Celebration Of 150 Issues: Reader’s Tips Special

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0150

A Brief Word From Johnn

#150 & 3 Year Anniversary

With coincidental synergy, this issue celebrates number one- five-oh and the three year anniversary for Roleplaying Tips Weekly. The first ezine went out November 27th, 1999 and, thanks to your support, on-going feedback, and tips, it’s been a great three years! A whack of overtime at work last week and this upcoming week means you’re spared from a long- winded speech–but I’ll make up for it in Issue #200.

To celebrate this special occasion, I’m dedicating the entire issue to Reader’s Tips. Enjoy–and thank you!

Warm regards,

Johnn Four
[email protected]

Celebration Of 150 Issues: Reader’s Tips Special

The GM’s Role Is To Present Conflict

From Jay W.

I would emphasize more the role of the GM in character development. A person’s character is revealed through conflict and so is a player’s character. The role of the GM is to create conflicts (not necessarily battles) that emphasize or challenge a character in a way that is unique to that character. In resolving these conflicts character is revealed.

The most effective method of revealing character is not in the choice between good and evil, but rather the choice between two competing but incompatible ‘goods’. For example, a fire is raging in a man’s house. He gets up and sees that both his wife and his daughter are trapped by the flames. He only has time to save one, which does he choose? And to not choose condemns both to a grisly death.

There is no right answer, just one that reveals character. When a player creates a character the GM should put things in the PC’s background that the player doesn’t know about that will bear fruit later in the game. Why? Because a few surprises (and they don’t always have to be bad ones) add an element of mystery to a character. This means the players retain an interest in their characters.

All good stories are a mystery at heart. We don’t know what is going to happen to the protagonist, but if the player knows everything about their character, and there are no twists, then they become complacent. The GM should also add color to a character. If the player starts to do something cool, the GM can pick up the baton and continue the description as well as have the rest of the world react.

Along the same lines of character and story telling is the rule: give the audience (the players) what they want, but not in the form they expect it. This both satisfies the players because they ultimately got what they wanted, yet it was new and exciting because it was done in a form they didn’t expect. The essence of good (commercial) story telling. Also, if the GM wants the players to appreciate something, then it should be in short supply.

In the game I play, magic is exceedingly rare. Thus it is highly valued. But there is a consequence to magic being so rare: most people don’t believe that it exists. “Myths and legends.” Thus, when used properly even, very slight magics can have tremendous effects on morale. A simple light spell can break a barbarian horde. Armor is rare as well, thus we are always hungry for it. It helps motivate our characters.

The GM should be the best role-player at the table! We also have a system for role-playing rewards. Players are given “checks” or “mega-checks” right away for good role- playing. A check is worth 100 times the character’s level and a mega-check is worth 1000 times. A player rewarded like that in front of everybody does have a subtle psychological reward effect. They want more! We also require that a character, in addition to the experience points they received as a result of combat, has at least twice as many role-playing checks as the level the characters are going to.

For example, you need 8 checks to get to 4th level in addition to EP. This keeps hack and slashers from dominating the game. At the end of the night every player is given a role-playing reward. This is a discount to the next level. So if a player gets a 25, then 25 percent of the EP needed to get to the next level is already accounted for. This is the rating for the whole night’s performance.

Finally we give a star to the best role-player of the night. When a player gets 10 stars they get taken out to dinner and are given a small plaque. When a player gets 25 stars then they can trade them in for a very special character. All these reward systems are designed to encourage the players to stretch and grow as role-players.

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Turn Flubs Into Plots

From Heather Grove


Here’s a tip, courtesy of my husband, who’s my favorite game master: take advantage of your mistakes.   Every GM flubs up eventually. You mis-remember a detail. You get something wrong. And one of your players says, confused, “Umm, but I thought it was this way…” Instead of back-tracking or getting flustered, turn it into a plot! Take a second to think about whether or not you can come up with a plot that would account for the way in which the world has “changed.” If you can, then go for it! If you get practiced enough at it your players will never notice that it all started from a “mistake,” and the game will seem to go much more smoothly from their point of view. Not only that, but you’ll get a few extra plots you might not have thought of otherwise. 😉

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Run The Game Your Players Want To Play

From John S.

Some GMs are good enough that they can keep the players entertained no matter what they run. Those GMs don’t need our help. 🙂 For the rest of us, ask your players what kind of game they want to play. Ask them how much time should be spent on story, combat, and roleplaying each session. Much emphasis has been placed on “in character” surveys, but “out of character” surveys can be just as valuable.

Ask your players what type of game they want to play in. Hero Games used to have forms that described the campaign to the players, rating the campaign on its adherence to the rules, whether good and evil were shades of grey or black and white, and how much action to expect. A quick way to guess what the players want from the game is to assess the characters.

Players don’t generally make a fighter so he can sing songs or settle land disputes. If 6 out of 8 players in your game create warriors who take all combat related skills then odds are they want a chance to use them in fights. If the party is full of bards and rogues, then the players are likely to be interested in less direct approaches.

Using surveys and looking at the characters can save much time and grief if all your players want combat — how much are they going to enjoy rewards solely based on roleplaying? Let the players have fun doing what they want to do!

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Help Your Players Learn The Rules

From Mitch M.

The PCs struggle through difficult terrain, overcome twisted riddles, and manage to sneak into the lair of the Evil Necromancer, Gillbates. They draw their swords, ready their spells, prepare their prayers…and completely screw it up. They forget what magic items they have, don’t remember what skills to use, and can’t fight their way out of a wet paper sack. Honestly, what percentage of roleplayers do you suppose have actually read all the rules? Not most by my experience.

You need to make sure the players know how the combat rules work. The first method is to engage them in simple, frequent combats to bring them up to speed. Next, I have friendly, experienced NPCs give them a little on-the-spot training to emphasize rules. Finally, I summarize important rules on a sheet of paper and give a copy to all players. It behooves a GM to improve the players’ knowledge of the rules. This brings the group together and keeps everyone on the same sheet of music.

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An Alternative To Battlemats

From Jeff Ibach


I read a lot of the comments and pitfalls about the vinyl Battlemats in the newsletter archives and saw myself years ago. Back in the early 90’s I too ruined a Battlemat with permanent markers by mistake. I solved the problem with tiles. What I mean is, we still use the battlemat with outdoor situations. Throw on a few hills and trees but you still have a huge grid to track movement and scale.

But, when the action moves to the dungeon, there’s nothing more basically annoying than waiting for the GM to constantly draw colorful lines, erase mistakes, erase when space runs out, etc. With a set of pre-scaled tiles, usually about 6 to 8 inches long and 2 inches wide, you can quickly lay out corridors and rooms and just as quickly collect them up or slide them ’round the mat when space runs out.

There are a number of ways to do build the tiles. The easiest is to just buy about 20 sheets of cardstock, set up a 1-inch grid on your favorite desktop publisher or draw program, and print out the sheets. Cut them out to the most common shapes you would use with a few curves or diagonals and you’re all set. They are small, easily portable in a tiny box, and cause no ongoing mess.

Alternately, there are a number of websites that have excellently designed tiles, for free. My favorite is http://www.aginsinn.com/tiles.html You or someone you know should have the ability to print a few tiles in cardstock in color. If not, a local print shop will print a few pages for you, enough for a dungeon, for much less than a $35.00 Battlemat. The vinyl is still useful, we’ve just found tiles are the easiest to use and quickest to game with!

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Dealing With Absentee Players

From Jonathan Nolan

We have a couple problems with absenteeism. Two brothers form part of our player base. They are pretty good players, but one in particular is very controlling. He seems to deliberately aim to make his character crucial to the narrative of the campaign and then ducks out for two to four sessions at a time.

After straw polling the issue with everyone and asking for a consensus solution, we now have the group of players dictate the missing player(s) character(s) on the basis of how they normally behave. Since I note down high and low points of behaviour for characters, this is actually reasonably easy. It means when the player isn’t there the crucial plot points are still advanced but the player loses the power of direct input until they return.

The players who faithfully turn up week in and week out should always be the GM’s focus and I think where absenteeism is actually a psychological strategy by a player, that player should in no way be rewarded in absentia. It’s a tough call, but with adult gamers a GM has to at times be a referee — an actual umpire of the game with the limited powers of sanctioning an offender.

In-game vandalism by a player motivated by their own questionable motives needs to be reined in. Having the group play the absent characters also lets the close-knit team atmosphere of the gaming group build. The need to have their own characters fairly played when they are unavoidably absent makes my group pretty good about playing a character as it should be. Sometimes the play of an absent PC is a bit stereotypical — too bad.

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Reading List Ideas

From Peter W.

Read your latest issue with great interest. I think a nice addition might be a “suggested reading” section. This was inspired by the reader tip concerning the Three Musketeers. Here are some books that I’ve come across that I found extremely helpful when planning my games.

“Life in a Medieval Castle”, Harper & Roe “Life in a Medieval Village”, Harper & Roe

–Joseph & Frances Gies

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A great factual reference for more authentic middle-ages campaigns. If your GMing style likes to have period meals, furnishings, and day-to-day events then these books are must-haves. I flip through them from time to time to add substance to the background activity that occurs in populated areas. It’s always nice to be prepared when the player asks “what kind of stuff are they selling in this marketplace?” (Especially if you don’t want them to get distracted at some sword and armor shop.)

“Heraldic Crests”, Dover Decorative Alphabets and Initials, Dover These books are valuable resources for imagery to liven up player handouts or any other game-related material. These books are helpful when preparing handouts or player sheets for the night. “American Shelter”, Overlook Press

–Les Walker

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This pricey book is a wonderful resource for creating believable houses and structures. Thousands of drawings explore hundreds of domestic architectural styles, most of which can be freely plugged into any fantasy campaign. For example, with this book as a guide, your Elven architecture could take on a Victorian feel, while the Dwarven villages may feel more Dutch. I use this book when drawing up the lonely ranger’s house in the middle of the woods, or any other unique and distinctive structure. “Siege: Castles At War”, Taylor Pub.

–Daniel Diehl

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This book features lots of photos of real castles and explores the development of castle technology throughout the ages. Lots of great adventure hooks can be found in this book. With a little tracing paper a creative GM could build several excellent visual aids as well. I go to this book (among others) for adventures or encounters within castle walls. “Roman Warfare”, Cassell Academic

–Adrian Goldsworthy

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This book is especially helpful for those who prefer large- scale warfare in their games or campaigns with wars and massive troop movements. It features several excellent diagrams of troop deployment and battlefield arrangements. I like this book for visualizing hordes of monsters sweeping through whole valleys and the ensuing standoff with the forces of order. “A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction”, Oxford Univ. Press

–Christopher Alexander

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This thick (over 1200 pages) squat book is filled with practical tips on how to “urban plan” a functional town or building. For people who want their architecture to seem both fantastic AND real, this book will be extremely useful. How large should a balcony be? Where do people like to shop? These kinds of questions are answered in logical ways so that you’ll be THINKING about your towns as living places. Sadly, this book is expensive (find one used). Cheers, Pete

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Prophecy And Lunacy

From LrdDaemonX


OK, so the wise old prophet who spouts off vague verse is a cliche (although effective–when you’re told that “The three heads shall bring the flame of destruction to all”, for example, do you look out for a hydra? Three kings in an unholy alliance? Artifacts of great power? etc.), there’s a very good way to completely take the rug out from under your players’ feet while imparting clues at the same time.

What if the prophet is so adrift in time that he can’t tell the difference between past, present, and future? If an old warrior comes to the prophet, and the prophet immediately lectures the warrior about how a boy so young should not be away from home, that’s weird. When the prophet then creases his brow and mutters “No, wait, you were killed in that battle, weren’t you? With your son by your side, I remember now…”, that’s frightening, especially if the warrior in question is unmarried, childless, and too old to bear children.

Now they have to wonder if they’ve got some unknown offspring out there, if the future is always changing and the prophet has seen some alternate ending, or maybe the prophet has no gift, or one that doesn’t always work…what can you believe, then? People who can see the future SHOULD be frightening and untrustworthy; after all, so is the future, a great deal of the time.


Consider a woman, completely insane, but not for any of the normal reasons; rather, she sees so much of the Truth that her human brain simply can’t process it all and has long since snapped under the strain of trying. What could your players learn from such a woman? Can they find the gold of pure, useful, and entirely factual information in the vast dust of the babble constantly coming from the woman? Will they try?Right now, in a White Wolf campaign, I have a Malkavian (they’re tailor-made for this role, but you can make one in any system) serving just that purpose.

He sits alone in a padded room with a ceiling painted bright orange. He constantly changes his mind on what his name is… Billy, Chocolate, and Chair are some of his favorites, but he has demanded to be called Kitty Fantastico at times. He insists his ceiling is blue, and that the spiders (there are none: his room is very clean) dance for him and tell funny jokes. However, he has also pointed my players unerringly to the one place they need to be again and again by knowing things that nobody else can know.

That’s why they keep coming back.It takes a GM who can really sink his/her teeth into the role to pull this off, though–simply telling your players “Among all the lunatic rantings, you hear mention of a stone in a certain town” ruins it. Instead, play out the lunatic. (I think you’ve got to be a little crazy yourself to do this really right, but aren’t all GMs? Just tap into that place in your brain where it tells you the stories you tell your players, and start saying whatever pops into your head.)

For example, in my campaign, Billy might say “Boy, it sure is hot today. I’d like some ice cream. But not for me, for the spiders. They’re my friends, you know. They tell stories. There are wolves in the cities, and they’re mad. Maybe they don’t have ice cream. I like ice cream a whole bunch. I gave some to a spider once and it danced so pretty for me….” and on, and on. Players who were listening closely can get an important clue: wolves (werewolves? maybe…) are invading the city, and they’re angry about something. Players who don’t quite get it may stake out local ice cream stores.

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Introduce Sessions With Summaries

From Mitch M.

re: https://www.roleplayingtips.com/issue91.asp#r4

Regarding ‘Introduce Your Sessions With A Short Story’ by Riina S., I agree you shouldn’t start a roleplaying session without at least summarizing what happened before. Before every session of my Vampire chronicle, I present a summary of the story so far. To do this right though, be careful how you phrase things. PCs are very concerned with image. You may be insulting a player by saying “Magdalena was ignominiously beaten up by Sabbat punks in the alley.

They walked away from her crumpled form laughing.” Maybe she remembers it as, “Magdalena made a valorous stand against the Sabbat and injured several, but their numbers were too great. Seeing her determination, they fled.” So be careful not to step on toes when summarizing! Another advantage of session summaries is that you can slip clues back in! I reintroduce a point if I think the PCs missed it the first time. Don’t be heavy-handed with it, but if it was crucial to the plot you might mention it again.

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Online Sources Of Pics

From Paul C.

re: https://www.roleplayingtips.com/issue92.asp#10

Your tipster, Ralph S., suggested using the web to snag pics to help set the scene. I’ve used this technique recently, and found images.google.com to be invaluable. You can search on keywords and Google will return a page full of thumbnails. I found some great faerie pictures to illustrate the story of the game session. Searching on “giant rat” yielded an excellent picture of a Bolivian jungle rat which seems a decent approximation of what a dire rat must look like!

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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!

Tips For Running NPC Mages

From KillerDM  

Watch what the PCs do and learn.

Have your NPCs cast similar magics that your PCs use.

Create encounters and stories with fewer NPCs and monsters so that you have more time to focus on NPC (and PC) mages.

Pause between encounters to gather your thoughts and prepare. Get away from the game table so you’re not distracted.

Have patience. Free form is tough and takes a lot of play to become an expert at certain aspects of it.

Consider every session an on-going learning experience. As long as the players are having fun, don’t beat yourself up if you feel the NPCs did not perform the best tactically. If you try to learn from every encounter, twenty sessions from now your NPC spell casters are guaranteed to be smarter and wield their spells better.

Ask your players to occasionally GM one-shot sessions and play a mage. This will let you try casting spells from a PC perspective and you’ll be able to carry that knowledge over to your NPCs next time you GM. The GM-player switch always gives the GMing player a fresh perspective on the challenges of GMing as well, as an added bonus. 🙂

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More Political Incorrectness Tips

From Riina Stewart


re: https://www.roleplayingtips.com/issue149.asp

I thought that Julia’s article on political incorrectness in RPGs had some very good points and advice. I would add to it with the following tip: If you want your players to consider the moral conundrums, or you don’t want the game to appear to be truly bigoted (in the real world, rather than just the game world) the oppressed/discriminated against class/race/gender or whatever group needs to be presented in a way that demonstrates that the oppression is undeserved, or which challenges it in some way.

Especially if the group being discriminated against is discriminated against in the real world. For example, take gender discrimination. One could present a society where women are considered second class citizens, weak, less intelligent, etc. (many historical games could fall into this category), but yet there are still interesting female characters in that world frame, working within the system, challenging it, or trying to avoid it.

Conversely, one could portray all of the female NPCs in this hypothetical game as sex objects who aren’t very bright (when they appear at all). The first would be portraying a society rife with discrimination, the second would be simply perpetuating ugly stereotypes. The second example would also be less likely to raise moral conundrums, and much more likely to annoy and upset some players.

To take an example which isn’t real world, if orcs are discriminated against because they actually are basically evil, stupid, violent, and generally nasty, the group is unlikely to perceive it as discrimination. In fact, it sounds a lot like the average D&D game :-). Orcs in Tolkien’s books really are evil. To attract the players’ interest in this aspect of the world, you would have to challenge that view in some way and demonstrate that it really is just racist propaganda.

Of course, if one wanted to encourage discriminatory behaviour in the PCs that the modern, more socially aware players are reticent to engage in, then you would do the opposite and present them only with that information which their racist/sexist/whatever-ist PCs would be likely to perceive. I think it would be wise to run this past the players first though, so that they know what you’re doing and are comfortable with it. I hope this is useful.

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Medieval Book Recommendation

From Liam Haynes

Just like to recommend an excellent book to the subscribers. I’ve found it really useful when designing medieval towns or villages and to get the feel of the area right. It’s called Domesday: A Search for the Roots of England, and is written by Michael Wood.   [Here’s a non-commission link to Amazon:http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0816018324/qid%3D1038200179/sr%3D11-1/ref%3Dsr%5F11%5F1/103-2846790-4051007 ]

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Follow-Up Of Universal Progression Of Cultures

From Tyler E.

re: https://www.roleplayingtips.com/issue147.asp#r5

First of all, thanks for working on such a great newsletter. It’s really helped with my world-building and GMing style, and I think my players appreciate the changes as well. I would like to respond to tip #5 from newsletter #147, regarding the development of cultures. The writer, while they were correct that culture is incredibly important for NPC background, made a flawed assertion regarding the universal progression of cultures. The concept of paleo- particularism, universalism, and neo-particularism is, on its face, an accurate description of cultures. However, it misses some important steps.

Neo-particularism, as described by the obviously well- educated Dwayne T, is a world view that combines a solid set of absolute facts with an acceptance of the mutability of the universe outside those facts. Modern North American culture seems to be in this stage, and so one could be forgiven for seeing it as more advanced than other stages. There is, however, at least one other stage in cultural development that grows out of neo-particularism, and seems to appear most frequently as a society begins to rot.

The slow spiral of declining imperial power, or the self- destructing but advanced warlike society act as wonderful backdrops to campaigns. Relativism, basically a fallacious outgrowth of the recognition of mutable laws from neo-particularism, declares that all laws are mutable, and eats away at the cohesion of the society. This generally creeps from one culturally important area to another.

In a theocracy, it will begin with recognizing the unimportance of insignificant theological topics (did Jesus wear sandals or go barefoot, for example), and slowly creep into major theological topics (overzealous ecumenism and the concept that “everyone goes to heaven”), then into the justice system, and outward. In a military hegemony, it may start with the justice system softening to save the populace from a Judge Dredd-esque hell (neo-particularism) but then go too far and start pardoning “well-meaning” criminals, and then to the formerly strict hierarchy of authority, etc.

Naturally, not all cultures experience this; some die out for other reasons like war or prolonged civil unrest. However, most cultures that last long enough (from what I’ve read both the Byzantine Empire and in a way the Catholic Church) seem to fall into this trap. Some, like the Catholics in the late middle ages, survive and prosper for hundreds of years afterward. Others drop slowly into obscurity, like Byzantium.

One last point. For those interested in building an empire for their world, grab some histories. Different historians will paint the same empire as many things; well-meaning but poorly managed, cruel and insatiable, surrounded on all sides by enemies and doing what it needed to, etc. Byzantium has formed a wonderful example for the ancient, dying empire, and the rise of civilization in Europe before the 14th century plagues are an excellent base for the rise of a confederation of states.

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