11 Tips For Creating Character-Centered Subplots

From Mark L. Chance

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0151

A Brief Word From Johnn

A Good Fantasy Novel

Even though overtime at work has put a serious cramp on my recreational activities these days, I still had time to finish an excellent book that I’d like to recommend to you. It’s called “The Curse Of Chalion” and it’s written by Lois McMaster Bujold.

It takes place in a Medieval European-esque world and features well written NPCs, er, characters, great politics, and a neat religion. Bujold kept me glued to her book till the very end.

For you George R.R. Martin “Song of Ice And Fire” fans, I think you’ll find this book quite similar and it could help tide you over until he finishes #4 in the series, “A Feast For Crows.”

Have a great week,

Johnn Four
[email protected]

11 Tips For Creating Character-Centered Subplots

Educate Your Players

Regardless of game genre, subplots are an effective way to increase player investment in a campaign and to inject verisimilitude into your game sessions. A subplot is an additional story line that occurs simultaneously with the main plot of a game session. Subplots add depth and variety to the main plot, but the absence of a subplot does not prevent the main plot from occurring.

Also, a subplot is character-centered, meaning that one or more player characters are the principle actors and that the subplot includes personal consequences for the involved characters.As with any plot, a subplot revolves around a conflict. When a subplot is introduced into the main plot, the first thing that needs to happen is that the characters become aware of the conflict. The subplot then follows normal plot structure. Character actions lead to further consequences, all rising toward the climax in which the conflict is resolved in one manner or another.

Before introducing subplots into your game, take time to explain the basic types of subplots to your players. Then, if the players wish, they can choose one or two types of subplots relevant to their characters. This gives you, the GM, a working set of possible subplots for use in your campaign. When you and your players are working on possible subplots, keep in mind that not all plot conflicts need involve violence or even high drama. Comedic subplots are useful in a wide variety of genres.

Closet Skeletons

Everyone has secrets. Sometimes those secrets involve the sorts of things that come back to haunt a person later in life. This sort of subplot involves a character’s past returning to cause problems.For example, Rogero the White, only child of the Duke of Avignon, turned his back on his father’s wealth and privilege. Rogero gave away large amounts of family monies and possessions to help the needy of Avignon, and then left his home to travel the land in search of just causes to aid.

He has kept his noble birth secret because, in the society of medieval France, a noble is subject to too many exigencies that would make his chosen life of service difficult at best. What happens when the Duke of Avignon dies and has no heirs? Does Rogero let his family and its holdings fall into ruin? What happens if the Duke orders Rogero arrested and charged with the theft of the family monies and possessions Rogero gave to the poor?

Family Life

Any character with a family has problems. The list of possible family-related subplots is lengthy. Enemies might strike at a powerful character’s loved ones. Illness could strike a child or a spouse. A character with an older daughter may find his adventuring life interrupted as he plays father of the bride.

Maybe a character has no family, but longs for the sense of belonging provided by one. What does such a character do when presented with the complications of a foundling child? Or the stunning revelation that her father was not killed, but is being held prisoner by the evil Rajah of Kaltamoor?

Trouble at Work

In some genres, especially modern ones, characters are often not full-time wandering adventurers. They have jobs, and jobs are like families: if you have one, you have problems. Work often creates conflicting obligations and the attendant necessity to compromise between those obligations.

As they are a staple of comic books, work-related subplots seem especially appropriate for super hero games. For example, how can Captain Atomic rescue nosy ace reporter Louise Overstreet from the dark, sorcerous clutches of Tyrannosaurus Hex while at the same time defending his company against a hostile takeover bid from a competitor?

Murphy’s Law’s Ugly Head

In many genres, characters have supernatural abilities or powers that far exceed those of mere mortals. In most cases, these abilities and powers are reliable. A subplot involving the character’s abilities and powers becoming unreliable can make for an interesting game. It can also inject an element of mystery to the game. Why are the wizard’s spells slowly, increasingly unpredictable in their effects? How does Captain Atomic cope with the sudden loss of his atomic vision after exposure to a strange gas, and just where did that strange gas come from?


“The course of true love never did run smooth.” One of the most enduring plot devices deals with the obstacles placed in the path of people in love.

Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream provides a laundry list:

  • Lack of interest by the object of one’s love
  • Family rivalry
  • Socially inappropriate age differences
  • Interference by friends
  • Calamities such as war and sickness
  • Death of one of the lovers

Love subplots are also good fodder for comedy. Something as simple as one emergency after another interfering with a character’s commitment to keep a dinner date can provide a few hours enjoyment during a game.

This Time, It’s Personal!

This sort of conflict, which drives nearly every kung-fu action movie ever filmed, gives a character a personal stake in the situation that involves revenge or some other form of redress. I’m planning one of these right now for my D&D campaign. One the players is the orphaned son of minor nobility who will soon discover that the leader of the anti- slavery resistance in a frontier area is also the man who murdered his parents.

Mistaken Identity

Everyone has an identical twin somewhere in the world, says the modern myth. A mistaken identity subplot takes advantage of this myth one of two ways. First, the character can be mistaken for someone famous or someone more than famous (in- famous!). Consequences ranging from deadly to absurd result as person after person reacts to the character based on the mistaken identity.

For example, gentle and genteel occult scholar and investigator Milo Throckmorten arrives in Chicago on a case and is mistaken for the notorious and exceedingly deadly hitman known only as the Icepick. Everyone from the coppers to lusty molls to vengeful wiseguys looking to make a name for themselves start interfering with Milo’s investigation.Second, a non-player character can be mistaken for a character. What happens when a charming rogue with an uncanny resemblance to the heroic character paladin arrives in town three days before the real paladin?

Make Subplots Voluntary

Avoid forcing subplots on your players. Subplots are a real chance for you and your players to collaborate on enjoyable additions to your ongoing campaign without you revealing too much of your campaign-hand ahead of time. It isn’t necessary to give a player a detailed synopsis of a subplot, but at least see if the player is interested in exploring an aspect of his or her character’s background.Since subplots are voluntary, be prepared to pull the plug (to borrow a phrase from Mayfair Games’s 3rd edition of DC Heroes).

A player may decide that a particular subplot isn’t quite what he or she was looking for. There is no need to push a subplot on a player. Of course, just because the subplot goes south and things are working against the character is not sufficient grounds to pull the plug. You put time and effort into the subplot and shouldn’t feel compelled to protect a character from bad in-game decisions.

Keep Subplots Character-Centered

Keep the character at the center of the action in a subplot. Make sure that the character’s actions or inactions have real impact on the subplot. Subplots are not runaway narrative trains that barrel over characters no matter what those characters do or don’t do. Also, even if a subplot involves only one character specifically, do not forget you have other players. Their characters also deserve time “on camera.”


The greatest reward coming from a subplot should be the sheer enjoyment of the game. That’s what games are for, after all. On top of enjoyment, rewards for characters who participate in subplots are quite appropriate. The type of reward varies from game system to game system, of course, but should be of the same type of reward acquired for a minor adventure or story. In d20 terms, minor roleplaying XP awards, over and above any normal rewards for CR-based encounters, should accompany a subplot.

Shameless Plug Time If you’d like to see an example of an extended subplot worked into a d20 module written for the fantasy genre, I heartily encourage you to purchase a copy of The Office & Affairs of Love, written by yours truly. In addition to the trials and travails of the main plot, I’ve also included a romantic subplot based on the “merry war of words” between Benedick and Beatrice in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. The Office & Affairs of Love can be purchased for a mere $7.00 U.S. from RPGnow.


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Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

GMing Racism

From Joshua L.

I was thinking about the issue of racism while trying to type up some notes for a role playing adventure set in the world of FX’s TV show: THE SHIELD. That show (a cop drama), deals with ethnicity and racial groups all the time, yet it does not have a racist feel (at least to me). I was thinking about why that is and I think it has to do with the following rules:

  1. Make sure that every group supplies good guys and bad guys in the same adventure. If the gang bangers are latinos, then either have the victims, some of the cops, or some of the informants/helpers be latinos. Best to have latinos spread throughout the adventure.
  2. Do not focus on one ethnic group. Best to have more than one in each adventure, and certainly have different ones in the next adventure. If the robbery gang is Korean, have the fence be Russian, and so on. Have the crooks in the next adventure be whites, or Vietnamese or blue-bloods or rednecks or anything but the Koreans and Russians. Do not have a long running feud with one particular ethnic or racial gang.
  3. Make sure some of the player characters are members of the same ethnic groups involved in the crimes.
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Tips About Alien Senses

From Jeremy G.

I’ve noticed plenty of good suggestions for people who are building their own aliens from scratch, but there’s one subject that wasn’t touched (or, at least, not that I saw)…senses.

As we all know, human beings have five senses (I don’t personally believe in the so-called sixth ;-)). Respectively, that would be touch, taste, hearing, smell, and sight.

Each of these senses has a different method of gathering its information from the environment — taste and smell are chemical in nature, touch and hearing are physical in nature (touch is a ton of different senses lumped into one broad category), and sight converts reflected radiation to its viewer.

Taste involves dissolving particles into their base components, then dividing them over specific receptors on the tongue and providing a basic taste according to what the brain is programmed to seek out to feed the body. I wouldn’t doubt for a second that cows love every blade of grass they eat.

Smell involves inhaling fine particles from the atmosphere (which are separated from the point of origin by diffusion into the atmosphere). Receptors in the nose absorb the particles and translate their sequences into nerve pulses.

Touch is a series of sustained nerve impulses when a nerve gets vibrated or compressed (which occurs when your skin contacts something). There are also other kinds of nerve impulses related to touch — feeling pain when nerves are destroyed, gathering an idea of temperature based on the deviation from the norm, soft textures and interesting patterns of textures bringing pleasure, etc.

Hearing is the receiving of compressed and rarified waves of air in the ear canal, which in turn vibrate the eardrum and get converted to nerve impulses through the cochlea.

And, last but not least, sight is sensitivity to radiation on the visible spectrum — light, as we’ll call it, is nothing more than a massive outpouring of radiation that is harmless — at least in moderation — to us and every other known life form on this planet.

My point here is that aliens and other xenobiota aren’t restricted to — nor should they be restricted to — picking up waves of air, pressure, heat, etc. There are even examples on this planet which sense things differently than humans do. For example, a snake’s tongue picks up both taste and smell, as do an ant’s antennae.

On an alien world, what if a special chemical compound in the air is so utterly vile that no creature could survive without natural filters? They wouldn’t need to be capable of smell as the only thing that would make it into their respiratory system unfiltered would be the raw elements. The planet would certainly be a horrible place to be if you’re a human, but an alien might think nothing of it as it doesn’t “smell” suspended particles.

Likewise, a creature might not be able to taste anything it eats (which would typically mean it eats indiscriminately — metal, organics, anything it knows to be non-poisonous, etc.).

(Chemicals and poisons would be preferred weapons in those respective examples — why punch through an armoured carapace when you could simply melt their natural filtration system and cause them to die from the poisonous atmosphere? Why bother with overtness when you can simply cover someone’s meal of iron and hydrocarbons with a poison? In those worlds, combat with physical weapons could even be unheard of — assuming humans could survive in either of those environments without getting suffocated or eaten, they could certainly burn, blast, and destroy a lot of critters.)

And you don’t have to remove senses either — you could easily add new ones. A creature could very possibly “feel” ultraviolet radiation, “hear” EHF waveforms, “taste” the quantity and type of atmosphere that’s present (imagine if you could tell how much carbon dioxide is in the air by sticking out your tongue!), or “see” infrared radiation.

Whatever the stimuli may be, you can always make a specific sense for it due to circumstances on their home world that dictate requiring it. Something that is killed by exposure to ultraviolet, for example, could very well sense it without actually coming into contact with it (remember that when we see something, we see *bouncing* radiation — that means that something killed by UV would technically be killed if a white spaceship flew by their planet =P).

Creatures could also sense the presence of any other number of possible waves of radiation or other stimuli, especially for planets with excessive amounts of a particular phenomenon.

Anyway, something to think about. =)

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Five GM Dice Tactics To Drive Your Players Crazy

From Chris Brantley

Here are five dice-related tactics designed to help the game master add zing to a gaming session. They are admittedly “gamey” and should not be overused, but each has a time and a place and will serve to draw gamers out of their usual comfort zones, adding suspense and uncertainty to the game.

Calling Colors

When making a critical roll whose outcome is crucial to the party, pick up 3-5 different color die and invite a player to call out one of the colors just as you roll the handful. Roll the dice so that the players can see the results. This gets the players more involved in the action, while at the same creating suspense in the form of relief at avoiding, or disappointment at not choosing, the results on the other colored dice.

Meaningless Die Rolls

All of a sudden and for no apparent reason, suspend your dialog with the players in mid-stream and start rolling die. Be sure to reference a chart or monster manual after each roll, and take down notes behind the screen. My old GM used to liberally sprinkle in phrases like “very interesting” or “on no, not that!” during the referencing process. There is no purpose to this exercise except to create apprehension and suspense among the players.

Pre-Rolled Deception

Pre-roll die results and compile a list for secret reference as you GM. Then during the actual melee, smile at the players as you roll the die, and don’t bother looking down at the result. Instead, having already cross referenced the next number on your list before you even roll, you can just announce the result. The players will be confused if the “public” roll doesn’t seem to match the result they anticipated, and may react differently than they normally would against that type of opponent, thinking it is somehow strong (or weaker) than normal.

Of course, they may also suspect the GM of being arbitrary, and in a bind, you can explain your method and hold up the list of pre-rolled numbers.

Critical Hit Shuffle-Board

Mark a small circle or set a target somewhere on the table surface where you are rolling your die. It should be far enough away so that it is difficult for you to roll the die and have it end up in that circle/target. Tell the players that when you roll a TO HIT die for a monster, any die that lands in the circle is a critical hit, with special damage consequences. And then watch them squirm as you try to hit the target. Don’t do it every roll, but only for special encounters or just now and then for effect.

Change Of Luck

Players often become attached to a particular die because they believe it is lucky or that it is on a hot streak. Similarly, cold or unlucky die are consigned to the dark recesses of the die bag or even discarded, never again to be used. The GM can raise the anxiety level among his players by declaring a “change of luck” and requiring players to switch to a new die.

There are several related variants. Players could trade die with the player to their right or left. The GM and the player can swap die for a particular roll. Or the GM and the player can swap results without actually swapping die, so that the player rolls TO HIT for the monster and the GM rolls TO HIT for the player.

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Pros To Running Call Of Cthulhu Campaigns

From Arjen Lissenberg

Somehow many roleplaying groups have someone who is almost always the game master (me, for example, in my group and we play several game systems). The problems that arise are that sometimes the game masters want to play also but often this results in either short or one-shot campaigns or adventures or longer campaigns where the urge and wish to be a game master again will pop up quickly in the ex-game master

(I’m speaking from experience) and other players have to abandon their former characters for new ones. The feeling of being a player in a long-running campaign seems not to be for everyone.

Now this might not work for every game system but it worked perfectly for the Call of the Cthulhu game. As the lethality for player characters is quite high in a CoC game, having several back-up characters is common practise. Our group started our campaign with 3 characters each (at least one with links to Arkham university) and we made a character chart in which we linked each of our characters to 2-4 other characters.

In our group, this resulted in some interesting character triangles with most notable the family St. Vincent with the rich auntie St. Vincent as head, her chauffeur/butler, her 2 nephews and a niece (military officer, coroner and madhouse attendant).

As an overall campaign story we have the McKenzie legacy, the yet to be archived inheritance of the late sailor, amateur archeologist/anthropologist McKenzie which was donated to the Arkham university. The game master has the option to take an item of the legacy as story starter and can choose one or more characters which are to be played.

The advantages of this system are:

  • The character chart is a perfect source for story hooks.
  • Few problems with absent players.
  • Logical ways to incorporate the semi-retirement of characters for insanity, disease, reading a large and/or difficult mythos tome and of course for the characters’ jobs (you can only take that much vacation, absence or sabbatical for so long before you are fired).
  • Few how-do-we-know-each-other-and-why-should-we-be- together problems.
  • Dead characters can be replaced quickly during play and new characters don’t have to be made in a rush.
  • The other characters can be the secondary sources or assistants for information, translation, etc. (50% chance.)

And, of course, the biggest advantage is that everyone can play and be storyteller in the same campaign while the long- campaign feeling is retained (hence the title). Until now we’ve already done 3 stories with 3 different game masters, 3 different character combinations (some characters have been played in 2 stories), 3 different player group compositions, and one character is currently semi-retired for reading the “Unausprechliche Culte”, while the feel of having one campaign is not lost. This is also a good way for players to get a shot at being game master.

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Analyzing Movies

From KillerGM

There’s a lot you can pick-up from movies and bring to your game. However, here’s a brief list of the main things you can note as you watch, either mentally or with paper, pen, and the pause button on your VCR:

  1. Plot: what events are occurring and how do they relate to the overall story? In other words, why did the screenwriter and director include the scene in the movie?
  2. NPCs: note the traits, abilities, personalities, and plans of the flunkies and villain(s). Also note interesting minor characters and allies of the hero.
  3. Setting: note the various locations in the movie. Note the lighting, props, time of day, and why you think the location was used for that particular scene.

There’s a lot more you can pick out, but these three categories are a great start and can help for curing writer’s block, serve as inspiration, or be used for those short notice games.