Roleplaying Tips Weekly E-Zine Issue #510
Best Game Master Tips of 2010, Part 2
This Week's Tips Summarized
Best Game Master Tips of 2010, Part 2
A Brief Word From Johnn
Newsletter Tip Request: Alternate Formats
One of my goals this year is to investigate bringing this
newsletter to alternate formats, preferably HTML and PDF.
HTML would make the newsletter readable on mobile devices
because I would not need to put in all the hard line breaks
that screw up formatting on small screens.
HTML would also allow graphics, helpful layout such as
linked table of contents, and better typography with
headers, bold and italics.
PDF I'm not so sure about, but it would make issues more
readable on mobile devices like the iPad and usable by
killer apps like GoodReader.
Problems are twofold: time and time. So I am putting it out
there to see if anyone has any ideas on how I can make this
Plain text, HTML and PDF each have their own formatting. It
would be a perfect world if I could create and edit the
newsletter in one format and then just have it flow to the
other two formats with a button click or two.
Before I try tangling with MS Word (which, in theory, could
get me to plain text, HTML and PDF, though I worry about
Word's HTML export and all the hidden styles stuff Word puts
into files) does anybody know of software that handles
export to HTML, PDF and plain text nicely?
If your job involves this kind of content conversion, then
any work flow tips you might have would be awesome too. If I
can keep this extra step down to an hour for all new
versions, then I think that is sustainable.
Have a game-full year!
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Reader Tip Request: How to Run A Campaign With 8th Level NPCs
RPT reader James sent me this request about my Riddleport
campaign. Below are the tips I sent him, and I thought you
might find them useful as well.
Johnn, one thing you could help on, and I've been trying to
get my head round, is the fact that your NPCs are on average
8th level. How, in the early sessions, did you provide
winnable combats for your players? I really like the
concept, as I'm trying to re-instill some fear of death in
my players, but I also want to give them combat.
Good question! Here is what I did:
Communicated the situation to players before the campaign
- Warned them that everyone else is tougher.
- Warned them I would be fine with a TPK.
- Explained how new PCs would be brought into the campaign.
The campaign offered an easy way to immediately bring in
new PCs (the PCs own an inn).
This relieved pressure to play perfectly because introducing
new PCs is easy, however it created tension because life was
Established how resurrection would work. We covered how
beloved PCs could be raised or resurrected, and how much
that would cost.
This offered players an option, and gave me an out in case I
did end up whacking a much-prized character. Yet, the cost
of coming back is enough to deter careless play.
Campaign does not hinge on any particular PC. Any PC can
die, and the campaign lives on. A TPK could occur, and the
campaign could still live on if the players wanted to
I do not have a pre-planned, required central plot, so it
becomes easy for the campaign to stay free of character
dependency. Yet, each PC has their own side plot, so a lot
of story is emerging, and PC actions have great impact on
the game world and future choices.
The first encounter proved it. One PC died. I purposefully
put the PCs up against NPCs who could have delivered a TPK.
However, I structured the encounter so the NPCs were not
motivated to kill. I also warned the PCs during the
encounter, by way of description, how tough the NPCs were.
The solution to the encounter was to say yes. If the PCs
agreed to terms the NPCs laid out, the encounter would end.
There was opportunity for cunning PCs to eke out a small
advantage in the terms as well.
Unfortunately, a player decided their PC had a big ego and
made him attack an NPC. His character avoided the counter-
attack, but that placed another PC in jeopardy, and that PC
died instead, before the PCs fled with the NPCs laughing and
hollering after them.
My group is mature, so the player of the dead PC was angry
at the other player who started the fight, but the group
sorted things out amongst themselves to prevent such a
situation from occurring again. I was prepared to intervene
if tempers or emotions escalated, but I did not need to.
The NPCs would have TPK'd the group if they had not fled.
However, they were under orders not to kill the PCs, so they
would have switched to non-lethal damage the next round.
Regardless, message sent in the first encounter - play by
the world's rules and the cards dealt you, or suffer the
consequences; plus, clever thinking will be rewarded,
careless will not.
Offered powerful allies. One ally offered a free Raise
Dead to any PC who signed their soul over to him. My players
are excellent. They each carefully considered whether their
character would actually give up their soul for a one-time
security blanket. Some signed, most did not. It was a great
Gave XP for roleplaying and solutions. Provide a way for
PCs to slowly gain power, and give them hope of one day
being on par with most other NPCs, by means other than
The average NPC is powerful, but not all are. The PCs live
in a poor area of town. Lots of people down on their luck
skulk around looking for any opportunity to commit a petty
crime for the day's meal.
The PCs, all bright and shiny, looked as new and naive as
they truly were. So weak NPCs decided to attack. These
combats were manageable by weak PCs.
Also, not all foes in the city are NPCs. Animals, spirits
and hazards provided lots of physical challenges.
In addition, a three-tiered pit fighting league also
opportunity for parity in combat. PCs could opt to fight and
were matched against lightweights and the skinny NPCs. :)
Audiences want long, close matches, so the system rewarded
low-level NPCs getting matched against the PCs.
Issued warnings instead of assassinations. In Riddleport
the dead earn no profits. Crime lords need minions out there
hustling and working for a living. Better to send a warning
than issue a hit. When PCs step out of line, they get
beaten, humiliated or mutilated, but not killed.
Districts system. Riddleport has 10 or so districts. The
PCs' home district is tough, but as long as the PCs are
humble and careful, they avoid fights. That is because they
are working for a crime lord, and most will think twice
about harming the crime lord's property.
The PCs were warned, and they learned the hard way, that
stepping out of their district and outside the shadow of
their boss's protection could prove deadly.
This meant the PCs could adventure in their own district
safely, though many plot threads required them to sneak
around in other districts - tense moments.
Social skills win. Many encounters were settled - with XP
- by good use of diplomacy, bluff and intimidate.
Players are smarter than me. I'll finish these tips with a
chilling secret. My players use and abuse the rules a lot
better than me. NPCs who should've smacked the PCs around
ended up in the dead cart. Bad ass monsters who should've
sent the group screaming into the night ended up stuffed and
mounted on the inn wall.
In 2011 I plan to up my game and be a craftier, more
bastardly GM for this particular campaign.
Hope this helps!
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Best Game Master Tips of 2010, Part 2
Last issue covered the tips from 2010 that I found the most
useful or interesting.
Now we conclude with the final batch. I might do this again
next December - let me know if you liked or did not like
this pair of Best Of editions.
21. Deadly Situations
From James Edward Raggi IV
Every adventure must have situations that directly and truly
threaten the lives of the characters participating. If there
is no true threat, it is not an adventure, it's a tour.
I'll go so far as to say there should be situations designed
specifically to kill characters. A monster that's way too
tough. A trap that's going to claim a victim. Save or die.
These sorts of things. Every. Single. Time. The key is to
put these "expected death" situations in places where it
isn't necessary to encounter them. The players must choose
to engage in these areas and situations.
Teach them that the game world isn't scaled so they can kill
22. Keep A Checklist Of Your Session
Checklists are an amazing way to keep track of your night's
session. Write down all the important plot points, new NPCs
you need to introduce, and encounters the players should
have, and check them off as the session progresses.
Always leave extra space towards the bottom to write
campaign notes on unexpected actions the players took. This
checklist gives you a quick look back on what happened or
didn't happen during that session.
After the session ends, review your checklist and add
anything that didn't happen and is still relevant onto your
next session's checklist.
I keep old checklists in my campaign binder. They are an
amazing resource to use in long-term campaigns.
23. Get Player Agreement On Law Enforcement Up Front
Before the campaign begins and characters are made, have a
discussion with your group. Decide how law enforcement will
work in the setting and how it will affect gameplay. Let the
players help you create this aspect of the game. Hopefully
this produces a result the group can live by and play by
when the campaign starts.
- What kind of adventures do you want to DM?
- What kind of adventures do they want to play?
- What kind of adventurers do they want to play?
Be sure to represent the world-building point of view, that
the players are unlikely to have, where the setting will be
full of people who need to live by the decisions the group
Sure, it is fun and easy to want to play heroes who can do
what they want without any consequences. But what has
stopped others from doing the same in the past, causing
strife, misery and tragedy? Surely a society would take
actions to prevent this from happening again.
By having this discussion at the beginning of the campaign
you can formulate a world around the desires of the group.
For example, the players remain adamant they want to be
unhindered by law enforcement. Two options of many come to
- Option #1: Create a warlord environment with an
unsophisticated legal system. There are no guards, just
agents of the warlord, and the warlord decides punishments.
The PCs are safe unless they commit some major crime.
- Option #2: Give the characters law enforcement powers.
This solves many small game issues handily, and gives you a
handy campaign platform as a bonus.
As you can see, both options have a profound impact on a
In addition, deciding this up front helps inform players
what kind of characters they should create. I think this is
where most campaigns fall down in terms of handling guards.
The group creates PCs near the beginning of the process,
which is like putting the cart before the horse. Or worse,
players create characters outside the process, and they just
show up to the first session with no idea of your plan, and
everyone hopes things magically gel together. Either way,
characters will be at odds with the setting, campaign and
adventurers the game master has planned.
The solution is to discuss law enforcement before characters
are created, as part of campaign planning from the
If you are mid-campaign there is still hope. If guards are a
current headache for you, have a group chat immediately.
Discuss the situation to get the group's preferences. Once
everyone agrees on the law enforcement style they would
like, you need to make some changes.
Start with the characters. Continuing the discussion, ask
the players how their characters will adapt to the group
decision. This might require character personality tweaking,
background changes, and motive changes. Players might need
to reframe their character's point of view a bit so they are
in sync with what everyone decided they wanted gameplay to
Next, tackle the setting. Make necessary changes so the law
enforcement style and presence matches what everyone's new
expectations are. With character and setting changes planned
out, you will need to update your adventure.
Make quick and seamless changes right away. Make bigger
changes that can be done without requiring retroactive
gameplay. Players will not care if you change game world
history that they have not learned yet, for example, though
you might need to update NPC backgrounds and motives as a
For changes that are big and visible I suggest running
encounters to play them out. For example, the PCs stumble
into a deadly fight between guards and the villain's
minions. If the PCs help the minions, then the guards who
had a grudge, proof, or pending charges against the PCs are
slain. Assuming no witnesses, problem solved. If the PCs
help the guards, then out of gratitude the guards become
friendly to them, drop the charges, and tend to look the
other way in the future.
24. Require A Background
From Kate Manchester
Require all characters to have a background story. It can be
long or short (preferably long) and in any format they
choose. For my own campaigns, I require players to justify
some or all of their PC's advantages or flaws in their
background. If the PC has a 3 point Enemy, I want to know
how they managed to piss someone off that badly.
From James Edward Raggi IV
There are two standards that adventure rewards must meet:
they must be enough, and they must be not enough.
Enough that everyone involved doesn't think that they've
completely wasted their time... and not enough to leave
anybody really satisfied with what they have. They need
more! Where next to plunder?
Note that concealing the rewards well may wind with the
players not finding it. Tough. As a referee, just make sure
it's there. Don't help the players to actually find it.
26. You're Done
From Hannah Lipsky
Never cancel a game for lack of prep. Sure, prep can make
your game better. Prep usually does make your game better.
Players appreciate well put together sessions and elaborate
props. I'm certainly not discouraging you from pouring hours
of prep into your game; if you have the time and it makes
you happy, go for it.
But your players would rather you wing a session with bottle
caps and scraps than have to miss a game because you were
afraid it would be less than perfect.
27. Give City Encounters A Backstory
From Johnn Four
To make an encounter compelling it needs a backstory. Create
a layer behind what the players see, which they can peel
back and discover if they so choose. This adds depth,
exploration and player control to your urban games, while
keeping things manageable behind the screen.
28. Make Histories Dynamic
From Kate Manchester
Realize that a character's history is dynamic. It can evolve
and become more fleshed out over time as the player spends
more time with the PC.
For example, I've had a character history that started out
with the vague reasoning of her transfer away from her
native Chicago due to a family dispute. I elaborated on it
by deciding the dispute was with her mother and sisters over
breaking her engagement (she and her fiancee had different
ideas about her working outside the home).
29. Low-Level Encounter Ideas
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
For all of these, relatively low CR beasties suddenly become
much more difficult encounters.
30. Four Core Approaches
Some players think it is entirely the DM's job to introduce
the party to each other and give them a viable reason to
stay together. Some DMs think this is entirely the players'
job. Players and DMs who feel one way generally feel
similarly about who is responsible for
creating/finding/following/figuring out the plot.
I've run a few campaigns of varying lengths, starting on
either end of the "whose job is this" spectrum. The
smoothest startups either way have all involved clear
expectations on both sides. Based on what I've experienced,
it seems like the core approaches, in rough order of how
well they've worked for me, are:
- Players work together to create characters with
interweaving backstories, then present this to the DM.
- The DM designs a campaign predicated on the PCs
- DM creates a situation that forces the PCs together, and
the PCs must go from there.
- The PCs put their characters in proximity, and the DM
gives them a reason to stick together.
31. How Do You Use Dice In Ways Beyond System Rules
- I've got weather dice I roll at the beginning of
every in-game day to remind me to set the scene and
describe the sights, sounds, smells (and weather) the PCs
experience. I even roll a d8 directional die at the same
time so I can say what direction the wind's blowing.
- I have a set of mood dice that show a smiley face, sad
face, surprised face, etc. I LOVE to use these to help me
improve what random mood the NPC might be in when the PCs
What the PCs say and do will alter that mood, but having a
handful of mood dice helps me instantly create a visual
atmosphere. "As you enter, the Mayor seems to be chastising
one of his underlings who appears ashamed. Nearby, the
sheriff looks scared - an emotion you thought he didn't
possess, until now. What do you guys do?"
- I use dice as mooks in combat. If the party is surrounded
by minions with 8 hit points each, I'll put out a swarm of
d8s with "8" showing. As the minions take damage, I just
flip the die to show the remaining hit points. Instant,
visual, paperless tracking the whole table benefits from.
- I use a variety of dice for in-character gambling games.
I always have dice games (of chance) going on in the back of
the tavern. And even in the middle of a dungeon, if a couple
of players are separated from the party and have to wait
while a scene resolves, they might pick up some dice and
gamble coppers with each other to kill time.
- Believe it or not, often I use dice instead of my dry-
erase markers on the battle mat. Most combat environments
just need a general indication of where the boundaries are.
So, if the PCs enter a large, rectangular room, I'll just
put four d6's (of the same color) about where the corners of
the room are.
Then I'll put a different colored d6 wherever the exit(s)
are, and maybe even a third color indicating where the
90% of the time, that's all the scene requires and it's 90%
faster than drawing/erasing every wall and door on the mat.
Even in an irregular environment, like a circular grassy
clearing, I just throw some d6's out to indicate the general
borders of the clearing and let the players' minds fill in
the lines between.
- I don't know anyone who doesn't keep a couple of d20's
set aside as turn counters for spell duration and such. Will
the bomb go off in 14 rounds? Set a d20 out in view with the
14 showing. Every turn, flip the die over to the appropriate
number. A visual countdown makes things tense for the
- I use some d6's as height indicators for most indoors
(and some outdoors) situations. For example, if a PC climbs
20' up the wall, I'll put a large d6 under the miniature,
with the '2' facing up. When the PC climbs another 10', we
turn the d6 so the 3 is facing up.
My friend has dice that stack well, and he just puts a
number of d6's under the mini equal to the height of the PC
(divided by 10). So if you're 40' up the wall, he puts you
atop four d6's.
32. Create A Conflict
Some GMs might associate romance in RPGs with roleplaying
the interactions and awkward dialogue. Not so. Focus on the
conflict. That is where the great encounter and plot
We have already seen one example above of interesting
conflict where a society imposes restrictions, standards and
behaviors on relationships. This gives players gameplay
opportunities as they try to work within the system, and
depending on the relationship, try to work outside the
Instead of making the relationship the focus of the
gameplay, look at conflicts surrounding it. Focus on those
who try to break up the romance versus those who gain by
seeing the romance bloom. Then involve the PCs in the
Another awesome source of conflict comes from the background
of an NPC involved in a relationship. Keep this background a
secret and reveal it in bits and pieces as the game
progresses. Then have each revelation change the NPC from
sympathetic to pathetic to villain to sympathetic again,
back and forth, over and over.
For example, say the PC is in love with the daughter of
someone who is far down the line as heir to the throne.
Aside from all the courtly political plots you might hatch,
you can create a twisted background that keeps the PC
guessing whether the love of their life is a wonderful
person or jaded pawn of the court.
In one encounter the group learns the daughter, Mariele,
saved an orphanage by convincing her father to donate funds
to keep it running. But then the PCs discover the orphanage
is a cover for a gang of thugs who bully the orphans. They
also learn Mariele knew about this the whole time!
When confronted, she tells them she has nothing to do with
the thugs and she raised the money truly help the children.
Suspicious, the PCs eventually uncover proof that she is
telling the truth. But in the course of that investigation,
they learn she is secretly betrothed to one of the thugs.
When asked to choose, she chooses the thug!
But then the party learns she only chose the thug because
the King threatened to call the PCs criminals and throw them
in his dungeon.
And on and on it goes, with the group thinking Mariele is a
victim one moment, then villain the next.
33. Heist What and Why?
From Joel Fox
The 'what' and 'why' of a heist are tied together, for often
the risks and costs associated getting the loot match or
outweigh the reward. The risks associated with a bank
robbery, for example, are nearly too many to list: risk of
injury, death, imprisonment, betrayal, and so forth, not to
mention further pursuit by law enforcement, paranoia, and
having to leave the country. Therefore, the why of a heist
is often more important than the what, even though the what
is the goal of the players.
The what is generally easy enough, such as:
- A pile of diamonds
- Bearer bonds
- The Declaration of Independence
It might not be intrinsically valuable like currency, but
rather something of a more personal value:
- Documents showing the heritage of party members (granting
them a crown at a later date)
- Blueprints to create an exotic device
- An imprisoned person the party cares about
You might come up with the what somewhere later in the heist
creation process, or leave the what a mystery: the party
knows something valuable is in a vault, but not exactly what
The why, however, is more of what makes a heist a heist, and
not just people stealing stuff. The why is what makes the
benefits outweigh the risks, so it has to be pretty big: a
party rarely says, "Hey let's steal the Hope Diamond today."
The why is:
- Some advantage or edge the party has over the loot's
- To protect themselves from an even more dire fate
- To prevent a disaster
- To keep the loot safe
- To save a loved one
Here are some specific examples:
- A party member helped design or install one of the more
potent security measures guarding a treasure; they know of a
- A friend, relative, ex-lover, etc. that guards the loot is
a friend of the party, and will supply the party with useful
information in exchange for a cut.
- The money gained from a heist will be used to pay off a
dangerous criminal organization that wants the party's
- The loot is a powerful item or will provide funds that
will aid the party considerably in their current quest,
whatever that might be.
- The loot is a cure or antidote for a rare and otherwise
incurable affliction that one or more party members suffer
from; without it, they'll die.
- Similarly, someone has afflicted the party and will
exchange the antidote for the loot.
- The loot's owner recently acquired the item themselves,
and don't have the full security system installed yet.
- The loot's owner has recently acquired the loot
themselves; an object of great power, it spells considerable
doom if the party doesn't recover it.
- The loot is dangerous or in danger, and the loot's owner
doesn't listen to the party's pleas; it must be stolen to
protect it or others.
Making the why a personal and specific element of the heist
helps tie elements together.
It also keeps party interest high. A party that decides one
day to rob a local complex might lose interest or get
discouraged during the planning stages, whereas a party that
knows a local complex has valuable items the party can use
and several exploitable security holes will stay on task
until the job is done.
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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
Looking for a new group or player in 2011?
50 ways to find gamers in your neighborhood.
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