How to Use Body Language For Better Storytelling

From Scott J. Compton

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0513

A Brief Word from Johnn

Anyone Use Hero Lab for Pathfinder?

I am using this great software to make NPCs for my Pathfinder game.

And I am wondering if anyone else is using it for Pathfinder and if you wanted to trade NPCs? I’m not sure yet how to export and import characters, but there must be a way.

If interested, drop me an email. I only have a few NPCs crafted so far, but they are yours if we can figure out how to trade.

Seven Nations Session #2

Last Thursday, my Riddleport campaign was delayed due to player availability, so we got in a session of the 4E Seven Nations campaign my friend is running instead.

Players present: Dave, Jason, Johnn. GM: Colin.

We had just returned victorious from defeating chaos creatures at a comet crash site while questing for the lost arms merchant father of an elven lady. We cash in and decide to go back for more. We purchase a cart to haul back some big crystals and other potentially valuable items. Jason dubs this the Loot Sled. Soon after, it was renamed the Toro 5000 and it works by running it over treasure that then gets sucked up through the loot shoot into a catcher at the back. I guess we were giddy about playing, but we settled down after that.

A big battle ensues after going deeper into the comet site. It is a close battle. I receive pocket points for good tactics. Jason receives none. I suggest we hold back and weaken the enemy with ranged attacks, but Jason’s character Tryn charges in and manages to get teleported before the Stage Boss’s feet. We have to compromise our tactical advantage to save his hide. We get to Tryn, who is drowning in a pool of water, just in time. Pity. We Toro 5000 some crystals and leave.

On the way back to town we encounter an NPC we have been wanting to talk with: Ivian the Unpredictable. We tried to find him before but he was strangely not where he was supposed to be.

Ivian helps us with clues about the nature of the crystals and pays us a small amount of gold for selling him some.

Last session we hired a guide, Adnin. She costs 1 gold per day and does not fight, but it’s worth not getting lost and having a native help us work over the locals. (We’re a Good party, but we serve a higher purpose.) We convince Adnin to return with us to our headquarters for ongoing guiding services.

In case you missed the background on this campaign in RPT#511, we are members of The Red Sashes, a group part MI5, part FBI. We were sent to the city of Rask to help out a Red Sash leader – Bishan Sing – with some local problems. The first thing he said to us was he wanted us to leave. He hates our guts or our presence or both. Sounds to me like he’s got something to hide. I’m keeping my ears open. And that’s where Adnin comes in. She’s not a Red Sash, so she’ll have more freedoms and access to information sources than we will, as we have a pesky code to follow and all.

Our business in this smelly town done, we hightail it back to Rask and report to our handler, Bishan Sing. We’re instead greeted by his guard who starts pumping us for information. We say we only report to Bishan. He says he speaks for Bishan. I let him know he can speak to the back of my hand if he does not stop lying. He keeps trying, so we leave.

I’m curious where Bishan is. Before I can sniff around we get a new assignment. We’re to head to the elven forest of Sarabask. Raiders are attacking settlements but not stealing anything. Strange. I figure it’s a territorial or resource dispute. Looks like Bishan is safe from my prying…. for now,

We equip ourselves, shedding desert gear and donning forest apparel. We swap camels for horses and leave, Adnin guiding.

Within a few days we reach a large settlement near the forest. We report to the local Red Sashes and ask for news about the raids. No useful information there, so we head into the thick forest.

As we enter one particular clearing we’re attacked by snipers using the forest edge for cover. Before I can say let’s target one sniper nest at a time, the group splits up. Tryn goes left, Bront the dragonborn warrior goes right. Adnin hits reverse. That leaves me in the middle holding my staff.

The battle is another close one. Divide and conquer works both ways, and once we’re able to close with our respective opponents and make them get into hand-to-hand it becomes a contest of stamina. Fortunately, my spells help delay my foes long enough from slitting my throat and my comrades arrive to finish them off.

We ended the session with one prisoner and a good idea of what we’re facing: some power or effect is giving elves in the forest brain blenders, making them crazy and aggressive.

It seems simple to me: next session we interrogate the prisoner, find the source, confront and destroy it. Then we can return to Rask so I can find out what Bishan’s been up to.

Quote of the session: “The best armor class is someone else’s armor class.” – Dave

How to Use Body Language For Better Storytelling

Body language helps tell the story. It paints the picture in your mind’s eye about the non-verbals occurring in a scene alongside the five senses.

Good storytellers often talk about an event with a grimace on their face, the raising of an eyebrow or a cold stare. These theatrics sell the story. They create a compelling visual.

One of the most effective methods we have at our arsenal is emotional expression via non-verbals. If you go into a scene thinking about what emotion is desired, it can be helpful to know what non-verbals go along with it. For gameplay situations, it can be helpful to hide an emotion until a key moment appears, so that a plot point can be revealed when a player asks the correct question or causes an NPC to react.

Luckily, we game masters don’t need to think too much about our non-verbals because they just happen. If we are more aware of our non-verbals, we can make great improvements telling our story or being involved in the story as a player.

Gestures are more effective for players to gauge the truth about a role-played situation. Words often mislead, so the great storyteller uses non-verbals to drop hints and reveal things on a subtle basis without outright saying them.

This is rewarding to players. They saw through the deception of words, and understood how to tackle a situation by the non-verbals expressed. I encourage you to go to a place like Youtube and search for specific communication techniques to see how you can be effective with the type of character’s attitude you are trying to portray.

It can also be helpful to write down a few common non-verbals in each category below to keep the character non-verbally in-character when you roleplay.

Eye Responses

The cliche rings true, “the eyes do look into the soul of the person” – or in this case – the PC or NPC. The eyes alone can be the most powerful of all non-verbals.

  • Gazing is a common technique to stare-down a character to gain a dominant position by burning a hole through the player, or showing hatred – good for evil NPCs just before a battle. Likewise, shifting the eyes away or putting something over the eyes to shy away from a character shows dishonesty or the desire to get away from another.
  • If you want a PC to befriend an NPC, start by shying away at first, then increasing eye contact over time to make the player feel something meaningful was created.
  • Roll your eyes to show arrogance, boredom or disapproval.
  • Demonstrate amazement by widening the eye-lids quickly (usually along with a body flinch).
  • Raise your eyebrow to show curiosity.
  • Raise both eyebrows to indicate confusion or bewilderment.
  • Droop your eyes to indicate tiredness or sickness.
  • Look down when roleplaying sorrow.

In some video games and animated cartoon series, animators have created eye charts that show positions of the eyes to communicate an emotion. Google “facial expression chart” to see examples.

Facial Gestures

Many facial gestures primarily use the mouth, lips, cheeks and forehead to gauge emotion and truth. (I consider the eyebrows and eyelids as part of the eye-gesture category).

Facial gestures have a wide range and can be too subtle to be used alone (without other non-verbal or verbal support) to drop a hint to players. Typically, a facial gesture is used along with an eye-gesture, hand or body gesture.

A good movie scene that comes to mind that uses lip gestures is Hal watching a conversation between two astronauts in 2001: A Space Odyssey. If you scrunch your mouth, jaw and face into different positions as you read this, you’ll discover forgotten expressions instantaneously because you are thinking about what you’re doing.

Consider what expressions you want to communicate on behalf of your PCs or NPCs.

Neck Responses

Many overlook tilting of the neck as a means of communication.

  • Push the neck to one side to indicate a character is hearing something secretive from another.
  • Shake and nod your head to show approval or disapproval with different degrees.
  • Nod too much to show that a character is so convinced and won-over it does not really matter at all what a character is saying.

Hand and Arm Gestures

This category is a language of itself that is commonplace among animators. Think of these non-verbals as poses, motions and transitions from one motion to the next. For instance, let’s say a character is angry but doesn’t want to show it. The GM could have a conversation with the players with a fake smile while gripping both hands together tightly in disgust and then wringing them as the conversation continues.

You can communicate many things with your hands. Here are three major signs:

  • Fold your arms around your body to shield away others.
  • Open arms for happiness and welcoming.
  • Touch your face for many types of distance-responses such as signaling it’s okay to come forward, stay put or back up.
  • In Fantasy RPGs, you can make use of casting magic spells too, which adds to the unique flavor.

Body Gestures

Posture is a primary focus in this category to show the overall mood of a person. Like a marionette, the game master can act out how an NPC appears as characters’ approach.

From a distance, it can also provide interesting strategic information such as:

  • Pacing in front of a gate
  • Looking to and from
  • Sleeping
  • Slumping down over something
  • Looking up into the sky
  • Dodging left or right
  • Walking then sprinting repeatedly to indicate fleeing away

You might even want to try something new by acting out an entire scene without saying a word. This often creates unique role-played experiences by having players guess why the NPC is not speaking. Distance Proximity

Many GMs like to sit behind their screens, but moving in and out of spaces can be a very effective means of communication. It’s easy to back away or hide around a corner to indicate what you wish.

However, approaching another player at the table can be intimidating, though if players know it’s all in good fun and told in advance, then it can be allowed. It’s easier to do this when you are good friends with the players at the table, but it needs to be clear to them that you’re acting in character so they won’t feel weird about it.

Non-Verbal Impersonations and Poses

Obviously, it’s easy to impersonate verbally, but most of us forget that we impersonate many objects, special effects and events non-verbally. It can be helpful for players to gauge the size of things by using non-verbal impersonations.

Imagine describing a column of smoke rising into the air. If the GM opens up his arms and then stands up from the table, it can be a helpful way to paint in a player’s mind the magnitude and importance of the smoke.

Similarly, pulling the hands together into a tiny ball can help to show that something is being concealed or something is contracting inwardly.

One of my favorite impersonations is that of murals or statues in game settings to show meaningful poses. Often, the GM uses a mural as part of a gameplay puzzle when players just are not getting the hint. However, when the GM actually shows the pose, such as an outstretched arm pointing to something else, it can be an effective hint for players to look at what the painting is pointing at. Tone Differences

The pitch and volume of speech changes as a conversation unfolds. It can be helpful in situations to know if a character is winning or losing, or what has changed. It can also be effective to hear if a person is out of breath, whispering or shouting. Tone Cadence and Pauses

The speed of speech often indicates meaning and intelligence behind the words. Play around with speaking faster or slower, or putting in meaningful pauses to drive home a point. Sound Effects

My friends tell me that I use sound effects all of the time. I do not need to go into depth here because most of us who play RPGs have a culture of using sound effects from our childhood and bringing them into the game.

Aside from thruster sounds, laser strikes, sword clashes, thuds and other bangs, it can be easy to forget about other effective, more basic sounds to express emotion.

  • An occasional nose sniff or sigh shows sadness
  • Clearing of the throat or a whistle can be a cue to start a combat attack
  • A rising or falling tone can describe many in-game events such as an incoming arrow from above or something lifting out a dark chasm

Clothing Props

Slinging on clothing helps enhance what is desired. Having a long piece of scrap clothing at a game is effective as a sash, veil, hat, cap or belt.

You can also use it to demonstrate tying rope or in rogue- like situations when hiding behind around a corner or even coming up behind to choke with a cord.

In my years of GMing, I don’t ask too much of my players in regards to their acting styles and non verbals. Each personality is different and the last thing you want to do is intimidate a player by making him or her feel uncomfortable.

Tell your players you will use non-verbals at times to make them feel more comfortable if you act out something they might not expect. As a campaign unfolds after each adventure, players that stick around often warm-up to the gaming group and might even start character acting without knowing it.

As long as the GM and players do not expect everyone at the table to role-play, the weight is lifted so each player can enjoy their characters the ways they want for every situation. Putting players on the spot can kill games because a shy player who sees it happen might think, “Oh no, when is the GM going to turn to me and put me on the spot?”

By far, the table top role-playing game offers the most imaginative way to tell an interactive story. Because everything expressed can be written and mentally conveyed with imagination, I have recently rediscovered PBEMs.

Even though we cannot see the game master’s face or hear the tone differences, a PBEM offers the ability to write a story that paints expressions in our mind’s eye. The written language can cover these aspects if the GM considers non- verbal’s in his or her email posts.

Because of his rediscovery of PBEMs, I recently created a new and free RPG ruleset for PBEM-specific fantasy gaming called the PBEMFRPG.

You can download the PBEMFRPG at

If curious, you can learn more about me here: Scott J. Compton


Design: Start with Your Most Limited Resource

If you GM with props and aids that represent in-game content, then start with your most restricted design element and grow your design around that.

For example, if you like to have NPC portraits or graphics, then instead of designing the NPC first and questing everywhere for the perfect picture, start with the picture and create the NPC around that.

This works for all kinds of design inspiration:

  • Sound effects
  • Theme songs for villains
  • Maps
  • Pictures of scenes
  • Pictures of locations
  • Monsters

I do the last one often. I start by flipping through the monster book until I land on a critter that catches my interest. Then I design in-game encounters based on the monster entry.

My preference is to start with the fluff. That brings the good work of monster designers to full fruition in my campaigns. Environment, groupings, lair preferences, treasure type – all this can feed into world building, adventure design and encounter formation. Legends, events and rumors based on this information feed plot hooks and encounter hooks, or just fun campaign background noise.

Sometimes I do need a straight-up combat encounter, and unless I know the time and location, I will pick a monster of sufficient difficulty at random and start forming the encounter around that.

The spirit of this tip advises you to begin designs with your biggest restriction and work outwards from that. It makes things faster and easier for you.


5 Non-Epic Prophecies

From Hannah Lipsky

Mystery, magic, the swirling of smoke above the oracular fire. Everyone loves prophecies, so why not throw a few into your games?

They can be anything from a bit of local color to the focal point of a story arc. And it’s this former function most people forget – not every word that passes your prophet’s lips must be the fulcrum on which fates are turned.

Here are five prophecies that range from the mild to the moderate, without ever setting foot in epic territory. You can use them in your campaign, or just use them as inspiration.

The nameless huntress will thrive during a rainstorm

The words came down from the oracle on a cold winter day. This was good news and bad, for rain wouldn’t come to the small village of Ordin for another two months. They had that long to figure out the prophecy, and that long to labor under its shadow. Few boons follow epithets like “nameless huntress.”

The elders debated, wondering what the words might mean. Fishers and farmers huddled around fires while the village hunters – all properly named – laid in extra stocks of meat against the uncertainty of the coming thaw. The first winds of spring were greeted with more anxiety than joy.

Finally, it happened. The spring rain began – and did not end. The storms raged for days, and the river overflowed its banks. The muddy waters carried fish, flotsam – and disease. The tainted water seeped into basements and wells, fouling food and water alike. One villager after another succumbed to the sickness.

By the time the rainy season passed, not one house was unmarked with grief. The nameless huntress had come.

The compassionate duchess must not profit

He’d been against going to a seer for political advice from the start. Sure, sometimes they came up with catchy slogans, but mostly they confused everyone to the point where the peasants rioted and the nobility all stayed home and refused to vote. How was a person to win a council seat in an environment like that?

But no, his sister – his older sister, who’d worked on the consul’s campaign, and don’t you forget it – had insisted. He’d tried to argue for a private reading at least, but no, she’d said, the people will be suspicious of anything you say after that. What if they got a bad prophecy in public? Nothing’s so bad that you can’t spin it, she’d said.

And now he was stuck with “The compassionate duchess must not profit.” Having their candidate described as compassionate was great. That’s what the people wanted. Always an attribute that polled well. Except in wartime, of course, but the lands had been at peace for some time now. It was the “must not profit” bit that was the problem.

Did that mean no campaign contributions? Or just that she should spend them all? Did that mean it would be the worse for them all if she got elected? Or just that she’d have to restrain herself from kickbacks while in office? The latter interpretation was almost worse – no one voted for an honest noble. Too suspicious. Everyone knows, if they’re not taking bribes, they’re probably sacrificing babies to demons.

The compassionate duchess must not profit. How was he supposed to win an election with that?

The mad duke shall lope in the mountains

Some prophecies are opaque. Some are obscure. Some aren’t obvious until retrospect, and some, not even then. This was none of those.

My great-uncle was a werewolf. My grandfather was a werewolf. My father is a renowned trophy hunter with exotic pelts all over his walls who goes into offended coughing fits at the mere mention of the supernatural and is, unfortunately for all of us, the current duke.

Not that I think this prophecy means he’s a werewolf. Oh no. He’s one good illness away from being on permanent bed rest. At which point I, his eldest son, assume the title.

I guess I’d better start working on my howl.

She shall not return with the green lord on a journey

Hiking up the mountain is a dark, sweaty, dirty adventure. It’s dangerous, it’s uncomfortable, and it pays better than anything else this side of honest work.

Here’s how it works: the high priestess believes her wisdom is an ethereal, celestial thing. It should only be dispensed to those brave of heart and pure of soul, those who are willing to travel to the ends of the earth in pursuit of noble truths.

Here’s how it also works: the merchant caravans believe prophecies are handy things, and so they’ll pay silver to get them and gold to bring them back. Silver, if you undertake the risk and promise that they’ll have first shot at hearing whatever you find out. Gold, if you tell it to them exclusively. Never decide beforehand, because you never know what you’ll get. So lucky for us all that the high priestess is not also an empath.

Silver and gold there’s been before, but this prophecy is the one. This prophecy is platinum. “She shall not return with the green lord on a journey.” Does that mean the untested scion who is wooing the heiress? The queen who even now accompanies the young prince on a tour of his lands? Or could it be an obscure reference to the grain merchants, the chief of which is said to be looking for a partner in a new venture?

Either way, it’s important news. Platinum important.

The heliotrope skeleton will never yawn during winter

Dust. Dust, with tracks in it. But old tracks, older than the boots on my feet, boots passed down by my grandfather. Tracks so old they made you realize the dust must be older still. Layers of it.

It didn’t smell, didn’t make me sneeze. The biting cold drove all smell out of the mountain caverns, even the scents of moss and underground rivers. The moss was crumbling and black at this temperature, and I could almost imagine that even the hidden streams were frozen solid. I certainly was.

No one had traveled this way since my grandfather’s time. No one was sure the passage still existed. But the news I was bringing was important, and it couldn’t wait until spring.

We should have been able to cross through the mountain pass in our carts, like we usually did. Skeleton pass was named for the remains of the bandits who’d hung there in my father’s time. Before that, it had another name. Something to do with the flowers that dotted the mountain’s sides – violets, daisies and heliotrope.

That’s how we knew the ice and snow wouldn’t clear out in time this winter. Those fateful words might’ve befuddled the traveling gypsy fortune teller who’d traded a reading for a night’s board at the inn, but it was plain as day to us mountain folk. No one was getting through that pass until spring.

And that’s why I’m forging my way through ancient caverns by the light of a guttering lantern, following the boot prints into the depths.

Graphic of section divider

There you have it. Five prophecies, and a few bits of story to go with them – each one a different way of working prophecy into your game. The words of oracles and seers don’t have to be the launching pads of epic journeys. They can be a part of everyday life, or something not far from it.

And by the way? All five of these came from the random Prophecy Generator at Chaotic Shiny.


7 Ways on How to Run a Treasure Hunt

From Jesse C. Cohoon

There is the type of game where you go to dangerous site, talk to the appropriate people, wander around, fight the monsters and come home with the treasure that’s just laying there. However, such games can be so much more than that. What I’m talking about is making the game more exciting, more thrilling. A treasure hunt can be an investigation – a hunt for information – for actual treasure or something intangible.

What key points should a good treasure hunt have?

A good treasure hunt should have multiple parties wanting what you’re after

These parties could be different political or religious points of view, different people wanting whatever the treasure is for whatever reason, or people who do not want the information to come out.

Each party should have their own viewpoints and reasons for wanting to find the treasure or keep it hidden.

For example, what would happen if, as in Dan Brown’s Novel The Da Vinci Code, it was proven there actually was a divine blood line of Jesus? What if aliens visited the earth and the gods are aliens that gave us technology and knowledge? What if the various conspiracy theories found in the Zeitgeist movie are true?

A good treasure hunt should be geographically diverse

Look at the National Treasure movies, and Dan Brown’s multiple works, and look at the History Channel Cities of the Underworld. Each offers different geographical ideas and how to connect diverse things hat might not at first glance have any apparent connection.

You can hide treasure hints in statues, remote geographic locations, cities, books or even art for those who know what to look for and how to find it.

Such places might be guarded by physical, magical, technological or psychic means.

It is then up to the players to find a way around the obstacles faced to get what they need to get.

The treasure should not be easy to find, understand or decipher

Clues should be available, but not readily known or noticed. If they’re widely known and others have all the pieces, why hasn’t the treasure (whatever it may be) have been retrieved by now?

It should take special knowledge or skills to decipher clues because they are so scattered. Players may go to a specialist or sage, only to be told incomplete or wrong information, or that someone else may have the knowledge they need.

Going to specialists might alert those that who also seek the treasure of its whereabouts and increase the danger. Furthermore, the specialists themselves or their families might be in danger.

A good treasure hunt should have wide-reaching consequences

Can you imagine how history would be different if Nixon was able to silence or prevent the Watergate scandal? Could you imagine the ripples of consequences if aliens were proven to have interfered with human history? What happens if the evil overlord gets the crown of divinity? What happens if the scepter of undead control ends up wrong hands?

A good treasure hunt should be dangerous, but there always should be a way out if the participants think about it long and hard enough.

This danger can be:

  • Social – failure to find treasure makes you to look like a fool, or defame you or your family’s name
  • Emotional – failure makes you feel very bad, lowers your confidence or even causes psychosis
  • Physical – guards and traps.

There should be time to think and adjust to get everyone out alive if a plan is enacted fast. The forces that wish to get it before you, or wish to prevent its discovery, can also be dangerous. They might do anything to prevent the PCs from completing their quest.

A good treasure hunt should be rewarding

Even if the treasure isn’t quite what you expected, it should be valuable and worth the adventure, if not materially, then in terms of character growth and development.

A good treasure hunt should be fun

Anything you should do for a game should increase the player’s enjoyment.