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Roleplaying Tips Weekly E-Zine Issue #482

Instilling Common Sense Into Players, Part 1



This Week's Tips Summarized 

Instilling Common Sense Into Players, Part 1

Instilling Common Sense Into Players, Part 1

Game Master Tips & Tricks

  1. Inconspicuous Numbering Of Miniatures
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A Brief Word From Johnn 

There Is No One True Way

This week's feature article is composed of reader responses and advice to a GM experiencing character invulnerability problems. His players think their characters can handle any situation the GM throws at them.

The problem is the GM wants to use opponents the PCs aren't ready to combat yet, but he does not want to kill PCs when they try, either.

One take away I got from reading and editing all the responses: there is no absolute solution to this situation. We all have different GMing styles and expectations. Our players are unique, as are our group dynamics. I encourage you to think a bit about what kind of group you have, who you are as a GM, what everyone's expectations and play preferences are, and what players want to get out of your games.

Then, as you read all the advice below, consider it a menu of options. In there, hopefully, is a combination of information that's right for you and your group. Not every answer will apply. Some answers will be more suitable than others. Those answers might be perfect for your neighbours, though.

That's what makes RPG so great - we can play the game just how we like it.

Contest Ends Soon: What is your biggest GMing roadblock?

Erik @ Paizo sent me some goodies and I thought they'd make excellent prizes. Plus, they kind of celebrate the start of my new Pathfinder RPG campaign.

= How to Enter =

Email me what you feel is your biggest GMing roadblock right now. What's stopping you from GMing? If you have a regular game, what is stopping you from becoming an even better GM?

= How to Win =

I'll randomly draw on April 6 the winners for these prizes:

So just email me your biggest game mastering hurdle, stumbling block, or problem to enter by April 6.

Strange Aweber Links

Last week I made a mistake when sending out the ezine. I accidently left my listhost's link system turned on. That replaced all the nice links with brutally long ones. Sorry about that. The links are harmless, and you do eventually get to the final destination.

When using Aweber's link system, I get a report on how many of us click on the links (but not who - the report is anonymous). Last issue, the click rate was 25%. That's pretty high! Thought this trivia might be interesting to you.

I'll be on guard against this when sending out this issue, but if human error happened once, it'll happen again. So if you see those crazy long links, don't panic, curse my name, and feel free to click.

Have a game-full week.


Johnn Four,
Campaign Mastery

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Instilling Common Sense Into Players, Part 1  

Recently, I posted a request from a GM who needed help putting the fear of death and consequences into his players. Thanks to everyone who responded with tips and advice!

Below is the original request. Following that are all the responses sent in.

The original request from mrmike65

I'd like to pose a problem I suspect is not unique among DMs: invulnerable players. My players walk through my world with the preconception there is nothing they need to run from.

Scenario: Three characters are on a long, narrow bridge that extends to a nearby island. They are halfway across when two large mounted warriors leading a team of eight spellcasters appear at the opposite end, heading toward them.

As the opposition nears, the characters see that the mounted warriors are actually trolls in spiked plate mail, with lances, riding oversized howlers. They can also see that the hooded spellcasters are all over 7 feet tall, not human, and actively preparing spells (waving of clawed hands and chanting loudly, with a dark purple haze beginning to swirl above their heads).

I did my best to make this group of enemies seem strong and dangerous. The howlers are rearing and lunging to tear flesh; they even use their howl special ability a couple of times even though they are out of range. The trolls are slamming their lances on their shields. Lightning plays throughout the growing haze above the spellcasters.

What do the characters do? They run like good little munchkins. It's a good move - except they're not running for their lives, they're running to trap the enemy in the narrow corridors of the complex behind them.

So, as the enemy approaches the PCs' trap, I have a couple of stray ogres appear on the scene between the enemy and the characters, just to have them instantly mangled by the enemy. This was my last attempt to impart the message of lethal danger. Only, I don't think the message was received because the characters turn to face the enemy and "teach them a lesson" (actual quote!).

Twelve rounds later, two characters are dead and one is running for his life in dark, tiny passages.

It's been a while since I actually played a character, but if I had been playing I would have kept running from the first. Then found a way to neutralize the enemy or bypass them all together.

After much thought, here are two reasons I can come up with for this debacle:

  1. It may be I am too fair or too easy a DM, but I am proud to say I view roleplaying as a cooperative effort between DM and players - not a competition.

    I like to challenge my players and not abuse them. My players know I would much rather mangle and handicap a character, forcing them to be more creative in their efforts, than outright kill them. Instead of that two stone block turning a character into a pancake, I'll make them lose the front half of their right foot and deal with the penalties.
  2. Video games reinforce the idea that there is an unlimited supply of characters. It is true. I'm not going to tell a player they can't play any more because their character died. Players are not that easy to come by.

    If a character dies, the player either resurrects it (with all the standard penalties and due process) or makes a new one (and waits until the moment is right to jump back into the adventure, albeit in a different capacity).

By the way, this whole encounter was crafted as an attempt to put the fear of the gods back into the characters, because I had come to realize my group of players had become complacent and bored. Every encounter and trap had become mundane and ultimately non-threatening to the characters and their quest.

So, the question is, how can I instill common sense back into my players without compromising my cooperative roleplaying ethics?

RPT readers respond

Players Do Not Flee Faster Opponents From Jeff Groves


I've encountered Mike's problem before. I don't think his players' reaction to his encounter reveals a lack of common sense on their part; rather, a different reading of the situation based on what they expected and certain traits.

Most players expect any challenge they face is to be overcome, not avoided; it's a reasonable assumption if they're going off standard heroic fantasy stories. Heroes confront challenges, only cowards turn and run.

He also mentioned that two of the enemies were mounted. That is a bad clue to insert into an encounter the PCs are supposed to flee from. If the PCs are on foot, mounted enemies will be more mobile than them. You do not flee from an enemy faster than you, else you get cut down from behind.

Given those circumstances, I think the PCs thought they were doing exactly what Mike wanted them to: retreat from the powerful enemy to better terrain, then turn around to confront them.

Here are my suggestions for making it easier for PCs to read a retreat situation:

Reveal The Numbers To Them

Vague displays of power don't faze PCs; they live in a world where humans confront dragons and win, and villains puff themselves up with threats and displays before an epic battle.

Try this sometime: give your players some random enemy descriptions, then ask them to guess what level the enemies are. How close to their actual level were they? Would acting on that guess be fatal? The important difference between when to retreat and when to fight is the stats hidden from the PCs, not how the GM describes it.

Give PCs a way to guess their enemies' strength at a glance. For example, D&D 3.5 lets you estimate an enemy's level compared to yours if you succeed on a Sense Motive check.

This also puts the responsibility in the PCs' hands; if they assume they can beat a threatening fight without checking the level estimates, it's their fault. However, this may be too metagame for some GMs.

Superior numbers often work. PCs that'd charge three trolls would think twice about attacking 50 kobolds, even if both encounters are the same difficulty. Using the example above, including a dozen mounted trolls instead of just 2 might've given the PCs the right idea.

Superior range works even better. If the PCs are getting hammered and can barely return fire, it's an obvious sign they're out matched for this fight. What if the cloaked mages had started casting lightning at the PCs from the other side of the bridge, while the trolls stood guard and prevented the PCs from getting close to them?

Nullify The Disadvantages Of Retreating

In D&D 3rd & 4th, for example, retreating from an enemy with the same speed as you is suicide; he will always be able to match your speed and end up adjacent to you. Then when you move, he breaks out the opportunity attacks. You're cut down from the back without laying a finger on him; you should've just stood your ground and fought.

Retreating from such a situation would require a PC to stay behind to cover your retreat. How many players would ask another player to give up his PC to save them? They'd rather take their chances and fight to the death.

The slower an enemy, the more viable retreat is. Superior numbers and superior range also make retreat tempting: large groups are more likely to be slowed down by their sheer mass (especially if they're trying to squeeze through a choke point), while superior range dissuades PCs from dancing circles around the slower enemy and picking them off from afar. If you want them to retreat, toss them a powerful, but slow, enemy.

Wear Them Out First

Players expect to take on anything if they're fully rested and prepared. If they're already low on spells or health, they get much more cautious. Tossing a dangerous enemy at them when they're looking for a place to sleep, or sending in reinforcements before they've recovered from the last battle, is a great way to make PCs retreat until they're in better shape.

Let Them Notice The Enemy First

Retreat is one of many ways to avoid an enemy. It's easier to avoid an enemy that doesn't know you're there. Let your players see dangerous enemies first and they're more likely to avoid them.

Give Them Another Way Around

If a deadly enemy blocks the only path (or only bridge) to their destination, a fight with them is inevitable. Give them an alternate path; they'll think twice about attacking an enemy if they have an obvious alternative.

Be The DM You'd Want To Game Under From Brandon Echols (AKA Beef Supreme)

I've faced this problem as well, but to solve a problem we first must identify it. I don't think the players suffer from a lack of vulnerability or common sense.

An example of either of those problems would be a third- level party taking on an ancient dragon, or jumping off a bridge because they didn't think the laws of gravity would apply to them (and with no feather fall spells enacted, either).

Rather than a lack of vulnerability or common sense, what I think is happening here is a threefold problem of in-game knowledge, DMing style, and DM perception. This is easy to fix when you approach it systematically and slowly, but when a DM gets concerned and goes from forgiving to brutal, PCs often die quickly and little is solved. Here's my own take on it.

Surprise With Custom Creations

First, it is clear there are no serious threats to the characters as perceived by the players. They're metagaming. The players know their characters are going to live, they know all the traps and monsters, and they know they can roll up a new character if their current one is killed. Thus, out-of-game is knowledge brought into the game.

Easy solution: prompt them to question their own knowledge. If they think they know how to fight trolls and ogres, then make the next group of trolls and ogres different. You are the DM. You are the final arbiter. Challenge what they assume. Craft a new monster, invent a new trap, blast them with a custom spell.

If the world is non-threatening, then make it a lot more hostile. If you think you are too soft, then gradually get tougher with them, and remember that you have to fracture the sense of security of the player, not the character.

Sometimes You Need To Lead, Other Times, Respond

Second, you're attempting to anticipate specific responses. When you say "crafted as an attempt to put the fear of the gods back into the characters" I have to state that a better example of the "players never do what you want them to do" cliche is rarely found.

This is going to happen time and time again, so you'd better get used to it. The most masterful, deviant, ingenious DMs I have known have occasionally thrown up their hands in despair at the antics of a party that just won't go along with the plan, so to speak.

It wouldn't be a cliche if it wasn't true, and the trick is to get the players to do what you want without them knowing. There's a lot of information on on this very topic. Read through the GM Archives. Learn to run the game on the fly when need be, and don't trap yourself by over-planning for a specific end.

Sometimes, you need to DM the game in response to their actions, and sometimes you need to lead it. It's up to you to determine the right time for each.

Be The DM You'd Want To Game Under

Third, and perhaps most importantly, you said: "if I had been playing I would have..." Well, not to put it harshly, but your players are not you, and although they are in your game, their actions and decisions are their own.

Neither side is inherently right in any way, shape or form, and you have to get used to this as well. You can't base your game on what you think a player should do - a game of that nature is doomed to failure.

You have to set a scenario and react to their actions, and not let your biases or preferences creep into things. Be impartial, fair, fun and engaging: if you can handle those four things, even the most jaded players will come back to life.

When you are playing instead of DMing, then play as you like...and let your players do the same. Be the DM that you'd want to game under, yourself.

Remember that when they say things like "let's teach them a lesson!" you are reaching them, and they are roleplaying. That's a good thing even if it's not what you planned out. You can use that force instead of opposing it.

If they were bored and complacent, then I'd suggest changing game systems for awhile, or something similar...but I don't think that's the case.

I think they're just a bit too secure in their knowledge of the game world and the specific game you are running...and perhaps of you, as well.

I suggest you challenge their security in-game, that you get more dynamic in your DMing style, and that you break away from a preconceived notion of the right course of action on their part. Get creative, get unpredictable, and have fun!

Give Them A Recoverable Warning Shot From Ryan

Mangling your PCs is always an option, but I prefer an initial thrashing that temporarily cripples players' chances of winning the battle while still giving them a chance to run. This allows them to trust you aren't going to alter the baddies just to make them lose, and not permanently cripple or kill them.

The GM Needs To Create An Illusion Of Risk From Tim W. Brown

So, the question is, how can I instill common sense back into my players without compromising my cooperative roleplaying ethics? It's an interesting problem. Being a fairly soft GM myself, I sometimes wonder about this also - the balance between maintaining tension and keeping players in play. It's not just video games which create an expectation of unlimited characters, but almost all popular entertainment.

Model TV Shows

In movies, TV, even novels, it is rare for the hero to die, especially before the great climax. TV series are especially notable for this - you absolutely know, as each episode begins, that Captain Kirk is going to survive, and almost certainly emerge victorious over the threat of the week.

That doesn't mean the show is boring. What we look for in stories is not for the heroes to suffer death or other evil, final fates; it's the heroes facing the risk of death and suffering, and coming through it with some kind of victory (noting that "victory" has some widely varying definitions).

What we want is not for our RPG characters to die, but to struggle and face the risk of ruin, failure, or death.

The phrase "illusion of control" comes to mind. Typically, the GM is really in control of the flow of the game, but it is important to allow players to think they are influencing events.

Similarly, the GM needs to create an illusion of risk: the feeling among the players that they could fail this time, that this could be the TPK, that they went one step too far.

In our heart of hearts, we're not looking to kill off PCs just because. If that was our goal, it would happen every session - just add more monsters, roll extra damage, throw a purple worm at the newly-minted first-levels. That's not even amusing when you really do it, and you probably won't be GMing anyone for long.

How do you instill common sense into players to give them a sense of risk and vulnerability? Do TV and movie serials do: arrange for interesting things happen to the PCs and enjoy how they get out of it.

The Journey And Its Struggle Is Key

Like that old saw "life is not a destination, it's a journey," the fun is not so much in the ending as it is in the process of getting there. That's where the GM gets to be inventive, manipulative, and even cruel.

If the players take on a group too powerful for them, let them lose. Many game systems distinguish between knocking out a character and killing her. Most will have a margin between the time a character is out of action and actually dead.

The GM can use this to turn a TPK into a TPC - total party capture. The PCs lose the fight, but their story does not end there - hardly! Capture and escape is a standard trope of heroic fiction, and is rarely explored in RPGs (getting a group of PCs to surrender is one of the most difficult things to accomplish for a GM, far harder than arranging a TPK).

Putting the PCs into a situation where they have little control over their movements, none of their precious gear, and perhaps are separated from each other makes them work in very different ways than they are accustomed.

Examples Via NPCs

Another way to instill common sense is to provide examples via NPCs. Have NPCs surrender when it is clear they are losing; have them offer a deal - some kind of ransom or promise of future assistance. And - this is key - have them keep their word! It's too tempting to have the prisoner attack the guards, or the villain break his promise. While that might feel good at the moment, it confirms the expectation that bad guys are just bad guys, and there's no reason to do anything but kill them (and double-tap 'em, Zombieland style, just to make sure).

At a potential TPK, have the villain offer the PCs a deal. Make sure it's a worthwhile deal, not just "if you give me all your stuff, I won't kill you." Players are almost as bad about giving up stuff as they are about getting captured.

Again, have the opponents keep their word. The idea is to open up alternate endings for the encounters than total slaughter. This allows for more creativity for ending the encounter, but also gives room for recurring NPCs, with favors owed back and forth, and potential temporary alliances between enemies.

This also give more room for role-playing and plot-hooking, and potential resources for PCs to call on in the future. (To be sure, villains who keep this sort of promise do not turn into good guys, and they can certainly work against the PCs later on - but not until they've kept to the deal to at least some extent.)

Be Ready To Continue When The PCs Fail

Finally, I quote one of my GM friends. "Don't make them roll dice if you can't handle their failure." The GM should be prepared to carry on the game if the PCs fail at any point.

It's easy to fall into (or stay stuck in) the idea that each encounter is do-or-die.

The adventure (let alone the campaign) should not come to a screeching halt just because players made bad choices (let alone flubbed a few die rolls).

In a campaign, the GM should be ready to continue when the PCs fail, whether in combat or in skill checks. If the only options are the PCs win or we quit playing, the tension becomes merely tension, rather than creative tension.

If the only consequence of failure is destruction, players lose incentive to take risks and try new things. The game is pushed toward a contest of min-maxing and engineering rather than storytelling and character expression.

While some people may prefer one extreme over the other, I have found my own preferences (and those of most people) lie somewhere between the two.

Thanks for listening.

Players Rarely Want To Play A Coward From Mark of the Pixie

"My players walk through my world with the preconception there is nothing they need to run from."

It's a common problem. However, the scenario bridge fight described doesn't have all the necessary detail. If it is in a game of Exalted, then the PCs should have charged. If the PCs where 20th level D&D 4E, then they could probably have stood their ground without fear. If they where AD&D level 1, they should have started running much earlier.

Players base their actions on their characters' personalities, the tropes of the genre and past experience. Each of these often tells them not to worry about death.

  • Characters' personalities - it is rare to see players who want to play a coward. Most PCs are powerful and fearless. Part of this is wish fulfilment, part is because it's what is supported by the game.
  • Tropes of the genre - most games are based on heroic stories, whether books, movies or whatever else. Losing is just not done. Frodo wasn't killed by Gollum on a lucky roll. The trash compactor didn't kill everyone in Star Wars.
  • Past experience - PCs often win against terrible odds. Why should this fight be any different?

Note, none of this applies to the old Call of Cthulhu games. In those games, PCs expect to be scared, and often expect to lose, so running away is sensible (if futile). If you want to put some fear of the GM into your players, a good place to start may be to look at the tone and atmosphere of horror games.

"So, the question is, how can I instill common sense back into my players without compromising my cooperative roleplaying ethics?"

Unfortunately, you already have. By fudging and keeping PCs alive, you have taught them their characters will always survive, even when it's not sensible. Therefore, common sense for those characters, in that world, has been redefined as behaving with reckless abandon.

I suggest you do not suddenly raise the lethality level. If you normally run a light game where the PCs can leap into danger without fear of death, then suddenly springing a high lethality encounter on them will be as shocking as a razor blade in your donut.

Try raising your concerns at the start of the game and saying you will not be fudging for them any more. Reiterate that many situations and all combat and traps are potentially lethal.

Just say:

"Are you sure?"

"You realise this may kill your character?"

"Do I have your permission to kill your character if you botch this?"

"Your character realises they are likely to die if they do this."

"That could kill you outright."

Such verbal reminders can slowly and gently steer PCs back to more sensible behaviours.

You could also try leading by example. Have a trusted and respected NPC act in a sensible fashion. If the great warrior Lord Tanos yells, "Run you fools!" and hoofs it, then the PCs are likely to see it as a good plan. The risk is the PCs dismiss your NPC as a coward and ignore him from now on.

Another idea I have seen work is to actually keep the PCs invincible, but add a cost per use. I had a PC who I made invincible, but each time he should have died, one of his family or friends did instead. He was far more careful with their lives than he had ever been with his own. This allows you to keep fudging rolls for the PCs and the story, but by putting a cost on it you keep it in the game and the PCs will try to avoid it.

Do Not Make Your Game A Casino Or A Courtroom From BertrĂ¡M

mrmike65, I might be seeing the issue here. As you later correctly remark, video games have given players in general an unlucky view on the gaming. They are used to being strong, and the enemy either weak or just strong enough to be challenging.

I'd check though whether you have not made the same mistake. I've met a few GMs who did the very same thing, with the small difference that their groups were used to that and actively expected and wanted that sort of gameplay. Just have a moment of self-reflection before self-improvement.

You obviously have something against your players feeling like gods and that's a completely valid point, but first double-check it wasn't you that made them so.

Players Get Used To Things

The problem lies in players getting used to things. A scary monster followed by 10 progressively stronger, slightly scarier monsters will make the players feel right at home meeting the 11th scary monster, slightly stronger than the 10th. If you suddenly make the 11th monster too strong, the players will not expect it.

This is not a good thing for a lot of groups. Striking fear into your players should not be done with crunch alone.

The thing with dangers in fantasy RPGs is, there is very little hint as to how dangerous they are. Ninety percent of everything is always horrible and scary, and the rest is split somewhere between pretty and eldritch, which actually makes players more suspicious.

This is all very much up to GM discretion. One might describe a flower as calming and serene, but it turns out to be a plant that has already drugged them and intends on eating them. The issue here is that players tend to lose track of things they're permanently surrounded by.

You mentioned you liked to not straight kill off players with things that would normally do so. This begs the question, what sort of old-school trap setup have you combined with what new-school gameplay? It seems like a stark contrast. Consider that, if being squished between two slabs of solid rock doesn't turn them into paste, they will always be able to say "well, we've faced worse."

At the point where you presented the ogres, I think the players were not caring anymore. You've just presented them with a foe you described as scary. They didn't take your word for it; why would the slaughter of the ogres be any different? You just confirmed these monsters are at a level above ogres. No surprises here, certainly no fear. (I'm just assuming the PCs were more dangerous than ogres.)

Look For Patterns

My suggestion: look for patterns and attempt to avoid them. Do not simply look at the sequence of numbers (monsters) and change the last one. Try doing something that the sequence has no authority over. "Out of the box," to quote marketing people.

In league with the latest tips, my personal preference for this would be disease.

Think about it. Their weapons are utterly useless against it. Classes with low Constitution, possibly the otherwise stronger magic-users, are suddenly met with something they can't deal with. It doesn't fight the players, per se, yet it can hamstring them into being little more than delusional weaklings, walking into their doom, incapable of anything.

Maybe use the feared cockatrice, or less creatively, a thief taking their weapons. Shake the pillars of their strength in a way other than heads-on assault, the way they are so accustomed to using.

Avoid Crunch vs. Crunch

Most of all, do not use crunch against crunch. Simply put, you'd win, mechanically, but morally the players would win.

As a GM, you have all the ropes in your hand. You can say "one million hit points" just like that. You are wielding this power and with great power comes great responsibility.

This is not just a comic reference, I mean this literally. You are responsible for the fun of your players.

True, you are not completely responsible. Players carry some responsibility too, they even carry some for YOUR fun. If I were to say "your game", I'd really mean, "the game that you, but also your players are playing." I can't repeat this often enough: in an RPG session, everyone is responsible for everyone's fun.

Crunch, really is only numbers. Crunch is just something you put on fluff to make the game a non-free-form game. At the basis, nothing should ever be a meaningless stat block.

If you decide to go down the road of answering stat block with stat block, you'll actually be playing a combat simulator, not an RPG. Some people might like this, some might not.

I have considered myself in love with war games and cold hard rules for a long time, but I came across my FattyDM, who really put the "videogames" in "tabletop RPGs are not videogames." I now consider a modicum of fluff to be always appropriate.

It's an uncreative way of playing to only throw stronger enemies on the railroad in front of the players. This way if they lose, all losses are to nothing but dice.

There is no interesting middle ground for crunch versus crunch fight. If the enemies are weak, the players defeat them and might take a bit of pleasure from that. If they're too strong, they lose and they don't have fun. In the middle, it's a random dice-fest, a casino you own and have completely rigged. What you say goes.

Add Non-Rules Details

If fluff gets into conflict with crunch, there is interesting stuff to it. Fluff, literally the "thing" that there are no rules to, cannot be calculated. The players should not be able to use any mechanic to handle it but their own fluff.

When you have a conflict of two fluffy components, then, and only then, you should give them a cover of crunch. Notice the word "conflict." If your players are not having problems with doing something, they just succeed. Say yes, as it were.

Why do players roll all those silly numbers for their character sheet? Only to be prepared if the need for them would arise, so that you don't have to check the rules and calculate them when you're in the middle of a game that should be fast-paced. The things you never use? You probably didn't need to ever roll them, and if all players of a game agree that something is completely useless, it should be taken out of the rules and the character sheets in the next printing.

Your characters, and anything with any kind of stat block, are, at their core, always something other than that collection of numbers. The numbers only come into play on a need-to-know basis, as opposed to fluff which is in-game all the time. The Monster Manual only has numbers and stats to give you quick access if you need them -- never to give you a picture of what a monster is like. That's what the fluff is for.

For example, the unicorn is not "STR 8." He's strong and could pull incredible weights. The block of concrete isn't "Weight: 10," it's just very heavy. If the unicorn happens to want to pull the block of concrete, it can't; there's no way it could tie a rope around itself and then around the concrete. It's got no hands.

This isn't a case of "Disability: no hands, see pg. 219." It's a case of being born with hooves. If someone were to tie the rope in the fashion the unicorn wants it, then it might pull the block. Probably doing so without rolling, because right now we are just picturing a unicorn tied to a slab of concrete, and a helpful fellow standing somewhere out of the way.

If he were to be pulling the slab of concrete to open a gate leading to a cave in which the fellow and him were to hide from an impeding sandstorm, that might require a roll. There was some little roleplaying when it came to the "no hands" issue, so I'm pretty content with what's going on.

If the dice were screwing around with the unicorn, and the sandstorm would be starting to be a serious threat to our heroes' health, I might fudge the rolls. Even better though, I'd love for the players to start getting creative. "I'll look around, maybe there's another way in," might the fellow say. Maybe there's a bit of wood around, so the character might try to lever the concrete away.

The characters got inside, not by their stats or rolls, but by acting outside of what rules govern. I think it was much more enjoyable than rolling the solution out, or even going as far as to say "I roll Int to make a clever plan."

Returning to the matter at hand, the gentleman with the overpowered characters - particularly if your players are too strong for mechanics to handle - do something that is beyond mechanics. I'm saying "beyond" because just making something that is mechanically superior is like saying "I am the GM, I wield the power, I declare you all dead," and much worse.

Players might decide to loophole their way out, making the game a courtroom. Again, the courtroom is a casino you own. It's silly to have a court there. This is a bad situation and you shouldn't be in it.

If you use fluff, if you use something to which no rules are to be applied, you are putting the players, at first glance, in front of the "declare all dead" situation. A closer look might suggest you are now engaging them to do something beyond crunch. No-one ever has "optimal" fluff. No one can ever min-max his fluff to be a "build."

It's simple things. A letter; "Your character's mother has died due to an illness." How does the character cope? If the player says "I roll a Will save," he's a sad case. Make him give you an impression of what is going on in the mind of the character. If he can, ask him to roleplay what his character does. (I'm saying "if he can" out of experience with video-game groups.) Don't let him roll. Be clear on this. There are no rules in the book for handling your PC's mother's death, i.e., "No, this rule is not applicable, what do you do?"

"What do you do?"

Back to basics.

Don't fight crunch with crunch; in that battle, no one wins.

On a final note, as to what you wanted them to do, I probably missed something, because running away to lure them into a trap seemed like what you had wanted them to do and what they actually did. I'm picking up a lot of duality from you. Self-reflection; it is your word of the moment.

Keep The Party Guessing From Darren Blair

In my experience, the situation often comes down to a matter of complacency. As players gain experience and campaigns progress, all too often, players will adopt a "been there; done that" mentality; if they've never lost a battle before, they'll start to assume they never will lose one.

This is especially true in cases where the GM has put them up against the same opponent or type of opponent one too many times. For example, imagine a D&D campaign wherein the players fight wave after wave of kobolds. Players start to get lazy and let their guard down, especially if they've fought against something often enough to where they have a vague idea of what to expect on each and every occasion.

The best solution? Keep the party guessing. Every so often, throw them a curve ball, one in which they might not expect but is still plausible given the campaign setting. Don't make them something so earth-shattering or unbalanced that the party has no hope of winning. Rather, make it so that if the players aren't careful they'll get stung rather badly.

Is the party a tank crew during WWII? Let them encounter a squad of infantry that boasts a bazooka.

Is the party a group of D&D adventurers clearing out a goblin cave? Turns out that the "king" of the tribe is an ogre mage who isn't exactly thrilled about having his followers wiped out.

Don't do this every session, though. Make it random, or else the party will expect this as well.

Chose Rules That Match Your Needs From Marc Gacy

To play devil's advocate, I would argue that most game systems are set up specifically to punish characters who try the "discretion is the better part of valor" approach.

Attacks on withdrawing, tactical movement rules that favor re-engaging enemies, the lost rounds by trying to run rather than fight, there isn't much incentive to do anything but stay toe-to-toe.

Players aren't stupid. Just like sending out a lone scout is a good way to lose a scout in most games, players learn that trying to run away is a good way to get their character killed AND be labeled a coward. Not much fun to either of those outcomes.

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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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Game Master Tips & Tricks 

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

1. Inconspicuous Numbering Of Miniatures 

From Derek Carmichael

I love miniatures. Collecting (and sometimes even painting them ) for use in any RPG in which I remotely have an interest.

Back in the dark ages of gaming, I was prone to using various dice to number the miniatures on the battle mat. But that had a whole host of problems. You have to remember to move the die with the mini. Sometimes the dice get mixed up. Players bump the die and change the number.

This often left me scratching my head, trying to remember if that was Orc #3 with the medium shield and battle axe, or Orc #4, the shaman.

Several years ago, I came up with a very useful cheat to allow me to number minis without even the players being able to figure out how I keep them straight.

I devised a simple numbering system for scenic elements included on the base of the mini.

I have over a dozen identical giant rat minis which I've attached to 1/2" round bases. Even though I planned to paint them various colors, I still wanted a way to be able to exactly identify each one.

I created a simple system using easily visible scale (as in relative size) rocks on the bases. There are two types of rocks: small and large. Small rocks represent 'ones' and large represent 'fives'.

Therefore, a giant rat mini with one large rock and two small rocks on its base is giant rat No. 7.

The 'basing' materials I use are just two different sizes of model railroad talus.

Once you've started this system, it's easy to add minis to the horde! You could even add a 'tens' marker if you needed. (Okay, a bit lengthy for a summary...)

The markers are limitless and not limited to rocks. Just think of the standard environment for the creature and use that to inspire the 'base' elements used for numbering. For example, swamp creatures, could use plants or puddles or lily pads or twigs/logs; underground creatures, mushrooms; forest creatures, bushes; plains creatures, clumps of grass; and so on.

But don't limit the basing material merely to its size or a specific material. Two 'base' elements of the same size but different colors work just as well.

So what are your waiting for? Get painting those mini's and unleashing them on your players! Now, where did giant rat No. 14 run off to?

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2. Virtual Gaming Experience 

From Brent Newhall

Can a table full of chatty RPGers, deep in a session, integrate one player who's playing virtually through a laptop and a webcam? I found out.

First off, I love technology, but let's be honest: tech has its limitations. And not just in the sense of "features not yet implemented;" tech and gadgets just aren't appropriate for every situation.

So, when a member of my RPG group left for a few months but volunteered to be available via Skype video chat, warning bells went off in my head. I went through my checklist - was this person technologically competent? Yes. Was this person responsible enough to stay focused during a session? Yes.

Okay. I figured it was worth a try.

We used Skype video, the player on a PC laptop and me on a Mac laptop. The Mac has an integrated webcam, so I had no configuration to do on my end, thankfully.

On the day, about ten minutes before the session started, I connected to the house wireless network, and called the player on Skype. Once we were connected, I full-screened the video chat window, and put the laptop up on a set of books so it was about head-high. I then tilted the screen down a bit, enabling the player to see the playing surface and the rest of the group.

How'd it go? Very, very well. The player was able to see the battlemat - though vaguely - and what other folks were doing, and kept up with the game the whole time.

I did learn a few things:

  • "Friend" the player on Skype beforehand. In fact, do a test run on Skype beforehand, to ensure everything's working technically. You really don't want to be diving into your computer's settings 5 minutes before your game's supposed to start. I didn't have that problem, but I can see it happening.
  • Know your player. I first attempted this with a great player, one who is always focused at the table. We later tried this with a player who was easily distracted and doing other things at the time, and he wasn't available half the time.
  • Have power. I forgot to bring my laptop's power cord, and the battery's been acting up, so the laptop ran out of power halfway through the session. We had to use another player's laptop, which had a very soft mike. That brings up another point:
  • Check your microphone quality. Many cheap mikes are okay when each person is a foot or two from the computer, but at a table players are yards distant. When we had to switch to another laptop, we discovered the microphone quality on it was so poor we had to spend much of the rest of the session shouting into the mike and repeating ourselves. Not fun.
  • You need a good 'net connection on both ends, and properly configured computers. Don't assume your laptop will work on someone else's home network; check first.
  • Be patient. The virtual player had to remind us to move her character's token, and it was a bit difficult tracking conditions applied to that character. It was no major hassle, but it did slow down play in ways we didn't expect.

Overall, though, it worked.

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3. Monster Name Generator 

From Loz Newman

Stuck for a gloriously kitcsh name and title for your Ultimate Chaos Lord Boss Monster?

(In small doses.)

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4. Art Resources 

From Kate Manchester

Membership is free, and the images are simply awesome.

You can also try

Though these are photos and not artwork. Some are professional, some are done by members.

From John Gallagher

This is a terrific site for lots of fantasy and sci-fi art.

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Tavern Tables

Tavern Tables is a short, free ebook full of dice tables for rolling up taverns. Lists of adjectives and nouns give you names like "The Greedy Zombie Inn," and further tables provide food and drink price and quality, the bartender's disposition, and interesting patrons.

There are also tables for brawling and drunken shenanigans - does that PC who had a little too much wake up missing a few silver, with the mayor's daughter, chained in a dungeon, or all of the above?

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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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