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Roleplaying Tips Weekly E-Zine Issue #***

How do you make the boring stuff fun?

Contents: 

 

This Week's Tips Summarized 

How do you make the boring stuff fun?

How To Make The Mundane Tasks In Gaming Fun And Playable

Idle Hands are the DM's Plaything - Make your players' jaws drop to the floor

Game Master Tips & Tricks

  1. 2010 GMing Learnings
  2. Creating Emergent Stories
  3. Use Maslow's Pyramid of Needs To Create Cultures
  4. Another Way To Make Plots For Your Game

 

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A Brief Word From Johnn 

I Am A Player Now

Taking the advice from past issues, I have switched sides of the screen. I will still be gaming twice a month, once as GM and now once as player.

We had our first session two weeks ago. It is a D&D 4E game and I am playing a wizard. Our characters are members of a special guard force called the Red Sashes, and we operate in an eastern setting based on Turkey.

The game opened with us getting sent to the city of Rask and assigned to an agent there. Upon arriving he greeted us with hostility, telling us to go back and leave the city alone.

We were steadfast though (it was a cool roleplaying challenge) and we squeezed an assignment from our reluctant handler. He told us to investigate reports of tentacled creatures near a town about two days away. Well played, GM, as it got us to leave the city anyway. :)

We journey to the town and roleplay some info gathering from residents. We learn a few things, choose a direction and head out. Our destination is the crash zone of a Far Realm object (meteor).

At the site we spot a hole in the earth the object made when it impacted. Cautiously we enter and encounter numerous chaos creatures. The battle is a good one, with the creatures using crystal growths to recharge and a deep stream for physical separation and tactics.

Our new group learned a few ways to work together, and we finished the session with victory over the warped creatures. Great pacing.

A side quest we picked up along the way was to discover the fate of an elven lady's father, a merchant who had gone missing en route to this area. Unfortunately, we discover his body in the cave, half eaten by the creatures. We give the body a proper burial and then head back to town.

It was great to be playing again. The one thing I noticed was how much players are willing to meet a GM halfway (or more) on details when those details are still uncertain.

As a first session using a game system we haven't played in a year in a new homebrew setting, the GM did a great job thinking on his feet. Especially when we did some investigation. As a player, I was content with meta answers like, "I do not know, but your character receives a few facts that are not pertinent to his quest." And at other times, I was pleased to offer details and have the GM decide to use some of them.

So GMs, I think we should give our players more credit and give them honest answers instead of blocking answers. We should also be good listeners and take what players offer us, instead of bearing the tough burden of having to create everything ourselves all the time.

Poor:

"The trees before you are impenetrable. There's no way you can travel further in this direction. And to the north is a tall mountain range - do not even think about going there."

Good:

"I do not know, but your character receives a few facts that are not pertinent to his quest."

Great:

"I do not know, but your character receives a few facts that are not pertinent to his quest. Please write a few ideas for me on this index card."

I look forward to the next mission of the Red Sashes.

Get a game played this week!

Cheers,

Johnn Four,
johnn@roleplayingtips.com

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How To Make The Mundane Tasks In Gaming Fun And Playable 

By Josh Sigafus

Before I had a lot of GM experience I would sometimes encounter game sessions that did not go so well. Sometimes sessions were spectacular...but there were always those sessions where it seemed like the players were not as interested, the adventures were not as fun, and the challenges just didn't do it. It just wasn't entertaining!

As I got better, I realized a few things about these game sessions:

  • When I got bored, the players got bored.
  • The best sessions were the ones where something memorable happened. For example, a boss battle, some kind of confrontation, a mystery developed.
  • The sessions where everything seemed to drop out of the middle were usually the ones in the in-between stages of the story.

For example, the battle at the castle would go great, but when it came time for the PCs to travel to the capitol (one week's travel away), game play would get tedious.

The problem was these in-between sessions usually went too fast. In an effort to get the players to the next scheduled confrontation, I would shuffle them from place to place quickly. This left the game play boring and caused us to miss out on a lot of detail.

A lot of GMs focus on the intense, big things: the battles, the clanging of the swords, the fire coming out of the dragon's nostrils. But these quiet sessions, when there are not hordes of orcs to fight, are the ones that give you the opportunity to explore detail in a finer and grittier sense.

In a recent session in our game, the players had just gone through several roadblocks to find some treasure they sought. In addition to traveling several days through the mountains on horseback, they also:

  • Fought a horde of goblins.
  • Raided the goblin cave, finding an even bigger horde of goblins.
  • Got stalked and attacked by a pack of large, magical wolves.
  • Found the treasure cave, swam through a murky stream to find a hidden passage, and crawled through the mud into the cavernous treasure room.
  • Upon entering the room, they were greeted by a wall of spider web...and were attacked by two giant spiders who could wield moderate-level magic. One of the players got caught in the web, and the others had to save her from being spun up and eaten!
  • Fell off the cliff they were trying to climb down on their way home. If it were not for the party druid and her magical healing spells, they might have had a rough time of it!

Well, the high point was over. The treasure was found (a magical sword that held the presence of a once powerful wizard). But now what?

Back when I was an inexperienced GM, I might have asked "what do you want to do now?" However, having been here before, and seeing how game play can go downhill fast after an adventure, I explained some of the following. All of them were facts, but they were facts the players would probably not have noticed on their own.

  • The PCs had killed a lot of goblins, and the goblin blood all over their clothes was starting to smell like rotten food.
  • The characters were full of mud, their clothes were in tatters, and they had worse body odor than an orc in a blacksmith shop.
  • Neither they, nor their horses, had eaten or drank water in about 24 hours, so they were on the verge of falling over from fatigue.
  • I pointed out the party ranger was almost out of arrows, the druid was almost out of darts, and the entire party needed new clothing. Theirs was completely ruined.

All of these things were true, but they are sometimes not the first things we think about while running a campaign.

Well, there was a small trading village about a day's ride from the PCs' location, and they decided to head that way for new clothing, weapon upgrades and possibly a bath!

Once the characters entered the city, I again tried to take a mundane task and turn it into something interesting. When the ranger went to the general trading post to sell wolf pelts he had taken from their battle with the wolves, the shop owner was utterly repulsed and half angry the ranger even dared to come in! Why? Take your pick:

  • The ranger had not bathed in a week.
  • He was wearing smelly, dirty, foul smelling leather armor over tattered, blood stained, muddy clothing.
  • He was trading un-tanned pelts. He just skinned the animals. Therefore, the pelts reeked of dead animal flesh. The store owner told him "You should pay ME, just to dispose of these nasty pelts for you!"

Here is another example. When the half-orc barbarian sought out the inn to try and scrounge up a bath the woman behind the inn counter was utterly repulsed at the sight of him and ordered him out of her establishment. He proceeded to buy clothes and a bar of soap at the trading post, and made his way to the river to bathe. Well, this was another mundane task, so I decided to throw something interesting in.

When he rounded the corner, he spotted a female halfling sitting on a rock, dangling her feet in the water. She did not even come up to his waist, and she was dressed like a rogue. She struck up a conversation with him that went something like this...

Halfling: "So, you taking a bath in the river?"

Half-orc: "Ya"

Halfling: "Why don't you take a bath in the inn?"

Half-orc: "Uh, the inn keeper told me to leave."

Halfling turns up her nose. "You are going to smell like fish after bathing in this river."

Half-orc: "Well, I smell like death right now...I figure fish is something to aspire to!"

Halfling: "Well, don't mind me. But since you mentioned you are headed south, I was wondering if you might be interested in hiring someone with my talents?"

The players got a good laugh out of this, and after a meeting, they decided to hire the halfling. They now have an NPC with them who has talents no-one else in the group possesses. Something positive came out of it, and it was not even planned. Just spur of the moment.

To finish off my article, here are some tips to make mundane tasks memorable and interesting.

* Take your time. Do not rush through the session. Add realism and detail. Make sure you are completely done with a task before rushing onto the next thing.

* Take a moment, at least once per session, to point out some obvious things the group might not notice. For example, do they smell bad? Are they out of gun powder? Is the fighter's shield damaged from that troll's club? Do they need food? Do they need a haircut?

  • Introduce a new and interesting NPC at least once per session. This could be an old guy sitting in the tavern, a halfling rogue by the river or a mysterious wizard who asks them if they need any healing potions.

Sometimes they will just nod their head and go their separate ways, but you never know when you might be able to use this NPC to great effect. Perhaps the players will invite the character to join their party or do some sort of business with him?

  • Throw curve balls in there once in awhile. Make them easy to avoid, but make them tempting. For example, maybe the elven handmaiden takes a fancy to the group's ranger, or maybe there is a cute wolf pup for sale outside a local trading store. The PCs might not even care...but maybe they will!
  • If there are NPCs traveling with the PCs, stir up some conversation. Perhaps the druid NPC did not approve of the way the wizard PC used a fireball to take out a helpless enemy after the battle. Perhaps the druid even begins insulting the wizard, and cursing his arcane magic, calling it a "bag of cheap tricks."
  • Another provocative tactic is to make NPCs throw racial slurs at the PCs. Some examples might include an inn keeper that does not approve of them "half orc folk," or how that human princess does not trust the "pointy eared ones."
  • Explain things that happen in detail. Instead of the shopkeeper "taking the money and handing over the hardtack," you might say, "the shop keeper, eyeing the ranger one more time, reluctantly took the money and half-tossed the hardtack back at the PC, murmuring something about how he needed a bath and a shave..."
  • When the party travels long distances by horseback, do not just fast forward to the next day. Throw some things in there. Maybe they come across an abandoned cabin, meet a group of fishermen or get stalked by a pack of wolves. Maybe a horse steps into a groundhog hole or bandits try to hold them up. Maybe they find an abandoned wagon beside the road, only to find a cursed necklace in it that (they learn later) brings bad luck.

Remember a few simple rules.

  • Slow down
  • Pay attention to detail
  • Enjoy every moment of the session
  • Do not miss a single opportunity to make the game memorable
  • Find epic gaming in the mundane. Use well-played normalness to make battles seem all the more intense and awesome. If the PCs are used to fishing and haggling with traders (and enjoying it) then having a group of evil paladins attacking them with katanas will seem intense!

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Idle Hands are the DM's Plaything 

By Alex Riggs

With permission from: Necromancers of the Northwest

Recently at Necromancers Online, I wrote an article about DMs who don't have enough time to do their DM work, and what sorts of steps they can take to improve their game.

Today I'll be approaching the opposite problem:

If you're a DM with a lot of extra time, what can you do to take your game from good to great, and drop your players' jaws to the floor?

1. Create Unique Mechanical Effects For Your PCs (And Villains)

Everyone likes to feel special, and nothing says special more than having some power or ability that no one else has. Further, many players have ideas for things they would like their characters to be able to do, but which don't translate directly into the rules.

For example, I once had a player who wanted to tweak their druid PC's normal ability to change his shape into that of animals. In exchange for having the potential to transform into slightly better shapes than normally allowed, all his transformations would be determined randomly - he might be a woolly mammoth, or he might be a dormouse.

It took a fair amount of work. I scoured sourcebooks for appropriate monsters to fill out the list; balanced the distribution of good shapes versus bad ones; and created some additional fine print to keep the ability from being too abusable, mostly by also having a random chance he couldn't change back for a certain duration.

Eventually, I had the whole thing rigged up in an Excel table, and with the push of a button I could determine randomly what he changed into and how long he was stuck that way (if at all).

In a smaller-scale example, another player played a gloura (a kind of Underdark moth fey) ice mage. He thought that, between the ice and the moth angle, it'd be cool if she was afraid of fire, so he wanted to have the cold subtype for free.

If you have time to put the effort into it, sit down with each player and talk about their characters from a flavor perspective. Find out what makes the character tick, and what sorts of things the player would like to see happen with that character.

This is a great way to get plot hooks and other adventure themes based on that player's character. You can also use it to look into giving special benefits, such as providing mechanics for the character's existing flavor, or expanding on that flavor by granting the character some kind of new power. Perhaps a paladin receives a magical blade that passes harmlessly through anyone with an innocent heart, or a wizard receives a custom spell allowing her to do something that no other spell can do.

Also give a few special and unique powers to your villains to make them stand out on the battlefield as something to watch out for, especially if those powers are interesting or different enough from the sorts of things you already see a lot of.

2. Add Embellishments To People, Places And Things

If you have the time, you should consider adding some extra details and flavor to your existing NPCs, treasure items, and locations. A +2 flaming sword is basically just a bunch of numbers. A magic sword carved with mystic runes is cool. A magic sword with a golden eagle for the crossguard and an engraving along the blade which reads "Unos Salos Victus" (which I'm told means "The Last Hope of the Doomed") is even cooler. That same sword is cooler still if a successful Knowledge (history) check can identify that such swords belong to the Brotherhood of Pillars, an ancient and secret order of knights who are sworn to protect the kingdom from the shadows, appearing whenever a great crisis threatens the land, only to disappear again once the dust clears.

By the same token, a fat innkeeper is a placeholder, and the players will most likely pay him little mind (and be in the right to do so). A retired adventurer who opened his own inn is better, especially if he has a few scars and maybe an unusual monster head mounted on the wall somewhere. But when he has a few adventuring stories to tell over a round or two of drinks near closing time, whether simply entertaining stories about his triumphs or potential plot-hooks about treasures that got away, he starts to become a more interesting and well-rounded character. Perhaps he'll even get the itch to go out and do some more adventuring, and the tavern will be handed over to his cousin or niece for a few adventures while he's gone. These sorts of little details allow your campaign to feel more like a living, breathing, organic entity than a cardboard backdrop stage for your PCs to wave prop-swords around on.

3. Create Mini-Adventures That Reward PCs Who Take An Interest In Them

This is definitely an "above and beyond" sort of DM work, as there's a good chance that your PCs may never even notice this happening. Suppose the PCs come across a giant pile of coins. These coins are ancient, and are minted with strange symbols the PCs have never seen before. Now, the PCs can use them just like any other gold pieces, and if they do, that's the end of that. On the other hand, if they take the trouble to track down the right collector (not necessarily an easy task), maybe they can get some more value for them. Alternatively, perhaps the coins all have strange markings on the back, and by putting them together like a puzzle, the PCs can create a treasure map to an even greater hoard. If the symbol were evocative enough, the PCs might be able to determine from it that the coins are extraplanar, and may even be able to use one in place of the "tuning fork" required to cast plane shift, allowing them to travel directly to the City of Brass, or wherever strikes your fancy.

Similarly, the man staying next door to the PCs in the inn room might have some secret agenda, which the PCs can get involved in if it piques their curiosity, or can ignore if they don't. They might get invitations to dances, balls, and other social gatherings, where they can have some fun with political intrigue.

Ultimately, the sorts of things that I'm talking about here are "side-quests" of a very small scale, which simply provide your players with optional diversions. Not only can this make for some fun gameplay, and allow for some breaks from the "main plot" (which, by the way, is important and helps enhance the plot. That's why so many TV shows these days will have two separate, unrelated plots in a single episode), but it also helps to further flesh out your world and help give it depth, as with Tip #2.

4. Create Fun And Interesting Terrain Features For Each Encounter

I don't know about you, but personally, I read about a lot more interesting terrain feature ideas than I ever see in play. This has nothing to do with being a game designer--to the best of my knowledge, Necromancers of the Northwest has never really done anything with interesting terrain features (with the possible exception of a couple in The War of the Goblin King), and my knowledge is pretty extensive when it comes to NNW--but simply from the fact that I just don't see terrain features pop up that often in games I play (or, for that matter, run).

This is a shame, because terrain has a lot of potential to really spice up an otherwise so-so encounter, and because there are so many potentially cool ideas. I vividly remember reading about a suggestion for a battlefield comprised of a bunch of platforms on chains, which rise and fall in 5-foot increments each turn, and another involving blasts of steam in a maze of pipes, etc. You could also go full-on magical about it, with a chessboard (or similar) where each "square" (possibly more than 5 feet) has a different magical effect, or a hall of mirrors where the mirrors reflect spells, or serve as portals to navigate the maze, or create illusory combatants, etc.

The main problem with terrain, I think, is that it usually requires relatively complex rules, and always feels like a secondary threat when compared to the opponent, so it mostly feels like a nuisance. With a good deal of forethought, a DM can help cut down on the amount of trouble the terrain causes at the table by being sure he has mastered its mechanics, and can make sure that it's both fun for players and a convincing threat for their characters.

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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. 2010 GMing Learnings 

Last issue I asked what GMs learned in 2010 about their craft. Here are a few of the responses. They are good lessons we can also think about for our games in 2011.

Doing More Prep

From David Millians

Games & Education

I am doing more planning than I have for years. Over the decades that I've been running games, I've become more comfortable with improvisation. I know my settings and stories well, and this has always resulted in fun games.

Two factors have changed my thinking. First and most important, several other GMs have emerged to run games, so we now rotate our stories. This pushes me to use my time well as the storyteller. It also regularly exposes me to other GMs' stories and techniques, much more than I've ever had in my gaming experience.

Second, I've prepared some of my game's material for publication, and this pushes me to be clear, brief and engaging in my development and writing.

All of this improves my game in countless ways, and I'm having more fun than ever!

Mistakes Are Not The End Of The World

From Tristan Knight

Johnn,

2010 marked my return to PNP gaming after a 15 year absence (and several aborted attempts in the interim). Despite having previously tried to get involved, I'd never managed to get a campaign up and running, either as a player or GM. Finally, my girlfriend decided she wanted to learn D&D, and I took the opportunity to dive into 4th Edition D&D.

I started thinking where I wanted the new game to go. With a small group (just my girlfriend and me at the outset) I decided we'd need some more characters, so I create a DMPC to help increase the party size.

A bit of work laid things out as thoroughly as I felt was possible, and I threw together a quick encounter to teach my girlfriend the rules of the game. She picked the rules up quickly, got a handle on tactical play in a matter of three rounds of combat, and pulled off a fantastically deft use of her eladrin ranger's Fey Step power (though she botched the follow-up attack - the dice were not friendly that evening). And she was instantly hooked.

The next week brought another session and the creation of a major NPC. The week after, a second player joined the game. She had heard about my campaign concepts and I convinced her to play.

I made a few mistakes along the way: bungling rules, screwing up initiative, misinterpreting the use of powers and generally making a hash of the game. And yet the players loved it. They rarely caught my slip-ups without my mentioning it. They never knew until after the fact how I'd improvised parts of the game sessions. I'd spent hours kicking myself for making mistakes when none of it mattered.

So that's the biggest lesson I learned: it's okay to screw up. As long as the players enjoy themselves (and you don't make too many mistakes) that's the important thing. Even if you inadvertently make an encounter a little too tough and a PC nearly dies, you can turn a corner and make that former enemy into an interesting ally.

Now I've got about three hours before tonight's session, so it's time to prepare for our first game in three weeks...and remind myself that mistakes aren't the end of the game - sometimes they can be a beginning.

Thanks for all the advice in RPT, and enjoy your games and the New Year.

From RND(axe)

Johnn,

The best thing I learned about GMing this year is to go big and let things happen. I think other GMs in your newsletter have described it as "don't say no." In other words, I don't let my initial idea or written chapters of an adventure get in the way of the real adventure. And I don't let the rules details get in the way of a great story effect.

To illustrate, I was GMing d6 Star Wars and the climax of the campaign came down to a retelling of the battle over Endor. I was pleased to say I fixed the canon of Lucas' Xwing fighters jumping through hyperspace on their own without an aircraft carrier (the silliest mistake I ever saw) and all the players had no problem with the various fixes I made to the classic storyline.

The characters had duped the Emperor into his own doom over Korriban, and then set out to impersonate him on the new Death Star, thus setting up the DS2's own weaknesses, which led to its destruction (and the saving of many worker slaves' lives in the process).

Then, to my surprise, they invaded the Executor and confronted Darth Vader and the recently-fully-turned-Dark Luke Skywalker, slaying both of them and saving the Republic for its rebirth.

Grand heroism and great story were the watchwords those days. "You can't do that" never passed my lips.

Allow heroism to take place and don't let the rules or the mechanics get in the way of a great storytelling and a great night of play.

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2. Creating Emergent Stories 

From Mark of the Pixie via the GMMastery Yahoo! Group

I tend to set a detailed starting scene, and have a few rough ideas of possible milestones and a handful of vague types of endings.

I find this focuses on the PC actions and choices - they determine the ending - but it helps make it a story worth telling. (I find some overly PC driven stories end up getting repetitive, devolving into long and dull shopping trips. Or they get dominated by the loudest player. But that might just be due to a minority of my players skewing things.)

The session might start with the kidnapping of the PCs' secretary by a detailed NPC villain for a well reasoned purpose (the $500,000 ransom demand is a ruse to cover the blackmail of her scientist father to provide a military prototype weapon).

This is probably done in medias res with the PCs shooting it out with the hired thugs as the black sedan drives off with her in the boot. (About a paragraph of notes.)

I will then have a few possible milestones, whether NPCs or events (about one sentence each). NPCs may include a criminal snitch who owes the PCs a favour, a cop who is looking for any reason to arrest them, a PC's ex-lover who is now an FBI profiler on the case, the victim's oddly secretive father.

Events might be a ransom call, a ransom drop, confrontation with the father, a chase scene (with a helicopter), the gunfight at the R&D testing range.

Endings are vague and range from "money, gun and secretary gone" to "money, gun and secretary safe" with lots of options in between (just a few dot points or keywords).

The PCs might work out the villain's plot and foil it. Or they might not. They might be happy to get the girl back safe and not find out about the gun till later.

The end of the story is up to them, but having thought about likely endings, I can quickly and easily tailor the one they end up with to be more dramatic. If I do get blind sided, (you put out a contract on the kidnapper?) I can take 5 minutes and work it through.

Having this sort of framework helps me do that faster. (He might decide it is a bluff and continue with his plan, only to get a rude surprise in a later session.)

Because I haven't put a lot of emotion into the story going any one way, it's easier for me to avoid railroading (I actually find it helps me encourage the PCs to take different options). By having a rough framework with multiple endings I can adapt quickly to changes in direction.

I also have a safety net in case the players are having a brain dead night, as I can suggest the next move, introduce an NPC or instigate an event. For example, if they flag and don't know what to do next, rather than leave them bored I can have the FBI profiler call.

I also have a rough worse case scenario in mind (lose money and secretary, villain gets money and gun). I know a TPK or destruction of the world is unlikely, so I can plot future games safely.

I can also see the bleeding edges (unresolved things) that can be used for future plots. Maybe the cop gets some evidence on one PC and will later pressure them to become an informant. Perhaps the father sees them work and decides to recommend them for future jobs. Maybe the embers of the lovers' relationship rekindle.

These help ensure a continuing game. For example, the next session starts with the PCs being called to a crime scene where a presidential candidate has been assassinated, but the police are stumped because no known gun can possibly shoot like this....

I do a similar thing for campaigns. Lots of work up front, then a bit of work in the middle bits, and vague handwavy bits for the possible endings. The work up front tends to be collaborative for PC backgrounds. I give them a general starting position, any limits imposed by setting and starting position (i.e. no mages, if it is a no magic world), then incorporate and intertwine their backgrounds and the setting.

I find it works well.

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3. Use Maslow's Pyramid of Needs To Create Cultures 

From Rikard Molander

The Pyramid of Needs has been mentioned in Roleplaying Tips before as a tool for designing NPCs. In brief, the hierarchy describes what needs people have, and in what order they seek to fulfill them. If people are hungry, they won't bother so much about safety, for instance, because food has a more important place in the hierarchy. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maslow%27s_hierarchy_of_needs

Since this pyramid describes universal needs, it can be used for designing cultures and places just as well as it can people. If anything in the hierarchy is unavailable or hard to get to the locals, that should have a huge impact on the culture. For example, a shortage of water should have a huge impact on how a given culture behaves.

I find it's especially good for designing exotic locations. Just take something from the hierarchy and consider how to fulfill that need in some unusual or exotic fashion. Below, I'll list some considerations each step suggests.

Physiological Needs

Food and health usually fall on this list. Particularly, food is interesting. What do people in this culture, or on this location, eat?

Mundane examples include bread or rice, whereas a twist towards the exotic or strange might involve pieces of giant mushroom, or slime molds that grow inside eerie glowing caves.

Health is less applicable, but might bear consideration - are there hospitals, clerics, wise women?

Safety

How do people live and shelter themselves? What kind of protection do they enjoy? Is there a guard force, a group of mercenaries, must everyone fend for themselves?

Housing offers a great consideration to add cultural feeling. It gives a much different impression if locals live in mud huts, lumber cottages or houses on poles.

You can twist this for an exotic feeling - the most typical example being the elven city in the trees, where the elves have solved their need for safety and protection by elevating themselves above the ground.

Belonging

What brings the community together? Is it a religion? A love for music or alcohol? A war-leaders' banner?

Overall, this asks the question, "What do the people of this culture have in common, that outsiders don't have?"

Turn this into a great plot device by marking PCs as complete outsiders, or give one PC the spotlight by having him blend in well (such as a bard in a culture that loves music) or poorly (such as a teetotaler in a culture proud of its taverns and fine wines).

To design exotic cultures, have people bond over something unusual. Perhaps locals are unusually fond of clothes and fashion, and even street beggars wear dyed clothes of good make. Or perhaps they are all addicted to a fashionable drug, and scoff at (or worse) anyone who doesn't take it.

Esteem

Similar to the belonging category above, but different in that this doesn't ask what the people flock around, but what they admire and look up to, as well as what they strive for.

Sometimes, they can be the same. In a country fond of music, everyone seeks to write the next popular tune.

They can be different things, as well. A culture brought together by a religion that preaches peace and brotherhood might still have fondly admired war heroes. A culture of savage warriors might admire the best poets even more than they admire the strongest warriors.

For an exotic spin, pick something unusual that people admire and look up to. Perhaps wizards are viewed as sacred and worthy of great respect, or people with red hair are seen as marked by the gods.

Self-Actualization

This is a tricky category, as it's highly individual and addresses spiritual satisfaction. It can be seen as a philosophy or a way of life.

In practice, though, you probably shouldn't involve cultures who allow for self-actualization on a broad basis. Why? Because you want your cultures to be sites of adventure, places with problems that must be solved, ideally based on one of the previous four categories.

Perhaps the water supply is running out (physiological), the community is threatened by bandits (safety), there's ideological or racial conflict (belonging), and so on.

If you find yourself looking at the previous four steps and not finding any problems there, reconsider involving the location in your adventure - there's a high risk it won't be very interesting.

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4. Another Way To Make Plots For Your Game 

From Logan Horsford

Grab a pen and 100 3"x5" lined index cards.

Anytime you come across an idea - whether large or small, write it onto a card. The ideas can vary from part of a plot to a name or manner of an NPC. The ideas you have can be more specific to your campaign.

The more time you spend writing these cards, the more ideas come to you. Don't forget the professional writers saying "write crap." See: http://www.martynemko.com/articles/write-crap_id1018

Once you've gotten a whole bunch (say 100, though it can be done with less) of cards filled out with these notes, shuffle well and deal yourself a few.

Let's try five. I am going to use my deck here to see what we can come up with.

  1. Advertising - strange dancing pandas.
  2. Situation - social class disparity.
  3. Corpse - come across a dead or dying man. He may say something useful before dying or his pockets may contain useful stuff. Good foreshadowing.
  4. Contact/Bad Guy - Mr. Wei (pronounced "way"); stupid bowl shaped haircut. Maybe he commands tcho-tchos in space!
  5. Hidden secrets.

Last step: begin to brainstorm how these things can be connected. Before reading on, try to figure out what you can make out of these five things. . . . . (I know you didn't pause to think about it - nobody ever does - but I thought I'd give it a try.)

Perhaps the PCs come across a dead guy in a panda suit. Doing research on the suit can bring it eventually back to the commercial. Perhaps the weird pandas are advertising a new restaurant chain (owned by Mr. Wei) that serves the tcho-tcho 'other other white meat'. (For those of you that haven't played Call of Cthulhu, that's human.)

From there, you have to answer several questions. Why was he killed? Why was he killed wearing the panda suit? Why do the PCs care if some restaurant is serving up human? Could that be where a buddy of theirs disappeared to? From whence are they collecting up the humans? Instead of just rounding up homeless people (too stringy), maybe there is some other way in which they get humans. If you want to prod the PCs some more, maybe they are going for the equivalent of veal.

We have moved from a few random ideas jotted on index cards to an idea for an entire plot, perhaps even an entire campaign depending on how big the whole plot is. The quality of your plot will depend upon the quality of questions you ask while writing it up.

That was a thirty second think for me to come up with that. I'm sure I could do better if I began playing with it and revising it a few times.

Unlike adventure seeds in modules and such the things you would make notes of were things that struck you as interesting enough to jot down. Believe me, the more stuff you write down on the cards (one idea per card!) the more cards you'll quickly go through.

This idea can also be used (by especially crafty GMs) to GM on the fly. I don't think I'm that slick myself, but I have heard of others who can do it.

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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

Filling the Empty Chair

Looking for a new group or player in 2011? 50 ways to find gamers in your neighborhood.

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