22 DIY D&D Terrain Hacks For the Low Budget Game Master

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0516

A Brief Word from Johnn

Riddleport Session 19 Log

We played last week, after an unscheduled month away from the campaign.

It was a great session, but so much happened to report on that I moved the log from where it usually appears in this spot to its own article later in the newsletter.

Let me know if the long format is too much.

5 Room Dungeon Volumes Zipped into Single Download

All 18 volumes of the 5 Room Dungeons series are now available a single zip file. This should make downloading easier. The single PDF of all the dungeons is still available, but for those who want to use or print volumes individually, you do not have to download all 18 one at a time any more.

Thanks to C.W.Holeman III for this idea.

Get the 5 Room Dungeons!

Photo of RPT GM CoryG's DIY D&D terrain

22 DIY D&D Terrain Hacks For the Low Budget Game Master

Do It Yourself terrain for Dungeons & Dragons and other RPGs is a ton of fun. Whether you make entire scenes or smaller props, they offer visceral ways for players to experience your grand adventures.

And making your own terrain isn’t as hard or time consuming as you’d think! Here are twenty-two ideas for creating your own terrain without breaking your budget.

(Please note some of the links in this list are affiliate links. I will earn a couple of copper pieces if you purchase via the links. But the links are secondary — what’s most important is tricking out your game table with cool props and DIY D&D terrain!)

Do It Yourself Terrain & Props With Objects

DIY DND Terrain With Candy

For scenery, keep some rocks, pebbles, lichen, and large chips of bark in a shoebox. You can increase the atmosphere a lot with simple terrain from things scavenged outside.

Aquarium decorations make great and cheap DIY terrain alternatives. For example, plastic coral makes great mountains.

Legos. These are fun and easy enough to acquire in bulk from yard sales or eBay (or raid a family member’s toy box for the evening). While a little pricey when buying new Lego kits, the reusability factor alone makes them worth the cost (and with a little paint and artistic flair, they can be further customized easily). They have the added benefit of being destroyable during combat encounters, adding another level of interactivity to scenes.

Lincoln Logs. Another reusable terrain option you can buy on the cheap at yard sales or eBay. They can be used to quickly construct buildings or barricades on mini maps without much fuss, and can be reused endlessly. For sci-fi games, a little paint can turn them into passable steel tubing or metal walls without much effort.

Players shouldn’t be scared to make their own mini monsters. You’ll have good times making soap monsters, golems out of any material that will dry or stick together, cutting up farm animal figs or other toys to make giant abominations.

Christmas and Halloween times at the dollar stores are ideal for cheap minis terrain. I’ve picked up packs of trees for a buck. I even found some dungeon type walls. Some minor painting gets rid of the seasonal look on them.

Candy makes excellent (and temporary, heh) terrain and props. You can wall out a place on your battle mat in moments with licorice. Gummy bears make great foes. Skittles for traps and treasure. Chocolate things for major opponents.

DIY Terrain & Props With Maleables

DIY DND Terrain With Playdough
Bug Fossils image from survivingateacherssalary.com (there’s a DIY playdough recipe at that link too.)

Playdough. Easily moldable into virtually any shape, and near infinitely reusable (just add water) it makes for excellent terrain with minis. Use the various colors combined with some cookie cutters or mini molds to craft forests, trees, building shapes, boulders. Let key pieces harden overnight to give stone walls more durability, and leave more easily destroyable things (such as bushes) soft and deformable to the encounter’s conflict.

You can also use Playdough to make enjoyable area effect displays (from things like spells or explosives) to spice up combat. Most players I know love to deform the terrain when using minis if given the opportunity. Google for easy playdough recipes.

Use styrox, or as some call it, expanded polystyrene (EPS). Wield a sharp knife to make near-instant 3D landscapes. Make them modular for easy storage. Add key features from toys or crafts. Glue felt or canvas on the styrox for colour, or use spray paint that does not melt the shapes.

Sugar cubes and hot glue. These work well to quickly build walls or ruined building structures without a lot of money or effort. Perfect for winter settings, a quick hit of gray spray paint after building can turn them into castle or stone walls in no time.

A small sand box. Play-sand makes perfect terrain. Use brown sand for desert, white sand for arctic or winter. Mold sand into all sorts of destroyable terrain with minimal effort and a few drops of water. One small caution: if used in an area where cats are present, keep the box covered when not in use to avoid unpleasant random encounters.

Zen Garden. Did you get a Zen Garden as a gift one year and now it sits unused? Put it on the game table as a cool special effect area or use it as a physical puzzle.

D&D Terrain & Props With Materials

Do It Yourself D&D terrain With Watercolor Paints Photo
Photo by Glen Carrie on Unsplash

Use water-based paint to paint dried Playdough figures and terrain areas, or to add a splash of color to dry erase style boards and battle mats without burning through the colored markers. (It generally washes off dry/wet erase boards without staining them, but check in a small corner to make sure first.) This can be good for adding trails of blood, splashes of acid or fire, or other sudden special effects to terrain, and gives them a more natural 3D quality than a marker would.

Carpet and linoleum scraps. Nearly any furniture, tile, or carpet store will have a ton of these they’ll be happy to part with for free. You can find pieces ranging from as little as 1 foot square to as much as 4 foot long strips several inches wide. A little model knife or scissor work later and you have lots of ground material for forests, rivers, buildings, and so on. Trim tall carpets with sharp scissors so minis stand on them well.

Junked tire. Using an old tire from a car, bike, or lawnmower, cut it into strips or squares for use as terrain markers, burned out building ruins, strange floors, and so on.

For zones or spell effects, I like to make custom templates from paint swatches that are available for free from the hardware store. For walls, I take a pipe cleaner and attach 1″ squares along them to mark out the shape. After that, I make a 1×2 stand-up card to represent the effect (fire, ice, smoke). I’ll be writing a post on how to do this on rpgmusings.com, where I’ve also explained how to make zone effects, under the title DIY Templates.

Cardboard boxes. To add 3D relief to your battle mats, cut out sections of gridded paper and glue it to different sized cardboard boxes.

To make blast and burst templates, use pliers to open up a metal coat hanger. Bend the hanger into the appropriate sized shape. Cut the ends with a cheap pair of wire cutters. Use a file to dull off the sharp wire ends. Bonus step: I use heat shrink (you can get this at Radio Shack) to close off the square to eliminate the sharp ends and help keep the square whole.

For swarms and minions, I make tokens out of Sculpey and write letters and numbers on them once they’re done. You just roll the clay into a ball then press down with your thumb to make the tokens.

Scratched and old CDs and DVDs (AOL and WoW discs, anyone?) make ideal bases for do it yourself terrain. Paint the disc, glue on your rocks, peddles, trees and other terrain, and then place on the battle mat whenever you need.

Printable paper terrain works great, especially if you have access to a colour printer. The artwork and detail can be incredible and quite immersive. And cutting and gluing buildings and terrain together is fun craftwork. You can get printables for cheap at DriveThruRPG.

How about you? What hacks and tips do you have for Do It Yourself style Dungeons & Dragons props and terrain? Email me and I’ll add your ideas to the list. Thanks!

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Riddleport Session 19 – Power Struggle

This ended up being a tricky session to GM. Just four of six players were present.

In addition, instead of continuing further into the cavern complex discovered last session, the PCs unexpectedly decided to return to town and take care of some business.

Finally, the PCs triggered an investigation-pursuit mini- plot, and it was interesting playing out something forwards in time that I developed by going backwards in the timeline.

It’s a miracle

Last session ended with Fane the dwarf being slain by a family of arumvorax – vicious dungeon cats. The dwarf’s player and I met between sessions over coffee to chat about how he wanted to proceed. His first choice was to somehow continue playing his character.

No problem; we settled on his character having a conversation with his god in the afterlife. His god has a stake in Riddleport, so it was easy conjuring up a plausible quest in exchange for bringing the character back to life. A miracle!

At the metagame level, as we played a month ago, I wanted to keep the game moving along at a fast pace. I wanted to forestall an in-character party debate about whether to pay to resurrect Fane, and whether to venture further into the caverns. It would have been a great discussion, but the game needed to advance to get some wind back into its sails.

With Fane back, the party would not have to wring their hands about continuing onward or metagaming and getting Fane rezzed so the player could participate in play sooner than later.

A mysterious watcher

The party is glad to have Fane back, but decide to return to town, rest up, and take care of a few items of business. Leaving the caverns into the abandoned lighthouse above, they exit into the early morning air. A glance at the sea reveals ominous clouds – another storm is coming to besiege the port city.

Following the path back the group senses someone watching them. They get a sound fix on the spy and charge, but the watcher escapes. The group discovers clawed footprints that just disappear after a few steps. The PCs conclude the spy was tengu, a mysterious bird faction they’ve encounter before, and move on.

A gang leader is green lit

Before hitting their home base, Crixus the pit fighter PC snags a Red Cap messenger and sends a message to Krug.

Krug is a street boss for the PCs’ patron. The message reads, “Klash retires today.”

Smooth move and good call. The PCs have given their boss notice they are taking out one of his minions, whom they have had violent encounters with in the past.

I overheard the players talking last session, and I think their plan is to take over Klash’s gang. That’ll be fun, if it happens. The gang is responsible for collecting extortion money from the neighbourhood merchants, for keeping the peace on district streets, and defending the district from rival Crime Lord gangs.

An angry lady

Back at The Chalice Inn, the party is confronted by a livid Lady Warren.

In session 18, the Lady returned to the inn carrying a wounded companion. She told the heroes her crew of mercenaries, the Diamond Rats, had heard there were caverns with untold treasures beneath the lighthouse. They indeed found a cavern, but were promptly struck down by a fire- breathing creature with five hideous heads. The Rats retreated with only Lady Warren and one other escaping alive.

The pair fled back to the Chalice, whereupon the Lady confided all this information to the PCs.

The next day, the PCs left for the lighthouse before Lady Warren awoke, apparently keen on getting all the treasure for themselves. I use the term heroes to reference the PCs with sarcasm hereon in.

So, the heroes return from the lighthouse and Lady Warren is waiting for them. She pounces. “You were supposed to take me with you!” Crixus responds with deadly insults. She storms out of the inn. It looks like the PCs have lost an ally – a rich ally, unfortunately.

Clash with Klash at the arena

The big moment arrives. After taking care of things at the inn, the party heads as one to the arena, where matches are scheduled to start at 12 candles. They arrive at 11 candles, spot the section in the stands where their district sits, and saddle on up to Krug, their Crime Lord’s street boss.

Klash and two of his thugs sit beside Krug. The street boss acknowledges the PCs, stands up and says he has business to attend. The stands are packed, and this move gives at least one PC room to sit beside Klash, murder in their eyes.

The PCs surround their three targets and attack. Spectators flee, many out of respect for the violence the PCs are getting a reputation for.

Klash jumps out of the stands and down into the arena. He makes it halfway across the sandy floor before getting cut down by fierce arrow fire. The muscle, Scab and Grim Fang, are no match for the heroes. Grim Fang falls unconscious. Scab surrenders and offers his services to the PCs – a true mercenary with his former employer’s blood still pooling.

As the PCs negotiate a weekly payment of 50 guilders for Scab’s services, an arrow strikes Crixus. Poison seeps into the wound. Crixus staggers, but rallies. Then a PC spots the assassin crouching on the topmost wall of the open-air arena.

In an amazing surge, the wounded pit fighter flies a hundred feet through the air and charges the archer. Crixus lays down the damage and the assassin collapses, then topples over the side to hit the street far below.

That little matter taken care of, the PCs dismiss Scab, pick up the bodies of Grim Fang, the archer, and Klash, and return to the Chalice. They are now leaders of a new gang, replacing Klash’s, all with the street boss’s blessing. Well done!

Another recruit, Klash’s plans revealed

The group revives the archer. He says his name is Tiger. Everyone thinks it is an alias, but do not press the point. They broker a deal in exchange for information. Tiger agrees to not attack the PCs for a year and a day, as his contract to kill Crixus is technically not fulfilled. However, Tiger reveals it was Klash who contracted him, and as Klash is dead the temporary truce becomes possible.

The PCs revive Grim Fang next. He quickly offers his services like Scab did. The Chalice Bastards, as the PCs are known in Riddleport, now have two henchmen.

The break-up

After matters are settled with Grim Fang, he asks about Scab and cannot believe his ears when the PCs tell him they let the man go. Grim Fang says Scab has probably returned to the Green Daggers’ headquarters and looted the place, with Klash now gone.

Everyone immediately heads to the Green Daggers’ HQ and find Klash’s girlfriend, Mira, on the stoop crying. Klash had given her a dear John note earlier in the day, before heading to the arena. Klash wrote he was headed out of town and not taking her with him.

She also confirms that Scab had been by an hour before and left with arms full of stuff. Mira is also the PCs’ barmaid at their inn. They calm her down, then send her to work. What kind employers.

The group then enters the HQ and confirms Scab has looted it all.

We owe how much?

The Green Daggers worked for Rictus, the local Crime Lord. Rictus is also the PCs’ patron. Now that the PCs have killed off or recruited the Daggers, they are now the gang. Grim Fang delivers terrible news that Scab’s treachery is more than just a missed opportunity to loot the Daggers.

The deal was the Green Daggers collected 15,000 guilders every Moonday from the neighbourhood merchants for protection fees. The PCs are now responsible for that payment, due Sunday. And Grim Fang says that Klash and the gang had blown through all the money this week partying.

But that’s ok, because Klash said he had a plan for getting more money to pay Rictus, and everybody would be ok. However, Scab has just taken all the money while looting the HQ, and Klash died without revealing his plans. The PCS have three days to come up with 15,000 guilders or risk the wrath of Rictus!

The group ponders their plight. Night falls. They need to find Scab and get that money. They decide to head to Mira’s apartment, on a hunch.

A gruesome surprise

The group heads to Mira’s. The door is ajar. Cautiously they enter and discover a body in a sack, tossed in a corner. With reluctance, they uncover the corpse. It is their fence, Wren.

Last night the party gave Wren all their undesired loot to cash in. She was to return with the guilders in two days. But now she lies dead in Mira’s apartment, penniless and with no loot.

Further investigation reveals the body was cut in many places and most of her blood would have bled out. A smart player reasons the fairly clean apartment is just the dump spot, not the scene of the murder. Another smart player asks why someone would want to frame Mira with Wren’s murder?

With no answers, the group leaves. In the darkness, returning to the Chalice, the PCs spot a flickering torch in the distance wending along the path to the lighthouse. “Must be Lady Warren,” Crixus mutters.

Not a ghost of a chance

The PCs bring Wren’s body back to the inn. They want to have her resurrected to find out who killed her and to get their loot back.

Way back in the campaign, the PCs’ neighbour Astrinus offered them free resurrections if they would sign a contract that gave their soul to Astrinus in the afterlife. Some PCs signed. The group’s plan now is to offer a soul to get Wren raised. Hey, it saves a buck, right?

The group approaches innkeeper Illium. Will he sign Astrinus’s contract to save Wren? No.

The party cannot believe it. They demand to know why. That is when Illium reveals a secret he’s been keeping since the start of the campaign.

Illium is a ghost.

Everybody is stunned. But it is true. He can make himself corporeal when needed, but he can also go ethereal at will, which he proves by fading out and passing his hand through Thorne’s shoulder.

So, Illium cannot offer a soul he does not possess to help Wren. Muttering, the PCs look for another…and eyes slowly turn to Thorne, a recent addition to the group. Thorne does not like it, but he agrees.

Smuggler’s treachery

They go next door, Thorne signs a contract, Wren gets rezzed.

Then the group interrogates her. The last thing she remembers is taking away the party’s goods to the port where her smuggler contact lairs. A shadowy arm grabbed her from behind and she lost consciousness.

Taking Wren along with Grim Fang, everybody heads to the port to see Wren’s smuggler.

Klash again

The smuggler tells a strange story of Scab bringing Wren to him drunk and barely conscious last night, with the PCs’ loot. Scab gets the smuggler to pay him for the goods at the standard rate, and then Scab leaves carrying Wren.

The PCs realize Klash is a step ahead of them yet again!

Furious, the group forces the fence to take them to his stash to give them the monies from the goods, which he had promptly sold after Scab’s departure.

The fence leads them along the beach to a hidden cave that contains just blankets and rotting furniture. He goes to the back and uncovers a secret hole in the rock. The smuggler jams his arm deep into the hole and then shouts in alarm. His money is gone. He has been robbed!

Scouting outside the cave, they find a set of footprints. They follow these along the beach, up a hill and to the lighthouse path. Whoever stole the money is in the lighthouse.

The scrying game

The PCs are furious. But they are nervous too. The deadline to pay Rictus looms.

They resort to magic. They send Velare to his guild to buy a scroll with a scry spell on it. He returns and casts it, questing for Scab.

An image quickly forms in the mage’s mind. It’s Scab basking in the warm glow of a hearth fire, surrounded by beautiful wenches and a crowd of sycophants.

He seems to be regaling all with some tale. He pauses, orders a new round of drinks for everybody, and then resumes amidst cheers from all. Velare pans back in his mind’s eye and realizes Scab is just up the street at the Gold Goblin tavern. The nerve of the guy, living it up and spending all their money!

We ended the session there. Next session the group will storm the Gold Goblin and seize Scab to collect what they are owed.

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The players have put most of the pieces together. They figured a lot out during the game, and then puzzled out more stuff afterwards. Here is the backstory, with some extra details added in, just between you and me. (Spoiler warning for any of my players reading this!)

Klash knew the PCs were about to attack him, so he made a hasty exit plan. First, he pretended to spend the 15,000 guilders his gang had extorted. Though he did spend some, he hid most of the rest. Then he had his man Scab Ambush Wren to take her profits from the PCs’ loot. Klash knew the PCs did business with her, and counted on them needing her services this week, which they did.

Then Klash ordered Scab to follow the smuggler to discover where his stash was so he could rob him too, which ended up being pretty easy to do.

Next, Klash ordered Scab to kill Wren and put her body in Mira’s apartment to frame her for murder. That would take care of two loose ends at once. Klash left Mira a note and was preparing to head overland out of Riddleport, pockets bulging with over 25,000 guilders.

However, Klash made two errors. First, he did not count on Krug setting him up at the arena. Krug summoned Klash under the auspices of having good news for him. Klash went, then Krug took off, leaving him at the hands of the murderous Chalice Bastards.

Klash also did not count on the Bastards going to the extreme of raising Wren from the dead and letting them know about Scab plus the identity and location of her smuggler contact.

It is too bad, as Klash seemed to have a good plan. Poor guy.

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As GM, I made a couple of mistakes. One resulted in a minor retcon between sessions.

First was getting the date wrong. I thought the PCs had given Wren their goods for fencing two days before, not one. That resulted in me making some hasty changes to Klash’s timeline. Fortunately, it worked out and no logic problems presented themselves.

Second was missing out a detail on Klash’s note to Mira. Klash had not only broken up with her, but had written he was leaving town with Wren. He did that to provide damning motive for Mira to kill Wren – a jealous lover dumped gets her revenge – as part of his setup of Mira.

The third was the worst. Scab was supposed to be in the lighthouse when the PCs scried him. The tracks at the smuggler’s cave were his. But when the PCs surprised me and did not follow the tracks, I forgot. During the scrying, I said on-the-fly Scab was partying it up at the Gold Goblin tavern.

The first mistake I fixed in the timeline and let the players know. No issues there.

The second mistake I will fix by saying Mira left out the detail about Wren when talking with the PCs. It is something a humiliated person would keep a secret anyways. The characters sensed motive on her, and she did reveal some information. If caught, Mira and I will come clean and just say the PCs did not press her enough. The third mistake causes no logic issues, at least.

I will rule that Scab went to the lighthouse, got bored, and went down the path to town and to the Gold Goblin. Klash hid most his money elsewhere in the city, and Scab only has the 5,000 guilders Klash gave him. And those guilders are going quick.

However, Scab must know the PCs are after him. And he’s partying just a block away. I will need to think on this before next session. I could just say Scab is being stupid. However, I’d prefer an answer with more adventure in it. We’ll see.

I hope you enjoyed this lengthy session log. A lot of stuff happened in session 19!

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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!

Three Ways to Game with Casual Players

From Mark of the Pixie

I agree with your epiphany that we should play more.

One way I am looking at to help facilitate this (as work, children, and other responsibilities reduce our time) is the logistics of how we play.

Most of my games are fortnightly three-hour face-to-face table top sessions in the evenings with a regular team of players in campaigns that last several years.

I have also run a few monthly 20-70 player free forms (or LARPs) similar in format to most Camarilla games, also over several years, but have stopped because of the work involved and the lack of player and co-GM support and interest.

There have been a few convention games, as well – single – sessions with pre-generated characters.

However, I am experimenting with other way of doing it.

The Player Pool

One of my most successful tricks is the player pool. I have a roster of 10-16 players, each with a full character. Each game night some will turn up and some others won’t. I have nights with just 2 players and nights with 15, but most hover around 5 to 7 players.

I have to be flexible with which plots I run (and often have 2 to 3 in reserve), but the game is episodic enough that I am able to resolve each plot in one night.

Each character must have something else they are doing that explains any absence (one character is an academic and is occasionally be away at a conference, another often spends time with her family). Having these reasons means it never feels forced when a character is away, and they add depth to the world and the characters.

Players Play NPC Guest Stars

I also have some players guest star as regular NPCs. If the player is free, I work their NPC into the plot. Once or twice a year, I have a mini-freeform where I get 5 to 7 guest stars in to help me do a wedding or similar for the PCs.

Run Interlinked Campaigns

An idea I am currently trying is running 3 interlinked tabletops monthly. Each has 5 to 7 players, and take place in the same world.

I will hold occasional BBQs or dinners where I invite everyone in-character to chat and socialise “at the tavern.”

They can swap adventures, pass on information, trade quests and info on NPCs, or warn each other about different threats. They can even break up teams and reform into new groups.

My hope is for a low commitment game with a lot of PC-to-PC social interaction possible, but still a neat tabletop format for quests and personal plots.

I would be interested to hear how others run their games.

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Organize Your Information with Evernote

From Jared Hunt

Evernote is a free service that I’ve used on Mac, iPhone, and iPad. There are versions for other mobiles and for Windows as well. It is a simple word processing program that incorporates online storage so you can share your notes across any number of your computers and devices.

One of the problems I’ve always had as a GM is keeping my notes organized. I’m one of those people who likes to have a way to record good ideas no matter where I am and, in the past, that meant lots of paper scraps, napkins with notes scrawled on them, and journals. Trying to find a specific idea was quite the chore.

Now I just use Evernote. No matter where I am, I’ll almost always have access to either my phone, my iPad or a computer with internet access. As long as I have at least one of those things, I can easily record my ideas and they are instantly synced across all my devices.

I also appreciate the ability to create and store notes via text, picture, or audio. If it’s useful, you can also add a geotag to sort by location.

Evernote has a robust system for tagging your notes that makes searching and sorting easy. I have a tag for each campaign, one for NPCs, world info, magic, and so on. You can add as many tags to an idea as you want.

I haven’t tried it yet, but I suspect it could be a great way to take notes in-game too.

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When You Need to Cast In Secret

From Morgan Joeck

One thing that bothered me when I first started gaming was identifying the spell I was casting when those around me would not have known what it was.

My solution to that was to print out colorful fractals or other designs on index cards and fold them into little envelopes containing the spell name and other information the GM needed inside each one.

Creating one envelope for each spell allowed me a simple way of knowing which spells I had prepared for the day and how many castings of each I had left.

I also thought it would make sense for the other players to learn something as we all adventured together.

Therefore, I used the same design each time I prepared a given spell and tried to coordinate the main colors of the design with the type of spell.

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A Trick for Easier In-Game Communication

From Joseph Rapoport

In regards to creating simple communications in games, I play in two campaigns and DM one in which we have all arrived at the same solution for communication. The solution is an item, a small hollow metal tube, which acts like a Message spell.

The item comes in two forms:

  1. An expensive tube that doesn’t use charges
  2. A less expensive tube with charges that must continuously get recharged (great way to suck wealth from the party)

The party can communicate with anyone else they know who also has one of these items, as long as they are on the same plane. Prices are up to the DM.

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Speeding Up Combat

From Len Henderson

One of the most enjoyable parts of roleplaying for many gamers is combat. However, especially in large groups, players can wait for a considerable amount of time between turns. This sort of wait leads to boredom and cross chatter, annoying the GM and the player whose turn it is.

Here are things I do to speed up combat.

Create Character Ability Cards

In my group, any ability or spell players might use should have an index card representing it. On the card are things the GM needs to know, such as range, casting time, requisite save, duration, and effect.

If a player says “I cast X,” he grabs the card and tells me what I want to know about X, rather than searching through the books to find it.

You should only need cards for those spells or abilities you actually use in combat, but I have players who have all their PCs’ spells and abilities on cards.

Create Rules Cards

I have a small box next to me with combat cards in it. Each card details a particular action that can occur in combat with the relevant rules for it. If one of my players says, “I attempt to trip the monster,” I can pull out the Trip card and the rules for tripping are detailed thereon. This saves having to pull out the book and finding the rule.

Create Foe Summary Cards

I write down on a card the combat statistics and special abilities of monsters or NPCs I know I’ll be using in the next game, especially if I’ll be using several different monsters in the same encounter.

This leads to less flicking through the monster manuals for statistics. If the monster or NPC uses spells or special abilities, I’ll do up a separate card for that as well. Magnetic Strips

Each player has a magnetic strip with their character’s name written on it. When initiative is resolved, I then put the strips on a metal backing board, in initiative order.

If initiative changes during combat, it is a simple matter to switch the strips around. I do the same with monster initiative.

Sandbox Delaying Players

I only give my players a short amount of time to complete their actions. If they are obviously delaying or are unsure of what they want to do, then I say, “Your character is delaying.” I then move their initiative strip to the side and do the next player’s turn.

When a delayed PC is ready, I move their initiative strip back into the order at the current point in initiative, and the player can take their turn.

PCs should be ready to take their action on their turn. There is plenty of time to plan whilst the other players are having their turn. Enforce In-Character Talking

Cutting down on cross chatter is a big thing in my games. If you want to chat to the person next to you about how little Suzy is the apple of your eye, she’d better be a character in my game, otherwise go elsewhere to do so.

Cross chatter destroys the atmosphere the GM is trying to create, and it distracts other players, which slows the game.

Reinforce with Body Language

I have found that the body language shown by the GM is mirrored by the players.

I generally lean forward, speak a little more softly but with more intensity, and increase the tempo of my speech. The players notice this and do the same.

Looking in books for rules, or any activity that breaks eye contact with the players, slows combat.

Beginning GMs will spend ten minutes perusing a monster manual for a particular rule or ability. This breaks the mood and lowers the tempo. It is better to make things up on the fly. If you we are wrong, so be it. Look the rule up and remember it for the next game.

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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: http://www.roleplayingtips.com/url/npceprev

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: http://www.roleplayingtips.com/url/taverns

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

I Smell Props

From Johnn

A discussion recently popped up in the GM Mastery Yahoo group when group member Randal asked about using smells in games:

“Have you ever noticed that when you smell a familiar smell it brings back all these memories? Just curious if any of you have tried to set the mood by burning incense or doing something else that brings out the imagination/memories of scent.

I was thinking of trying to find an incense that smelled a bit like camp fire smoke. Not only would it remind all of my players about their times camping and cooking around the fire, but when we actually go camping it would remind them about the game. Just a random thought.”

Here was my response:

Scent is powerful. Use it for key moments.

Avoid filling the room with scent. Not only might you affect allergies, but the scent lingers beyond its moment of use.

Instead, use props with scent, and pass them around:

  • A strip of leather
  • A strip of leather treated with a certain oil
  • A piece of firewood or coal
  • Oils and candles (no need to light, just smell the candle wax)
  • Moist dirt
  • Flowers
  • Grease

Put stuff in plastic containers or baby jars or whatever you can find so you can seal your prop up and reveal it at the perfect moment.

Others in the group responded as well, with tips about using essential oils, man candles, incense, Chinese pharmacy items, and cooking.

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