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Roleplaying Tips Weekly E-Zine Issue #450

Use Logic Puzzles to Develop Plots and Stories



This Week's Tips Summarized 

Use Logic Puzzles to Develop Plots and Stories

Use Logic Puzzles to Develop Plots and Stories

Gamemaster Tips Summarized

  1. Knick Knack Houses Make Great Terrain
  2. Online Text To Voice Tool
  3. Quick NPC Naming Trick
  4. Jeremiah TV Show Good For Post-Apocalyptic
  5. Use DropBox to Backup Your Campaign Files


Johnn Four's GM Guide Books

A Brief Word From Johnn 

450 Issues, 10 Years

Another milestone passes for Roleplaying Tips with issue 450! The ezine started in 1999, also making this the newsletter's 10th anniversary year.

I'm not one for big celebrations, so I'll just say thanks so much to all of you who read the ezine. I hope you find useful tid bits and ideas in each issue to help improve your GMing and to have more fun at every game. Also, a big thanks to everyone who sends in feedback, tips, and guest articles. Game masters around the world thank you too!

Huge backslapping and high fives go to Roleplaying Tips Editor Hannah and to web wizard Steve for their awesome work to help keep the ezine running. Your assistance has carried the ezine through some crazy times, so GMs everywhere owe you big time thanks too. :)

Time For Reflection

The 450th issue has been looming large for me for awhile now. It's got me thinking about the ezine and how it serves game masters and the hobby. While I love to hear myself talk, and creating the ezine is a lot of fun, I ask myself whether it's helping game masters like it once did. Perhaps some changes are in order?

  • Return to Core Topics?

    A big concern for me these days is whether all the GMing tips have already been covered over the past decade, and if the information in each ezine edition is still helping.

    I also wonder if many of the articles of late have been covering fringe topics, and whether it's time to return to core game mastering subjects and revisiting those. I know I'd certainly enjoy writing about those topics again, even if the tips were mentioned already years ago. But, would you find that repetitive?

    Readers' tips over the last few years have lost their vitality. I think this is due, in part, to GMs having so many other great venues available to share their knowledge and ideas: blogs, forums, social networks.

    In addition, I think the non-core topics covered in the ezine might also be uninspiring or tricky to write in about, with additional tips, thoughts, and ideas.

    As it is, I have only a couple of Readers Tips left in the hopper right now. I'm considering phasing out the Reader Tips section of the ezine, and just posting them in batches when enough have accumulated.
  • More GM Advice, Less D&D?

    I agree with recent reader feedback that there is more and more D&D specific content creeping into the ezine. Fantasy gaming and Dungeons and Dragons make up the majority of RPG activity out there, so it makes sense that submissions are centred around that.

    This has always been true though, and the ezine did a great job in the past of being more system neutral. I think this is also a symptom of wandering away from topics and tips that are universal to all game masters, regardless of genre and system played.
  • Make it Shorter?

    The ezine has been getting longer. I like many of the new additions, but we are all faced with limited time. Longer issues take more time to put together, edit, and publish. They also take more time for you to read, but if you are enjoying the content, perhaps that's a good thing. Moving forward, though, I think I'm going to work at making issues shorter just so its production is maintainable.
  • Publish Less Frequently?

    Dosh Dosh is a favourite business blog of mine. The author has a huge and loyal following. Most articles are excellent and engaging. His blog is thriving. Yet, he publishes infrequently, with no schedule. He only sends out an article to subscribers when he feels he has something valuable to say.

    I sometimes wonder if the ezine would serve you better if it was less frequent, perhaps only when there's something important and valuable to say?

    I've been pondering whether to take the ezine to twice a month, instead of weekly. Would fewer issues serve you just as well?

Please Take My Ezine Survey

The future of the ezine lies, in part, in your hands. Before I make any decisions about the future of Roleplaying Tips, I'd love to hear from you. Feel free to email in with feedback, rambles, preferences, and suggestions.

I have also set up a SurveyMonkey survey to get your feedback on where the ezine should be heading for the next 450 issues.

The survey is short (11 questions) and anonymous. Would you have a spare minute to check it out?

Take the survey.

Thanks for your time.

Have a game-full week!


Johnn Four,


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Use Logic Puzzles to Develop Plots and Stories   

By Alex Harms

Logic grid puzzles bring a new level of interest to roleplaying, from the simple skill challenge or puzzle to vast, campaign-sized epics. You can use these types of puzzles as guidelines to create stories and campaigns. Use them to design encounters and plan where and what clues should be dropped. Let them guide the writing process and give players direction and purpose without seeming to railroad them.

What Are Logic Grid Puzzles?

They are a type of puzzle where a set of clues can be fed into a grid, and then using deductive logic, you can complete the grid and come up with the unique answer.

The grid is broken up into a number of categories (for example, Individual, Class, Weapon, Language, and so on) and within each category is a number of PCs and NPCs (example: Lothar, Barbarian, Hammer, and Dwarven).

By giving out clues you can fill in the grid's blanks and use the answers you do have to find the answers you need. Example clues might be things like, "Lothar is not a wizard, or a bard. Anardulian wields a wand, and speaks abyssal".

Once your grid is filled you can start to use them to play your game. There are a lot of great examples on the internet of this type of puzzle.

Some good ones are and Braingle: also features videos on how logic-grid puzzles work and how to complete them.

Making Your Own Puzzles

Looking at that grid can be daunting so here is some help to get you started. The first thing to do is create your clue categories and individuals. As an example I'll use the ones given above. Each character uses a different weapon, speaks a different language and is of a different class.

Next, number each category. Then give each individual a letter.

On grid paper or in a spreadsheet, put down each item across the top and along the side.

It is important that any two variables only interact on the grid once, so pay special attention to each category's placement.

[Johnn: it's important that a category doesn't "meet itself" in the grid you create. This means you won't actually put all categories across the top and along the side. Instead, you'll have a mix with just a couple of duplicate categories. Check out this sample puzzle. ]

For a four category puzzle with five individuals the layout should be as follows:

Across the Top:

(2A), (2B), (2C), (2D), (2E), (3A), (3B), (3C), (3D), (3E), (4A), (4B), (4C), (4D), (4E)

Along the Side:

(1A), (1B), (1C), (1D), (1E), (4A), (4B), (4C), (4D), (4E), (3A), (3B), (3C), (3D), (3E)

Now you can start writing the clues that you will drop into your game. These can be simple and direct statements of fact: "Dwenvyr uses a longbow." Alternatively, you can create more complicated fact chain with dependencies: "If Erevan uses a long sword then Lothar is a Barbarian and Anardulian speaks Abyssal, otherwise Brundis uses a dagger."

As you come up with your clues, fill out a clean grid as you go to make sure you are not making assumptions based on info other than the clues you have.

Storytelling Using Logic Grids

Stories and plots come down to simple conflict questions. Who did it, why, and how did they do it are all great questions the characters must answer. These questions are what drive the story, and tapping into human curiosity like this that makes a tale memorable and compelling.

The basic method of creating stories using this method is:

  1. Define the critical questions of your scene, adventure, or campaign. For example, who are the suspects in the trial, how does the villain plan on destroying the city of Elba'Anar, where do the Goblin tribes plan to strike next?
  2. Define what variables the PCs need for them to answer the questions.
  3. Create clues that, when thought about logically, will allow the players to deduce the answer to the critical question.
  4. Plant your clues into encounters, combats, and social interactions leading up to the story climax.

Logic Puzzle Challenges and Encounters

To use logic grid puzzles in a roleplaying game insert them as you would any other puzzle or riddle. The players must solve the puzzle to move forward.

Perhaps the PCs have entered a wizard's laboratory and must mix a series of ingredients they find to prepare the proper reagents needed for a crucial ritual.

The problem is that the wizard's notes are sparse and heavily damaged. The players only have a few hints and must extrapolate to finish and combine the reagents.

Here we can use a set number of variables (perhaps color, quantity, physical state and label) to create a puzzle the PCs must work through to create the correct reagents. For example, you must add 3 tablespoons of the green powder labeled "Wyrmsvort" along with W amount of the reagent with properties X, Y, & Z.

This is the easiest way to use this sort of puzzle, but this use is definitely made more interesting when mixed in as part of a greater skill challenge or combat sequence. Having the wizard in the party stand at the desk and try to figure out the reagents under pressure of a real life timer while her allies fight off demons is more interesting than just rolling a d20 (though, perhaps the wizard will need to make Arcana checks to be given all the clues she'll need to finish the puzzle.)

Scene Development

When I plan out adventures I like to break them down into critical scenes. A scene is not the whole adventure, but is usually made up of three to five encounters. You can use logic grids to guide you as you plan out the story elements for each scene.

To do this you define the big question of the scene and then define the elements the characters will need to know to answer that critical question. Fill out your grid with the different variables, and then as each encounter in a scene unfolds give the players a new piece of the puzzle.

For example, one scene might be to prove the innocence of a trusted ally known to have a piece of vital information (perhaps a clue for another logic puzzle) but framed for a crime he didn't commit. This scene might take the players on a whirlwind tour of the town and surrounding areas, and each time they complete a skill challenge or a combat they pick up a clue the players can feed into their grid, which helps advance the story.

The key is to use the puzzle clues as rewards and pieces of information the characters can pick up over time, instead of just giving them all the clues they need in a list as you might do in an encounter.

This method of storytelling is great because it tells you what information you need to drop and when. It guides your story development and your players will be excited and interested in completing each encounter and skill challenge to get at the next bit of the puzzle.

Adventure Arcs

We have discussed how logic puzzles may be used to guide story developments over the course of a scene, however you will notice that you can "nest" these puzzles into larger and larger ones, all of which have their own mysteries and clue to discover.

For example, when the characters first arrive on the scene they have no idea what they need to do. You need to guide them with hooks and story elements. One way of using logic puzzles is to use scenes and encounters to define the variables that are needed to solve the driving question of the adventure on the whole. Are the weapons the villain uses important? Or should we investigate her base of operations?

Just make the solutions for the scene-level puzzles the categories for the adventure-level puzzle.

To illustrate, you might run a number of scenes (each one a puzzle, as above) to figure out who the suspects of our framing mystery are. After a good number of suspects have been established, you now have a list of them to be fed into your "adventure" grid and the players have a new, more grand, mystery to solve.

Feel free to just give the players some of the answers or hints from this level, and be sure to mix and match clues from different levels (encounter, scene, adventure, campaign) throughout game play. Otherwise, your players will become tired of this sort of mystery and it will take much too long to get any campaign-level answers. Clues and progress are your biggest story motivators.


Using the logic-grid method for campaigns is similar to the way you would use it for an adventure. However, campaigns benefit more from the use of a climax or big reveal. In this scenario you follow the same method you would for an adventure except you leave out the last crucial detail.

At this point, the characters have been fitting together clues and answering the critical questions for a long time and it is finally time to answer the biggest question of them all.

There are two cool things you can do to cap off the critical question of a campaign using logic puzzles. The first is the Devastating Realization and the second is the Your Destiny is Your Own ending.

Devastating Realization

The goal here is to take the characters through the ringer in all of your adventures and give them evidence that eliminates all possible outcomes until there are only two totally diametric possibilities left (either the villain who they have been chasing this whole time is really evil, or he is a good person led astray by awful circumstance).

Lead the players the whole way up to let them assume that it is one of the two outcomes. Let it be their motivation, and reward this assumption all along the way. However, as they near the end, make the suggestion that they were wrong the whole time, but still don't drop that last all important clue.

Then, at the climax of the game (either right before or right after the definitive battle), drop that crucial piece of information that proves they were wrong the whole way through. All the pieces fit together, but the outcome is more devastating than they ever assumed. Your players may hate you and love you for this type of ending, but it will certainly be one they talk about for years to come.

Your Destiny is Your Own

Enable the players to determine the final outcome of the climax. This scenario often leads to great acts of epic heroism or, if your players have a dark streak, unsettling depravity. In this scenario you can plan your whole game story arc out without the fear of the characters ruining your carefully laid story (anymore than usual) and all the pieces will be lined up for the epic climax.

The difference here is that, when the whole story comes down to one final question (read: puzzle clue), you put the players in the position to provide their own answer to the critical question and to determine the outcome of the whole story. Will our heroes kill their fondest friend to save the world, or will millions die for the sake of true love? This moment should be a critical decision that will define the whole rest of the puzzle, and is the choice a character's epic destiny will truly be defined by.

Player Pathways and Railroading

One of the benefits of the logic-grid method of story development is that it gives you greater freedom as GM to allow for character choice. It secretly gives you a heavy hand without railroading the players. Players will be motivated to find the next clue, but the order in which they go about it is up to them.

Also, having your puzzle mapped out beforehand makes dropping story-relevant clues into random unplanned encounters easy. Even the most unplanned event can be woven into the story.

Look at your puzzle grid, and after the players have beaten "random band of orcs 1" drop a clue from your puzzle into their treasure reserve.

The other thing you can do here is to drop a clue that will lead the players back to the encounters you did plan for. This method is great for keeping story control and creating the illusion that the players are not being railroaded. Let them guide where they go to answer each clue item, but if they want the story to continue they must find answers to a definable number of questions. This method gives players freedom of choice and GM story control.

Vagueness and Red Herrings

Add extra interest to your stories by making some clues vague. In a given situation a clue might or might not be what it appears. By keeping some of your clues vague and ill defined you will set up expectations (right or wrong) that make for great moments of "awesome! our hunch was right!" or more devastating times of "we were wrong, dead wrong."

Revealing whether the players were right or "dead" wrong creates dramatic tension and builds suspense. Because the story plays out over time feel free to omit certain clues until it is too late. The characters might need to scramble to overcome a bad hunch, but the players will still get the reward of figuring out the answer to the puzzle and seeing where the story goes.

You can also give clues that are blatantly false at the adventure-level, but seem to be the only logical possibility at the scene-level. Stories need not intersect, and sending PCs on an elaborate goose chase can be a fun experience.

Make sure they get it right in the end and don't drop red herrings everywhere or you'll have some angry players. However, this method lets you weave stories that seem to come together nicely until the next clue comes up and it changes everything.

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Help decide the future of Roleplaying Tips

If you haven't already, please take a short survey about this ezine to help me determine what the next 450 issues will look like:

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Gamemaster Tips 

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

1. Knick Knack Houses Make Great Terrain 

From: JB

Hi Johnn and others. Just read your tips for terrain and wanted to share a couple.

These are thrift and junk store ideas I have used. You've seen those little wooden houses and buildings meant as a knick knack. I repaint them in brick and stone colors, add windows and thatched roofs, and set them down on vinyl grid maps to instantly form a small town, village or section of a city. The roofs can be made to come off like lids and you can actually switch to an indoor scene that way.

Also, you'll find those old wooden ships with a flat deck and a cloth sail, the kind that sit on a mantle. These are useful for ship to ship battles at sea. We played a game where a pirate ship boarded the PCs' schooner, and the miniatures all fit on the deck of the ship. I cut the rounded bottom off so it would sit flat and then painted the ship.

Finally, I haven't used this one yet, but I'm going to paint Jenga blocks to use as terrain. I can just set them down as needed, and they store easily in their box.

Just some ideas. Thanks.

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2. Online Text To Voice Tool 

From: James Arthurs

Looking for sound effects on the Internet I found the following demo site from AT&T. It takes whatever you type and makes a best effort to state it with a few different accents.

[Johnn: thanks for the link, James. The first thought I had for this tool was GMs could use it as an NPC prop. Just type in what you want an NPC to say, whether in person to the PCs or through any device such as a magic item, data chip, or R2D2 :) and press play. Neat.]

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3. Quick NPC Naming Trick 

From: Grant Howitt

If you're stuck for a name have a look at their character sheet. Pick their highest ranked skill (or one that is important to them) and rearrange the letters to something approaching a name.

So, you have the female rogue with a specialty in stealth known as Ms E Violent or Misty Novelle. The knowledgable wizard Arc Nae, the athletic fighter Lea Stitch.

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4. Jeremiah TV Show Good For Post-Apocalyptic 

From: Steven Strange

re: Roleplaying Tips Issue #445

On your post apocalyptic media inspiration list, you left off Jeremiah - a sci fi series from the creator of Babylon 5. I enjoyed it, but had friends that didn't care for it. The world presentation was just amazing and worth your time if you can dig it up.

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5. Use DropBox to Backup Your Campaign Files 

From: Bas Grolleman

I recommend Dropbox for backups. We use it in our roleplay group and it has the great advantage of shared folders.

We use the folder for character sheets, campaign notes and some stuff for maptool, and because it syncs to you local PC you get a lot of benefits

  • No more, "I forgot my character sheet", it's synced to my laptop when they save it, so I either print it or open the PDF.
  • It keeps a feed of changes. So, if one of my players updates his sheet, I know
  • Online backup and local copy.
  • Free for 2GB, more then enough for most campaigns.


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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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