Mission-Style Roleplaying – Part II

From Johnn Four

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0224

A Brief Word From Johnn

Vin Diesel Plays D&D

Here’s an interview with Vin Diesel where he mentions his D&D hobby. As one of my esteemed co-workers, Colin, said, “Bet no one laughs at him when he says it’s nerd night.”


I saw Chronicles of Riddick on Friday. I quite liked it and plan on seeing it a second time. I was told before going that the reviews were bad–very bad. I love it when I hear this because my standards are always set so low that I can’t help but be pleasantly surprised (ok, this doesn’t work _all_ the time :).

Anyway, I think it’s a good movie to see when you’re in the mood to not look for plot holes or to question the hard science of the fiction.


Johnn Four,
[email protected]

Mission-Style Roleplaying – Part II

Choose Location Carefully

For battlefields, generals try to pick locations that either gives them an advantage or gives their opponent a disadvantage. For example, generals consider such things as high ground, position of the sun, flanking opportunities, and paths of flight.Roleplaying encounters are no different! Assuming there’s some form of conflict between the parties involved, each side should give some thought as to the location that’ll give them an edge or that’ll hinder the opposition.

The PCs are most likely not going to think about strategic location choice at first, so feel free to take advantage of this. It’s multiple PCs against your NPC(s), so take what boons you can get while you’re able–the players will soon catch on and start influencing location as well

When this happens, give yourself a pat on the back! You’ve just added an exciting new layer to roleplaying conflicts as each group vies for best location. This can result in encounters and adventures just over this aspect of the game, causing sessions and conflicts to feel fuller and deeper.

Think about it. Last time the characters were pondering, “ok, let’s chat with this guy and see what happens”. Now they’re strategizing, “ok, we need to separate him from his advisor-with-all-the-answers and we need witnesses who can back us up on the answers we’ll wring out of him!”

Using the battlefield examples above:

Higher Ground

In a roleplaying context, this could be interpreted as being on the side of truth, morality, ethics, or divine will. Witnesses are a key component for this location tactic, forcing opposition to do some fancy footwork if they want to pull off lying or taking low moral ground in front of their family, friends, authorities, peers, or other influential NPCs.In an alternate context, higher ground could be construed as having a higher intimidation value.

A location tactic for this might be having home turf (and greater distance from the nearest point of back-up or safety for one’s foes). For example, imagine the PCs attempting to wield some conversational leverage against a rogue while surrounded by assassins, deep underground in a hidden chamber of the thieves’ guild, that the PCs had to approach blindfolded? Don’t laugh–I let my PC fall into just such a location trap last year. :)If your game allows for phobias, the perfect high ground location is a place the opposition fears or a place that triggers the fear response.

For example, if an NPC has a fear of crowds or open spaces, hold the encounter at a crowded fair. If an NPC fears snakes, take him to the reptile cage at the zoo.Let’s say an inspector is trying to prove the PCs were responsible for burning the inn down. (Gasp! As if PCs would ever do such a thing.) He knows one of the PCs is a pyromaniac (hopefully via one or more previous roleplaying encounters with the party).

His strategic location of choice might be the Shop of 1000 Candles. Perhaps he sponsors a small event there that includes flame-throwers, fireball displays, and torch juggling. If this doesn’t trigger the pyro’s weakness and get him into provable trouble, nothing will!

Position Of The Sun

On the battlefield, opponents who must face the blinding light and tiring heat of the sun are at a disadvantage.In roleplaying terms, this might take the form of being in the presence of authority. For example, the PCs might invite a corrupt NPC out for tea and then invite his boss along as well.Another sun location tactic might be too distract the opposition, or blind them to one’s true intentions. The villain might employ the PCs to act as arbitrators between the head of his country estate and an unruly goblin tribe.

As the PCs do their best, the villain secretly observes them from the hidden corridors of his estate and arms the goblins with magic and information to complicate and prolong the negotiations. He notes the PCs’ weak points and standard tactics while they’re distracted by their mission.If an evil NPC wants the PCs to consider him a friend, he might take them to someplace the party wants to go, such as a restricted library or exclusive feast.

Alternatively, he might invite them to his house where his mother cooks for them a fantastic meal, his nieces and nephews play cute games with him, and his parents speak highly of him.

Flanking Opportunities

To outflank an opponent on the battlefield a general needs room for his troops to maneuvre, some cover to hide his manoeuvres (often the front line itself is used for cover), and perfect timing.In roleplaying location terms, the PCs could be outflanked in a number of ways. They might be taken to a remote and private location and admit things they wouldn’t in public. The NPC outflanks them though by secretly recording the conversation or by allowing some form of pre-planned scrying, such as an arcane eye or crystal ball viewing.

Perhaps an NPC tries to throw the PCs off their game by inviting their enemy to a dinner. The enemy is told to show up late so that the PCs can settle in and start chit- chatting. The empty chair raises their curiosity, but nothing is said. Then the enemy shows up and does what he does best–gets the PCs excited and emotional!Another flanking technique is to choose a location where help can be summoned quickly.Having unexpected information is also a good trick–and being at a location that dramatizes or emphasizes the revelation can provide flanking support.

For example, let’s say the PCs were recently in a battle that involved some fatalities. The NPC has information about this battle he wants to spring on the PCs to use as leverage if he can’t get what he wants any other way. He chooses the town cemetery as a meeting location.

Depending on the circumstance, you could place a funeral at the scene–which turns out to be a funeral for victims of the battle. The NPC timed things purposefully and could play this a number of ways, depending on the nature of information he has (i.e. he could try guilt-tripping the PCs, he might threaten to interrupt the funeral and work the crowd against the PCs, or he might threaten to speak with dead after the funeral).

Alternatively, the NPC might choose to hold the meeting right over the buried remains of the fight’s victims. He reveals this information for shock value at the right time in the conversation…

Paths Of Flight

Good generals know not to back capable enemies against the wall or to burn his foe’s bridges. The enemy ends up fighting much more fiercely.This is a good principle for choosing roleplaying locations as well. If the PCs and other party know secrets about each other, for example, it would be unwise to force PCs into a corner at a public place, such as a tavern or wedding gathering, else they might blurt out the NPC’s secret in an effort to distract or fend off the NPC.

Alternately, if the NPC doesn’t want the PCs to feel pressured or forced by his manipulations, a pro-PC or neutral location might work best. For example, a bazaar might offer enough interesting people and goods that, should the parley ever get uncomfortable, the NPC can change topics immediately in a non-suspicious way by pointing out an interesting trinket or by offering to buy a tasty rat-on-a- stick. This prevents the PCs from feeling trapped and might help the NPC guard his intentions better.

Involve Third Parties

For most roleplaying exchanges between an NPC and the PCs, try to include additional non-player characters in the encounter. Third parties are wonderful tools for increasing the drama, helping an NPC meet his objective, or keeping a tighter reign on inappropriate PC actions, such as wild violence or mass area effect spells.


A good foil serves to underscore or enhance the distinctiveness of a PC or NPC through contrast. If there’s something you want to point out about an NPC or PC, but you want to do it in-game, then use a third party NPC with the opposite attribute as a foil.For example, put an ugly NPC beside a player character to bolster the PC’s confidence, encourage the player to roleplay his character’s charisma, or provide a clue. Introduce a grubby, menial NPC to highlight another’s noble upbringing and to remind the PCs who they’re dealing with.


The PCs will always bring allies to any roleplaying conflict: each other. Give NPCs the same benefit. Provide assistants, friends, bad-ass warriors, or whatever the NPC needs.Additionally, ally NPCs can give you opportunities to interject “filler” conversation while you try to think of an appropriate reply, retort, or retreat for the main NPC involved in the conflict.

In other words, third parties can help you stall.If you are pretty strict about players roleplaying and keeping player knowledge separate from character knowledge, you’ll need to make your NPCs obey the same restrictions. Having allies present can help NPCs out with knowledge and social skills they lack.


Witnesses are great for keeping players’ chaotic instincts at bay. The threat of complication (through legal harassment or otherwise) sometimes helps keep conversations civil and the story on track.Witnesses can also be strategic pieces in a parley for either side. A dare has more impact if accepted in front of other NPCs, for example.


Having news spread fast is another legitimate social tactic. To this end, one can feed information to a gossip. The bigger the network a gossip has, the faster news will travel.To further refine your tactics, consider the quality and morality of the gossiper. It’s hard for many gossips not to exaggerate accounts to make themselves seem more important or to give their news greater impact. Many gossipers also slant things and provide their own views, opinions, and interpretations on events observed and conversations overheard.

The Dice Double-Standard Is OK

In many campaigns, players can choose to roll dice to influence an NPC. D&D 3.x, for example, encourages this by providing such skills as intimidate, bluff, and diplomacy.A double-standard occurs sometimes though, when the players want to resolve NPC roleplaying conflicts against them in person instead of accepting a dice roll. For example, if an NPC tries to bluff a PC, many players want to talk their way through the situation rather than abide by a GM roll that might dictate their PC is bluffed.

The point of this tip is that it’s ok to have this double standard if it’s ok with you and the group. If NPC reactions are sometimes governed by dice rolls and PC reactions are always governed by roleplaying, that’s great. Account for this in your GMing style and move on.In fact, you can turn this into a fun game-within-the-game where you try to push the players in roleplaying encounters just up to the point where they’ll usually call for a dice roll to resolve a situation.

This might take some experience roleplaying with each player to learn where their thresholds lie. It might also take a bit of storytelling ability to engage your players enough so that they want to roleplay with you and call on the dice gods less. Give it a try next session!

Mission: The Conceit

According to Dictionary.com, conceit means, “a favorable and especially unduly high opinion of one’s own abilities or worth.”This type of roleplaying mission has a couple of possible variants.

  1. Help an NPC believe in himself. The PCs must convince an NPC of his innate value and ability. They must overcome the NPC’s lack of confidence, self-doubt, and depressed state.This mission might be solvable in a single conversation that lifts the NPC’s spirits to the point where he’ll take action.To make this mission a little more involved, it might require convincing the NPC to take several actions, supporting the NPC during those tests, and following through with acknowledgement, praise, and moral support. The NPC might fail, but that’s part of the process and a challenge for the PCs to roleplay and help the NPC overcome.The mission might also involve removing serious obstacles for the NPC until he gains enough confidence to tackle things solo. Perhaps the NPC has domineering people in his life who try to keep him down. Perhaps he’s being secretly administered some kind of addictive depressant drug that requires an antidote. Maybe it’s a simple matter of freeing the NPC from a dragon-guarded prison cell. The PCs must remove whatever serious obstacles there are first, then work on the NPC’s self-esteem.As for what the PCs are ultimately motivating the NPC to do, well, that’s another mission altogether. ?
  2. Make an NPC over-confident. It’s up to the PCs to trick an NPC into taking a foolish action or to overreach himself. They need to convince him he’s more capable than he really is. This will usually require more than flattery and false praise. Having third parties provide the flummery will definitely help the PCs’ cause. Staging events and being subtle about over-building the NPC’s self-esteem might also work.

Mission: Discover The Secret

This is a very tangible mission for players to latch onto. What is the NPC hiding? Interrogation might work, but secrets are often worth a lot of pain to keep hidden.Discovering a secret requires guile and cunning from the PCs. Perhaps they can trick it out of an NPC during a conversation. Maybe they can pick up enough clues through investigation to gain a bit of helpful leverage too.A variant of this type of mission is to discover _any_ secret about an NPC.

The theory that every NPC has a skeleton in his closet puts the player characters on his tail. Who knows what the NPC is hiding? When it’s discovered though, Phase 2 of the master plan can begin…

Mission: Discover The Weakness

What is the NPC’s achilles heel? Knowing an opponent’s weakness is valuable information. It might be needed by the party’s employer or by the PCs’ themselves. This mission should require probing on a number of fronts, including parley, test raids, non-lethal duels, offering bribes, offering amoral opportunities, testing strengths of various affiliations, and so on.To help guide the PCs, you might provide a specific weakness to probe and verify. Else, you can simply point them at the NPC and ask them to report on any weaknesses they can find.

You can add additional challenge to the mission by requesting the PCs to report on the severity of the weakness. Is the weakness small or great? Is the NPC aware of it? What will it take to fully exploit it? To what degree can it be exploited?

Mission: Pick A Side

Some NPCs caught in the middle of a conflict are indecisive. Others cunningly try to play both sides until a winner emerges, and _then_ they announce their allegiance.For this mission, the PCs are charged with making an NPC pick a side and making him stick with his choice. One of the most effective encounters to make this happen is to gather all sides of the conflict together with the NPC in the middle and having him firmly declare his allegiance. This lets everyone know where he stands. However, the PCs also need to ensure the NPC makes no side deals or doesn’t try any tricks.


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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!

Mission: Secret Society of Heroes

From Shahed Sharif

Thanks for the Roleplaying Missions article. I wanted to share a related idea I used a couple years ago to much success. I made the entire campaign a series of missions given by higher-ups. The premise for the campaign was that the players got recruited by a secret society of heroes. That way, I had much greater flexibility in making a complex plot arc. Instead of each adventure being obviously linked to the one just before and after, I had the players’ contacts in the secret society give seemingly arbitrary objectives, that only over time made sense.

There were a few pleasing side-effects:

  • The party had an immediate resource pool. If they needed money or a magic item, the secret society would provide what it could. But that went the other way too – if the secret society gave the party a magic item, they might eventually take it back. The same held for any treasure the PCs found.
  • By virtue of their affiliation with the secret society, the players automatically had an array of both allies and enemies, who either trusted them implicitly or hated them implacably, without having to know anything else about them.
  • Since the party had to keep their membership in the organization secret, that put an interesting spin on role- playing encounters. If someone asked them why they were searching for the Anarax Codex, they had to make something up – possibly without even knowing what the Codex was! On a couple occasions, erstwhile allies got suspicious and created trouble, when, in fact, they really should have been on the players’ side.
  • Conflict within the organization presents unique gaming possibilities. After all, you may despise a rival, but if you are part of the same team, there’s only so much you can do about it.
  • As a game master, it was incredibly easy to come up with plots. There’s dozens of TV series and movies about spies, superheroes, etc. who are part of larger organizations (Mission: Impossible being one of my favorites).

One caveat about this: many movies deal with betrayal and treachery by superiors. If the party’s host organization is not large and official (like the King’s Army), and particularly if it is secret, then they will have to take many risks on their organization’s behalf, often without knowing why. That requires trust. Thus, such plots should be kept to a minimum, if used at all.

Anyway, just my thoughts. Thanks again for my favorite email of the week!

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Freeware Flow Chart Tool (PC)

From Adventure Fillers

I found this on the net:

Diagram Designer 1.11

It is a freeware flowchart designer of under one meg. It supports a few languages other than English and is able to export the flowcharts to a variety of formats (including jpgs and whatnot).

The author asks for a donation or contribution to the programme to support it. I haven’t been able to try it much yet but it looks sound and so far seems to do all I need from a programme like that and even more.

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Give Races And Cultures Alignment Labels

From DukeDrake

To make different races or cultures feel more unique, try giving them their own alignment labels, according to what concepts you feel that culture would hold important.

For example:

                   Good       Evil        Law        Chaos
Classical Roman  Pleasure  Suffering    Empire     Barbarism
Classical Greek  Comedy     Tragedy  Enlightenment  Unknown
               (Happiness) (Sadness)
Feudal Japan      Honor    Dishonor     Fealty     Defiance

A Lawful Good character from a Roman culture, an Empire Pleasure alignment, would be concerned with expanding the national boundaries, and enhancing the physical comfort (and perhaps general prosperity) of its citizens. The Greek culture’s Comedy Enlightenment aligned character, however, would be more concerned with the emotional well-being of others (rather than physical comfort), and striving to created an educated, logical and functional society.

The Feudal Japanese culture’s Fealty Honor character would seek out ways to serve his superiors in ways that increase the lord’s honor, and anyone associated with the lord, including himself.

On the other side of the coin, the Chaotic Evil for the Romans, the Barbarism Suffering, would likely use direct physical violence or torture as a tool to undermine the Empire (or take part of it for their own). The Greek culture’s Unknown Tragedy character would likely seek to promote his agenda by poisoning wells, abducting people, and other crimes that leave the people uncertain and in despair.

The Feudal Japanese culture’s Defiance Dishonor would probably use false rumors, planted evidence, and other deceitful techniques to undermine the honor of those higher up in the hierarchy, and create doubt and dissension among the followers of those leaders.

People who share the same underlying alignment, but have different cultural views of what those alignments are, may well have common goals and cooperate to achieve them… but their methods of choice and their motivations may be quite different. Interactions between nations of different cultures will also have potential for friction and conflicting motivations, despite similar alignment tendencies.

This technique could also be applied to thieves’ guilds, merchant associations, mega-corporations, military units, superhero/supervillain teams, or any other grouping of like- minded people who establish their own codes of conduct.

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D&D Botch Rolls

From Kevin Caldwell

My friend and I both game master for 3rd edition DnD frequently and we had an interesting argument. He loved the always fail on a roll of 1 idea–but not just fail, completely botch it!

Here is an example of why I think it’s terrible. Let’s say you have a small civilian who has no combat training and a great red wyrm attacks him. Assuming on a roll of 1 you would get a botch, that would mean the dragon would have a 5% chance screwing up horribly while attacking the poor NPC. This is a huge percentage for such a wide gap of combat ability.

So, we came up with an idea that would still let people botch yet not be quite that unrealistic. When someone or something rolls a 1, they re-roll. If they would have failed the second roll had it been their attack (or if it is a 1), then they botch. That would drastically lower the chance of the dragon badly screwing up.

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Avoid Similar Names

From Kate Manchester

When coming up with names for NPCs, try not to use the same name or initials over and over again, as it could confuse you and your players. It can also make note-taking harder.

For example, if the party meets a bartender named Harcrest in Town A, and another bartender named Harcrest in Town B, even if you give them different descriptions, there’s going to be some confusion. And as time passes, memory blurs and either you, your players, or both won’t be able to remember if it was Harcrest in Town A or Harcrest in Town B that was the one that sent them on the quest for his missing sister.

And on another note, it’s a good idea if you can persuade your players to use names that aren’t similar as well. If you take notes using initials in place of character names, you’ll have a tough time telling Harry, Hank, and Henry apart in your notes. Of course, you could just spell out their names all the time, but that takes longer…