How I Prepared for 19 Hours of Gameplay in Just One Hour — RPT#459
From: Johnn Four
Recently, I game mastered for 19 hours over the course of a Friday and Saturday in what we called the Summer D&D Marathon. Three players and I played Friday from 8:30pm till 5:30am, and Saturday from 2:30pm till 12:30am. It was glorious. Special thanks go to our spouses for letting us kids play all day and night!
We chose D&D 3.5 with 5th level characters. Though I had a few weeks’ notice, it only took me an hour to prepare. And even after the 19 hours was up, I still had at least another dozen hours of gameplay ready to go.
How did I prepare for so much gaming in just one hour? Following are the exact steps I took. Could be they work for you and your GMing prep too.
1. Chose a setting with options but without too much preparation
A city out of a Paizo’s Pathfinder adventure was perfect. It is called Riddleport, a pirate haven with a mysterious, rune-laden artifact. The setting has an arena, a free-for- all atmosphere, nearby wilderness, and many factions for politics and conflicts.
The city is laid out simply with a design you could produce quickly if you prefer to brew your own settings.
Start with a map. Decide who is city leader and who else wants power – these factions can be NPCs or groups. Then provide names and a hook for about a dozen key locations:
- Shopping – mundane; this is for the locals; markets work well here
- Shopping – equipment and mundane adventuring supplies
- Shopping – esoteric; PCs gotta have their magic items and exotic equipment fix
- A place for the PCs to stay
- A public place to eat and drink and mix it up with the locals
- The capitol – one or more buildings; the city leader(s) work and maybe live here
- Adventure hooks – a place for random hooks and clues, such as a police station, a jobs board, ye old tavern, the newspaper office, etc.
- Underground HQ – this does not literally need to be below ground, but every setting should have at least one location for the criminal element to hatch plans and defend itself; try to create two of these places if possible for rival factions
- Spiritual HQ – at least one spiritual group or religion, hopefully more for politics and plotting
- Research – a place to reveal more plot and provide clues should the PCs choose to visit; library, university or college, wise old man, etc.
- Merchant central – decide how sources of trade enter the community and give them at least one place to set up a shingle; this will be a great source of news, rumors, and more plot hooks; a caravansary, docks, market, etc.
Give each location a name and an element of interest, such as being the scene of a recent crime, rumour that it’s haunted, the owner disappears at night and no one knows where he goes, etc. The element does not need to be an adventuring hook, just something that helps flesh it out when you GM it, though hooks are great too.
Place each location on the map.
2. Set up your control document
I use a Google spreadsheet for this. Other options are Excel or Calc, index cards, or GM binder.
This is a central place to store the resources I generate to help ad lib the game. I like the spreadsheet format because I can create new worksheets for whatever needs I have, there is an automatic layout for lists and columns, there are useful functions such as sorting, search, and drag and drop. With an array of styling options to change cell colors and layout, I can display my GMing information pretty much the way I want.
3. Generate lists of names
I Googled “name generator” and picked out a few sites to build me several names lists. In the past I have built a long array of name lists, broken down by race and gender for the setting. This time I tried something simpler that seemed to work quite well.
The first list was generic fantasy names. I didn’t need to break them down by gender, as I just converted feminine to masculine, and vice versa, in-game. For example, if I needed a female name and the next name on the list was male, I’d just add an ‘a’ at the end or ‘ela’ to the front.
The second list was complex evil names, like Tar-Ancalimon and Vardomoir Nolimon. I used a Tolkien generator for this. I wanted some great foe NPC names.
Next list was simple evil names, like Spit, One-Eye, and Dog Ear. These are great for personalizing combatants on the fly and for generic city NPC names. They work well for monsters, too.
That’s all I needed for my game. You can build as many lists as you want this way, perhaps for separate regions, races, cultures, factions, or even adventuring locations.
As I generated names I pasted them into a plain text program and copied them from there into my control document under a Names tab. I did it this way to remove any website styling that might have been picked up by the copy and paste.
I didn’t sort my names to make it less likely they would appear in that order during the game. “Uh oh, we must be getting to the end because Zaran just appeared.”
4. Generate a list of traits
I have a list of traits from NPC Essentials, such as silly, hates animals, scratches a lot, brave, collects bugs. I pasted these into a new spreadsheet tab called Traits. These came in handy for personality development of any game element, including NPCs, monsters, combatants, locations, etc.
A past ezine issue also has several quirks and traits you can use.
Alternatively, Google “NPC generator” to find tools that spit out lists of traits to put into your control document.
5. Generate a list of secrets
NPC Essentials has a great table of secrets. These are perfect for personality development, encounter hooks, roleplaying inspiration, and encounter complications.
Though I normally use this list, I opted for something different this time and Googled secrets. A way down the search results I found a Facebook page where users told their top 10 secrets. These proved easy to copy and paste and scrub through my plain text editor, and I had a great new list of interesting secrets.
Create your foes groups
Out of all the lists and resources I built before the game, this was the most useful. I browsed my monster manuals, page by page or sometimes by randomly flipping, and noted critters that were within the PCs’ power range and were interesting.
I used the descriptive text a lot for inspiration when selecting monsters, but otherwise just skimmed them and noted the interesting ones down.
Each entry on the list I created was as generic as possible to allow for simple drag and drop into whatever situations arose during the game. However, I also noted key information to make reference and idea generation for play easy:
- Monster name
- Reference (book name and page number)
- Difficulty level (so I accidentally did not overpower the PCs)
- Ideas for hooks and encounters that came to mind while skimming the monster entry or reading the description
I listed about 30 critters or critter groups, and these made ad hoc encounters super easy to generate while GMing.
For example, I had a party of ogre thugs on my list. Towards the end of the Saturday session I needed an ambush encounter because a faction leader wanted to waylay the PCs and send them a “do not interfere” message. I spotted the ogre entry and went with it, and everything worked out well.
6. Build a list of urban encounter seeds
Here I went back to the ezine archives and scooped the 150 Benign Urban Encounters list. I used these to trigger encounters on the fly, or to flesh out an encounter triggered by PC actions. It is a lot easier to build encounters ad hoc with a list of situations, seeds, and hooks in your back pocket.
7. Build a list of wilderness encounter seeds
I knew buildings, dungeons and other specific locations would take care of themselves while I game mastered. I would start with a map and draw from my monsters list or grab something out of my head.
So, that plus urban encounter seeds taken care of, this left just wilderness encounter seeds. Again, I drew on the ezine archives and grabbed the 120 Benign Wilderness Encounters list and added it to my spreadsheet under a new tab beside the Urban Seeds tab.
8. Gathered my books
For NPCs, magic items, and other game needs, I went through my library and selected books that would be useful. An NPC book by Skirmisher publishing came in very handy, but otherwise it ended up that all I needed was game rules references.
Still, half of GMing on the fly is confidence, and having a stack of resources beside me was always reassuring.
9. I thought a lot about situations
This might be where you catch me in a lie. I said it took me an hour to prep for a 19-hour weekend gaming marathon. That’s about the time it took to create and complete my control document with all its lists and ideas.
However, for weeks before, I was noodling about the game, and I estimate I put at least 10 hours combined time into thinking and imagining things. Much of this time was when I was going to sleep each night. I would have several minutes before the sandman came to think about the setting, the factions, and recent lists I had generated. This was much more interesting than thinking about work or worrying about something as I tried to fall asleep.
10. The players showed up with fully realized PCs
This was an excellent bonus. I did not ask players to create personalities and backgrounds for their characters, but they showed up to the game with well-crafted histories full of NPCs and hooks.
When the game started each player read out loud their back story. As they did this, I took notes. Also, each player took a couple of minutes to introduce their characters to the group: appearance, personality, capabilities. Again, I took a lot of notes here.
These notes became important for additional encounter ideas and roleplaying reference for NPCs as the game progressed. For example, an NPC would treat PCs differently based on how they were dressed. PC actions would modify the NPC’s behavior and current opinion of the characters, but the initial reference helped kick off roleplaying in encounters very well.
11. Created a notes system
I opted for a paper notebook (one of those $1 lined ones with 50 pages) to capture all the ideas and information that popped up in the game. You might use a text file, index cards, GM binder, spreadsheet, or online service.
For ad hoc gaming it is critical to note everything you create so the game remains consistent. You need to record what you make up on the fly:
- NPCs including name, personality, last known location, abilities known, motives
- Location details
- Rumours, hooks, clues
- Any other names you come up with
I also recorded ideas. These paid off too. Whenever there was a break in the game, I’d quickly review my notes and see if anything from gameplay would have consequences or complications. Ideas would come to me while GMing too, and I recorded these as soon as possible before I became distracted and lost the train of thought.
In my notebook, I dedicated a whole page to each PC. This gave me plenty of room to record notes and ideas per PC as the game wore on. I dedicated other pages to game log, game ideas, NPCs, and treasure. That pretty much took care of all my noting needs, but with such a system you are free to create pages for any category you wish.
12. PC reference and combat control spreadsheet
In my Google spreadsheet I created a new tab and moved it to the front. In this worksheet I recorded key PC stats, including name, race, class, and notes, plus the usual combat stats. I used this for ongoing roleplaying, encounter, and gaming reference, in addition to running combats.
For combat, I created an initiative, condition, and health column. In the same worksheet I created temporary entries for foes. This let me do one-click sorting for initiative order, and helped me to manage combat details easily, getting them out of my head to free up room for other GMing duties.
The overall strategy of this one-hour setup is to have lots of ideas handy. Ideas for names, encounters, and NPCs. This relieves much of the burden and pressure for game mastering on the fly for me.
However, every GM is different. You will have a different set of skills, experiences, and natural talents than other GMs. The best thing you can do is observe yourself while GMing to learn your strengths and weaknesses. Think about this before and after games as well. Then figure out what tools and aids would serve you best.
For example, my players know the game rules better than me. So, I do very little rules-based preparation. However, if you are the defacto rules reference in your group, you might want to spend more time prepping anticipated rules situations such as grappling, swimming and drowning, chases, flying, etc.
The marathon was a huge success. One PC died but we roleplayed his resurrection with huge favors owed and certain factions taking note. Because the players were experienced and awesome, gameplay went fast and was full of roleplaying. The PCs gained 1.5 levels and Riddleport will never be the same.
We’re planning another marathon in October. Time to start building up brownie points with my wife again.
A Brief Word from Johnn
Gamer Lifestyle Registration Open Now, Closes Sunday
This issue is a bit early because I’ll be full-up this weekend with the opening of the Gamer-Lifestyle.com course.
The course – how to get your RPG work published and earn a dollar within the first three months -is now open for a limited time. Enrollment closes in just a couple of days as Yax and I want to keep the number of members small to allow for questions, coaching, and ongoing feedback.
The course we designed will show you how to get your RPG work published, break into the industry, self-publish your RPG creations, build stunning PDFs, and market your products online by being yourself, without having to lob heavy sales pitches at gamers.
You can view the whole curriculum here: http://gamer-lifestyle.com/curriculum.php
The first few members to join receive private one-on-one coaching and $350 in free advertising when your product is ready. All members receive an RPG writer ebook bonus package immediately after signup.
Yax and I are thrilled with how the course content has turned out, and feedback so far has been awesome. However, if you enroll and it turns out the course isn’t for you, we’re offering a 6 months 100% full money back guarantee. We want you to be happy and publishing your RPG books!
Enroll now for the early bird bonuses: http://gamer-lifestyle.com/signup.php
Why RPG Products Fail
On related note, I also just wrote an article about why RPG products fail (and what you can do about it). If you’re thinking about an RPG project, check it out at: http://gamer-lifestyle.com/why-rpg-products-fail.php
Combat Hazards Contest Winners
Winners were randomly drawn (via dice rolls of course!) and notified this week. Check your inbox and spam folder just in case my message to you was filtered. The winners’ list:
Franny J [email protected]… Dave [email protected]…
Richard C [email protected]… Charlie elquesodia…@…
Emily [email protected]… Tim [email protected]…
[email protected]… Aaron [email protected]…
Aki Halme [email protected]…
Jeff S [email protected]… Joseph jrapo…@com…
John K [email protected]… Keith klab…@uapr…
matthew_vin…@yahoo…. Mike michael.shean…@…
Michele michidisper…@… Mike mike_spa…@fast…
[email protected]…. Paul paulruss…@…
[email protected]… Danny [email protected]…
Richard rlitz…@… Rob rmart…@triad…
Sean_Shan…@d…com Todd tzan…@pra…
Thanks again to everyone who entered. I’ll be running another contest soon – stay tuned.
If you need your contest fix, Roleplaying Tips editor Hannah is running a monster contest at her site at Chaoticshiny.com details are near the end of this issue.
Now I need a few weeks to get the 350+ entries edited for publication to you. 🙂
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Monte Cook, whose design credits include 3rd Edition D&D, Ptolus, Arcana Evolved, and 20+ years of other products, has launched dungeonaday.com, a subscription-based website where he’s building a hyperlinked, extremely detailed, campaign for you, one encounter at a time.
Dragon’s Delve is a challenging old-school mega dungeon with a vast history and extensive background, but DMs can also use the modular encounters to spice up their own adventures.
Every weekday, he presents a new encounter, plus the site offers maps, handouts, DM tips, behind the scenes articles, and bonus encounters. There’s even a podcast. A Little History Lesson Of Best Steroids
Do you want to publish your RPG work?
Do you dream of being a published author? Have you written a game world or adventure that could sell? Are you a game designer in need of an audience?
Did you ever ask yourself:?
- Where do I start?
- Can I start from scratch and create a reliable, monthly income from RPGs?
- I have a job and a family. Is this a realistic goal?
- Is the market flooded?
- How much money is there in RPG?
- How fast can I make my first dollar?
- How do I know my material is worthy of being published?
- How do I protect my work against piracy?
I (Johnn) have written a 72 page ebook with Yax from dungeonmastering.com that answers all these questions and more.
And we’re giving this ebook away for free!
Subscribe to our gamer career tips newsletter to get your free copy of our RPG publishing book: http://gamer-lifestyle.com/
Game Master Tips of the Week
1. Combat Hazards and You
From: Russ Pontius
Recently, a fellow GM friend said to me, “I really hate combat. It bores me.” The thing is, he has a point. Combat boils down to rolling dice and adding and subtracting numbers. Even with a good narrative to follow it, it can become stagnated. I ran into this problem many times; and that’s when I discovered combat hazards.
The Mundane Hazard
Look at the world around you; hazards are everywhere. Steep curbs, running traffic, stairs – the list of these mundane hazards goes on. For game purposes, we may need something more dramatic. After all, what kind of hero trips over a curb and dies of a concussion?
Still, these little mundane obstacles we face daily without thought can be warped into dangerous situations. How many movies have used traffic as a backdrop to danger in a martial arts slugfest? How many times has the party swashbuckler fought his way up the stairs? What if those stairs are made of uneven stone, or are rotting? With one leg placed squarely through the broken stair, that swashbuckler is going to have a more interesting time of things, and a more memorable encounter.
When you create mundane hazards, look at the situation your group will be fighting in. Are they adventuring in a catacomb with low ceilings and narrow passages? Tight quarters can make for a harrowing mundane hazard if there isn’t room to swing weaponry efficiently.
Now, add water up to the knees in these claustrophobic catacombs, and not only are the PCs suffering from a to-hit penalty, they are also working with restricted movement. And who knows what might be lurking in that soup they are wading through?
Mundane hazards are useful because they can add immersion and a sense of reality to your game, as well as added difficulty and a more memorable encounter. And since these hazards are mundane in quality, they don’t require your villain to expend extra energy and time with more dramatic and expensive traps.
The key with mundane hazards is to tap into your own everyday fears. How many times have you seen a subway train roll up and thought about how horrific it would be to be caught under it?
Dramatic and Environmental Hazards
As always, what is your setting? Medieval fantasy swordplay or gritty modern urban decay? Either is ripe for adding interesting environmental hazards of a more dramatic nature. The trick is to stay away from clichés.
Spikes: Yes, spikes are fun. Really fun. But they are terribly overused. Turn those spikes into something more interesting using the same game mechanic. Instead of spikes, how about an overhead rack of knives in a kitchen? Set it up so a resourceful player can knock the baddies onto the carving block, and describe in horrific detail that which follows.
Or, the spikes could be a cluster of stalagmites on the floor, or even an old fallen (and pointy) tree with thick branches thrusting upward. If your characters are fighting in a barn, think about all the spike-like things that may be hanging from the walls.
For something far more dramatic, litter the combat area with traps that enemies and players can manipulate – say, an assembly of spears on the ceiling that fall when a chain is pulled, and then slowly rise again for repeated use. Placing something like this in the combat will increase tension, and allow your players to be resourceful. Who wants to attack normally when the possibility to maneuver enemies into their own traps exists?
Fire: Put some panache into your fire hazard. A lighted lantern gets knocked into some very flammable hay when one of the character’s attacks and misses. Now they have a mundane fire hazard to deal with, along with all the sharp things that litter the walls and floors. Or, take it a step further, and instead of using a burning building, set the battle near a furnace – preferably one large enough to fit enemies into, with a door that locks from the outside.
Lava: If your story calls for lava, make sure the lava erupts with fiery plumes to scorch unwary characters, and that the smoke and ash covers them. Lava in itself is so overused its shock factor is zero by itself. Let the lava eat the area around the players, creating tension as every round they lose more ground to stand on.
Pits: Another overused mechanic that is quite appealing. Fill any pits you might place with more than vipers or the aforementioned spikes – perhaps machinery designed to rend sacrifices to an uncaring machine god. When your players toss their enemies into the pit, the bad guys go happily screaming in ecstasy with smiles on their faces, knowing they will soon be one with the Divine Machine. Instead of a pit, place the fight on a ledge or building roof; a roof that is very old and soggy.
You may have noticed a theme here – take the usual, and make it unusual. Give your players something they won’t expect, and plan your combats around the environment it will take place in. How many things are in a kitchen that can kill you? How about a factory (drill presses, anyone?) or a blacksmith’s shop? Even an old field can be dangerous – especially if a battle just took place there, and no one has yet scavenged all of the sharp metal things that are laying in it.
Begin planning your combats around the environment and the hazards that environment poses. Put yourself there, and look around the room, and don’t be afraid to let your players be resourceful. Let the player’s smash windows with heads, let them shove enemies into oncoming trains; let them make use of the traps that were meant to kill them. If you and your players are bored with combat, try this trick, and you will see them perk up as they scan the room for new and exciting ways to dispatch their foes. You and your players will soon be ignoring the collection of numbers that set the ground rules for game reality, and in its place you will find new vitality and fun.
2. Ringo Series Available for Free
From: Peter G., Adam, and Loz
The first two books in Ringo’s Posleen series (The Legacy of the Aldenata) is available as a free and legal DRM-free download from his publisher’s website. He also has other books in the Baen Free Library.
One of the later books in the Aldenata series also came with a CD that included d20 rules for running an SF RPG in his Aldenata universe.
There are also a number of other books in the Baen Free Library that might be of interest to RPT readers.
More free stories can be found in their forum (Fan fiction and “slush piles” of proposed stories for some series). Just one example: run a campaign around about the year 1632-1636. Check out the Grantville series by Eric Flint (the new editor).
3. Talk About Boundaries Before Campaigns Begin
There are many game groups that are fine with evil PCs attacking one another. There are some fantastic games that encourage it – Contenders and Mountain Witch come to mind. So, everyone sitting at the table might be bringing a different set of expectations based on their own gaming background.
The only failure here was a failure to communicate during the planning of the game and character creation. If your group doesn’t talk about expectations and limits and etiquette, then frustrations like you experienced are bound to happen.
- Maybe someone in your group is uncomfortable with any sexuality being discussed or portrayed in the game.
- Maybe another wants to ensure there are no scenes depicting children being hurt.
- Maybe another is totally against PCs torturing NPCs.
- And maybe someone like yourself is totally against Player vs. Player conflict.
These are the sorts of things to talk about with your group before – and during – play to avoid awkward moments later.
4. How to Scare Your Players
From: Will Hopkins
Just a couple of tricks I use to scare my players straight. These tend to come in handy whenever players are a little too silly or I need to set a mood.
1) Make the players believe their characters can actually die. This will help them stop from acting as though they are invincible.
This does not mean you have to actually kill one of them off. Sometimes just facing them with a too powerful enemy they must flee from or die beside is enough to wipe their pride away.
If the problem persists, you can even do what I did with one of my more ‘troublesome’ players and have the enemy send frequent assassins at him (in my case, after he breaks a deal with a demon).
2) Provide players with powerful allies, only to finish them off before their full potential is met.
In my campaign, I set up an encounter between the PCs and a more powerful demon, only to have a mighty paladin and his squire come to the rescue. I made sure these heroes were not likable (I basically ripped off Futurama’s Zap Brannigan and Kif), but helpful.
Soon afterwards, I sent a creature that can kill with a simple gaze (a bodak), and thus finished off the paladin. To make matters more interesting, a creature that dies this way becomes a Bodak 24 hours later, thus finishing off the paladin’s squire as well.
The look on my player’s faces was priceless. They were so afraid of being faced with ANOTHER bodak (this time alone), that they took a half-day to bury the body 6-feet deep.
3) Unseen rolls bring about paranoia.
Just because you don’t want there to be any actual danger to the PCs doesn’t mean you can’t bring the illusion of it. I like to roll dice randomly once in a while behind my screen, the players have no idea why I’m doing it, and this helps make them paranoid.
With the bodaks mentioned above, I fake-rolled in the open to make it seem like I was rolling to see who the creature was targeting… Of course, I wasn’t going to kill one of my lower-level PCs that easily. I knew the paladin and the squire would be the ones to fall under his death gaze before the players even sat down in their seats (which they were not sitting in for long in that session).
4) Isolate your players.
One of my tricks is to have demons or guides try to talk to the players while they sleep. I take whoever is on guard and quietly tell them to follow me to another room (the other players are surprisingly into it, and close their eyes when they are ‘sleeping’). I then hold a conversation with only that character.
When the characters awake the next morning, the character usually mentions being visited at night, yet more often than not, the details are altered heavily.
I based my first campaign around this, having the “guide” lie to each character, who in turn kept his mission from the others, only to have the guide betray all characters in the end.
5) Unexplained Mysteries.
I had my players stumble across a seemingly abandoned shrine to the God of Secrets.
The shrine contained a chained sleeping ogre, a goblin scouting party (led by a gnoll), and at the very center, a single monk.
I freaked the players out by having the monk stand silently with closed eyes as they entered the room. I had the monk suddenly open his eyes and scream (I actually screamed) into the sky, only to smash his staff onto the ground and disappear into a mist.
My players were so afraid, they left the shrine without investigating onwards (and finding a very rewarding pile of treasure for their defeat of the ogre and goblins).
That’s all really. If your players are in need of a good scare, I find any one of those methods works well. Most important is to remember that players are most afraid of what they do not know (unexplained mysteries, hidden dice rolls, etc.). The imagination can conjure things much more frightening than you could ever hope to describe. Let them imagine what they will, and your job will be done for you.
Do you have a game mastering tip to share? Perhaps related to something you read in this issue? E-mail your tips to [email protected] – thanks for sharing!
Chaotic Shiny’s Monster Contest
Like free stuff? Like generators? Like even more free stuff? Announcing Chaotic Shiny’s Monster Contest! Make a monster or twenty with the Monster Generator, write up some fluff for it, stat it up 4e D&D style, and send it in for a chance to win some awesome prizes. (Monsters for other games are cool, too, but you’ll miss out on some of the prizes.)
Once the contest is over, entries will be compiled into a free pdf, which will be posted on Chaotic Shiny, available for all.
Prizes include a year’s premium subscription to Dungeon Mastering’s DM tools, GM Mastery: Inn Essentials or GM Mastery: Holiday Essentials, The Night Wyrm (12+ pages of badass monster fun) from Unnatural20.com, and Chaotic Shiny Productions’ Martial Flavor.
The contest starts 8/26 and runs until 9/26. For more details, (like how to win!), see the official Monster Contest Rules page. Happy monstering! Monster Contest Rules and FAQ