Cunning Cohorts Build Character: Four GM Tips

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0519

Table of Contents:

A Brief Word from Johnn

What Is a Campaign?

I started to write a definition of what a campaign is thisweekend and had to put my pen down. What a tricky question! So I am going to throw it out to you.

My initial definition was, “A sequence of two or more adventures.” That made sense because I often GM that way. But it does not account for the epic campaigns sitting on my shelf, such as Shackled City and other Paizo Adventure Paths.

Nor does it account for my current Riddleport campaign, which is one big long campaign in a fantasy city. (Though, I think the campaign could use some goal posts, which I am attempting to fix.)

Does a campaign involve a group of characters? If so, what about PC deaths? In a recent campaign, almost the entire party recycled. I think only one original PC was left, but we all still regarded it as the same campaign.

Does a campaign have to involve 1st level or inexperienced characters? Nope. Lots of campaigns start at third level, or 7th, or 20th. And in non-level systems, PCS can be old, experienced, or even veterans.

Does a campaign require the same players? Nope. Empty chairs get filled. And GMs have written to me over the years with stories of introducing all new players in a campaign over time.

Should a campaign take place on the same world? Hmmm, that’s a potential link. If the PCs travel to planes, planets, or dimensions, the GM just expands the definition of the campaign “world” to include these areas. So maybe a core part of the definition concerns setting.

What about real time? GMs have told me about campaigns running since the 1980s. Does a campaign relate to how long in real time it has been running?

Is it a genre? A theme? A goal?

What the heck is a campaign? If you have a definition, please drop me a note. I’d like to hear what you think.

Cunning Cohorts Build Character: Four GM Tips

An RPT reader asked me for tips about handling followers. This tricky territory is just now emerging in my Riddleport campaign. Following are three tips for getting more mileage out of followers, plus some advice on how to tie followers better into your plots and campaigns.

Give Them Family, Friends, Contacts, And Enemies

For gameplay, give a follower at least a few relationships. This provides you more great fodder for plot hooks and encounter seeds. Better yet, it adds depth to what is often a one-dimensional NPC type.

For flavour and immersion, give NPCs their own lives. On the surface, life might seem to be about tangible things, starting from food and shelter and then moving to toys and status symbols. The true measure of a life, however, is a person’s relationships. And so it is with NPCs, too.

An NPC with existing relationships will have carved a place in the world long before the PCs came along. That place might be big or small. Regardless, it makes the NPC seem real, and less like a tool, servant, or slave.

Use relationships to give players pause before abusing a follower or taking him for granted. Ensure the NPC will be missed if he dies or disappears. Better yet, if powerful people take notice, then the characters will be held accountable to the NPC, causing the group problems if he is killed or abused.

In times of trouble, the follower should rely on people other than the PCs for advice and help. In times of success, the NPC should want to share with, brag to, or help others. In this way, you introduce other NPCs for plots and encounters in a believable, seamless, fun way.

Potential relationships:

  • Parents and grandparents
  • Siblings
  • Sons and daughters
  • Former trainers, teachers, and mentors
  • Past and present rivals and enemies
  • Former patrons and employers
  • Romantic partners
  • Others who need the NPC

The enemy of a follower will likely become the enemy of the PCs.

Also, complications in relationships do not need to always turn into side quests or lengthy encounters. Even a one minute situation adds a lot to a game session.

Be sure to offer a few boons resulting from a follower’s relationships as well, to balance things out and not make players feel penalized.

The great thing about followers with relationships external to the party is you have control of all the other NPCs, so you can impose checks and balances, challenges and fairness.

Give Them Feelings

In the game system I run, characters can gain the ability to attract loyal followers. One interpretation of that is the henchmen are only loyal to the PC they’ve chosen to follow. In addition, the PC is not a king or god who commands fanatics.

This offers up several interesting possibilities:

  • The follower’s loyalty must be continually earned.
  • The NPC chose the PC, not the other way around. Unless the PC has a number of supplicants to choose from, the GM gets to pick the follower.
  • The follower is loyal to their chosen PC – not to other PCs, nor the group.

I see you rubbing your hands together and I hear your evil cackle. I join you. While you do not want henchmen to steal the spotlight away from player characters too much, and you do not want to nerf a character’s hard-earned rewards, you should always try to make life interesting for PCs.

For example, a character abuses his cohort. He names the NPC Pit Finder, gives him latrine duty every day, and uses him for +2 cover during battle. After awhile, the NPC snaps. As he should. Who would put up with that for long?

Instead of letting the NPC fade into the background and being abused this way, you have him stand up for himself. Some ideas:

  • He confronts the PC. Good roleplaying opportunity. Also reminds the player the NPC is a living, breathing, independent game element.
  • He hides. The PC will not only lose the NPC’s services and benefits, but he might lead a search party resulting in lost time and resources, and causing embarrassment to the character and party.
  • He switches sides. This one is a doozie. The defection might only be temporary, but it’ll sting. The cohort might go on a single mission with a rival, become a double agent, or get a second job for somebody who happens to be unfriendly to the PCs.

Another opportunity is intra-party politics. The follower is loyal to the PC they have chosen. That does not mean loyalty to every PC. The NPC might cause other party members all kinds of trouble.

Imagine a loyal cohort who felt another party member was a threat to his master. What would he or she do? Very interesting possibilities here.

If you take the follower seriously, the player will too. If not, you have lots of ways to show characters the error of their ways.

Give Them A Name Players Will Respect

A respectful name helps NPCs get the respect they deserve. Give a follower a cheesy name and they are doomed to be a party joke. This is fine for one or two NPCs, but a cheeky name should be the exception.

You can use names to enhance campaigns and add flavour. There are a lot of name resources available online.

Treat a follower’s name as an opportunity to build your world and improve gameplay.

Prepare a name cheat sheet so you do not get stuck mid-game coming up with a great NPC name.

For my Riddleport campaign, I assigned each world culture an Earth culture, and built name lists based on those cultures. Then I put the names into TableSmith software for easy random generation.

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Give Them A Private Agenda

Serving their master should not be the NPC’s only motivation. Here are two interesting possibilities for some great gaming.

What did they want before becoming the PC’s follower?

Give the NPC one or two strong desires that remain unmet when becoming a follower. Have these ambitions come to the fore once in awhile, triggering gameplay opportunities.

Perhaps the NPC takes a strong position during a party debate. Maybe he uses his spare time to kick off an interesting side quest. Or maybe he makes requests of his leader that affects party decisions, for good or bad.

For example:

“I have a chance to meet master sculptor Ardonis in nearby Waterton. I have waited years for this opportunity – he never travels this far south. I’ll be back in three days. You won’t even miss me.”

The PCs may choose to accompany their henchman to Waterton, and get into some fun encounters there. Regardless, the follower falls in love with Ardonis’ daughter, and he becomes torn between love and loyalty – an interesting predicament!

What new needs, desires, and ambitions do they develop during the campaign?

This offers interesting twists and gameplay potential.

Even getting a new hobby mid-campaign makes players look at a follower as more than a stat block.

But what if the NPC started having feelings of personal ambition? How would he try to steer his leader, or what actions would he take to earn notice amongst others, possibly stealing the spotlight away from the PCs?

Alternatively, though the NPC might remain loyal to his PC leader, he might not feel the same about other party members and followers. Maybe the NPC spies on another PC in exchange for money, secret training, or romantic interests.

Here are a few ideas for interesting private agendas:

  • Wants to surprise his leader with some great accomplishment, which ends up going awry or actually working against the PC.
  • Dreams of owning land and settling down with his wife of ten years. This might make him adverse to risk at the wrong times.
  • Seeks revenge against a lord whose army killed his family. At key times, the NPC’s loyalty to the PC competes against opportunities for vengeance.
  • Wants to change class, but his leader won’t let him.
  • Wants to impress a noble’s daughter and some day have enough wealth to win her hand in marriage.
  • It turns out a PC’s friend or family member murdered the follower’s brother.
  • Deluded. He believes in a contrarian prophesy or dream.

Whenever possible, developer followers and cohorts into living, breathing NPCs. Loyalty does not mean without fault or stagnation. Avoid making followers liabilities, and instead design interesting situations that make for fun gaming.

Balance risk, reward, and failure according to the pacing of your campaign.

Guaranteed, nobody will forget gaming with followers such as these.

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Riddleport Session 21 – If He Has a Cape, Run!

“If he has a cape, run!” A player exclaimed that as part joke, part new operating procedure, after the group nearly suffered a TPK early in the campaign at the hands of a cape- wearing villain. In session 21, the party meets this villain for the first time since that desperate alley battle, but this time, the PCs are more experienced and much tougher. Mage Guild Under Attack

The game started at 8 candles, on the 27th day of Calistral. Velare the wizard heads to his guild across the city, taking Thorne with him. En route, a rival gang harasses them, and rather than bothering to fight, they pay the toll and reach the guild fast and safe.

Unfortunately, the front gate is closed, and instead of the usual arcane examination by a Keeper, a wizard from the Loyalist faction greets them and says entrance is forbidden. Velare tries to find out why but the Loyalist refuses to answer.

Suddenly an explosion rumbles and a pillar of black smoke rises angrily from within the mage guild compound. Velare again demands entry and information, but is denied.

Thorne starts asking people in the neighbourhood for information or clues about what’s happening. After an hour, he and Velare learn a troop of about 100 warriors emerged from the river just before dawn and made their way to the Order of Cyphers. Before reaching the compound, however, the troops turned down a street and out of sight, and have not been seen since.

Velare and Thorne talk to everybody they can in the area, but get no closer to discovering where the warriors disappeared. Disheartened, they return to their inn, but not before being accosted by the Wolf Clan gang again and paying their toll.

Help Request from Gas Forge

Meanwhile, at the Silver Chalice Inn, a group of dwarves from the gas forges down the street have camped out at a table, refusing to leave until they speak with Fane. Fane is a dwarven priest PC on the run from his clan, so he is reluctant to speak with the forge dwarves.

The dwarves have stayed all night, and look to make a long- term sit-in, so Fane relents and meets with them. Crixus the pit fighter and Vigor the paladin hover nearby in case of trouble.

It turns out the dwarves do not know about Fane’s past, and only want to deal with a dwarf because that is who they trust with this delicate matter – fellow dwarves.

The miners have a small problem concerning the Order of Cyphers. They want Fane to arrange a meeting with Velare, to discuss some delicate matters.

A meeting time is swiftly arranged and the dwarves finally depart, leaving the inn’s supply of ale somewhat depleted.

The First Follower

At 7th level the player characters can take the Leadership feat, which gives them a number of loyal followers based on a calculation. Crixus is the first PC to take this feat. Last session we discussed how it would work, and I asked players to roll up their followers as they gain them, then present to me for review and approval.

I approved Crixus’s follower before session 21 started, and now was a good time in the session to introduce him.

Crixus and Fane Escort Wren to her port smuggler contact to sell some gear obtained yesterday. The group wanted to take no chance that Wren would be ambushed again, by Scab or anyone else, thus the escort.

Arrangements are made, and while returning to the Chalice, the small group is accosted by a pack of goblins. Parley erupts, and the goblin spokesman reveals that his shaman told him to seek out and serve “The Destroyer in the pirate city.” Turns out The Destroyer is Crixus.

The goblin’s name is Grob, and with trepidation, the PCs welcome him to the group and return to the inn. Grob sends the other goblins back to the clan to let the shaman know the mission was a success.

While speaking with Grob, Crixus learns the creature’s clan is plagued by all manner of things, including gnoll slavers, a red dragon, disease, and more. Crixus takes notes.

The PCs reunite at the Silver Chalice. They try to make Saul appear. (Saul was murdered, is now a ghost, and appeared recently to warn the group a beloved friend was being attacked.) the group has no luck with the summons.

During this time, Grob starts marking his territory, which infuriates the inn staff. Crixus has a stern chat with Grob. Grob urines for home.

Blood Gas Black Market

The meeting time between Velare and the gas forge dwarven representative arrives. It seems the dwarves have a black market arrangement with Syzzinar, leader of the Order of Cyphers. They ship him mined blood gas, which is illegal in Riddleport unless the Overarch, Gaston Cromarchy, approves.

Velare learns the fence the dwarves used to sell blood gas to Syzzinar was the same fence the PCs use – Wren (see session 19 summary for all the shenanigans involving Wren

As we know, she died a couple days ago, but was then rezzed by the PCs. Her replacement during the time let the blood gas shipment go missing.

The dwarves want Velare to explain the situation to Syzzinar and for the Chalice Bastards to look into it. As a group, the PCs drive a hard bargain with the dwarven miners for the investigation and recovery of the missing shipment. The dwarf agrees to pay for 7,500 guilders plus the missing shipment of blood gas if found (worth 15,000 on black market).

Grim Fang Cliff Hanger

Last session the PCs left their hireling, Grim Fang, at the lighthouse in the hopes Scab would return. However, Grim Fang has not responded a request Crixus’s messengered over last night for a status update.

So, the Chalice Bastards head to the lighthouse. It looks like Grim Fang is missing. His tracks go to the nearby cliff edge, where a bunch of goblin-sized tracks surround his. The PCs follow the goblin tracks back to the Wharf District.

In a previous session, the group broke into a warehouse and were attacked by ninja goblins. The group suspects the goblins – whose tracks get lost immediately at the edge of the bustling docks area – are from that warehouse, so they head straight there and break into the abandoned location once again.

Ninja Goblin Ambush

The PCs carefully enter the warehouse, but the ninja goblins are ready for them. Archers fire poisoned arrows, throw thunderstones, and breathe fire at the heroes as they storm into the building.

A goblin caster manages to charm Crixus, who is convinced the mortal enemy of his new goblin friend is waiting outside. Crixus leaves the battle and attacks a hapless pirate nearby.

Meanwhile, the mage uses excellent tactics and spell choices to pin most of the goblins down. Then the leader emerges from a trap door and joins the attack. The leader is none other than the caped Barghest who escaped Crime Lord Rictus’s monster gladiator pits weeks ago.

The PCs at the time joined the search for the escaped creature, found him, and were almost slain. The barghest escaped, laughing over his caped shoulder at the PCs.

Now he appears again in the PCs’ lives, and revenge is in the air.

The goblins are swiftly beaten down. Unfortunately, the barghest uses invisibility to escape the group’s clutches once again!

The spell wears off Crixus, but not before he chased the pirate back to his boat and facing the scum’s 100 murderous shipmates. The pit fighter backs off, swears vengeance, and returns to the warehouse.

A Tricky Decision

Goblins defeated, the group follows the trap door into a small series of rooms. There they discover the barghest’s horrifying secret. 200 goblin females live here, along with the now-dead goblin males. Worse, all the females are pregnant.

After some parley, the group learns that the females all bear the barghest’s children. The group fears an army of evil Outsiders are about to hatch. A great group debate triggers about what to do now.

It is decided to leave the females in their lair and return to the inn to plan in private. However, Velare sneaks back and fireballs the lair. He is convinced a new army of barghest-enhanced goblins will assault Riddleport and can’t let that happen. Foul deed done, Velare returns to the inn.

End of session.

Post-Game Analysis

The session went well from what I saw behind the screen. We roleplayed Crixus earning a new follower, progressed the plot some, and caught up with old friends.

There was a good mix of action, adventure, and roleplay. Though, the goblin combat dragged a bit, so I will need to make some tweaks to speed combat up next time.

The session ended with Fane’s player saying all the characters are doomed, souls tainted by the wizard’s action against the goblins. A good discussion took place about philosophical issues, and I heard that discussion took place on the trip home (most of the player’s carpool).

While all the players know what happened, some of the characters do not. It will be interesting to see how the characters react when, if, and how they are told.

When Vigor the paladin was created, his player and I discussed the character’s morals. While Vigor has a lawful good alignment, the player wanted to play him on the edge. The character’s concept was Jack Bauer from the TV series 24 meets Walter from the TV series Breaking Bad.

That suited me fine because the campaign was set in a pirate city, the average NPC level is 8th, and a shiny paladin walking strutting around making things right was a sure recipe for rolling up a new PC.

In addition, my group is fairly loose with alignment, so a gritty paladin who believes the ends justifies the means not only presents a troubled, interesting character to game, but a good friend capable of getting his hands dirty with the PCs.

Next session, it will be interesting to see if Vigor learns of Velare’s actions, and how that turns out. My players are excellent at playing character conflicts without it becoming personal in real life, so there should be some excellent roleplaying ahead.

Alternatively, Vigor might also shrug his shoulders and just turn away. I could see the paladin feeling Velare’s actions probably did save Riddleport from a 200-strong army of Outsider-enhanced blood boiling ninja goblins, especially since the barghest is still at large.

And Vigor would just make plans to settle up with Velare when the mage’s use ends; perhaps some eternal time in a dark cell in a prison in Ragathiel’s palace.

Resources Used

Same as session 20


GM Advice

The success of this session came from the variety of encounters. The goblin combat bogged down a bit, but it could have been a lot longer, which would have pushed the last, most interesting encounter to next session.

Instead, we ended on an interesting cliffhanger, with the villain escaping and a moral dilemma + repercussions on the PCs’ hands.

Final Thoughts – Comments from Velare

[I emailed this recap to Velare’s player and asked if he had any comments to add, since his PC was so pivotal to the session’s outcome. Here’s what he had to say:]

I feel Velare actually took a few steps towards the Good alignment during that encounter. The wizard had rolled well on his Knowledge check and knew (or believed) that barghests were intelligent, dangerous, and evil.

Left alone, the nest would soon produce several evil beasts. At best, that would mean more killing monsters wandering around the city. At worst, the barghests could be taken in, trained, and controlled by an even more powerful existing faction.

Any outcome where the beasts live would be bad news – they exist only to kill and feed.

Now if Velare (or the party) were evil, they may have taken over the nest and attempted to raise the barghests for themselves. If we were slightly more entrepreneurial, we should probably have shopped the beasts around to the gladiator pits or other Riddleport factions, and sold them to the highest bidder.

But I think we did what Good(tm) characters would say was right and stopped the infestation before it spread. We broke the cycle. Weeks, months, or years from now, there will be additional Riddleport citizens who still live because there is no gang of barghests committing murder.

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Time Travel Tips from RPT Readers

RPT readers had a few things to say about the recent Time Travel Tips [ ]

Here is their great advice and ideas:

Five Other Options to Limit PCs And Problems

From Lee Barklam

As ever, I voraciously consume your bulletins but only rarely contribute. However, time travel is a subject close to my heart and there is always an innate paradox with time travel:

If Time Travel is possible then it is conceivable someone will eventually invent it and go gadding about through time. Even if that inventor dies without passing on the secret to time travel, someone else will eventually just come along and invent it again.

Regardless of how many false starts time travel technology has, someone will eventually come along and invent time travel who doesn’t meet a sticky end before his secret gets out and then time travel will become ubiquitous within that future society.

So, assuming time travel is possible, we have to imagine a future society where everyone can gad about the timelines. With time travel, there is no such thing as being the first to have the technology, as anyone else with the technology in the future could travel to an earlier point in time.

This conundrum requires any GM (or creative writing author) to come up with a reason why the whole of the future aren’t visiting the past for holidays and educational trips.

  1. Time travel is one way: forward only. You can return to the point in time you make your first trip, but you can only trip forward.
  2. There is a force that prohibits time travel and will eventually destroy any time traveler or time travelling device.
  3. Travel into the past is possible, but the traveler is, at best, an observer – invisible and insubstantial to non-time travelers.
  4. Time travel used to be possible but someone in the distant future invented a device that emits a radiation throughout the whole of time that now prevents it to all but a select few people with souls that resonate on a certain frequency.

Forward Only

Option 1 creates interesting investigative stories. Characters witness an event in the future and have to try to understand what they have seen and prevent it when they return to their own time. Works best if the PCs can only time travel to a point in time once and only for a short time (a few minutes). Opposing Force

Option 2 keeps the players on their toes. They have to travel without alerting the sentinel force that is seeking to keep the timelines smooth. This naturally keeps the PCs from being too destructive, and any action will eventually result in the attention of the sentinel force, destroying their time travel mechanism. The more they abuse it, the fewer trips they will be able to make.

Knowing a resource is strictly finite will keep the players’ use of it down. Isaac Asimov once wrote a great short story about a space explorer who found a functioning time travel device built by an advanced culture that seemed to have just been wiped out. He dialed his home planet to report his finding and after a few minutes, his connection was terminated.

The explorer discovered the universe had set his home world’s sun nova, so they would not be able to use the time travel device.

Remember that such cosmic forces may not think the same way people would and just destroy a time travel device once invented. Nor may it be limited in the resources it can bring to bear to stop someone travelling through time.

Observation Only

Option 3 makes time travel into the past little more than watching a video and not very exciting for role playing (without interaction with NPCs, much of what makes RPGs great is lost).

PCs could use time travel as just another tool in an investigative campaign.

As with option 1, there should be strict limits about revisiting a certain space-time point and for the duration they can watch events unfold.


Option 4 enables a PC party full of characters from other time periods – brought together by an eccentric scientist looking to open up the timelines again. He has assembled the PCs from all the souls in creation throughout all of time for a special mission into the future to destroy this inhibitor device.

[Comment from Johnn: a neat idea. Readers, check out the Riverworld books for inspiration. ]

It can be difficult to find a single rule system that will enable this mix of characters and it is a challenge for any GM to sculpt scenarios in which all characters play their part, but it would make for an interesting campaign!

Baggage Limit

A fifth and more complicated option would be to consider a limit on the number of people that can be displaced at any one time and a limit on the number of displaced people that can travel within an event radius.

(An event radius is a radial measurement from an event point in the Universal Timeline along both special and time axes.)

For example, we have two time travelers, Bob and Margaret. The laws of time require that only one-time traveler can exist within one day of each other.

Bob travels to Thursday and stays until Saturday before returning home. Because Bob was there from Thursday until Saturday, no time traveler can travel to that location between Wednesday and Sunday.

However, after Bob returns to his time, Margaret travels to that same location on Monday and wants to stay until Friday, meaning that she would be there when Bob arrived on Thursday.

Instead, what happens is that exactly one day before Bob would arrive, Margaret skips to exactly one day after Bob leaves. If Margaret made her journey before Bob and stayed until Friday, when Bob attempts to travel to Thursday, his attempt would fail completely (i.e., he would not skip to a day after Margaret leaves).

What should happen if time travelers get too close (physically) is that one who has been displaced for the least amount of Personal Time will return to Universal Time.

The Universal Time Ratio is also something the GM needs to define.

For example, Bob leaves his present at 3:30 p.m., travels some when else, stays for an hour and returns.

  • Does he return at the moment he left (so it might even seem to onlookers that he never left)?
  • Or is there a delay (does it seem like he momentarily blinks out of existence before almost instantly reappearing)?
  • Or does he reappear at 4:30 p.m. (or some other multiple of the time he spent at the other when)?

The ratio between the time that passes in Universal Time and the time that passes in Bob’s Personal Time determines when Bob reappears. Typically, Universal Time would pass slower than Personal Time, but remember that Margaret cannot travel through time until Bob returns. There may also be a cooling off time between Bob reappearing and Margaret being able to travel, too.

This kind of solution can make for a confusing game (the GM needs to prepare when each NPC villain visited an event line). The PCs can end up skipping past certain scenes and not knowing what’s going on each time they land somewhere.

Plus, PCs are easily blocked by NPC time travellers arriving at an event first.

It’s also difficult to keep in mind the Universal Time Ratio to know where each NPC (and PC) is in Personal Time, Universal Time, and Reference Time (the latter being the displacement event timeline).

Be Careful

I would steer clear of any form of time travelling story or campaign because unless it is clearly delineated in scope and properly arced.

It is all too easy to tie yourselves in knots – unless the GM has full control over the time travelers, and the PCs are just unwitting victims of their paradoxes and not actually the time travelers themselves…but that’s another campaign in itself!

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Time Travel: Consider The Environment

From Jeremy

I enjoyed the time travel article. One thing to consider in time travel scenarios, besides obvious cultural or historical changes, is environmental changes.

In a linked group of fantasy campaigns, I ran, the first party was forced to put the god of magic to sleep, and the other gods took him out of the world and placed him on what became an asteroid that orbited the creation.

However, as a logical consequence of this severance of magic with its source, the world became slowly more mundane.

In the second campaign, the children of the original heroes were kidnapped by a cabal of mages who wanted to stop this situation.

They were forced to travel thousands of years into the future where magic was almost gone, because this was the next time that was right to open a portal from the surface of the planet to the asteroid.

This provided a number of fun moments such as placing fantasy characters onto a college campus that was having a medieval festival. It was fun roleplaying the cultural implications for the game.

However, all of the players’ supernatural or magical abilities did not function, and the characters who were from non-human races gradually became sick as their internal reserves of magic were drained.

Each lost a point of constitution every hour they stayed in the future or when they attempted to use a non-mundane power. This was brutal, but I wanted to put across the seriousness of the mission.

Similar issues can be dealt with in other games. This could be as drastic as a post-apocalyptic world decertified and covered by acidic glass storms.

Alternatively, it could be as simple as a world where oil has run out: plastics become a major recyclable resource, vehicles perhaps have returned to animal power, nuclear, hydro, solar, wind, and other forms of alternative energy are used to better or worse effects.

The change doesn’t have to be as game changing as the one I outlined above, but environmental changes could be an interesting issue.

For instance, for players coming from a pristine, or relatively pristine, medieval or ancient setting, what effect would pollution in the air have on them? It could be treated as a disease that slowly impairs them. A minor change, but something that would be a twist on encounters.

Another issue you brought up was the idea of paradoxes, timelines, and blackout periods. One can regard paradoxes as an opportunity to take the game in a completely different direction.

In Robert A. Heinlein’s story “All You Zombies” a time operative is sent back to recruit him/herself (read the story it’s too long to discuss here) and when he/she returns to the future is plagued by the idea that there are “other selves” running around the universe.

In a scenario such as the classic paradox of killing your own grandfather, what if the character is born anyway by another grandfather, finds out about the interference through the ramifications of the paradox, and vows revenge? Characters having to deal with villains with their exact abilities and skills would make for a challenging adventure.

While the intricacies of time travel are difficult, they’re no worse than what do I do when the PCs kill my main villain in the first encounter. There is often a way to drop back 10 yards and punt.

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Inspired By: Doctor Who

From manfred

Hallo Johnn. Reading the tips on time travel after seeing some Doctor Who, allow me to add a few more notes:

  • Make time travel unpredictable. Even the Doctor doesn’t always end up where he wants to be, sometimes missing the target by hundreds of years, and sometimes drawn off target completely.
  • At the same time, the Doctor tends to be attracted to key locations and events, changing history in the process. What if that is part of the nature of time, that time travelers end up where they should change something?
  • There is always a bigger story. It takes a while to notice, but characters will be haunted by symptoms of something larger converging on them across worlds and epochs.
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Continuum: Roleplaying in The Yet

From Stuart

I highly recommend Continuum: Roleplaying in The Yet for more information on time travel.

Time is uncertain. If you don’t know an event to be true, or if an event is not widely known, it’s up for grabs (you can’t kill Hitler, but you can probably get away with killing Steven Morgan of Denver Colorado from 1970).

If you do disrupt a widely-known event or something you know to be true, you get “frag.” Frag slowly accumulates as paradoxes get worse. At low levels, you feel sick as reality starts to reject you. At higher levels, you start to fade away like Marty in Back to the Future.

Oh, and there’s a time-spanning body called the Continuum. Your part of it. If you can’t clean up your own messes, they’ll do it for you.

The outcome may result in your death or your transferal to Cold Storage — slang for whatever they do with paradoxes too bad to unravel. As such, the universe will continue existing. Your existence is more uncertain. Don’t mess up.

Since time is uncertain, fixing your messes is easier than it appears. If you do kill Hitler (and it’s happened several times), then it’s somebody’s job to study his life, get makeup or surgery to look like him, and take his place. If you screw up, maybe that’ll be your job.

I don’t think it’s still supported, but if you can find it, it’s worth a look.

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Time Wars Series

From Kate Manchester

There’s an excellent series of time travel books from the 1980? s. It’s called the Time Wars series written by Simon Hawke. It’s a series of 12 books that combine real history with literary history and spans a range of time periods.

In addition, it explores the science of time travel and provides a time line. Better yet, they’re entertaining.

Sadly, though, they’re out of print, but they can be found lurking about bookstores (like Powell’s in my hometown) or eBay.

But in any case, as far as time periods, look to some of the classic periods of literature. A mystery with Sherlock Holmes? Jousting with Ivanhoe? There is a realm of possibilities….

 Addition References and Resources

Thanks to Sean Holland, khael, TheRandomDM

Time Patrol, Poul Anderson

Paratime, H. Beam Piper

Change War series, Fritz Leiber

D&D Blackmoor modules and supplements

Arcana Wiki – Time Travel

Time Travel TV Tropes

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New GM Advice

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

How to Cast a Spell On Your Campaign and Polish till It Gleams?

On The Nature of Flaws

Top-Down Plug-in Game Design: The Perfect Recipe?

It’s Reality, Jim, but not as We Know It: St Barbara

The Nth Level of Abstraction

Experience for the ordinary person

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How-To Game Master Books

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

NPC Essentials

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

Free preview:

Filling the Empty Chair

How to find great gamers fast and easy online with my list of the best gamer registries and player finder websites. Recruit offline quickly with 28 new and easy ideas to find gamers in your local area. And attract the best players with my tips and advice on how to create the right kind of ads.

Inns, Taverns, and Restaurants

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

Adventure Essentials: Holidays

Advice and tips for designing compelling holidays that not only expand your game world but provide endless natural encounter, adventure, and campaign hooks.

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One More Tip

Top 10 Ways to Stop Sounding So Damn Metagamey

Published with permission from Leonine Roar

D&D 4e: Top 12 Ways to Stop Sounding So Damn Metagamey

My greatest pet peeve of Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition is how gamey it can sound during play. We tend to use gamespeak or metagame terms far too often during our favorite roleplaying game.

Want to stop? Or at least cut back?

10. Describe your actions instead of reading off a skill and rolling a die.

Put down your damn dice!

What does it look, sound or feel like first? What are you actually thinking or doing to earn that skill check?

9. Roleplay your social skill checks.

Once again, put your dice down and attempt to use a voice that isn’t yours and mannerisms that aren’t yours to actually lie like a rug.

Say something threatening or imposing. Talk some sense into folks. Make peace through Bluff, Intimidate or Diplomacy.

You know, actually roleplay your character!

8. Stop giving gamey play-by-play.

No one needs to hear you announce your action type and give us a public running remaining inventory for every single action you make during your turn, especially obvious and annoying ones like “for my move, I’ll move here.”

Are you serious? This isn’t a ball game, Johnny Most. For the love of Gygax, spare us. I trust you, ok? D&D 4e’s been out long enough. It’s really ok. Freaking stop!

7. Stop calling them short and extended rests.

Catch your breath, tend to your wounds, check your armor and weapons, grab a snack or pound back your water skin or wineskin, but do not stop for a “short rest,” whatever the hell that is.

And get some sleep for the night – absolutely do not “extended rest” – once again, whatever the hell that is.

6. Don’t go ‘Bag of Numbers’ on us.

Describe your combat actions.

Don’t just rattle off a list of numbers and game speak conditions and actions like you’re reading from some horrible combination of a calculator and tech repair manual.

Your ‘powers’ (dry heave…), feats, and magic items have names and flavor text for a reason. Use them or at least be inspired by them to describe your actions and attacks.

Acknowledge their existence and magic, at the very least. Give them some props. Maybe even enjoy their RP flavor.

5. Roleplay during combat.

Don’t leave all theatrics and roleplaying to the DM.

What, he or she doesn’t have enough to do? A bit of friendly banter or encouragement during a fight is good for the D&D soul and party morale.

So too is getting into character and describing your killing blows and monster death scenes. At the least, this is better than nothing when it comes to roleplaying your ‘powers’.

4. Abort Tactical Metagame Mission Conference Discussion Delta Niner.

Now that I have the tacticians’ attention…

Stop launching into lengthy gamey tactical analysis and prolonged discussion of every single player’s turn. If you want someone to help you flank, then, brace yourself: say it in character in a non-gamey way.

You can do it; I have faith in you. After all, you’re playing D&D, an RPG, and I know those roleplaying skills are buried inside your board game or war game mentality somewhere.

3. Stop calling them powers.

This isn’t sci-fi, SyFy or science fiction! You’re actually not technically a superhero, and you do not wear uniforms or yellow spandex – leave that to other RPGs and the (extremely cool) Marvel universe.

They’re called arcane spells, divine prayers, martial exploits or maneuvers.

You cast, speak, or perform them. Say “I use a power” one more time, and I swear I’ll have Wolverine cut you.

2. Stop saying “I Spend an Action Point!”

Honestly, what the hell is that? Who spends a what where?

Quite possibly the gamey-ist sounding phrase in the game. Flex a tiny RP muscle in your brain and describe what you’re doing more cinematically.

Even saying “I go into an inspired blur of heroic action” sounds ten times better than some bizarro trip to your online D&D combat shopping cart.

1. Stop Sleeping in the Damn Dungeon. Seriously? Who does this?

It’s almost always beyond stupid. Ask yourself the age-old D&D roleplay question: But what would your character do?

I’m pretty sure he or she wouldn’t want to get some shut-eye right next to a stack of twelve eviscerated and beheaded orc bodies, a shining pool of blood nearby, and disgruntled reinforcements just upstairs.

Take your ‘extended rest’ (vomit…) in your dungeons and shove it! Or else expect a gauntlet of hungry, curious, or even concerned monsters to eat you. Slowly. And with tabasco sauce.

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