Roleplaying Tips Weekly E-Zine Issue #401
Keep The Peace Part 1
Tips to bring the party back together
and keep it that way
This Week's Tips Summarized
Keep The Peace Part 1: Tips to bring the party back together and keep it that way
- Player Backgrounds Concerning Gaming Experience
- Player Backgrounds Concerning Genre Experience
- Player Personalities and Party Roles
- Player Experience and Party Dynamics
Readers' Tips Summarized
- Photograph Your Dungeon Tiles Layout
- A Great Court Etiquette Resource
- NPC Descriptions Trick
Johnn Four's GM Guide Books
The How-To of Fantasy Adventure
Open Design is a D&D design community that collaborates with
designers like Jeff Grubb, Wolfgang Baur, Zeb Cook, and
Nicolas Logue to create adventures with a difference; the
patrons who support the work also get to see how it is
written and suggest changes and additions along the way.
It's powerful, collaborative design, and you can watch it
happen from outline to draft to playtest.
In addition, the designers offer their thoughts in design
essays and critiques, like those found in the Kobold Guide
to Game Design. It's a conversation with professional game
designers that you literally can't get anywhere else.
Both 3E and 4E options are available, and the space in these
limited edition projects is, well, limited. Join today, and
choose your favorite Open Design!
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A Brief Word From Johnn
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Try A New Game System
There is a new section in this week's issue called What's
Your Favourite RPG? I have four game systems ready to detail
so far, and am looking for more submissions.
Do you have a favourite RPG system people should know about?
If so, please send me an e-mail with a description of the
game and why you like it so much.
It would be great to expose us all to new games, ideas, and
opportunities to have fun in new ways.
Have a game-full week.
Return to Contents
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Return to Contents
Keep The Peace Part 1:
Tips to bring the party back together and keep it that way
By Joel Fox
Characters in the same party often fight each other; it's
sad but true. They disagree on tactics, faith, politics, and
an infinite number of other things. The task of keeping them
together usually falls onto the lap of the GM, who struggles
to keep the party from tearing each others' throats out.
Sometimes I wonder if these efforts are just treating the
symptoms of a more complicated problem: it's not the
characters that are struggling, it's the players who
Characters are extensions of the personalities, backgrounds,
and attitudes of the players who control them. Therefore,
rather than trying to just get through the adventure without
another brawl between party members, a better strategy would
be to bring the players together, and by extension, the
characters they control.
Not only must a prudent GM consider the ethics and
personalities of the players, but also their backgrounds and
experience with the various strata of your campaign setting.
Consider the following ten point strategy for your next
gaming session. While it's true many of these tactics would
be more effective when used at the beginning of a campaign,
you can also retroactively apply them through open
communication with your players anytime.
It might seem these ideas would be useful only when GMing a
new group, but they can also be used to gain a new
perspective in any group, regardless of how many sessions
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1. Player Backgrounds Concerning Gaming Experience
Some groups are composed entirely of seasoned gamers: every
member has played a wide range of pen-and-paper games,
computer RPGs, console games, MMOs, and so forth.
This sort of group is nice in that it allows you to assume a
number of attitudes towards GMing and the world in general:
ideas concerning a gold-based economy, the Heroes' Journey,
NPC attitudes, etc.
But then again, even though most RPGs share many common
elements, they still vary greatly on the specifics. It is
less likely all members of your group have all played the
same games, and each game adds something of itself to the
expectations of the player in your group.
- The Final Fantasy series (excluding the first couple
games) have a well-defined party infrastructure in terms of
party roles. There is always a strong character, a wise one,
a foolish one, etc.
Also included in the Final Fantasy construct is the idea
that every party member has some sort of magic or special
technique; even the brutish grappler from FF6 had blitzes
comparable to magic.
- Dungeons and Dragons establishes a different sort of
dynamic. Instead of one person controlling the actions of
multiple individuals, each person controls one specialized
individual (more or less).
Instead of working out strategies individually and
controlling the separate elements of a tactical maneuver as
one controls their fingers, the player is instead just a
A player more familiar with console and computer RPGs might
feel disempowered and one-dimensional in a setting where
teamwork amongst individuals is more important.
- Games like Bahamut Dragoon or even Pokémon, while still
definably RPGs, are different from the two previous
examples. While the player's attributes are important to
their survival in the world, equally as important are the
attributes of their minions.
A player familiar with these games might view the rest of
the characters as his underlings and assume a support role
in the party, applying buffs and healing; or he might boss
everyone around and chastise his fellow characters for not
obeying his commands.
- More general effects can be derived from the medium of the
RPG: console RPGs differ in length from computer RPGs, pen-
and-paper games seldom have pre-conceived notions of ending
outside loss of interest or falling out, and so forth.
Some of your players might have no RPG gaming experience
whatsoever. Players like these might be starting out with
RPGs, having only played other sorts of games in the past;
or maybe they've never had an active interest in any games
In this case, often much of the information that veteran
gamers assume everyone possesses is lost on the novice
players, creating a point of tension.
In this sort of situation, or even if none of your players
have ever played an RPG before, information concerning their
experience with the genre most closely related to your
gaming environment (pseudo-medieval, sci-fi, etc.) can help
fill in the gaps (see next section).
As you can see, gaming background can have a considerable
effect on player, and therefore character, attitudes and
positions in the game world. It is important to consider
these backgrounds when designing the campaign setting,
planning adventures, inventing encounters, and so forth.
If your knowledge does not include this information, it
would be wise to simply ask your players what sorts of games
they've played in the past. Not only will this help you plan
based on their assumptions (or lack thereof), but it also
helps create points of reference in the future.
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2. Player Backgrounds Concerning Genre Experience
Just as important as experience with different sorts of RPGs
is the experience your players have concerning the genre of
your current game. Books, movies, short stories, TV shows,
comic books, and other media your players have been exposed
to add more assumptions to their RPG mindset.
One key point of difference between RPG background and other
media background is the removal of interactivity, the
primary focus in RPGs. Try to find out what sorts of media
your players are interested in, as they can have strong
effects on their characters.
Books afford some interactivity by placing the reader in the
protagonist's role. Books generally have longer scope than
movies and are more detailed. They could be considered less
evocative, though, in that they rely heavily on the reader's
sense of imagination.
Players who read a lot of books in your game's genre will be
more experienced with the various fantastic occurrences that
less savvy readers will be surprised by.
Specific books also carry information that skews the
perceptions of the players. In Tolkien's books, for example,
magic takes a much smaller place in comparison to fighting
technique and various lores. More combats in the Lord of the
Rings trilogy are large-scale battles, as opposed to the
party vs. monster skirmishes prevalent in The Hobbit.
Racial tension in Tolkien's books sends religious tension to
the background. Dragonlance places a greater emphasis on
clerics, The Deathgate Cycle favors strong magic, and so
Movies usually contain a less complex plot than books, and
either grant total closure or obviously set themselves up
for sequels. Players who've seen movies in your game's genre
tend to be more influenced by the movies themselves than by
general movie-related data.
The medium of the movie adds little to the expectations of
the players other than its comparatively rapid pace. This
might make players who watch a lot of movies more interested
in fast-paced games, calling into need house rules that
speed up play.
Movies outside your genre that players favor can be useful
in establishing tone and theme. Players who prefer horror
movies, for example, might be more comfortable in vampire's
mansions and haunted mausoleums than players familiar with
romantic comedies, who might instead prefer town-based
TV shows vary, but contain some of the attributes of both
movies and books. TV shows can go on for as long as books,
but still have the constructed imagery and cinematography of
This makes a TV show background useful for determining
player outlooks. TV shows are efficient at genre exposition,
with the familiarity gained from multiple plots and imagery.
Players who've seen many TV shows related to your genre will
probably better grasp the containers of encounter,
adventure, and campaign better, but they might also be
expecting episodic action when you're not planning it.
Another problem is that, while there are a wealth of TV
shows about modern settings and sci-fi, there are scant few
relating to fantasy settings. Though there are several anime
series that are fantasy-related (Slayers, One Piece, Record
of Lodoss War), the chances of your players having seen
these shows are probably low.
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3. Player Personalities and Party Roles
When you bring together a group of people to play a pen-and-
paper game, most of them are already going to have a
preconceived notion of what sort of character they want to
play, even if they don't know the specifics of the games
The easiest way to recognize this is to try to conjure up
your own personal image of what an 'adventurer' is. Truly,
this construct of yours would differ from that of any of
your players, or from anyone you talk to on the street.
However, the problem with this personal construct is
sometimes the character the player wants to play isn't
congruous with the player's personality and the party's
For example, say a player has this idea of being a cleric.
Traditionally, a cleric is the party support caster, healer,
and defensive combatant. But, because the player is
aggressive and independent, the cleric instead only buffs
himself, ignores his allies, and charges into battle ahead
of the fighter and barbarian.
Obviously, this presents a serious problem if the rest of
the group is counting on the cleric to fill his party role.
Eventually, the rest of the group recognizes the cleric
isn't doing his "job" in the party, and they go out and buy
healing potions, buff items, etc.
Since the rest of the party has to focus a portion of their
time and resources doing the job of the cleric, they're less
efficient at doing their own jobs. And when more than one
party member causes this problem, the whole party is doing
the work of the rest of the party. Such will be not only
their downfall, but a major source of strife.
There are two ways to look at this problem. The first is the
player really shouldn't be playing a cleric, because the
cleric archetype doesn't mesh with his personality and
strategies as a player.
People who haven't played any/many RPGs before can have a
hard time telling what sort of character they should be
playing, but it should be easy for someone familiar with the
game to figure it out.
People good at math and science often make good spellcasters
by virtue of their plethora of theorems and functions, much
like a wizard's book of spells.
Religious people don't necessarily make good clerics, but
often strongly partisan individuals do by virtue of their
well-defined beliefs and stances on various issues.
People with many hobbies or skilled tradesmen sometimes make
good rogues and bards, as the many skills and abilities of
those classes reflect their toolbox of techniques.
For players who have played before and are simply trying
new classes, communication between party members and "party
planning" can help solve this problem.
Lack of party planning is the other way to view the problem.
In the previous example, the party's expectations of what a
cleric should do are too well developed: they hear the word
'cleric,' they see a guy in white robes with a censer and a
This problem is related to the idea of the adventurer
construct. Often, other players have a good idea as to what
a cleric 'should' be, but the player playing the cleric
hasn't encountered clerics in their fantasy background.
Party planning can help solve this problem. By talking about
what directions players are going to take with their
characters before the campaign begins (or earlier in the
campaign, while there's still time to change), players can
plan their characters accordingly so as to create a strong
synergy between party members.
Since a cohesive party consisting of a fighter, a rogue, a
cleric, and a wizard is more powerful than those four
characters acting independently towards the same goal, party
planning is an important consideration.
Since this never works out perfectly, players who end up
playing the sorts of characters they don't enjoy should be
given allowances so as to change their characters, or to
make new ones entirely.
This gratuity should especially be afforded to newer
players, who haven't encountered all of the possibilities
available to them in terms of what kinds of characters they
Sure, it's one thing to try and explain the various party
roles and class choices, but playing them is entirely
different. Just try to keep an open mind when noticing
problems of this sort.
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4. Player Experience and Party Dynamics
The problem of some party members having strong notions of
what a cleric should be, as discussed in the previous
section, is only a small part of a larger problem.
Even if everyone in your group started playing your pen-and-
paper game around the same time, everyone has a totally
different bank of experience with other role-playing media,
and therefore some players are going to have more experience
than others in certain areas.
Occasionally, there will be a point of contention between
two characters, not because of any in-game strife, but
because one player has encountered the present problem
before and the other player hasn't.
The first player has strong feelings as to what the
resolution of the problem is, and the second player has come
to his own conclusions as to the answer.
The players argue about what to do about the problem: first
player will argue deductively (drawing upon past experience
and applying it to the current situation), while the second
player argues inductively (using basic logical processes and
the information at hand).
In truth, both players have strong arguments, which leads to
bitter quarrels and harsh words. It also leads to one player
feeling insulted or unappreciated when the other player's
advice is heeded over theirs.
This problem can be tricky to work with. Both players "know"
they are right, and that is the problem: the players know,
not the characters.
A problem often encountered by people playing roles is they
cannot separate themselves from their characters. Players
utilize meta-game thinking to supply personal knowledge to
The first player does this more directly than the second:
he's encountered the problem before with a different
character, or he's read the Monster Manual more thoroughly,
or he saw the same spell in a movie.
The second player does this more indirectly: usually he is
utilizing a cognitive process outside the scope of the
character's attributes. Neither player is wrong, but both
characters are receiving wrongful aid from their players.
Solutions to this problem are sometimes as simple as
building characters around players. For players that do have
a lot of experience with the game, and have encountered many
fantasy elements in the past, making their character
experienced or knowledgeable seems like an easy solution.
Maybe they're a combat veteran, or an aged loremaster, or a
world-weary rogue. Players without a lot of experience can
have characters who are "wet behind the ears" and lacking in
Rogues who have always relied on luck, wizards who failed
their academy courses, and fighters who drunkenly stumble
through battle are all assumable roles in this category.
If players with experience are struggling with the players
without it, creating a mentor/mentee or master/apprentice
relationship can ease some of the tension. The player with
years of RPG experience can be the master tracker, and the
new player can be his cohort.
Though this may seem a problematic mechanic in terms of
empowering one player and demeaning another, eventually the
apprentice will learn the game well enough to surpass the
For players that try to use knowledge outside the scope of
their characters, responses should be tailored to the
player. If the player is making an honest mistake in using
knowledge their character wouldn't have, allow them to
retroactively buy ranks in the appropriate knowledge
skill in exchange for other skills they do have.
If the player does this repeatedly, however, it might be
wise to reprimand them so as to curb future abuse. If your
players are of the second sort, such as those with a
character possessing an Intelligence score of 8 but who act
like an 18, the same method can be applied; allow them to
switch stats around so as to the accommodate their cogency.
* * *
Stay tuned next week for Part 2:
- Player Politics and Campaign Goals
- Encounter Mimesis
- Notions Concerning Equipment
- Optional Rules
- Empirical Adjustment
- Last Resorts
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Johnn Recommends GM Aid: Knitting Row Counter
Row counters allow double-digit tracking of combat rounds,
temporary effects, hit points, and other numbers you should
try to record instead of let whirl around in your brain
during games. They're cheap, easy to use, and work great.
In addition, they're hollow, so you can put several on a
knitting needle or thin piece of doweling, or mount them some
other way, for a multi-tracker tool.
Here are pics I took this morning of the counter I use
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What's Your Favourite RPG?
From: Joel Weight
About a month ago I posted a question on the GMMastery list
about a role playing system called Universalis.
From the responses, there wasn't much experience with the
system, so I bought the book and was finally able to run a
game. Here are my thoughts on the system.
The Universalis system isn't for everyone. Of the core group
of four players that I used to GM, there was only one I
thought would enjoy Universalis.
If you are a min-maxer or rules-lawyer, Universalis might
not be for you.
If you are shy or afraid to get into in-character dialog,
Universalis might not be for you.
If you are not creative in the least and expect your GM to
railroad you, Universalis might not be for you.
If you have to get your way all the time, Universalis might
not be for you.
If you are afraid of player-player conflict, or are unable
to negotiate, Universalis might not be for you.
On the other hand, if you like story driven gaming, and
couldn't care less about the "combat system" in your game,
then you will probably enjoy it. You will need friends that
feel the same.
The gist of the system is you have a number of points
(tracked with coins) you can spend to influence the story.
When you run out of points you can't do much else to the
story. Coins are gained at the end of each scene, but the
best way to gain coins is to introduce conflict into the
The game was not difficult to learn. The entire rule book is
a 136 page paperback. Basically, anything that you consider
to be of importance in the story costs you a coin.
This could include major or minor characters, character
attributes, objects, locations, and actions.
We had one player pay a coin to give a character a streak of
purple in her hair. The rest of us argued it was just
descriptive text and not really relevant to the story at
all, so he could have it for free if he wanted, but he said
he has plans for that streak in the future so he paid the
coin and added it as an attribute of the character.
Anything you pay for, you can draw on in future
complications. Anything you don't pay for is just
descriptive text to give the story color. The conflict
resolution aspect is the only part you should read carefully
in the rules; but once you get it, it's simple and makes a
lot of sense.
One major deviation from your classic role playing game is
that nobody has sole control of any element of the story,
including characters. At any given moment another player may
take control of the character you just spent eight coins
creating and cause them to do something else.
The traits you purchased with your coins still define the
character, and they can't act against those traits without
justification. From there, you just play each scene (like a
chapter in a book) until you reach a good breaking point,
then close that scene and start the next.
It is very much a collaborative storytelling experience,
and not so much a "role playing" game, although at times you
will take on the role of various characters within the game.
One aspect of the game I particularly liked was the lack of
game preparation. Nobody is required to go through hours of
bookwork, carefully crafting a castle encounter that the
players decide to skip, and then have to create a dungeon by
the seat of their pants during the session.
The only prep work on my part was reading the rules,
cleaning the front room, and digging out the loose coin bin
and the bucket of 10-sided dice. I read the rules, then gave
the book to another attendee a week before we played.
I wanted to have two people familiar with the rules for the
first attempt, and that worked out well. We only referenced
the book twice during our four hour session.
The three of us had a great time playing. Unfortunately, we
can only get together once a month, but given the way you
track the scenes and the characters, it shouldn't be hard to
get right back into the action.
One of the best parts is there is no prep for the next game,
no GM, no railroading. Anything goes, and your story can
take very interesting twists. That said, I was cautious with
who I invited to the first game, because I can see certain
personality types making the game very difficult to run.
One of the main reasons I wanted to try Universalis was to
see if I could get it going in an online venue so I could
still play with all my friends without dragging everyone
away from their families for hours at a time on a Friday
night or Saturday afternoon.
With only one session under my belt I'm not sure it is going
to fill that need. After a couple more sessions, we might
see how it works in an online setting, but I would probably
write up a web app to track things rather than try to do it
in just a wiki, forum, or email format.
My personal take? Great game. One source book and you can
make infinite worlds. Time and money well spent.
* * *
Thanks for the info, Joel!
GMs: do you have a favourite game system you'd like to
introduce to others? I'm looking for brief overviews on a
wide variety of systems, especially ones readers might not
stumble upon at their local game store.
Write up a brief description like the one above, including
the main features of the game, what sort of players it's
likely to appeal to, and anything outstanding or unique
about the system. As well as highlighting good points,
mention any major features that might turn people away from
Readers' Tips Of The Week:
Have some GM advice you'd like to share? E-mail it to firstname.lastname@example.org - thanks!
1. Photograph Your Dungeon Tiles Layout
From: Dave Chalker
Editor in Chief, www.critical-hits.com
I love WotC's Dungeon Tiles. However, I kept running into
the problem of how to lay out the tiles when making a
dungeon during my planning. The online generator they
provide is nice, but I prefer to actually play with the real
tiles and rearrange them to taste.
Plus, I wanted to have a way to place the monsters and traps
in each room in the diagram. For a while, I was setting up
the dungeon, copying it all down in a notebook, then packing
it back up.
Finally, I hit upon inspiration. I laid out the tiles where
I wanted them, placed the minis for the monsters in the room
they'd be on, and arranged any other features I wanted.
Then, I took a digital picture of the whole thing.
I loaded the picture back onto my computer, and printed it
out sized to a regular sheet of paper. Voila. I had my
Then, I placed all the tiles and monsters in a box, so I
knew I'd have everything I needed right there, and wouldn't
be fishing them out during play from among extraneous minis
I also scribbled notes in each room for features that would
be less obvious, like what was a secret door, where there
was hidden treasure, which way the doors swing out, etc. I'm
definitely going to use this method for every dungeon I
design from now on.
My example is here.
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2. A Great Court Etiquette Resource
For those GMs who want to add a degree of realism to their
court etiquette, I'd highly recommend the definitive source
on the matter, Baldassare Castiglione's "Il Cortegiano,"
usually translated as "The Book of the Courtier." Written at
the beginning of the 1500s, this was literally the textbook
that would-be courtiers studied to learn how to behave in
The Book of the Courtier (Amazon.com)
And for those with excessive interest in the matter, "The
Fortunes of the Courtier" by Peter Burke is a modern
historical look at how "Il Cortegiano" was used, when it was
The Fortunes of the Courtier: The European Reception of Castiglione's Cortegian (Amazon.com)
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3. NPC Descriptions Trick
It can be difficult providing varied descriptions for NPCs,
especially with a large cast. Something I learned in an old
creative writing class is to go sit in a public area for a
few minutes and write down the physical appearances of those
who happen to pass you by.
Do this while eating your lunch or waiting in line and
you'll have a small library of realistic and varied NPC
descriptions just waiting to be added into your game.
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Johnn Four's GM Guide Books
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Critically acclaimed and multiple award-winning guide to
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