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Roleplaying Tips Weekly E-Zine Issue #441

On-Call Players



This Week's Tips Summarized 

On-Call Players

Reduce Session Cancellations With An On-Call Player

Strolen's Feature Article: Four Maxims for World Building

Gamemaster Tips Summarized

  1. Call of Cthulhu Sanity Deck
  2. Use Excel to Make Maps
  3. Playing Monsters as Characters
  4. Treasure Siphons
  5. Adventure Idea: Lich's Special Keep

Johnn Four's GM Guide Books

4E Halls of the Mountain King

This new 3E/OGL adventure by the award-winning Open Design team is moving into the 4E design phase starting this week. And you can help shape the change, as we take a strong setting, characters, and story and completely revamp the mechanics to provide 4E monsters, dwarven rituals, and magical gear.

For just $29.95, you get a 124-page adventure plus a 48-page gazetteer, for your choice of either 3E or 4E. Review the details and sign up today!

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A Brief Word From Johnn 

Computer Crash

My computer gave up this week. It just threw its arms up in the air and said screw you, Johnn, I ain't gonna work here no more. Fortunately my hard drive was not part of the insurrection. Just today I was able to transfer my data onto another computer and I have all my email back, in addition to my other files.

I'll be slow in catching up on all my emails, but rest assured I've received them and will be replying in the next while.

This is a good reminder to back up all your stuff. Especially your gaming stuff. :) Also, have you thought about any online information you should backup? You never know when a service will call it quits without notice, leaving your data stuck on their disconnected servers.


With my old computer dead, I need to find new anti-virus protection. I'm currently running AVG on my laptop, which I'm using now as my main computational device. :) I'm not sure that free AVG is the best protection though, and I want to get this resolved quickly so my data is again secure. Maybe AVG is the best? Do you have any recommendations of what AV software I should use?

Magic Item Hooks Contest Ends Soon

This is the last week for the magic item hooks contest and your last chance to enter to win some great prizes. Entry deadline is Saturday, April 11.

The contest is all about plot hooks and stories for magic items. Winners are drawn at random, so don't worry about your writing skills.

To enter, email me [] a short hook, history, background, or story about a magic item.

There are 12 Prizes up for Grabs

E-mail me soon with your magic item hooks and stories for a chance to win these great prizes.

Have a game-full week!


Johnn Four,


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On-Call Players:  Reduce Session Cancellations With An On-Call Player 

By Ike from

Traditionally, you play tabletop RPGs in person with a group of your favourite people. Therein lies some of the hobby's greatest appeal, and also one of its most common stumbling blocks.

I am talking, of course, about synching up multiple, overtaxed schedules to play when that pesky real life keeps getting in the way.

But, there is a way to mitigate this problem - the on-call player. An on-call player is someone who can step into and back out of a game. This allows them to fill out a group that might otherwise have to cancel a session due to sudden interpretive dance classes, or other such difficulties.

Being an on-call player is great if joining a full campaign is too much for you to take on. You're called when an opening is available, and if you can make it, great! If not, no big deal - no one was depending on you to make it.

You'll get to play when your schedule allows. You probably know of a few different games going on around you. Why not ask the DMs or players if they want the benefits of being able to call you in on short notice?

On-call players are great for your game, allowing you to play more often and to pit your players against greater challenges. Best of all, working an on-call player into your game is easy. Here are a few ideas that won't break the verisimilitude of your game world.

  • The on-call PC is an outsider that a spellcaster can summon.
  • The on-call PC is a manifestation of another player's will - a power the PCs can hardly understand.
  • The on-call PC is sent magically by another player's god to safeguard their mission.
  • The on-call PC is tied by a curse to a magical artifact in the PC's possessions that summons him to them.

Whether you become one, or invite one into your game (or both), the on-call player results in gaming more often while adding a layer to the fun, and provides the DM with another tool to create adventure hooks.

* * *

Comments from Johnn

Excellent tips, Ike. Thanks! My group has used the idea of on-call players successfully in the past. Here's how we did it last time:

  1. What Constitutes a Quorum?

    First, we had a group discussion and determined the minimum number of players required to keep a game session alive. With our group of six, we decided we needed four players to attend, else we'd cancel the game session.
  2. Keep Character Sheet Copies Up to Date

    Then we discussed the fate of PCs for absentee players. We opted to run the characters of players who weren't present as a group, with GM veto over any actions that strayed too far out of character.

    My players are respectful of each other, so I used the GM veto more to protect PC deaths than to stop abuse of unmanned characters. I figure that attending players are mostly focused on their own PCs, so the characters of absentee players don't benefit from dedicated care and attention.

    As a group we also ruled that PCs of absent players would join the action but wouldn't be killed unless that was the only choice or the way the dice rolled. This might seem logical, but by having everyone agree to this it set proper expectations as the campaign played out. No one could be upset if their PC died while away because of the opt-in.

    With this figured out, then we also made it a requirement for players to update the GM with character revisions. We use a campaign wiki so players can post their characters between sessions. For players who preferred paper-only records, I was also ok with photocopies or scans.
  3. Shopping For Players

    Next, we discussed the protocol for finding and accepting new on-call players into the group. We agreed that new players would have a probation period of three sessions, and we built a queue so friends could be invited in a certain order.

    Although all these discussions, rules, and protocols seem a bit silly for just playing a game every two weeks, we've discovered that our game time is all equally important to us. We greatly enjoy the atmosphere and style of play that has evolved over time with our Thursday games. We don't want to mess this up, and as with any team, it's important to communicate expectations and procedures.

    For example, in another campaign with a different group, two players each invited a friend over for the same session. I prefer to GM five players. With the two unannounced guests we had seven, plus no notice that new PCs would need to be integrated into game play. I had assumed we would all ask each other first before inviting guests (and whether the campaign was suitable for drop-in play) but we didn't have that conversation so I couldn't get upset with anyone.

    Another scenario, this time with my current group, was multiple players having friends who might be interested in filling a new group vacancy. How to decide which friend gets invited? It's good to hash these situations out before they arise.
  4. On-Call Player Ground Rules

    Finally, I had a private chat with the on-call player. We discussed the campaign, schedules, house rules, and ground rules. With group approval, I could offer the player two options:
    1. Play the character of any absent player
    2. Play their own character, but that character must be easy to transition in and out, and easy for the group to run should it be required
  5. The Irony Was It Became Full-Time

    A big surprise was that our on-call player got more game time than nearly everyone else. Thinking about it though, I should have guessed this would happen. It ended up being great, but a tad bit ironic.

    With my group at that time there was at least two players every session who couldn't make any particular game. No player was chronically absent. It was just an ongoing series of one-time real life collisions for all of us.

    So, the on-call had a vacant seat available almost every game session. This had the effect of creating a seventh full-time PC with the party, as the on-call chose to play his own PC. While ironic, beware if this is a possibility for your group. Do you want to increase the party permanently by one PC? If so, no problem. If not, plan your on-call policy accordingly.

As Ike mentioned, on-call players can result in fewer missed game sessions. This was definitely true with that campaign where we had a reliable on-call. Often three players had to miss sessions, putting us one short of a quorum. The on-call would be able to make it though, giving us the four bodies we needed to call it an official game session. This was awesome and the biggest benefit having an on-call player gave us.

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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.

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Strolen's Feature Article: Four Maxims for World Building 

by B9anders, with permission from Strolen's Citadel

I thought I'd share here a short list of four maxims that I use for good fantasy world building to flesh it out in a believable way that makes a setting come to life as a distinct world.

  1. Internal Consistency, not Realism, is the benchmark of a believable fantasy world.

    You don't need to make your world realistic to make it believable. What is key is the elements in your world are internally consistent. Whenever you add an element to your campaign, be at a race, city, country or person, always ask yourself the following questions:
    • Where did it come from?
    • How does it affect the elements around it?
    • How do the elements around it affect it?
    Also take time once in a while to consider how the various layers of your world interact. If ogres are accepted members of society, this is probably going to affect hard labour. And what makes a better city guard than a band of ogres?

    In my world, for example, there are no half-elves or half- orcs. This affects how closely elves and humans interact, and segregates them more as races.

    You don't need to write these things down, but you do need to have an idea of this as you go along. As you add more elements to your world, it becomes a helpful tool for you as it becomes much easier to place new elements in suitable places where you know it makes sense.

    The real world is obviously a great source of inspiration for this as it is a model example of a world that is internally consistent, but you need to consider how things such as gods, magic, etc. affect natural and sociological laws.

    In a world that really is created by gods, it might even make sense to disregard natural sciences as valid. A quick real world example is fundamentalists who disagree with theories like evolution because it doesn't mesh with their beliefs.
  2. Focus on what can be known.

    Unless you are in it for time wasting, don't bother wasting time on details no one is ever going to know about. It doesn't matter where your main continent lies in relation to the south pole unless global exploration features in your world.

    Contrary to how it might initially appear, this isn't an encouragement to be light in detail. But make sure that you focus your level of detail on aspects of the world that players come into contact with. If you combine this with paying attention to internal consistency and illuminating how these details connect with other world elements, your players will connect with your world. The world comes alive as players interact with living systems instead of random elements.

    Focusing on what can be known is focusing on demonstrating your world to your players. It is not merely a geographical and cultural backdrop for adventure, but a setting that permeates their actions and lives at every step in a meaningful and coherent way. This doesn't require the level of detail of Tolkien's Middle Earth.
  3. As made above, so seen below.

    This is just an extension of the two maxims above, but one worth mentioning on its own. When you devote time to thinking about the more general elements of your world, cosmology, how magic works, how nature works, and so on, don't just take time to conceive how this connects with the world on a lesser scale. Make sure to create elements that actively demonstrate these things.

    If magic works because of the power of words, make this an integral part of the culture. Nicknames are common because one's true name is not lightly revealed and knowledge literally becomes power.

    If the weather and terrain are governed by spirits (or are spirits), how does this affect settlement and agriculture? Perhaps an empire has grown rich because it subdued its spirits to make the land bountiful. Maybe dwarves communicate with the mountains to provide them riches through secret runes and rituals known only to them.

    This makes it easy to create unique elements that permeate every facet of your world and distinguish it from other worlds in the experience of your players.
  4. Be willing to disregard consistency in favour of a good idea.

    This might seem like an odd maxim, but it is often far easier to throw a good idea into your world and then adjust its internal consistency to make it work than it is to come up with a good idea that will fit into the consistency you've conceived of your world so far.

    This is something to pay attention to mostly in the preliminary process of creation. Once you open the world up to others, this obviously only works with elements known only to you.

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Gamemaster Tips 

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

1. Call of Cthulhu Sanity Deck 

From: Kate Manchester

I actually _finally_ got to play CoC at the Con this year. The GM had a small room to himself, so he had a sound system playing various tunes to impart the theme of the story line.

One tweak to the system was sanity. Instead of the regular points system, you used a sanity deck that can be found here:

I chose Murder of Crows, and got lucky enough that I didn't flip too many over early on.

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2. Use Excel to Make Maps 

From: Shammancer

Hello Johnn,

I find that a good map maker is the Microsoft product Excel 2007. You can make your cells into a box shape and then use different border colours as different walls, and different fill-in colours as traps, monsters, and such. I've found it very useful for planning.

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3. Playing Monsters as Characters 

From: Walter Croft

re: Roleplaying Tips Issue #439

In AD&D2e I had the pleasure to play in a short campaign set in the Al-Qadim setting, and our party was a motley crew. The party was populated by an half-ogre Sha'ir (wizard) and my pixie Saluk (rogue), in addition to the standard elves, dwarves, halflings. We only had one human (mystic) priest in the entire party.

Resources that assisted us were the Complete Book of Humanoids (an AD&D2e book) and "The Ecology of..." articles from old Dragon magazines. Runequest supplements are also good since Runequest (or Heroquest, or Hero Wars) essentially doesn't think of a segregation of player character societies and monsters. Every species/race is important to the overall ecology of the world. And this was the aspect of Al-Qadim that attracted us to the setting.

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4. Treasure Siphons 

From: Fred Ramsey

re: Roleplaying Tips Issue #435


Why not do a gold for experience points swap for any treasure PCs give away or donate? Either 1 for 1, and split the experience between party members, or some other ratio for individual donations. You'd have to put a cap on it, or people would suddenly turn into Gandhi.

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5. Adventure Idea: Lich's Special Keep 

From: Mike Evans

First, I want to say I really enjoy your e-zine. Thank you and all who work on this, because this is a great source of information and community, and I really enjoy plodding through it!

I came up with a DnD session I just wanted to share. The group hears about packs of undead attacking settlements in a certain area. When the group investigates they will figure out all the bands of undead can be tracked to a certain location. Following the tracks, the PCs may run into straggling undead, dead bodies rising up as they smell the characters, or tough mobs.

Eventually, the group comes upon the stereotypical creepy keep on a hill, thunder clouds overhead, cold drizzly rain falling on them, lightning in the background. I plan to build the suspense and creepy vibe as they are approaching the keep. The doors are big and neo-gothic, and as the PCs pull open the doors, the smell of death reaches their nostrils and sickens them.

Inside the keep is a huge entrance hall filled with lesser undead. All the undead look dead and are chained to the wall or lying in heaps on the floor. Again, I will be building up the eerie vibe of the place.

As the PCs enter they will hear footsteps approaching and a rough, hacking cough. Coming down a stairway at the opposite end of the chamber will be a lich. He is dressed in fine robes. He greats them with a smile and hurriedly walks up to them, slicks back his few remaining wisps of hair, and starts to talk animatedly at them.

As he talks, his jaw unhinges and hangs down (think Army of Darkness). He mumbles an attempted sorry with his jaw off, reattaches it and begins talking again. I'm giving this lich a salesman type personality. He is excited that people are here and is asking if they are here to see his wares, pointing to the undead. He casually waves his hand and all the undead in the chamber animate and rise up.

The adventure, depending on your group, could go a number of directions at this point. My group will probably want to bludgeon all the undead into itty bitty pieces. The premise of the attacks, though, can be found out through roleplaying: the lich was sending small bands out to attack fleshies so people could see his wares in action and judge what kind of product they want. He pitches the lower level stuff and says he has even better things higher up in the keep.

Once my group decides it's time to attack this lich, he commands his legion of undead in the entrance hall to attack the group. I plan on using a mass combat formula for the different undead. For me, I will have 5-8 groups of 10 with communal HP, Attack, AC, and damage. The damage these undead will do will lessen as their HP falls, signifying a decrease in the number of undead in that group.

[Comment from Johnn: here is a series of excellent articles from Mike Bourke that also outline great, large scale combat solutions. ]

As the players battle through this horde of cannon fodder, the lich will make his way back up the stairs cursing and screaming. Here I will construct a type of dungeon dive filled with undead and traps to make it fun and hard for the PCs to get to the top of the keep.

When they finally arrive at the top, they see the lich petting a large flesh golem that has 6 chains, 3 on each side of its torso, linking to the walls of the room. The lich is spouting claims of this being his finest creation, blah blah blah. He then retreats behind the creature and waits for the characters to make their move.

When the group engages the flesh golem the lich will also attack. After the golem has lost X amount of its HP, one of the chains snaps and the room shakes and dust falls from the ceiling. The lich lets out a cackle. When the next chain snaps after another X HP is lost, the room shakes more violently, the windows shatter, and furniture topples.

After the second chain breaks the lich laughs again and then teleports away, leaving the PCs with his creation. The premise here is, with every chain snapped, the keep destabilizes. If all the chains snap, the keep will crumble apart and the players are going to have to run to get out, dodging falling stones, undead, crumbling floors, and traps.

The escaped lich now provides a recurring villain I can use every so often. Did his keep survive? Did the players ruin his whole stock of undead? Does he have to start over?

He might dog the characters, following them as they travel from village to village. When the PCs come to a village, what if people started dropping dead, only a couple at a time? As word travels, the PCs could find they aren't welcome anymore. They could find priests, clerics, and paladins after them to purify them.

Anyways, this was just an idea that popped in my head while I was brushing my teeth and wanted to share.

Any feedback is appreciated.

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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.

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