How to Create Blockbuster Box Office Hits with Your Players – Every Adventure

From Brad Allen

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0523

A Brief Word from Johnn

Welcome New Advertiser: The Book Trailer

Darcy Pattison coaches’ fiction writers. That’s us, right? GMs need to write backgrounds, histories, plots, NPCs and more.

And while we do not follow all the conventions of a fiction book – rumor has it that players have a say in how the game turns out – lots of fiction writing tips and techniques work for us.

Darcy has contributed some great tips at the end of this issue about creating suspense. And she has a cool ebook out that shows anyone with a fiction or RPG book how to promote it by creating a great video trailer for it.

Selling is hard, and uncomfortable, and the idea of a video doing all the heavy lifting is very appealing.

You can check out The Book Trailer Manual at:

50% Do Not Know Wizards Has a Website?

In a conversation over at LinkedIn about RPG publishing, one poster said only half of gamers he speaks to at conventions even know D&D has an official website. That blew me away.

Maybe I should stop working on my monitor tan and get out in the real world for a change. I thought more gamers were online than that. Crazy.

In other news, voting for the ENnie Awards is now open. Check out the nominated products and publishers, and vote to push your favourites to the top:

Two Hot Upcoming Products

Masks: 1,000 Memorable NPCs for Any Roleplaying Game produced by the Gnome Stew guys looks amazing.

I mention it because I think fans of my GM Mastery: NPC Essentials will dig this book, masterminded by Martin Ralya.

Like the title says, the book contains 1,000 NPCs, each in this template: Appearance, Roleplaying, Personality, Motivation, Background, and Traits. It’s on my must-have list. Masks, the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Another item on my must-have list is Open Design’s Dark Roads & Golden Hells. That project is currently accepting patrons.

Planescape is my favourite setting of all time, and I’m a sucker for anything of quality that explores that setting. Wolfgang never disappoints with his projects, so this is another on my must-have.

Oh, shoot. I forgot to mention that Gamer Lifestyle student Cherie Arbuckle has just released a great new book perfect for novice game masters. This is her inaugural RPG work, and Yax and I are so proud of her excellent first offering.

The Adventure Creation Handbook shows GMs the ins and outs of how to craft compelling adventures:

  • How to develop your idea
  • How can using Q&A to flesh out your plot?
  • What are adventure events, and how do you create them?
  • The essential three things every adventure needs

More info at:

Get some gaming into your schedule this week. Your life needs a healthy balance of work AND play.

How to Create Blockbuster Box Office Hits with Your Players – Every Adventure

Applying the Hollywood Formula to RPG Storylines

I’ve been GMing for many years but only recently tried to enhance my pacing and story-writing skills. For a long time my games suffered from frequent lulls and anti-climaxes, but no longer.

Hollywood GMing

A year or so ago, I did some research on plot structure and came across a web site, Michael Hauge’s Screenplay Mastery.

I thought to myself, could I apply the Hollywood formula to RPG storylines?

I decided to use Hauge’s outline to write a storyline for a Hollow Earth Expedition scenario. And guess what? It was a huge success! With the proper prep, I achieved the exciting breakneck pacing you get from an action-adventure Hollywood movie.

So now when I come up with that cool idea for a scenario, I apply the Hollywood formula (detailed below). I’ve run six scenarios in different game systems (D20 Modern, Hollow Earth Expedition, Savage Worlds Super Heroes) using this formula and my players have enjoyed the exciting pacing. They are often surprised by how much happens in one four hour session (we play one night a week).

Once I have the basic idea (my scenarios are usually 5-8 sessions long), I plug it into the following outline with three acts and five turning points:

Act 1:

  • Set Up (10% of scenario, 1/2 to 1 session)
    • Ends with turning point #1 – The Opportunity
  • New Situation (15% of scenario, 1/2 to 1 session)
    • Ends with turning point #2 – The Change of Plans

Act 2:

  • Progress (25% of scenario, 1-2 sessions)
    • Ends with turning point #3 – Point of No Return
  • Complications & Higher Stakes (25% of scenario, 1-2 sessions)
    • Ends with turning point #4 – The Major Setback

Act 3:

  • Final Push(15% of scenario, 1 session)
    • Ends with turning point #5 – The Climax
  • Aftermath (10% of scenario, 1/2 to 1 session)
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Stage I: The Set Up

During this stage, I introduce all the player characters and we learn what they’ve been up to. Individual PC subplots are role-played out, and the players are whisked away from the everyday and drawn into the game setting.

At the end of stage one, we reach turning point #1 – The Opportunity. This is where I present the PCs with a plot hook to pursue. However, this is not the main goal of the scenario. It only brings them to The New Situation.

Stage II: The New Situation

This is often a new location in the game setting. Depending on the projected length of the scenario, it can take all of session 2, or the latter half of session 1.

In “The New Situation”, the PCs go to the new place where they interact with some NPCs and fight some minor baddies.

At the end of the New Situation there is turning point #2 – The Change of Plans. This is where I reveal the main goal of the scenario with a clearly defined end point (stop the evil plan, get the dingus, save the kidnapped person).

Once the goal of the PCs is clear, the players quickly jump into the third stage: Progress.

Stage III: Progress

During this stage of the scenario, the PCs uncover clues and start to work toward the scenario’s main goal.

At this point, I always introduce a couple of obstacles (1-2 combat or role-playing obstacles) which can take up 1-2 sessions depending on the scenario’s projected length.

I make sure the PCs are able to overcome most obstacles during this stage, which brings them to turning point #3 – The Point of No Return.

Up to this point, the PCs had the option of going back to what they were doing in the Set Up. But now the players realize they must fully commit to the goal of the scenario.

Of course, the PCs press on and this is where the shit starts to really hit the fan as they enter Complications & Higher Stakes.

Stage IV: Complications & Higher Stakes (1-2 game sessions)

This is where I start throwing everything I can at the PCs. Everything is harder and more and more things get in the PCs’ way.

Plus, I try to raise the stakes making the consequences more dire if the PCs fail to reach the goal.

This is also where I’ve found the game starts going off script and I start winging it as a GM.

The players usually start doing things to reach the goal that I haven’t thought of. Still, I always think of a few ways for the players to reach the goal and defeat the baddies.

This is where I throw in the really tough combats too (where the PCs can die). As the PCs have to deal with more and more challenges, it all reaches a boiling point, turning point #4 – the Major Setback.

At the Major Setback, I try to make something happen to the PCs to make it seem all is lost and failure is certain.

Now in Hollywood, it’s easy to have the Major Setback. It’s just written into the script at the 75% mark, no matter what the movie. It’s always there (just watch any movie and figure out the 75% mark and voila, there it is, EVERY TIME).

But RPGs aren’t scripted and by this point in the scenario, my PCs are usually doing all sorts of crazy and unpredictable stuff. But I try to throw something in at the 75% point where it seems certain the PCs are going to fail or at least have a hard time.

Of course, the PCs overcome this obstacle to enter The Final Push.

Stage V: The Final Push (1 game session)

After pushing past the Major Setback, the PCs have only one option, a do-or-die effort to save the world, defeat the baddies, get the girl.

During this stage, the pace in my game gets ridiculously fast, and the conflict is intense. I run action-adventure genres (Super Heroes, Hollow Earth Expedition) and there is constant action during this session, usually for the entire session (not always combat, but constant action, death-defying feats, piloting vehicles through hazes of gunfire, explosions and the like).

This all builds until turning point #5 – the Climax, where the PCs defeat the baddies once and for all and accomplish the goal of the scenario.

After all the dust has settled, I move onto the Aftermath.

Stage VI: The Aftermath (1/2 to 1 game session)

This stage might take a whole session following the session dedicated to the Final Push. Or it might take just an hour at the end of the scenario.

During this time we see the PCs living their lives after achieving the goal. A few subplots may be handled, especially if the main plot affected any ongoing individual PC subplots. This is also a great place to plant the seed for the next scenario and gets players excited for the next time you GM.


After many years of GMing with no sense of plot structure, I’ve found this Hollywood formula to work very well. It keeps the pace moving and helps me with writing block when I’m trying to figure out what happens next as I write down scenarios.

I’ve found I am able to somewhat script the first half of a scenario, and then sort of ad lib the second half to a large extent, with the complications being reactions to the PCs actions (I only detail locations, baddies actions/reactions, and time-based events at this point).

I’ve also found that the Hollywood formula works for any length of scenario. I recently applied the Hollywood formula to a three session adventure, and have applied the formula to a long over-arching campaign where each scenario is a stage in the story arc.

One of my campaigns, for Hollow Earth Expedition, consists of eight scenarios that are each 5-8 game session in length. For example, the first scenario of the campaign was just The Setup.

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Reader Tip Request

How to Run Professional Conferences for PCs

Every Year, my campaign features a wizards’ colloquium, called The Studious Accord, with speakers on various topics. These speakers are NPCs familiar to the PCs, or their topics recall adventures that they’ve had.

The Accord effectively serves tips, rumors and adventure hooks. I write up a list of speakers and the titles of their talks, and a short list of prominent vendors. I let the players choose what talks they’d like to attend.

Each of these then becomes an encounter, sometimes yielding an opportunity to take an otherwise unavailable feat, to invest in some potentially game-changing endeavor, or to just do some fun roleplaying.

I can often tailor the benefit on the fly to appeal to the player or players who choose that talk. For inspiration, I use story elements the players enjoyed, TED Talks, news articles on physics research, and plans for future possible adventures.

I’d like to know if your readers have similar “professional conferences” for other character classes, and if so, how they run these.

– Ray Newland

Readers, if you have any ideas or advice for Ray, drop me a note: [email protected]

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How to Add Conspiracy Theories to Your Game?

The most interesting thing about conspiracy theories is they could be true. Supporters will find evidence to support them, while the government will disprove them. The rest of the world doesn’t know or doesn’t care. That’s why many theorists keep ideas within sympathetic groups and only go public when they have enough proof.

Create a First Draft

If your game includes conspiracy theories, then it’s a good idea to have a plan beforehand:

  1. Draw a simple line diagram between the conspirators
  2. Decide which event will be manipulated and write it on the center of your paper
  3. Decide who the main conspirators are and draw a line from the event ending to one of the conspirators
  4. On this line, write down what role the person has in the event and how they benefited from it
  5. Do this until all the conspirators are placed
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Now you have a draft conspiracy theory.

Add Conspirators

A lot of power is usually needed to manipulate events. It requires money, leverage, and at some points, access to the criminal underworld. Thus, conspirators should be powerful, puppeteers, rich, or all three. For example, presidents, CEOs, warlords, mob bosses.

In addition to the conspirators, there are also those who know what has occurred but refuse to acknowledge whatever happened for reasons that might include bribery, blackmail or threats.

What do other people or organizations know about the conspiracy theory? When players start searching for the truth, these groups can provide clues and information. They might even try to stop the PCs.

Despite those sworn to secrecy, there are always others who try to reveal the truth. It is in these groups that players will gather clues and evidence to uncover a conspiracy theory. Such groups are often minorities who are treated as illogical, irrational, paranoid and plain crazy.

Often, the evidence they show will be fake or a case of “you see something you want to see.” This poses a real challenge to players trying to uncover a conspiracy as they have to figure out evidence’s validity.

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Trust Nothing

In the paranoia that surrounds conspiracy theory, players should feel distrustful of everyone and everything. Some groups they trust should betray the PCs, and evidence considered solid should sometimes be fake or invalid.

This happens with conspiracies often, and is one of the main themes you should introduce into your game. Players should have a feeling of uncertainty about who is manipulating their characters and who is actually being sincere.

Characters should also never feel their evidence is 100% solid and that they have to be fearful of risks. Agents, governments, secret groups and all the generic conspirators should always be ahead of them or hot on their trail, creating paranoia.

If you create distrust in the players, with them feeling someone might betray them for profit, then you have done a good job. Just remember that you need to retain a sense of unity against the conspirators.

Bring the PCs In

Hinting conspiracy theories is the best way to get characters into the storyline. Have conspirators slip up by leaving clues. For example, the men in black drop one of their sample dishes taken from an extraterrestrial being, or an assassin fails to kill a neighbor and leaves evidence.

In addition, the characters could stumble onto a conspiracy theory. For example, they search a briefcase stolen from a man in a suit, dig up books or information thought destroyed, or hack a website.

Conspiracy theories are difficult to pull off with the proper air of mystery and paranoia. A bit of practice will allow you to open your regular group to a different game, though.

Remember that conspiracy theories have been around long before modern times, so you can even include conspiracy theories to fantasy or medieval settings.

Keep in mind you will require some planning. Research might also be needed if your conspiracy theories are based on actual events. Keep it simple with the possibility of being complex as the characters delve in.

For more role-playing tips on how to create atmospheres, campaigns, visit

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New GM Advice

What’s new at the blog of Johnn Four and Mike Bourke:

Objective-Oriented Experience Points

Why do we give experience for combat at all? Why not shift entirely to objective-based XP rewards?

Missing In Action: Maintaining a campaign in the face of player absence

What should I do to get a story or campaign to stay consistent? And how do I manage PCs when they are gone?

Creating Alien Characters

How Alien Should Aliens Be?

All Is Three: A 3.x Fantasy Campaign Premise

I had just two ideas to start with: all lizardkind are related and there are three types energy, Defiling, Sanctifying, and Arcane….

Starting In The Middle

So, what’s the RPG equivalent of starting in the middle, how can GMs take advantage of it, and what are the pitfalls?

GM’s Toolbox

GM’s Toolbox, looks at tools, tips, and techniques you can use to improve your games.

Directed Plots, Undirected Narrative, and Stuff That Just Happens

We examine how different Narrative styles and techniques can combine with Episodic and Serialized campaigns to produce eight distinct combinations.

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How-To Game Master Books

In addition to doing this newsletter, I have written several GMing books to inspire your games and make GMing easier and more fun:

NPC Essentials

Critically acclaimed and multiple award-winning guide to crafting, roleplaying, and GMing three dimensional NPCs for any game system and genre. This book will make a difference to your GMing.

Free preview:

Filling the Empty Chair

How to find great gamers fast and easy online with my list of the best gamer registries and player finder websites.

Recruit offline quickly with 28 new and easy ideas to find gamers in your local area. And attract the best players with my tips and advice on how to create the right kind of ads.

Inns, Taverns, and Restaurants

How to design, map, and GM fresh encounters for RPG’s most popular locales. Includes campaign and NPC advice, 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.

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One More Tip

Creating Suspense to Strengthen the Narrative Arc

From  Darcy Pattison

[Comment from Johnn: Thanks to Matt Schillinger for pointing this great article out to me, and to Darcy for republishing permission.]

Great novels grab your attention and never let it go until the reader looks up from reading, “The End.” That’s a given. But it’s not always easy to grab that reader’s attention. What you need is suspense.

Suspense is created by an uncertainty about what happens next in your story. So-what does happen next? Something unexpected, of course. But let’s go back to the basics.

What happens in a story is conflict; without something bad happening you don’t have a story. Suspense is the reader’s worry about what will happen because of that conflict.

How can you increase the reader’s worry?

Evoke strong emotions. Make sure the conflict evokes strong emotions. This usually means a conflict that matters in some important way. The possibility of walking through a thicket with thorns is trivial in comparison to a life and death situation. On that continuum of what is at risk, push more towards the “life and death” end to increase suspense.

Let readers root for the characters

Likewise, if we care for the characters, we worry more. Good characterization gives us cause to root for a character and his/her eventual success over the conflict. If we know that a woman has been abused, but come out of it and successfully raised two lovely children, then we worry more when she starts dating a man we suspect of being an alcoholic.


In order to characterize well, give readers a person to root for and to evoke strong emotions, you must include great details. This means you must think about what the setting is like in terms of sounds, sights, smells, tastes, and tactile possibilities. Use specific sensory details to evoke the situation and give the reader a blow by blow of the action of the story.

Feel the Consequences

Once you place the reader in the situation with strong details which evoke strong characters set into overwhelming conflict, then evoke even stronger emotions by making sure the reader understands the consequences of failure.

This is the, “So What?” question. If X fails to do Y-so what? Who cares? You must provide enough details on the consequences or hint at it broadly enough for the reader to guess the consequences.

How can you escalate the reader’s worry?

At any particular moment in the story, you can use the strategies above to evoke worry. But that’s not enough, because a story isn’t static, it quickly moves from one scene to the next.

And it’s not enough to just evoke the same amount of worry, you must escalate the suspense of your story.

Begin at the right place

Looking over the broad picture of your story, the need for escalation requires that you start at a place of strong conflict, but not so strong that the situation can’t get worse.

You must find a strong enough place to create suspense; yet, that exact situation and time in the story must allow for a progression of scenes in which things get worse. In other words, make sure the sequence of scenes makes sense.

Conflict must change

In some way, as the story progresses, the character’s situation(s) must change, usually by building on the initial conflict. You must ask how things can get worse.

This is often a place where I get stuck and find it helps to take the situation apart.

  • Would it be worse at a different time?
  • A different place?
  • With different characters?

Or try it from a different stance: what is the worst thing your character would ever have to face? That is the ending scene and how can you back up from there and soften the conflict?

Add uncertainty

As you work with the plot and conflicts, search for ways to bring in or to imply uncertainly.

  • No one has tried this approach before.
  • Theoretically, this should work.
  • Someone tried this and it didn’t work, but we have no choice but to try it again.

Scene cuts

Try using scene cuts to leave X hanging while you present a scene with Y that leaves Y hanging; then come back to X, finish the first scene and transition immediately into the second scene which-of course leaves X hanging again. Repeat as needed.


Much of this is an issue of pacing, which is merely taking the long picture of your story and thinking about how scenes blend with each other.

For example, you might follow two fast-paced action scenes with a scene of simple action but more complex character interaction. Here are some suspense building techniques that come from this idea of pacing.

  • Include enough details to spread out the story and make the reader wait for needed information.
  • Let uncertainty fester: never give a straight answer when a sideways answer will work.
  • Stop at unexpected points.
  • Deliver the expected, but in an unexpected way.
  • Intrigue, but don’t explain-yet. (But don’t cheat here: If your main character knows something, your readers should know it, too.)

Use Dread and Anticipation

Keep in mind the difference in dread and anticipation.

Dread: bad things have happened and even worse things are possible.

Anticipation: something bad could happen unless. . .

Dread builds on past conflict, while anticipation builds on hope of avoiding conflict. Try to use both as you build the suspense of your story.

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Writing teacher Darcy Pattison provides tips, ideas and techniques for creative writing at Fiction Notes.

Her sister site, The Book Trailer Manual, provides how-to information on creating a video for the purpose of book marketing.

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