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Roleplaying Tips Weekly E-Zine Issue #499

Turning Coal Into Diamonds - How To Mine Backstories To Create Killer Campaigns

Contents: 

 

This Week's Tips Summarized 

Turning Coal Into Diamonds - How To Mine Backstories To Create Killer Campaigns

  1. Mine All Sources For Details
  2. Ready Your Mining Carts
  3. How To Mine Your Backgrounds
  4. Switch To Campaign Logging

For Your Game: 30 Brigands

Game Master Tips & Tricks

  1. 7 Low-Level Encounter Ideas
  2. Pinpoint Time And Location For Easier GMing
  3. More WW2 Supers Campaign Ideas
  4. Image Resources For Character Inspiration
  5. Obstacle Course Request
  6. City Inspiration: Thieves World For Your Summer Reading

RPG Reviews

  1. Wu Xing - The Ninja Crusade
  2. Hounds of G.O.D.
  3. Genius Guide to the Armiger (Pathfinder RPG)

Johnn Four's GM Guide Books

 

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Special coupon codes for Roleplaying Tips readers.

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A Brief Word From Johnn 

Newsletter on Holidays, Back Mid-August

Roleplaying Tips is taking a short break for the summer. I need to get some Vitamin D and replace my monitor tan for a real one. Next issue, big ol' #500, will teleport into your inboxes mid-August.

Contest winners

So we made the 500 entry goal with 718 entries all told! Wow, that's amazing. Congrats and thanks to everyone for pitching in and whipping up over 500 city encounter ideas. A surge in the last week helped us blow by the half-century goal and into the 700s. Thanks also to the sponsors who pitched in great prizes. I'll be contacting winners this week to arrange for all the prize hand-offs.

Next issue will be dedicated to posting a batch of these entries for you to use in your campaigns. Quite a few entries roughly duplicate each other, so once I combine and sort everything out, I'll put a batch in Issue #500 and then batches in a couple of follow-up issues until they've all been published.

Stay tuned for another contest coming soon.

New RPG Reviews column

RPGNow has made available a few items ongoing to Roleplaying Tips and other websites and publications for review. Thanks RPGNow. The first three reviews debut this week in a new trial column.

This newsletter is about tips for game masters to help you have more fun at every game. Letting you know about new games, supplements, game aids and options might help that mission. I think so, but would love to hear from you whether or not you like the reviews.

Have a game-full summer! See you in a few weeks.

Cheers,

Johnn Four,
johnn@roleplayingtips.com

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Visit the Biggest Dungeon on the Internet

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Dragon's Delve is a challenging old-school megadungeon with a vast history and extensive background, but DMs can also use the modular encounters to spice up their own adventures.

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Turning Coal Into Diamonds - How To Mine Backstories To Create Killer Campaigns  

By Johnn Four

The idea of making the maximum use of character history was covered recently in the newsletter by Kate Manchester. Thanks Kate!

The topic has also been touched upon in issues before that. However, as I was editing Kate's article, several more tips came to mind, and I present these below.

Backgrounds, backstories, timelines and histories all cover the same thing - the past. This is compelling to game masters because it is static. The past has come and gone, and players cannot interfere with it. It gives you a body of information under your control for you to shape and use as you see fit.

GMs who are also creative writers find a wonderful outlet in this part of the game. Backgrounds can become short stories, or at least scratch the fiction-writing itch.

If you enjoy creating and working with histories for various elements of your games, then hopefully the following tips will help you get more benefit by extracting extra value from them.

1. Mine All Sources For Details 

A game has several major elements, such as villains, adventures and NPCs. Each of these is a potential source for background details and inspiration. Mine these sources.

Some sources will be obvious to you, and some game elements that have minable histories might not have occurred to you. Here is a list:

  • Game world
  • Campaign
  • Villains
  • Adventures
  • Encounters
  • Locations
  • NPCs
  • PCs
  • Magic items
  • Factions

Game world

This will be your biggest background source. The setting itself will have a history, sometimes in the form of a timeline, and other times in the form of prose. Then there is a chance each element in the world will have a background blurb. For example, deities, races, countries, cities and religions.

Campaign

Many campaigns take the form of two or more factions in conflict, which spawns epic tales of how the sides became enemies and their past battles.

Villains

These major NPCs always have a backstory, sometimes a complex one.

Adventures

These almost all start with a background section. Some have a backstory that goes back millennia, and some have two or more sections with historical information, such as the adventure synopsis and the adventure background.

Encounters

Individual planned encounters often have setup information that includes a bit of background. At the least, you might have detailed the setup of who is doing what, where, how, when and why.

Locations

Whether part of a planned encounter or a notable place in the setting information, locations often have background information.

Every site with construction on it, such as buildings, monuments and engineered projects, has at the minimum a building project start and end date, plus the initial reason for the building. Other locations might be the sites of notable events, be the birthplace of important NPCs or have a history of interesting use.

NPCs

Some will have fleshed out backgrounds. Others might offer a few notes to explain their personalities and motivations.

PCs

As Kate mentioned in Issue #494, you would be well-served by asking players to develop interesting backgrounds for their characters.

Magic items

Major items should have a backstory unless they are brand- new. Even minor items can benefit from a few background notes.

Factions

These are groups of NPCs who have organised themselves or become a community for one reason or other. Backstories for these game elements often include why a faction exists, how it was founded, and actions it has taken in the past.

As you can see, there are a surprising number of sources you can mine for historical information once you put them all in a list. This is excellent news!

You can also use this tip as a best practice checklist for what game elements should have background notes to help you weave together a better integrated campaign.

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2. Ready Your Mining Carts 

Before you gather all your sources and begin mining each, you need places to store and organise all the information you dig up. There is no point wielding your axes and shovels to build up a large pile of awesome nuggets that you do not then ever use.

Your first problem will be to organise the information in a way that helps you plan and design, then make it serve as an excellent and accessible reference during games. Solve this by using a small number of useful tools, many of which have already been covered in the newsletter:

  • Timeline. A simple chronology of events.
  • Gazetteer. A compilation of details about the setting and campaign.
  • Cast of characters. A listing of NPCs in your campaign.
  • Cast of locations. A listing of notable places in the world, campaign and adventures. Encounter locations can get added as they are planned or played out. This is not a map, though your cast might include one. If it does, be sure to use a coordinates system and add this information to a new column in your cast.
  • Cast of items. A listing of notable mundane and magical things, their properties and last known location and possessor.
  • Pool of hooks. Three key types of ideas - campaign facts, plot hooks and encounter seeds - to store as a to do list for development between games or as a handy inspiration list any time.
    • Campaign facts are bits of true information that pertain to any aspect of your game. Perhaps it is NPC trivia, setting tid bits or data about special items (people, places and things). You can use these facts later to build up adventure and encounter details with or spawn news, rumours and clues from.
    • Plot hooks relate to your game at the story and plot level. Quests, side quests, adventures, conflicts and events.
    • Encounter seeds form the basis of individual encounters or encounter sequences. Recording the seed gives you a drag- and-drop format for you to apply other game elements to, when needed, to flesh things out into full encounters.

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3. How To Mine Your Backgrounds 

Mining your backgrounds now becomes a simple and hopefully fun process of digging through all of your sources and loading any information you pick out into the most useful mining cart.

Events

If something has a date, record it in your timeline. Any notable event should go into your timeline as well, and if no date is provided, estimate one.

Develop an eye for recognising events, as these are important to the foundation of your campaign. It is tricky reading through backgrounds and spotting events, because you sometimes get caught up in the story and miss them or forget to add them to your timeline. Other times information about an event gets split up into different paragraphs or sections and you need to piece things together.

For example, note character birth dates, when things were founded and when conflicts occurred. Another way to look at it is to record who did what when.

World building

Put details about your world and campaign into your gazetteer so it is always at your fingertips. Look through any world book, such as Eberron or Dark Sun, and you will see they are divided into chapters that are further divided into sections. Your gazetteer can mirror this structure, or you can create your own structure, so you can record information about gods, races, geography, cultures and so on.

Use the gazetteer as a bucket for any information that does not relate to history, people, places and things, as you can use the other mining carts for this information.

Allies, enemies, contacts and relationships

Your world is full of people and you need a way to keep track of them all. Whenever you spot a person's name add it to your cast of characters plus any related information about who they are, what they do, where they are located, their relationships and their story roles.

Reversing the process, whenever an NPC is mentioned without a name record their info and generate a name for them. This improves the accuracy and integrity of your notes and helps you flesh out your campaign and world at the same time.

Notable places for name-dropping and encounter re-use

Authors use the names of places as a technique to make their stories believable and entertaining. Sometimes a name will pop up in conversation, be used as a curse or get attached to something to add detail. "This Velurian wine is magnificent."

For example, an NPC could sell a quiver full of arrows to the PCs and your game moves on. Alternatively, the merchant might offer a quiver of Red Forest elven arrows, and this could serve to add more detail to your campaign, offer a clue, give the elf player pause to consider what region his character is from, or all three.

Each time the material you sift through mentions a place, add it to the cast of locations. Use this as list of suggestions for world-building, campaign planning and encounter design.

Notable items should be celebrated in campaign detail

The best examples are relics, major magic items and exotic equipment. Many adventures include a special magic item in the background that eventually finds its way into an encounter and then the PCs' hands. Few adventures take the opportunity to reveal the item's history throughout the course of the adventure to build up anticipation, so that when the group finally has its hands on it, it is a special moment.

For you, note any item mentioned in the materials. Named items are ideal. Anonymous items of significance should get added and then named. If you get stuck naming something, then name it after the creator, owner or place of origin. This trick lets you highlight NPCs and locations at the same time.

In most cases, an item is implied in some action or event described in a background. Become more aware of this by asking "How?" each time something occurs.

An assassination, for example, gets noted because a significant NPC falls. But how was he killed? Likely some weapon, poison or trap did the dirty deed. This becomes an ideal entry into your cast of items because there is fame and history attached to it. Whoever wrote the background probably did not think to consider how the assassination took place, and they were just fixed on the fact of the assassination and resulting consequences.

Let us say it was a dagger that killed Legathiel, an elven ambassador. I would enter into my cast of items "Dagger of Legathiel." If inspiration does not strike for bringing it into play immediately, then I at least have this in my list for future use. I would be inclined to make it a weapon sought after by enemies of the elves to use against them repeatedly throughout the ages, to not only kill special targets, but add insult and dishonour because a weapon with such a reviled reputation was used. The dagger is not even magical at this point, yet it has special significance with lots of plotting opportunities.

Use your growing cast of items as a shopping inventory tool as well. As in the Red Forest arrows example above, when the PCs go shopping you can drop in named mundane items for that extra bit of setting flair.

Track your open loops

Record hooks for future inspiration and spontaneous in-game linkage. You also need to know what issues are raised that would impact the setting, campaign and adventures to prevent logic errors. "Hey, what about that weird shape in the sky mentioned in my character's background? It is still there, right? I look up."

  • Look for conflicts mentioned in a background. Note who was involved and what the fight was about.
  • Note events that might reoccur or that affect modern times in some way. Holidays are prime targets.
  • Add to the pool dreams, goals and motivations of PCs and NPCs still living.
  • List anything players would perceive as treasure. They might seek these things out, or you can turn them into objects of quests.
  • Note anything mysterious, especially remote, unexplored and named places. These are all possible locations for adventurers.
  • Encounters have three basic ingredients: a place, a conflict and a time. Add to your pool of hooks proto- encounters when you spot two or three of these ingredients colliding while parsing through background materials.

To summarise, read through any background material you can lay your hands on. Just about any fact will have a place in your system of mining carts to record it. Spotting useful bits of information takes practice, and you will get better at it as you read through more backgrounds and histories.

A nice rule of thumb is that if it has a date, name or action you should record it. Be on the lookout for anything you can use to enhance gameplay by creating immersive details or hooks.

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4. Switch To Campaign Logging 

Once you finish mining all of your information sources for juicy details, each of your mining carts becomes a real-time bucket for your ongoing campaign. When you campaign begins, you switch from mining mode to logging mode to help you track game details and opportunities.

As you make things up while planning or GMing, shovel this information into the proper cart. This will keep facts straight and give you deep references so you do not need to worry about having to remember everything.

Timeline

This becomes a log of what the PCs do and when.

Gazetteer

You will make things up on the fly as you run games. Add new items here that do not fit in the other mining carts. Add names or references during the game to act as a placeholder, and then add flesh them out between games.

Cast of characters

This becomes a listing of NPCs met, and the relationships they develop with each other and the PCs. For example, in my current campaign I need to track NPC attitude towards the PCs so I know who will help and hinder them, who will give them great service and who will charge them double, and potential modifiers to any social skill rolls.

Cast of locations

Players have the challenging habit of asking, where? Where is that store? Where can I buy this thing? Where does the NPC live? Where do I go for this service? Have there been other reports of attacks, and if so, where? Where is the NPC from? Where are the chips?

As with the gazetteer, add into your locations list any place that gets created either by name or intent during games or planning.

Cast of items

This becomes your treasure and equipment list. In my campaigns characters do not automatically determine the value of treasure until they get it appraised or appraise it themselves. Even then, I record the real value and the appraised value in case there is a difference for any reason.

For notable equipment, I want to know who is carrying it and where. I have found asking where a certain item is out of the blue tends to foil NPC actions, such as theft, scouting, breaking, and so on because it tips the PCs off.

For example, I prefer to know what magical signatures the PCs have without asking as an enemy mage invisibly casts detect magic nearby.

Sometimes items get lost in the shuffle as PCs fight over treasure or sell it. Your cast of items will ensure an accurate record of what stuff has actually been found. Do with this information as you see fit.

Pool of hooks

For ideas, planning and logical occurrence of events. I outlined my current process for stocking my pool of hooks in Issue #488.

* * *

Histories, backstories and backgrounds are filled with rich veins of material to mine for your campaigns. Reuse as much of this as possible to add incredible detail, fidelity and immersion to your campaigns. Reused details mined from backgrounds are easier to remember. They also give you a frame in which to fit your adventures, encounters, treasure and NPCs.

Why invent something new every time? Instead, keep using existing details and add more depth to every reuse. Soon your world and game will feel linked together, integrated and alive.

To do this, start with the information you already have at hand: backgrounds. Almost every game element can come with a background. Read this information over. Mine all the details out. File these details into a basic system, such as the mining carts described above.

Once done, you should have a surprising amount of detail available for new adventures and encounters. When you start gameplay, build on all this detail by switching from mining mode to logging mode.

Keep your information organized in a system that lets you recall details fast for reuse. Tie details together so that more and more factor into each story. With this growing body of knowledge and experience, all sorts of roleplaying, plot and design ideas emerge on their own.

Start with mining your backgrounds today.

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Courts of the Shadow Fey: Exploration and Intrigue for 4E D&D

The Shadow Fey have taken control of the Free City! To save it, a band of heroes must travel to the Plane of Shadows and confront courtly intrigue, demon lovers and the King and Queen of Shadows in Wolfgang Baur's new Paragon-tier sandbox planar adventure for 4th Edition D&D.

Courts of the Shadow Fey includes a detailed 100-location map, dozens of monsters your players have never seen, and a quick-play dueling system for dispatching jealous rivals.

Pre-order your copy today at Kobold Quarterly

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For Your Game: 30 Brigands 

By Scrasamax, Strolen's Citadel

"That's a nice tunic you've got there, I think I'll take it...." - Marv, the Brigand

Appearance

Brigands are rough and tumble men who often live off the land. They make themselves nuisances to trade routes, farmlands and other settled, civilized folk. Most come from military backgrounds - failed mercenaries, discharged soldiers and disgruntled city guardsmen. They have decent weapon skills, don't make glaring tactical errors, but are entirely bound together by a single charismatic brigand leader. Without this leader, or a few of his elite inner circle, brigands are likely to disperse in short order to avoid death or capture.

Basic Equipment

Brigands will have at least two weapons, their prime weapon being treasured, and likely metal, such as a sword or flail. Their secondary weapon is one easily made, or useful in larger numbers, such as plain shortbows, spears or pikes. Brigands are also generally on foot, with only their leader likely having a mount to ride.

Roleplaying Notes

Brigand bands have clearly defined pecking orders. Those being more dangerous or skilled gravitate to leadership positions. The leaders will parley before engaging in battle, as the brigands are more interested in getting loot and goods than killing, and possibly being killed.

1. Lind the Baron

While having neither claim to nobility, or even leadership within the brigand band, Lind dresses in stolen finery and decorates himself with jewelry as he thinks a proper lord would. He is decked out in a good deal of cheap or costume jewelry, and a good number of women's pieces. While pretending to be a dandy, he is still a filthy brigand.

2. Tib the Terrible

Known for his appalling lack of manners or hygiene, this brigand spouts off some of the foulest limericks and dirty jokes known to man. No one is sure if the Terrible part of his name comes from his smell, his taste in humor or his fondness for using a pair of horseman's flails on foot.

3. Masrimi the Unseen

This brigand has a useful skill of hiding in shadows, and for being overlooked. This could be a major advantage for the brigand, as his attacks with the iron mace he carries would be almost always fatal. This isn't the case, as most often Masrimi uses his skill to hide and then sleep when he is supposed to be on guard detail.

4. Claudio Clear-Shot

So called for his good eye with the bow, Claudio is really Claudia, and she keeps her gender secret from most of the band. Those who know find her more useful for an archer than pillow fodder. In combat she often uses aimed shots for the groin.

5. Delamare the Cat-Killer

Delamare is a large heavily scarred man who wears a hood and cape made of the hide of a mountain lion he killed himself with a wooden spear. Bare chested with a necklace of lion claws, Delamare is a dangerous stalker and ambush artist.

6. Deacon Rogue

No one knows this former Holy Man's name as he forsook the church and the cloth for some reason. Most suspect heresy, and the Deacon's combat skills with the warhammer and glaive persuade them not to ask too closely. A guarded and quiet man filled with unholy rage.

7. Farmer Emoran

Once an owner and tiller of the land, Emoran was evicted and quickly took up the life of banditry. He tends a garden for the band, and is capable of fighting with the bow, flail, and anything long and spear like. He is a favorite of the band and unlikely to be in first combats.

8. Falter the Ex-Guard

Falter once served in a crack city guard company and was dishonorably discharged from said company and exiled from the city for being involved in a thieves' guild plot to assassinate several council members. Falter is a hard man with an equally hard face and a drill sergeant's voice.

9. Wistful Candelar

Woe and ill-tidings upon Candelar who once had a lovely and foreign wife, a large home, and many fine horses. Always full of complaints of his now lost life, many of which are inconsistent, Candelar is the brigand's brigand, willing to hunt other bands for their loot and supplies.

10 Dead Nagel

This brigand paints his face with white paint and wears armor with 'death wounds' in it, often going into a raid with fresh blood painted on. Many see this obvious zombie attacking with the brigands and surrender so as to not be contaminated by its evil bite. Nagel is a practical joker and the clown of the band.

For 20 more brigands, visit: Strolen's Citadel.

[Comment from Johnn: GM challenge: Scrasamax offers us 30 great brigands in total, with a good NPC concept for each, all ready to go. Find a way to fit this entire band into your campaign. The seeds and hooks are already done for you. You have an entire brigand band ready for roleplay! Add some crunch, and you are ready for combat too.

This is a rare opportunity to run a cool band of NPCs, each with distinct personalities and hooks. Put this band in your game and let me know what you used them for and how it went. I throw the dice down at your feet and challenge you!]

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Battlestations!

Is the starship combat system for your RPG lacking crunch?

Battlestations integrates ship to ship and boarding action for maximum hi-fi-sci-fi thrills to replace the weak sauce combat system built into your RPG (you know the kind where the referee waves his hands and says "Just roll high on a d20"). Battlestations has working starships with guns, engines, teleporters, missiles and more. Are You a Hero? "Bot Wars" now available.

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Game Master Tips & Tricks 

Have some GM advice you'd like to share? E-mail it to johnn@roleplayingtips.com - thanks!

1. 7 Low-Level Encounter Ideas 

From JShurin

Hi Johnn, I've been reading your newsletter for about a year now, and am really enjoying it. I just finished up a campaign, and thought there might be a few useful encounter seeds in it for others.

The party was powerful (some good dice rolling in character creation), so I wound up racking my mind for ways to make standard encounters into challenges. Here are some of the situations I put my (now slightly twitchy!) party through:

  • Trapped in the second-story of a burning inn at night, surrounded by goblin shamans and rogues - firing at party members as they scrambled out the windows.
  • On their hands and knees, fighting a zombie hound in the crawl space underneath an abandoned hut.
  • Swimming underwater through a sunken room, being grappled by angry zombies. Unarmored, and wearing extremely fragile water-breathing gear, there was a sense of paranoia about sustaining even a single hit.
  • Rowing a small boat down a jungle river, whilst goblins leapt from overhanging trees and vines in ambush. Hungry alligators snapped up anyone foolish enough to fall over into the water.
  • Hunting down a goblin shaman in mist-shrouded ruins (no darkvision need apply, naturally) while wolves darted in and out from all sides.
  • Carrying a fragile glass jar with a rare spell component (to save a girl's life) across a series of slick logs -while angry goblins pelted them with stones.
  • Battling an enemy monk on top of a massive dam - a ten- foot-wide, smooth, water-slick stone surface. Naturally, without guard rails or walls -against a nimble enemy with no armor check penalty. As this was the climactic battle, I actually built this set ahead of time (two sheets of styrofoam and some PDF dungeon tiles) to reinforce the tension that came from the height. (Un)Fortunately, no party members fell off - but many wound up prone, clinging on for dear life!

For all of these, relatively low CR beasties suddenly become much more difficult encounters.

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2. Pinpoint Time And Location For Easier GMing 

From unknown (if you sent this in, please let me know so I can supply accurate attribution)

I liked your piece on campaign timelines in #365, especially the parts on narrowing down the entire timeline for a campaign. As a DM in the Forgotten Realms, it's something I've had to do to help keep both my players and me sane, especially given the fact that novels, comics, computer games and other non-game material are all considered canon in the Realms.

The total history of the Realms as published by all involved parties is a monstrous beast to try and contain. But, by picking a date for your campaign that's well behind the current edge of the timeline, you can eliminate much of the extraneous material to your particular plot and concentrate on making your players feel like the stars of the show. It's worked for me for many years.

One other thing I'd like to see discussion or tips about is picking a place in the world. Like narrowing down a timeline, narrowing down the geography of a published campaign world is another key for a successful campaign. Too many novice GMs and players who are thinking about switching sides of the screen assume that you have to know the entire world and all its details before you begin a campaign.

The fact is, you only ever need to know one location at any one time - and that's wherever your players are at the moment. As long as you can create a clear picture in your players' minds of where they're at right now in a campaign, the rest of the world doesn't matter much, unless you want it to. Limiting the geography you have to learn (or recall at any one time) is one of the keys to gaming in any published world.

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3. More WW2 Supers Campaign Ideas 

From Kristine C.

Campaign Ideas:

  • The Corps is put behind enemy lines in Europe and are working against the Axis there. It'd get you your A-team feel without making them American fugitives. Also, it would be an excuse to bring in French, English, German, Italian, and Eastern European supers.
  • The Corps are placed on a small destroyer and deposited in either the Atlantic or Pacific theater. This would be a fun base of operations and good for a more water-themed campaign, especially for an island hopping feel.

Villain Ideas

  • Kyosh, a Japanese villain who speaks in the third person and has multiplication powers. He could sneak into a base and then multiply into a small army. Make him a ninja for extra fun!
  • V-3, a German villain who expands upon the Germany's use of rockets, most notably the V-2 rocket. A rocket pack and specialized missiles could make a difficult foe.
  • Captain Storm (German word for "power"). A U-boat captain with electricity based powers who also uses these abilities to recharge his U-boat's batteries, thus removing the U- boat's one weakness. Would be a great villain in a water based campaign.

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4. Image Resources For Character Inspiration 

From Michael Beach

It can be very helpful in the character creation process to have available an image that solidifies the character in the player's mind. I've got a couple of good sources I use:

I'd be interested to see if anyone else has any other sources.

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5. Obstacle Course Request 

From Jerry Jensen

Hey Johnn,

Have you seen First Knight? In the movie, Lancelot went through a gauntlet course to win a kiss from Guinevere. A more modern form of a gauntlet (or obstacle course) would be from the TV game show Wipeout, though that could also be tailored to a fantasy setting.

My thought was to have a course set up for PCs to go through to win a prize, generally gold. The course could have things like climb a rope latter or rock wall, swing across a mud pit, run across the tops of poles or dodge various objects.

The course could be laid out in card fashion (kinda like a chase scene) where the PC has to make a skill check or save. If the PC is successful, they earn X points and move on to the next obstacle. If they fail, they don't earn any points but still move on.

For example, a course is laid out over 10 cards with some easier obstacles awarding 1 point and the harder ones 2 or 3 points each. A perfect score could then be say 20 points. The DM could either stop there and award a winner (if he wanted to keep the gauntlet simple) or move on to a final round and have the PCs compete in the same course or a new one.

If the PC earns 15+ points they would advance to that final round. Once completed, the prizes could be handed out to the top three winners.

Other NPCs could join in making it a little more challenging.

Another option to a point system, the gauntlet could also be set up as a timed run, depending on how complicated the DM wants to make it. If the PC is unsuccessful at an obstacle they incur a timed penalty and so on.

Mainly what I was looking for was a list of obstacles along with the required skill used and the DC rating.

For example: Simple Rock Wall, DC 15 Climb. If you wanted to make it more fun (and funny for the spectators) add a high Reflex save if they beat the climb check to simulate that one of the holds was rigged to give way. If they fail the save they fall off the wall and lose the points. This would be fun in a timed race or a hard course. Either way, it could be made out to be hilarious. (Maybe I watch too much Wipeout!)

The whole idea was not to be harmful for PCs, but to run a fun, sport-like competition they compete in to earn gold and XP.

In addition to this idea you could set up anything from a basic course to a class-specific course geared toward the special abilities of that class. Being that the gauntlet could be set up over 10 cards, it could be completely random each time, especially if you have basic, intermediate and advanced courses, each with a pool of cards to choose from.

[Comment from Johnn: I like your ideas, Jerry.

If I understand correctly, the game boils down to a series of dice rolls. Generally, this is ok in short bursts, but gets boring quickly.

An obstacle course would just become something like:

Skill Check Skill Check Saving Throw Skill Check Saving Throw etc.

If you can find a way to add options or strategy, then your players would probably enjoy it more. One idea might be to fork the course and let players choose path A or path B each stage so they can pick the type of skill or saving throw they roll against. The logic would be simple, though, so only slightly more fun.

What about some kind of bidding contest? Give each contestant 100 points that they allocate across each competitor over 10 events. Putting a point into your own obstacle gives you a bonus to the roll. Putting a point into a competitor's obstacle gives them a penalty.

Do point allocations in rounds, one round per obstacle. Players can employ simple strategies and be reactive to try to win each round. Slightly more interactive. If there are ways players can learn competitor strengths and weaknesses (perhaps via roleplaying ahead of time) that gives them even more tactics to think about.

You might allow a Luck roll after each failure. Perhaps a 6 on a d6 results in the contestant miraculously pulling a success even after a failed roll. This would be a wild card in case players figure out how to abuse your system. :)

Readers, any ideas for Jerry's obstacle types request?]

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6. City Inspiration: Thieves World For Your Summer Reading 

From Mike Perschon

This is more of a source of inspiration tip than a direct what-to-do approach. For summer reading, I like to return to books from when I first got into playing D&D back in the early '80s. There's something essentially 'summer' about those old paperbacks with Boris Vallejo and Frank Frazetta covers. In this case, it's a Walter Velez cover, but it's my favorite - I have the print framed in my office.

Thieves' World - an anthology by then-popular fantasy authors working in a shared world. That world was primarily city, a place called Sanctuary: a den of scum and villainy that would make Mos Eisley look like Vatican City by comparison.

Nearly every story in the first volume is a city-based- campaign seed, right down to possible NPCs and magic items. A lot of fantasy in those days seemed to be heavily influenced by gaming, in an unabashed way that doesn't seem to work anymore outside books inspired directly by gaming lines.

I highly recommend picking up the books - I suppose you could just grab the campaign material from Green Ronin, or find a copy of the really old-school RPG of Thieves' World by Chaosium on eBay. But I think it'd be just as easy to keep gaming in the system and world you use, and borrow some great ideas from some classic fantasy writers.

[Comment from Johnn: I just went to eBay and searched for 'thieves world lot' and found a few auctions with 10+ books in them for under 20 bucks.

I loved the Thieves World series. Never got past book 8 though, but I did read several of the spin-off books by various authors based on their characters in Sanctuary. Ok, now I'm jonesing to read this series again! Thanks for the tip.]

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RPG Reviews 

Wu Xing - The Ninja Crusade (5 / 5) 

Review By Mike Bourke

Third Eye Games' second RPG is a beauty. At 221 pages, it's no small download; you expect a lot, and it doesn't disappoint. This is a complete standalone product, containing everything that you need to start playing (except a d20), even if it's your very first game. In fact, the only shortcoming I can see is that there should be a d6-to-d20 system of some sort in case people can't find a local game store stocking polyhedrals!

The background is lavish and lush with detail and flavour. It's a little confusing for a while, reading "Ninja" when the historical role is more akin to Samurai, but once you get your head around that, you're in for a treat.

A special shout-out for the artwork, which is both exquisite and, at times, very effective at conveying and building on the mood and flavour. I grabbed the chance to review this topic looking for inspiration with respect to characters and game settings, not to use as a standalone product, but my expectations in this respect have been greatly exceeded.

I also especially like some of the touches you might expect from a bigger company, like an introduction to how to roleplay and how to GM. The advice is solid, if fundamental, and would get any prospective gamer off to a flying start in either capacity. To echo what I've said in the first paragraph, this volume contains EVERYTHING you need to start playing except a d20 - even if you've never gamed before.

The game system looks clean and straightforward, and would also serve as an ideal introduction to gaming before delving into the complexities of D&D or the Hero System or other "bigger scale" game systems. But there's something here for just about anyone - even if it's only inspiration or the appreciation of a job very well done indeed.

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Hounds of G.O.D. (3.5 / 5)  

Review by Nick Deane

Hounds of GOD is a stand-alone role-playing game in which the players get to play werewolves. But don't mistake this for a remake of "Werewolf: the Apocalypse"; the characters in this game are more like the Strontium Dogs from the 2000 AD comic "Johnny Alpha" than any mystically-empowered lycanthrope.

Employed and created for the purpose of keeping the peace (or at least keeping a lid on the more excessive violence) of a dystopic 32nd century universe, the Hounds are sent on missions given to them by their G.O.D. (Genome Operations Director) to hunt down criminals, find missing persons and generally sweep situations that the United Earth Corporation considers "particularly messy" under the carpet.

At 40 pages, there isn't room for much in the rulebooks beyond the basic mechanics and a thumbnail sketch of the game universe. In the introduction the writers state they deliberately left much of the setting open and undefined so GMs can tinker as much as they want.

Bare-bones simplicity is the keyword of the "XxX" (Ten by Ten) game system that Hounds of GOD uses for its mechanics. Character generation is a prime example - points are allocated among six attributes (Stamina, Agility, Mental, Willpower, Speed and Strength) on a one-to-ten scale, a seperate pool of points are allocated to skills on a one-to- ten scale, and that's it.

Skill checks are equally simple -roll a number of ten-sided dice equal to the relevant attribute, see how many are less than the rank in the relevant skill, and that's how many successes you have. The simplicity of the system puts the focus on the scenario and the roleplaying, where it belongs.

I'm a firm believer that the background and universe of a game sets the tone and defines the gaming experience, which is why I played several D&D campaigns set in the Forgotten Realms but wouldn't touch a Greyhawk campaign with a ten foot pole. As a result I found the lack of detail to the game setting for "Hounds of G.O.D." a bit off-putting. If AJWGames were to put out a setting sourcebook going into more detail about the various law-enforcement agencies, criminal organisations, and worlds, the game would have a broader appeal.

On the other hand, this lack of detail gives a great deal of latitude to the GM to customise the setting to his own taste. With the game mechanics being simple and straightforward enough to grasp in a single reading (an area where numerous RPGs fall down) Hounds of G.O.D. can be used as an introductory game for people who are new to roleplaying, or as a substitute game for those occasions when only a few players show up to a session.

If you're looking for a detailed game with several different breeds of were-creature, a list of unique powers and detailed combat rules this is *not* the game for you. On the other hand, if you're looking for a game with simple mechanics that let you get started quickly, and a dark setting with plenty of scope to customise to your heart's content, "Hounds of G.O.D." just might be worth your time.

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Genius Guide to the Armiger (3 / 5)  

Review by Ian Gray

This supplement for the Pathfinder RPG introduces a new character class, The Armiger. The guide contains rules for the class, a section for both players and DMs on introducing and using the class in any fantasy campaign that allows for heavy armour, and a section introducing new feats for heavy armour and shield users as well as several new types of shields.

The class is easy to play with built-in tactical options for more advanced players, and can be played from beginning to end without need of a prestige class or multi-classing. The Armiger allows for several combat styles - walking wall or bodyguard - and can be used in both melee and ranged combat.

This a class for players with a heavy armour fetish and wish to play with survival and toughness as their main point, acting as a bastion of defence. Unfortunately, this guide holds little for those who prefer a more aggressive form of character and fighting style.

One feature I like is that several levels let a character to pick from a list of abilities allowing for further customization, insuring that most Armigers will be different enough from player to player or NPC that each will be more individual than most other classes allow.

The Armiger also has several uses for DMs. A new class allows for new and interesting NPCs and organizations in any campaign that they can be fit into, and this supplement has a brief yet well thought out section on how to do so for the class. Possibly the most useful part for DMs is that the class is a great tool for keeping key villains alive longer than most other bodyguards would be capable of doing, enabling you to get more out of your main villain.

Whilst mechanically sound - not broken or overpowered, and not stepping on the toes of other characters - there are two main concerns for the class introduced in this guide. First, it caters to players with a specific taste in characters. Second, it might fall behind other classes in higher levels.

Overall, The Genius Guide to the Armiger is a solid effort and great support for players who like their heroes in heavy metal, and for DMs interested in prolonging villain survival. Flavour-wise, the guide and class is generic; this is both its greatest strength and weakness. It can fit into almost any fantasy setting, but at the same time has absolutely no attention-grabbing fluff or mechanic that screams "play me!"

 

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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:

Inns, Taverns, and Restaurants - new

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

Adventure Essentials: Holidays

Advice and tips for designing compelling holidays that not only expand your game world but provide endless natural encounter, adventure, and campaign hooks.

GM Mastery: NPC Essentials

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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