range of PC strategies.
The GM should decide ahead of time how far down the hill
goes before it levels out, and how high up they can climb
before it gets too steep or they reach the top (or another
For example, the PCs are moving single file up a narrow
path on a steep hill when they encounter enemies. This
could be an ambush or a surprise on both sides. The path is
level, but the areas on either side are steep -- say, 30 to
45 degrees. The first opponent can attack the first PC, but
it's difficult for anyone else to get involved unless they
leave the path. Even those on the path have reduced lateral
movement, making combat more difficult.
When everyone is still lined up, depending on how straight
the path is, other opponents might be completely or
partially hidden behind the first PC, giving them cover
against range attacks. There are a few skinny trees clinging
to the hill's sides that could be used as partial cover, or
at least be held onto to keep from falling. Bushes could
provide partial cover, and many rocks threaten to trip those
who leave the path or injure those who fall down the hill.
PCs may want to scramble upwards, to get an advantage in
melee combat or range attacks. They could scramble downwards
as well, with the idea of getting far enough below their
opponents they can attack their feet (and maybe attempt a
trip attack), but the opponents can't reach down far enough
for an effective melee attack. They might try bracing
themselves against a tree and pushing or kicking their
opponent, hoping to knock them down the hill.
Movement will be slower than usual, and trying to move
even at regular speed increases the risk of slipping.
Balance and climbing will be important here.
Falling combatants have a chance of stopping themselves on
the way down. Combatants that fall far will almost certainly
be injured, but probably won't be killed. However, depending
on distance fallen and injuries, they may not be able to get
back up to help their comrades in the combat. Note that
anyone who does fall has a chance of knocking over anyone
else in the downward path.
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Monte Cook Gives Advice On Building Dungeons
Interview by Johnn Four
RPT: Monte, congrats on the first anniversary of
dungeonaday.com! You have supported the Roleplaying Tips
ezine this past year with dungeonaday.com advertising -
Roleplaying Tips readers and I thank you for that. I
appreciate your time here today in doing this interview, as
well. Let's dive into some questions.
Now that dungeonaday.com is a year old, and you've been
releasing a new encounter for it every day plus articles,
maps and other info, have you had any new insights into
dungeon design? What have you learned, realized or proved to
yourself about dungeon crafting from doing a whole year of
Monte: I guess more than anything, the project has
reaffirmed for me that the dungeon is a truly unique
adventuring environment, particularly well-suited for RPGs.
A week's worth of encounters on the site is about perfect
for a standard game session (actually, it's probably a bit
more than that when you figure in trips back to town and so
The nature of a dungeon gives the players a fair bit of
freedom while only requiring the DM to prepare for a finite
number of possibilities.
To put it succinctly, the PCs can go left, right, straight
ahead or back where they were - or back to town. That's a
manageable number of options, but they are real options, not
false ones that all lead to the same place.) It also makes
it easy to stop the session in mid-adventure. Seriously...
RPT: Along the same lines as the previous question, how do
you keep things fresh? What advice do you have for DMs who
find campaigns getting stale after awhile?
Monte: Be aware of your blind spots (the kind of things you
never do) and your own cliches (the things you always do).
As a simple example, I seem to always default to ogres. If I
need a vaguely humanoid monster, 9 times out of 10, I find
myself typing the word "ogre." So I need to check myself in
Maybe someone else has all of their evil villains be
spellcasters. Or the advisor to the king is always the
secret bad guy in their stories. Or they never use bards. Or
whatever. That's why I think it's always smart for DMs to
read adventure material written by others.
Look at an old adventure you have on the shelf. Search the
Internet for some DM's campaign logs. Subscribe to
dungeonaday.com. It's the kind of thing that will give you
ideas you won't have had on your own, and keeps things
RPT: What is the name of the mega-dungeon that's the
centerpiece of dungeonaday.com? How many encounters have you
designed for it so far? Do you use an encounter design
template? Not stat block - I mean the micro-story of each
encounter, what you do to make the encounter interesting,
and how you might flesh it out. Is there a template,
checklist or process you could share with us?
Monte: It's called Dragon's Delve. I'm currently designing
the 245th encounter, but that doesn't count the many dozens
of non-dungeon encounters that are an important part of
Each dungeon encounter (I use "encounter" rather than "room"
because sometimes an encounter is many rooms, and sometimes
it's just part on a large room) is usually at its heart a
single idea, whether it's a monster, an item, a trap, some
bit of information, or something else. Since I present one
encounter a day, I want a subscriber to come away with at
least one cool new "thing" each time.
Beyond that, I have to think about the PCs' senses in each
encounter. Is it light or dark? What do the characters hear?
Smell? What do they see or hear right away? What do they see
if they go in? If they search?
The other big thing that's true for every encounter is
thinking about it in the context of the whole dungeon. Why
is it here? How do the creatures that live in the dungeon
interact with the trap/monster/weird effect/treasure here?
What happens if the PCs make a lot of noise here? (Do
inhabitants of nearby rooms come by to check it out?)
One thing I include for many encounters is a Revisit
section. This talks about what happens if the PCs come back
to the area again later. Has a new monster moved in? Is
something feeding on the corpses of the slain creatures? Has
someone stolen the treasure? And so on. (This means many
encounters are actually two encounters, really.)
RPT: What have been a few recent and unusual sources of
dungeon ideas and inspiration for you? Movies, books and TV
- yep, Tips readers will be familiar with that advice. But
what strange or unexpected sources have you tapped?
Monte: I find architecture books very inspirational. But
inspiration can come from literally anywhere. I once read
about how authors would challenge themselves by taking the
front page of a newspaper and forcing themselves to write a
story based on SOMETHING they find on that page.
I do the same thing with dungeon design. I'll generate 3-4
random pages on Wikipedia and force myself to come up with
an encounter idea based on one (or better yet, two or three)
of the pages.
For example, I'll do it now. I get Ring Connection, Bill
Emerson (a banjo player), Rowayton (a Conneticut railway
station) and United Labor Party (of Ireland).
So how about this: there's a two chambers in the dungeon
connected by a pair of magical rings mounted on the walls.
Having been built by a famous bard, they can only be
activated by the playing of certain notes on a stringed
instrument like a lute or a lyre. Once activated, someone
can travel from one room to the other, magically. It was
once a part a large transportation network that spanned a
large portion of the dungeon, but now only these two rings
are left. (I'll skip the ULP article...for now.)
RPT: You have a March special going on right now to
celebrate one year of dungeonaday.com. I think you told me
it was $84 for a year membership, and that includes all
content from last year too?
So, I don't imagine you generate all the dungeon rooms,
maps, blog posts, player handouts and all the other content
as you go. You must keep it in some sort of system. I bet
your system would be useful to DMs just looking to organize
their own detailed campaigns. Could you tell us how you keep
all your content organized?
Monte: Well, I use a free program called Evernote that works
really well for organizing material because it can handle
notes, lists, pictures, websites, and so forth all together.
But mostly that's for the undefined future. By that, I mean
if i have an idea that I can't use right away (a room where
the players are all shrunk down to the size of mice, maybe),
I can jot it in Evernote and tag the note "room idea." Or if
I'm looking at Wikipedia and there's a cool article on
gemstones that I want to reference later, I can copy it (in
whole, in part, or just the url) into Evernote.
As for stuff that's already published, I use the site
itself. I'm proud of how organized the material is. There's
a glossary, for example, with every major character, place,
and item defined. There's a file that has every new magic
item and spell. There's a couple of different history
reference documents. I refer to this stuff all the time.
RPT: Your site also offers DM advice. What is your favourite
or most compelling advice that you've posted to
dungeonaday.com in the past 12 months? If the advice is too
long to paste here, perhaps you could summarize it.
Monte: That's really hard. I like to think there's been a
lot of good advice there, even if I do say so myself.
If I have to choose, maybe what I would mention is the
importance of what I've called the "messy character sheet."
Part of the essence of a so-called "old school" dungeon
campaign is that the players end up with messy character
sheets, and that's good.
The stuff that makes a campaign memorable is the stuff that
you don't find in a rulebook. It's the weird stuff that
dungeons are notoriously filled with (at least the good ones
are) that has no neat little place on your character sheet
to write it down.
A character might be cursed to have to sing a song every
time he goes into battle, or he might have a magic item that
lets him talk to anything with more than two eyes. Or
because he did something for the god of stone, once per day
he can pass through rock as though it's not there. Or
because he fell into an acid pit, he has an aversion for
anything that smells acidic. Or whatever.
It's too weird or specific to be in a book or there are no
easy or perfectly balanced rules for it, but it becomes an
important part of a character, and thus an important part of
the campaign. But it's unique. Sometimes it bends or ignores
the rules. That's the kind of thing that people will tell
game stories about. Not a +1 to attack or AC. Those are
nice, but no one really remembers them.
RPT: My 4E game recently wound down and I have just started
a Pathfinder campaign. I was excited to note dungeonaday.com
now offers PFRPG conversions thanks to Jason Bulmahn!
Regardless of edition or conversion, D&D-type games require
some combat tactics planning when crafting encounters. So,
let's say a Tips reader opens his Monster Manual to a random
monster. How would you advise planning monster tactics for
that critter? What steps should a DM follow to get the most
out of a monster in combat?
Monte: Every good monster, like every good dungeon room, is
based around some idea. A medusa is built around the gaze
attack idea, and secondarily about killing PCs without
killing them (because that's what petrification really is -
it's like being dead, without all the baggage).
So figure out what the idea of the monster is, and focus on
that. Another way to look at it is, how will an encounter
with this creature potentially be new, interesting, and fun
in a way that an encounter with another monster might not.
If a monster doesn't have that kind of hook, you can give it
one by placing it in an interesting environment.
An owlbear isn't bad, but it's not the most interesting
beast in the world. Put a few in hidden caves on ledges high
above the PCs and have them leap down to attack, but not all
at once. This is interesting now, because the PCs don't know
how many foes they're facing, or where the next one will
suddenly appear, roaring and screeching from above. (In my
experience, things coming from above the PCs is always
scarier than if they're on the same level.) It's a little
thing, but it will make that encounter memorable.
RPT: You offer new monsters with your service, too. What
would be your number one tip for creating a new foe for PCs?
Monte: Don't reinvent the wheel every time. I'd rather see
people writing adventures (for publication or their own use)
simply take an existing monster and tweak it than create
something new every time.
If you need a dog-like companion for a tiefling wizard and a
yeth hound or a shadow mastiff won't do for some reason, you
don't need to make something new. Give a worg some special
fiendish ability. Make it an evil blink dog.
That's why we created templates for 3E D&D, to inspire the
idea of tweaking rather than always starting over (2E, in my
opinion, got overburdened with literally hundreds of mostly
I do this a lot at dungeonaday.com. Somehow, I think there's
something more interesting about a fire-breathing basilisk
than creating a new monster that breathes fire and turns you
to stone. The former plays upon concepts the players already
know, and that's a powerful tool.
If you do want to create something new, first think of
something that will be interesting in an encounter that
other monsters won't provide, and then base your monster
around that. Monsters should always be based around the kind
of encounter they will provide. Maybe you've got an idea for
a monster that...I don't know, slowly turns foes inside out.
Whatever. The point is, it really provides something new.
RPT: Of all the encounters you've designed so far, what's
been your favourite and why?
Monte: There's one with this underground river with a wooden
shack built on stilts rising up out of it. You might end up
getting in a fight with the thing that lives in the shack,
and if you do there's a good chance it collapses and the
shack becomes a sort of raft and you unwillingly get forced
to ride it down the underground rapids. That's fun and
dynamic in a way that most people don't think of when they
think of dungeons.
But I think my favorite might still be a very early
encounter where you run into the ghost of a dog that you can
befriend. If you do, the dog shows up every day for the rest
of the campaign for a while and helps you out. I like that
because it's weird and yet familiar. It affects the whole
campaign from that point on, but it's very little work for
me or the DM.
* * *
Thanks for the tips and advice, Monte. I hope
dungeonaday.com has an awesome second year. Readers, don't
forget about the March sale. More details are available at:
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Beware the Denizens of Darkness!
Denizens of Darkness is an online roleplaying community
dedicated to PbP gaming and resource creation.
Players and Game Masters of any level and game system are
welcomed. Right now we have several games that are looking
for players and we are always looking from new GMs and
Games. So drop into the site and join in the fun, just
beware the Denizens of Darkness... You never know where they
Denizens of Darkness
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Strolen's Feature Article: Adventure and GMing Guidelines
By Silveressa, with permission from Strolen's Citadel
1) Fools Rush In
Inspiration is a wonderful thing, but nine times out of
ten it ruins what could have been a good adventure. Rushing
to GM or write down the adventure the second you have a
great concept or idea for your campaign may sound like a
good idea, but it's actually an act of sabotage.
Stop and think for a second; does this plot hook/adventure
idea actually fit with the story/setting? Does it go with
the rest of the campaign? Is it too difficult for the
current characters' experience/power level?
Working out these details before hammering away at the
keys can prevent regrets, hang ups and plot holes later on.
The over-enthused GM at times gets ahead of themselves and
overlooks details, at times causing plot contradictions or
presenting difficulties/rewards that they later realize
were outside of the campaign's usual pacing.
Good adventure planning does not always involve high
emotion. It's usually well thought out, relaxed and totally
sober. Anything else, you'll probably be reworking what you
wrote when you come down off the caffeine bender.
2) GMing Memorable Characters
The particular qualities of a scene or encounter are
manifested by the GM or players' method of expression. From
describing how the scene appears from a player characters'
point of view, to specific NPC language, mannerisms and so
By developing a different presentation for each of the key
characters in your adventure you allow each to further
develop their own personality and significance in the minds
of the players.
Perhaps pick a single word or two to describe an NPC, and
then build them around these words, perhaps subtly
elaborating the aspects of these two words in their
personality, appearance and presentation.
3) Make Every Scene Count
Any adventure is made up of scenes. Any scene should have
at least one of three purposes: to advance the story, to
add depth to the game, and create background/setting.
If a planned scene accomplishes at least one of these
tasks, then it's worth keeping. If it doesn't, it's dead
weight and needs to be reworked for the good of the
4) Nobody Likes a Word Smith
Ineluctable, somnolence, invidious. The English language is
a beautiful lady, but damn, she needs to lose some weight.
Some GMs think using long words will make them sound
intelligent. You should not fall into this trap,
The best approach is to say what you want to say in the
most expressive and comprehensible way possible, and know
that good GMing - good communication - has nothing to do
with your ego. Also, don't labor your descriptions with
If you pre-write descriptions for locations for your
adventures, crack open a thesaurus. Take a few seconds to
find the right word - not the longest or the most complex -
just the best one for the job, and avoid stacking
synonymous and adjectives on top of one noun or verb.
As well as being fat, the English language has parts that
have long since dried up and died, much like Pokemon. Some
examples of cliché include "killing two birds with one
stone," "ugly as sin," "many hands make light work," the
universally reviled "all Hell broke loose."
Though the presence of clichés in fiction, and a lesser
extend gaming, is recognized as bad, most people are
probably not too clear on why. The best definition is: a
metaphor characterized by its overuse.
A cliché might be true ("Fat as a pig"), no longer true
("Work like a dog") or the inscrutable ("Right as rain"),
but the defining characteristic is that it has been overused
to the point that its sole function is to mark its user as a
lazy thinker. In short, try to keep them to a minimum, it'll
make your descriptions/adventure much more memorable.
6) Writing and GMing Adventures When Tired
During such times, GMs fall into the rut known as repetitive
wording. This common ailment involves the shrinking of the
Take the time to read over planned descriptions you have
written. If you see the same adjective more than once in a
few paragraphs you should spice it up with a little variety.
Another fault is recurring action - as your vocabulary
diminishes, so does the range of actions performed by the
In a scene in which characters are left waiting at a guard
post, for example, you might expect to use the word "stand"
several times. To avoid this, crack open that thesaurus
again, find some synonyms, and write them down to the side
of your game notes. Then during the adventure use them to
make the descriptions more dynamic.
7) Cadence and Run on Sentences
The run-on sentence is a too-long sentence that encompasses
a number of different subjects, and contains a multitude of
"and"s, "but"s, "which"s, "that"s, "if"s, and other such
These sentences may have been in vogue in the 19th century,
but nowadays they just annoy and distract listeners with
breathless waffle. The only way to be free of run-on
sentences is with the ruthless application of the period.
Short, concise sentences are far better than lengthy,
When writing descriptions for your adventures, decide the
point of the sentence, what it needs to express, and trim it
Fast-paced action scenes do not require a total lack of
punctuation in your description to make them seem fast-
paced. The opposite is true. Action is best described in
shorter sentences describing single acts or events, thus
picking up the feeling of urgency.
8) Avoid One Dimensional Descriptions
Scene description should include more than what the
character sees in front of their face. There are four other
senses besides sight, plus an infinity of moods, feelings
and mental sensations a person might experience.
Work on describing those. The non-visual senses are far more
interesting anyway - they imply rather than immediately
reveal what a PC experiences.
9) Characterization vs. Action Dialogue
Many GMs start out with a difficulty balancing the elements
of a story. Some might emphasize the action and dialogue, to
the detriment of the characterization of NPCs. The most
common case of lack of balance is just the opposite: too
much characterization of NPCs.
It is not necessary to describe an NPC's every movement and
piece of clothing. Trust that the players will be able to
infer a character's appearance and movements from their
actions at some points, or just rely on their understanding
of human nature.
Some GMs seem to delight in providing detailed descriptions
of the characters' appearances, or provide detailed location
backgrounds in enormous info-dumps. The problem with this is
that excessive description slows down the pace of a
Few players enjoy wading through a swamp of detail. Trust
your players' imaginations. If something isn't important to
the scene, brush over it briefly or leave it out completely.
The players will supply that detail themselves. Though some
detail must be supplied or the setting will appear shallow,
a balance must be struck between the demands for convincing
detail and an engaging pace.
10) Combat Scenes
Good action - often the climax and at times core of an
adventure - is about entertaining the entire group. But how
do you do that without deteriorating the scene into
bloodshed and gore?
The feeling of revulsion, or gross-out, is a physiological
response designed to keep us away from nasty things - it
doesn't necessarily make us scared in any significant way.
Gross-out in its most common form is the equivalent of a car
wreck - you might rubber-neck for thirty seconds to five
minutes, depending on what kind of person you are, but soon
enough you'll lose interest and move on.
Take an example from the Call of Cthulhu RPG. One of the
more common villains, the Shoggoth, takes the form of a
giant, quivering pile of vomit. Sick and disgusting?
Absolutely, but it's not going to give anyone nightmares or
be overly memorable.
The Shoggoth represents the epitome of gross-out: at best
it's momentarily disgusting, at worst it's downright
laughable. Paradoxically, some of the most memorable scenes
from action involve gross-out imagery - Star Ship Troopers,
So what makes graphic description memorable? What
qualifies it as a worthy addition? Continuing with the
example of Star Ship Troopers, specifically that almost
every combat scene gross-out in this case became memorable
- It was integral to the plot and was not overtly
gratuitous (i.e. each graphic event/death is kept short and
- It added depth to the combat and drove home the realism
and danger of the conflict without becoming repetitive and
Although the example is a film reference, the concept is
universally applicable to all memorable combat scenes.
Try to think about the combat encounter you are GMing, and
why you find it exciting. Chances are, once you grasp the
reason behind the excitement, you can amplify it and expand
on it. Comprehend the root of the fight, and use graphic
blood'n guts effectively and sparingly to deliver the
greater impact to the players.
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Johnn Four's GM Guide Books
In addition to writing and publishing this e-zine, I have
written several GM tips and advice books to inspire your
games and to make GMing easier and fun:
How to design, map, and GM fresh encounters for RPG's most
popular locales. Includes campaign and NPC advice as well,
plus several generators and tables
Advice and tips for designing compelling holidays that not
only expand your game world but provide endless natural
encounter, adventure, and campaign hooks.
Critically acclaimed and multiple award-winning guide to
crafting, roleplaying, and GMing three dimensional NPCs for
any game system and genre. This book will make a difference
to your GMing.
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