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Roleplaying Tips Weekly E-Zine Issue #392

Assembling The Party - Reconciling Diverse Backgrounds


This Week's Tips Summarized 

Assembling The Party - Reconciling Diverse Backgrounds

  1. Establish Common Ground Before PC Creation
  2. What Do All The PCs Have In Common?
  3. Create Character Cross-Hooks
  4. Provide A Mandatory Hook
  5. Deal With The Fluff Before The Crunch
  6. Hold A Conference Call

Readers' Tips Summarized 

  1. Mapping Hamlet, Town, And City
  2. Use Sound As A Narration Tool
  3. Create A Character Gallery And Name Tags

Johnn Four's GM Guide Books

GM Gems

Systems-Neutral Tools for Every Game Master

A tome of game master inspiration filled with a wealth of information and ideas to empower every aspect of your game. Never run boring, vanilla games and never be caught flat- footed. GM Gem includes:

  • Alchemical Mishaps
  • Empty Rooms Worth Describing
  • Extraordinary Campsites
  • Familiar Creatures with Unfamiliar Faces
  • Short Encounters for Short Attention Spans
  • Unique Taverns and Inns
  • Unusual Holidays
  • 100 Unique Treasures

GM Gems PDF at RPG Now

GM Gems Print at RPG Shop

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A Brief Word From Johnn 

New Fantaseum Zine

The Cartographers' Guild,, and The Campaign Builders' Guild have launched Fantaseum zine, with maps, fiction, and more. I liked it a lot - the maps alone are super content, and you can't beat free.

Be forewarned, it's a large PDF file (29 MB)

Thanks to Bryan Ray for the scoop.

New Article Up At The Site

I recently added a new article to the brimming articles section of the website. "Make Your Life As GM Easier" by Darren Blair covers a few classic tips to help generate new ideas and organize your GMing.

5 Room Dungeons Volume 12 Now Available

The next volume of 5 Room Dungeons contest entries is now ready for download. Featured in this volume:

  1. Stranger Than Fiction
    by Uri Lifshitz
  2. Aboleth
    by Andrew Anderson
  3. Dragon's Lair
    by Aki Halme
  4. Lord and Killer
    by Drackler
  5. Upshi Rises
    by Cheka Man

Download (PDF 1 MB)

Previous 5 Room Dungeons

Have a gaming-full week!


Johnn Four,

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Lose The Eraser With Turn Watcher

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Assembling The Party - Reconciling Diverse Backgrounds  

By Johnn Four

There are a few challenges when assembling a new party for a campaign, and one of them is reconciling diverse backgrounds. How do you explain a group of strangers sticking together, especially if they are a bizarre zoo party, which some game systems seem to encourage? Here are a few tips, mostly centred around good, pre-campaign organization, communication, and coordination.


1. Establish Common Ground Before PC Creation 

As has been mentioned in past issues, you can get a lot of success by knowing before character creation:

  • What all the PCs have in common
  • What one or more of their main goals are
  • Their location and starting point
  • Why the PCs will stay together through adversity

Do this by creating with the group their premise and background before character creation. Once the players know the reasons why the PCs are together and will stay together, they can weave this into their character designs and backgrounds to make the bonds even stronger.

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2. What Do All The PCs Have In Common? 

A great technique is to give PCs several points in common. These points can be party-wide, or just shared between smaller groups of characters.

For example:

  • All the PCs are employed by the city guard. One is a guard, one is a scribe, one is a cleaner, one is the son of the Captain of the Guard and just loafs around all day - much to the anger of other guards.
  • Two PCs got caught out in the open, in different places, during that weird magical weather storm a couple years ago. Ever since, their finger tips tingle at odd times. (Perhaps you can tie the tingling into a nascent special ability, such as danger sixth sense.)
  • The same orc leader bullied several of the PCs' families while the characters were growing up in the region. One PC's father sought help from a local businessman and got his protection. The orc stopped bothering the family, but the father would often have to work late, and he would often come home bruised and bloody.
  • A PC and another PC's mother owe a large sum of money to the same gangster. Perhaps a character motivation - minor or major - is to pay back the gangster to secure the safety of the PCs' families?
  • A PC's favourite tavern song was actually penned by another PC's father over 20 years ago when he quested for the capture of an evil orc leader who never was caught. During the quest, the father entered a strange cave and came out with a large gem - and several amazing stories. The father used the gem to start up a successful family business.
  • A PC's wealthy uncle lends money to the poor (at exorbitant rates) when the evil merchant houses won't help out. Any PC is welcome to borrow up to twice their starting gold to buy extra equipment....
  • Three of the PCs helped put out a building on fire started by a strange storm two summers ago. One of them found a rusty dagger that night, which he was able to clean up nicely.

Create points in common by writing out a bullet list of ideas like the one above. Do this yourself, or collaborate with your players, based on your GMing and group playing style (some players will want input, some won't).

Try to create open loops where the end of the story or thread is not decided, and the status or situation carries through to current day.

As you write, take elements of previous ideas and add them into the current idea. I made the list above a little too circular and tight, though sometimes that works well with a group that doesn't like subtlety. For each PC, try to create at least two overlaps with one or more other PCs.

Give each PC their background details in private, preferably in writing. This creates the potential for several aha! moments while gaming when players discover their PCs have various things in common. I prefer a written document because players' hearing and note-taking skills vary, especially if you pass along the information in a hurried hallway meeting just before game time.

Give each shared item a tangible "proof point" to ensure it will eventually come up during play. For example, you can trigger the tingling finger tips in the two PCs by passing the group notes. When one PC mentions the effect, the other should go aha! and chime in too. The dagger is another example, and so are the relatives because each can factor into one or more encounters and stir up discussion and player questions. If you don't give each background point a tangible proof point, then chances are less the association will get revealed.

Also, try to use all background elements as potential plot hooks or side-plot hooks. This gets you more value from your planning time.

One or more PCs might reveal their entire background right away. One time, a player started off the first session by reading out all the background notes I gave him, which triggered most of the other players to do them same. Sigh. While it's disappointing if this happens, just let it go. At least you've got plot hooks now.

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3. Create Character Cross-Hooks 

Instead of doing all the work yourself, you might prefer that the players figure out ways their PCs are linked together. Ask them to do this during character creation, and then check that each character has ties to at least one other character.

While you want characters to have things in common, links that motivate PCs to adventure together or follow your plot hooks are even better. You might consider laying out a couple of high level points that characters must eventually hook up to, such as shared enmity for a villain, common morals or alignments, or being at the same place at the same time for encounter #1.

Types of cross-hooks:

  • Background events
  • Same race or culture
  • Common profession, training, or mentor
  • Family
  • Relations (an extended family)
  • Religion, beliefs, philosophy
  • Character motivations, dreams, and goals
  • Past relationships
  • Friendship
  • Character synergies
  • Organizations (all serve the same church)
  • A mix of multiple things (Joe and Don are brothers, Jill is Joe's wife, Katie, met Jill through church, Harry and Katie have been best friends since childhood)

Character synergies are a great type of cross-hook. Using the rules, bending them, or creating new ones, gives the characters bonuses and benefits when they work together.

For example, instead of certain Knowledge skills overlapping, they become cumulative. If Brottor has 4 ranks in history and Frostwolf has 3, given them 7 ranks combined when making knowledge checks.

In the Player's Handbook II for D&D, parties can get teamwork benefits for such things as camp routine, foe hunting, team rush, and wall of steel - concepts you can port to most game systems.

[Thanks to Ian Toltz for writing in with a similar tip. Ian - I just ended up combining our tips into this one.]

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4. Provide A Mandatory Hook 

Another way to reconcile PCs with divergent backgrounds is to require they possess a certain hook you provide in advance. This is just like creative writing in school where the teacher supplies the subject ("What did you do last summer?") and the whole class writes on that topic.

You can do the same thing:

  • "You all have a military background."
  • "You were all victimized in some way by Rufus The Great, a wizard who is currently terrorizing the region with his armies."
  • "You have all committed a crime and are awaiting sentencing. Let me know your crime and if you are guilty."
  • "Each of you has the power to know the location and emotions of the others if you are within 1 mile of each other."
  • "You are all the sons of nobles in the city. This gives you certain privileges...and certain responsibilities."

Be sure to give players the hook before they start formulating character ideas, else they might get disappointed that their concept doesn't work any more or is invalidated.

Many players are also a fierce about creating independent, unique PCs, so make the common hook something non- restrictive that allows them to craft what they want, within reason.

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5. Deal With The Fluff Before The Crunch 

Crunch is gamer jargon for rules, fluff is jargon for description. Before you get into the crunch of rolling up characters, have a discussion first about character backgrounds, the nature of the game world, and some of the campaign concepts.

Before each player makes their ninja-pirate-astronaut (half- orc, half-dragon, of course), chat for awhile about the gaming region, invite player questions about the world and adventure, and discuss how and why the group is together sharing an adventure.

Some groups might only last ten minutes before their quivering hands clutch for dice and they start rolling up PCs. To many players, discussing game world history is their worst nightmare. Fair enough. In this case, get to the point quick: who are your characters, what do they have in common, and why are they about to risk their lives together? What's the adventure set-up?

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6. Hold A Conference Call 

Technology makes it within reach for many GMs to hold a conference before the game starts. Consider this a time-saving option if getting together in person is no trivial thing, or if no one wants to waste time in campaign set-up and your players want to start playing right away.

  • Voice chat over the Internet
  • Text chat over the Internet
  • Many phone companies allow free or cheap one-time phone conferencing

If you go this route, have an agenda ready so the call stays productive. If you have questions for your players and decisions for them to make, use an agenda to see it done. Send the agenda around by e-mail first to prime the group.

For example, you might have a quick player survey to fill out, and a short MSN or ICQ chat lets you get this done before the game so you're ready, and you get a text log from it for your records as a bonus.

Take good notes during the meeting. Consider recording the call if done by voice - letting everyone know you are doing so at the beginning - so you can fill out your notes afterward.

Once the meeting is over and your notes are complete, send a player-friendly version around. Make this version as brief as possible, with key decisions and details highlighted or called out. Busy players will skip long documentation, but it's important that everyone sticks to the agreed-upon game plan.

Invite feedback based on your notes, as well. People might have a change of preference once the call is done. Then notify people decisions have been locked down until the first session. You want any re-factoring to take place as soon as possible so you have as much time after lockdown to do your session planning.

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Castles & Crusades: Engineering Dungeons

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Castles & Crusades: Engineering Dungeons at RPG Shop

Readers' Tips Of The Week: 

Have some GM advice you'd like to share? E-mail it to - thanks!

1. Mapping Hamlet, Town, And City 

From: Bill Wire

  1. On a piece of paper, start with the sketch of a hamlet. Think about why it's there, and how the people make their living. The roads, if there even are any, will go around trees, hills, and large rocks. There'll probably be a village green or something, etc.
  2. Either keep using that paper, or a duplicate if you want to keep history, and grow the hamlet into a town. Make it bigger, but don't change a lot of the original portion. Think about events in history - has it ever been sacked? If so, destroy a few things.
  3. Now you've got a town, time to grow your map again into a small city. Put in some walls, destroy parts of the town to make way for public works like city hall, etc.

    Straighten some of the roads that wandered around things like trees and rocks. Leave the ones that wandered around hills. Destroy buildings as needed to do this. Occasionally, just leave the twisty way there and make a straight one too.

    Build more buildings, and more and straighter roads. Remember, people don't really like walking around the block to get to the other side, so leave spaces and back yards in your city at this stage.
  4. Time to crowd your city. Within the walls, start filling in empty spaces with buildings and more buildings. What used to be back yards and paths to "cut across" blocks become alleyways between new buildings only feet from each other.

    You should be thinking about the primary industries going on in the city, but there should be other industries moving in as well, so allow for them.

    As the city grows, so will its commerce. If it's coastal, add docks, warehouses, and "dive bars" along the waterfront. Rip down things as needed to make room for them. If that leaves a blind alley, so be it. ;)
  5. Now the city is too crowded. Build more city close to the walls and gates outside. Destroy some random spots in the city, build something new. Leave a few "ruins" in some of the more crowded sections of town. People want their space, and want protection, but they cannot have both.

    Inside the walls is still more desirable than outside. Tear down large swaths of "individual" buildings and construct row-homes instead. This will result in alley after alley that used to cut across the block instead ending at the back of a building.

    Wealthy merchants will likely take over a block here and there. Clear the block and put up a wall and nice house. They tend to congregate together for security to associate with their peers - keep them clustered.
  6. Time to grow some more. The city planners decide to build a new wall. New walls are expensive, so they're going to build it as small as they can get away with while still leaving a little room for expansion.

    Draw a new city wall. Breach the old one in lots of places as the stone will be scavenged for other construction projects. You may even turn the old wall into a road. What was previously poor land outside the walls along the main roads is now expensive land. The poor are shunted away from the main roads and build "shanty" town in between the main gates.

    Consider whether there is enough external threat to have the city build a fortress somewhere. If there is a large enough threat, a fortress might even exist prior to this point. The rich will move out into the larger spaces. So, convert some of their older, good places to live into multiple middle class buildings, and a few of the closest to the "rest of the city" into solid masses of buildings tacked onto the original main house.
  7. Just keep growing in this manner until you get to the city size you want. Keep in mind changes in government, the "revitalization projects", "public works" such as fountains and parks, and the acquisition of properties by the wealthy.

    Erase and overwrite as you go. Don't be shy. Bear in mind that old fortresses can be abandoned and new ones built elsewhere, but it's expensive. More likely, the old fortress will become a city guard barracks, prison, or other public building.
  8. Also, somewhere along this time, the city will realize it needs to do something about sanitation. The open channels in the streets in the "old city" might have been OK when the city was small, but out here, they're going to build sewers to do things right while they have the chance. They might even extend some of them through the old city if there's a port, river, or other good way to get things "flowing out of the city" off in that direction - or if there's a particularly wealthy merchant still over there.
  9. Keep reusing the same paper (or copies). The sketch will become more and more detailed. As it does, it will come to the point when it's time to put it into digital mapping software, such as Campaign Cartographer, just because it's easier to edit there than to keep erasing paper.

I like to think out the whole life-cycle in broad terms before I sit down in CC, so I know where the tangled mazes of alleyways are, where the planned streets are, where the "rich" live, and where things are not so pleasant. The real/current roads are actually just a result of how the city grew. Where did people need to travel between to do their business, and what was the current, shortest route at each stage of the cities life?

Mapping a large city is an incredible amount of work. But when you're done, you know why any given part of the city looks the way it does. In one city, Taris, I even went so far as to make a coordinate system and index of every business and place of note, listing the coordinates in the index, and having a cross-reference to the page number of the place description:

154.5x12 = Golden Eagle Inn pg:33 155x12 = Harls Blacksmithy pg:38

The place descriptions were listed alphabetically with noted coordinates on the map.

You can always try to go straight for the end-run. I find I'm much happier knowing why the city is laid out as it is, and that you wind up with more "real" mazes of alley and streets if you grew the city instead of just building it.

If you go for the end-run, start big and get smaller and smaller. Which sections of the city are more open? Which are more crowded? Draw mazes of streets, then fill in every nook and cranny with a building to create your alleys and dead- ends in the crowded areas of town. As you go, plan. how do the people on this block make their living? Where do they work? Where do they get their food? Where do they go on a date?

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2. Use Sound As A Narration Tool 

From: Andy

Watching the movie Zatoichi (2005) directed by Kitano Takeshi, an idea for sound effects came to me. Since Zatoichi is blind, there are various sequences during the movie wherein the sounds he hears come together like music. I thought it was an excellent narrational tool.

For some locations you could use the parts of a song as the sounds and personality of the area.

  • Rhythm suggests the pacing and stress level of the area - a slow waltz or a quick march?
  • Melody suggests the personality of the area - airy harp or melancholy shamisen? Perhaps the area has more to it than meets the eye? Maybe something is happening that demands all of the attention?
  • Solos can be used to suggest something subtle or something that needs attention ASAP.

"The hoes of the peasants fell heavy into the dark soil. In a shuffling pattern they beat out a steady chik-chak-chik- chak, as a bird sang a throaty tune".

Mixed with suiting background music this could have a cool effect.

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3. Create A Character Gallery And Name Tags 

From: Loz Newman

I run scenarios at gaming conventions, which means some constraints. Unknown players and rigid time-limits, for example.

To avoid excessive loss of gaming time, I use pre-created characters tailor-made for the scenario. (Bonus effect: the GM can insert multiples hooks and inter-connections between PC backgrounds, and set up potential rivalries, alliances, and personality-driven surprises).

To help the players (who often don't know many of the other people at the table) quickly latch onto who's playing whom, I create an A4 gallery of the PCs' images, with their names under each image.

Also, I print out this page, cut up the images, and put each of them into one of those rectangular (54mm x 90mm) clear plastic badge holders, so each player is physically labelled with the image and name of the PC they are playing.

The gallery (left lying on the gaming table) becomes an index to the group. This eliminates a lot of hindrances to the game atmosphere, such as, "What's your character's name again? What does he look like? What sort of armour is he wearing?"

Also, the gallery images can contain visual clues to the character's race, class, possessions, baseline facial expression (and thus personality), etc.

That's a lot of advantages for the cost of two printed pages and a few plastic badge holders.

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Johnn Four's GM Guide Books 

In addition to writing and publishing this e-zine, I have written several GM tips and advice books to inspire your games and to make GMing easier and fun:

Inns, Taverns, and Restaurants - new

How to design, map, and GM fresh encounters for RPG's most popular locales. Includes campaign and NPC advice as well, 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.

GM Mastery: 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.