Roleplaying Tips Weekly E-Zine Issue #505
56 Campaign Concepts & Starts
This Week's Tips Summarized
56 Campaign Concepts & Starts
Game Master Tips & Tricks
- Another Great Obstacle Course Idea
- Good Tile Map Maker
- Create PC Dossiers
- Showing Players A New Game Without Overwhelming Them
Open Design and Green Ronin cross blades!
Two of the most infamous outlaws to sail the seas of
the RPG world have signed articles, and are setting out
on a joint venture of danger and glory! Open Design is
launching a new Pathfinder design project for Green
Ronin's campaign setting Freeport: The City of
Become a patron and work with Wolfgang Baur, Chris
Pramas and Michael Furlanetto to create an adventure
that blends swashbuckling with supernatural horror in
the Freeport tradition. When kobolds and ronins team
up, who knows what will happen? Get in on the action
and find out at:
Return to Contents
A Brief Word From Johnn
Howdy fellow GMs,
I had a great game session Thursday (that included a cool
birthday gift from my players). In a previous session, the
PCs made enemies of githyanki by stealing the leader's
silver sword. Now the githyanki want it back.
We ended last session with the PCs getting news of an
imminent githyanki attack on their inn. So we started
session #15 of the campaign with the group preparing for a
mighty assault. Also, Pat's character fell in session #14,
so his new cleric was introduced in an interesting way,
which relates a bit to this week's topic - character starts
As the PCs readied for attack they spotted someone getting
mugged in the alley across the street. Two thugs sapped some
poor person and started looting. I asked Pat what his
character's race was. He said elven, so I said the victim in
the alley might have elven features. By the time help
arrived, the muggers had stripped their victim almost naked.
Pat, who was already giving me the evil eye for literally
jumping his new character in to the campaign, was turning
pink as he could only sit by and watch two NPCs stripping
all his starting equipment. Ah yes, it puts a twinkle in the
GM's eye, doesn't it?
So battle ensues and the two brigands suddenly receive
sniper support as poisoned arrows thunk into exposed flesh!
Everyone around the table is nervous as these thieves are
tougher than they first appear. Could it be a precursor to
the githyanki assault? Pat's apoplectic (say that ten times
in a row, fast).
Then I announce that a new figure appears out of the dark
and stormy night. He approaches the alley battle with
caution. It is none other than Pat's character! Bait and
Hey, what are jerk friends for? I'll remember that character
introduction for many years to come. Good times.
Oh, and my reward for jerking Pat around? A new bar fridge.
My players pitched in for my birthday to get my game room a
way to keep all our bevvies chilled. Thanks again guys! It's
And hey - guess what's in the my new bar fridge right now?
Your minis! That's right, you've been warned. The githyanki
are gonna put you on ice. See you in two weeks!
The following interesting tid bit is copied from The Escapist Blog.
Two quick stories about D&D in pop culture:
First, the Wikipedia page for the classic Dungeons & Dragons
module Ravenloft featured on the front page of Wikipedia
October 6th, 2010. This was due to the efforts of wiki
editors like Kevin Baase and others who have worked to make
the Ravenloft entry worthy of such an honor. In July, the
page for The Expedition to the Barrier Peaks was featured on
the front page for the same reason.
Expedition to the Barrier Peaks
Next, it looks like D&D has earned another honor - a
nomination into the Toy Hall of Fame at the Strong Museum of
Play in Rochester, New York. The Rochester Business Journal
explains that twelve finalists will be considered for the
two nominations for 2010. The other finalists are: Cabbage
Patch Kids, chess, the dollhouse, dominoes, the Game of
Life, Hot Wheels, Lite Brite, the Magic 8 Ball, playing
cards, the pogo stick, and Rubik's Cube.
Nominees for Toy Hall of Fame announced
With that sort of competition, it may not seem likely that
D&D will get one of the two spots, but I wouldn't rule it
out; the Toy Hall of Fame seems to have an appreciation for
toys that encourage imagination. According to the article,
one of the criteria for induction is how the toy fosters
learning or discovery through play. And if that's not enough
for you, one of the previous 44 nominees into the Hall was
the cardboard box.
The final inductees will be announced on November 4th.
Get some gaming in this week!
Return to Contents
Reader Tips Request: Boring GM
Hi Johnn, I've been following your articles for a while now
and look forward to each arriving in my email. Up till now
I've just been a reader, but after a recent RPG session I
feel I must share something.
My GM is getting boring. Not in the game itself, but boring
in - of all things - his descriptions.
Last session he said things like, "You have found a bag of
gems." Why not say "You have found a velveteen pouch with a
dozen, small, coin-sized gems. They appear to be rubies but
have a slightly darker color." That is SO much more
We also encountered "A troll with a club." Why not say
something like, "You have come across a troll -strangely he
has an ear missing and a smile on his face. He wields a club
made of a large bone." Different and memorable.
What I am saying is, please GMs (I do occasionally GM, and
when it's my turn I intend to make the effort) make a little
effort not to fall into the boring descriptions habit. These
things can be ad-libbed in a matter of seconds and make
every encounter, treasure and other description something to
Could you pass this on, Johnn? Perhaps readers could send in
tips on descriptions. How can I help my GM make his
[Thanks for the tip request PH! Readers, please send any
description tips you might have to
Return to Contents
56 Campaign Concepts & Starts
We finish the series, at least for the moment, about kicking
off your campaign in interesting ways, with examples from
RPT readers and GMMastery Yahoo! Group members. There is a
nice mix here of action and roleplaying starts, so there
should be something for every GM.
- Last campaign I played in had an interesting start. We
were just normal people with stat bloat, hungry for fame and
fortune. My character was 50 years old and on the run from
the mob, whom he had double-crossed in the south. He thought
hanging around some country bumpkins would be good cover.
Suddenly, he was tossed into a party salad with an eight-
year-old psion, a barbarian cannibal, and a priest with a
Russian accent who seemed to have a raging thirst for holy
water he kept in a silver flask.
It began with three of us converging as strangers on a
village about to burn the fourth PC - the psion - at the
stake for being a witch. After a round of duck jokes, we
smacked a few villagers, freed the girl and fled with the
whole village chasing us. My character was thrilled he had
kept his low profile for so long. Ah well.
With this common experience behind us, we heard a story from
the psion about her parents being turned inside out by
demons, and began to get a "strange feeling of being drawn
together and that we are somehow psychically connected." We
headed for the hills looking for answers.
We found a strange barrow where we learned a villain had
infused us all with the blood of various creatures to create
strong minions that would help him take over the world with
his demonic weekly poker group.
Though we were created at different times, our demon daddy
was just activating our bloodlines now and drew us to this
place to fully unlock our heritage. As a group we agreed
this was not cool, and we bonded and banded together to stop
this demonic plot.
- The PCs were prisoners, marching in a chain gang between
cities, when the slavers had a wandering monster encounter.
The PCs took advantage of the chaos to slip their bonds, get
a jab or two in, and then escape into the wilderness.
- The PCs were condemned to death by hanging. At the
hanging, their ropes snapped and they fell through the
platform into a secret room where they were recruited by an
entrepreneurial mercenary captain. Illusion was used to make
it look like the PCs were successfully killed.
- This idea comes from the good old N4 Treasure Hunt module
for AD&D. The PCs were strangers shipwrecked on an island.
They were 0 level characters and their actions eventually
won them first level and determined their character class.
Treasure Hunt (module)
- The PCs were friends and regulars at a tavern that had
rooms for rent and a chef famous for using monster parts as
ingredients. One of the PCs learns he has just inherited the
tavern. The PCs spend the campaign fetching monster parts
for the demanding chef, follow plot hooks dropped by various
room renters, and get mixed up in neighborhood politics.
- The PCs are random folks who hire on to a sailing ship in
1765. The ship is a Baltimore clipper type: fast, small and
The point of the campaign is to sail around the world of the
18th century grubbing for gold, encountering problems and
having ethical dilemmas to figure out, and give
opportunities for GMs to rape and pillage Wikipedia for
historical and semi-fantastic plot ideas.
- This idea requires players willing to put a lot of trust
in the GM. The characters awaken in a state of confusion.
Hand the players blank character sheets and tell them their
characters have total amnesia.
As they awake, they are in what looks like an oversized
living room where everything is covered in blood. In each
character's hand is a different improvised weapon: a
candlestick, a kitchen knife, etc. The weapons from "Clue"
One by one, take them aside and tell them that, as they
awaken, they see bloodied people (the other PCs, but they
don't need to know that) rising from behind various pieces
of furniture. Allow them to state one action, then it's off
to the next PC.
When everyone has stated their actions, each is then
resolved with all present. Let it develop from there. The
idea was they had to try to discover their abilities while
figuring out who they were and what they were doing there.
In my game it was Ravenloft, and they were in an insane
asylum where the doctors were experimenting on patients. The
gore was from the patient revolt, and the PCs are the only
survivors. The PCs were put there by foreign agents seeking
to keep them out of the way while they tried to pry info out
of the party using magic, truth serum and torture.
- Vista City Police Dept. The PCs are detectives and
uniformed police officers assigned to the VCPD's "Special
Investigations Squad" - a squad designed to warehouse
weirdos, work cold cases, handle weird cases no other squad
wants and be political scapegoats protecting the Chief Of
Police from controversy.
This is a light urban fantasy - murder mysteries mixed with
occasional supernatural encounters.
- Vista Point. In the 1870s the PCs are residents of Vista
Point, a Western town. Besides having day jobs, they are
part-time deputy sheriffs and posse members.
- Omega Squad. The PCs are meta humans recruited by the
United Nations for a special peacekeeping force. (Basically
a rip-off of GURPS IST.) Also a dumping ground for
- Discrete Investigations Internationale. The PCs are
private detectives and bodyguards who work for a franchised
detective agency, run by a retired European adventurer
(Named Monsieur Treville, for the captain of the Musketeers
in The Three Musketeers). PCs could wind up visiting foreign
offices of DII to investigate other cases.
This scenario also included urban fantasy elements. Besides
fighting government conspiracies, evil overlords and master
criminals, the DII detectives also encountered supernatural
incidents and creatures.
- Green Jack's Salvage (Star Wars). The PCs are down-on-
their-luck adventurers who hire on as mechanics and
salvagers for a semi-retired adventurer, Green Jack. Using
beat-up ships and well-used tools, the PCs hunt for treasure
and lucrative salvage, as well as engage in some
investigation, security and leg-breaking work for Green
Jack's friends and customers.
As employees and hired hands, supposedly the better they
grubbed for money, the better off they'd all be. This was an
attempt to get away from the "All the PCs have badges and
obligations to do the right thing" campaigns I tend to
However, the PCs quickly ran afoul of the Empire (amazing
how quickly a bunch of well armed, money grubbing outsiders
will find a way to annoy the secret police) and became semi-
voluntary pawns of the Rebellion.
- Macton Patrol (Star Wars). Macton is an obscure frontier
world. The Macton Patrol Doubles as the local police and
national guard. The local government wants law and order to
promote business, but especially wants to avoid any
controversy. The Emperor has a tendency to respond to
controversy on imperial worlds by mass executing civil
government people and installing a military governor.
The PCs are hired as pilots for Macton's second rate
fighters to ward off pirate attacks and as back up street
patrol officers. Basically, this is the Vista City Police
Department Game with added fighter planes, set on a
backwater Star Wars planet. Interestingly enough, it was a
very successful game until the PCs separated in a loud huff
to pursue separate destinies.
- The Quest for the keys of La-Arial (Dungeons and
Dragons). The PCs were residents of the Kingdom of Gala,
summoned as 1st level characters to report to the capital to
serve a mandatory term of service in the Galadrian Army.
- Dinosaurs and six-guns! The PCs are a random collection
of characters living in and moving through an Old West town
in 1875. During the night, a huge storm slams into the town
with blinding rain, hail thunder and lightning.
The morning finds the town has been transported to a fantasy
world. The town is along the flanks of a valley, a no-mans
land filled with dinosaurs and other fantastic creatures.
The town must regroup and adapt to survive in their new
- The Crusaders. A diverse group of military personnel are
recruited into a secret special ops squad. They operate as
deniable hitters, bodyguards, spies and problem solvers for
the government, while supposedly fulfilling mundane jobs at
a large naval air station near the campaign's central city.
My first adventure for this campaign featured the PCs being
sent to a South American country to bodyguard an honest but
anti-American left-wing judge, while local drug lords tried
to assassinate and bomb him.
- Eye on L.A. From 1980 to 1987 this sort of news/human
interest/reality show produced weekly 1/2 hour shows
featuring supposedly interesting places, people and things -
the more touristy and loopy, the better.
What more perfect cover for an undercover group of spies,
monster hunters or other problem solvers? The PCs are an RV
full of producers, directors, camera men, sound men,
technicians and talent who travel the country desperately
seeking the entertaining and the stupid to film for their
weekly TV show, while stomping monsters, foiling spy rings,
defeating crime lords and other wise adventuring.
- I have considered running a low level fantasy
game where the PCs are members of the local town guard,
defending the town from loopy adventurers and bandits,
undertaking special missions for the local lord and
generally making the world safe for Feudalism.
- Players began with zero level characters. The system was
Iron Heroes plus the SRD sanity system. The setting was
Eberron in the ancient Dhakaani Empire (goblinoids) when the
denizens of Xoriat (plane of madness, mostly aberrations)
They chose ability scores, race (goblin, hobgoblin or
bugbear) and traits. They had a few skill points, bonus
languages and two feats they could choose immediately or
keep until first level. They also had ten tokens with which
to activate special class abilities.
The session started with them working in the fields when
monsters attack. As they fought, the PCs saw their village
burning and more creatures stalking about, so they decided
to flee while they could after killing their attackers.
To achieve first level they had two goals, one in-character
and one metagame. They had to reach the nearest city, and
then they had to find mentors in the classes they wished to
enter. By providing the second goal in a metagame way, it
left the method to achieving it open.
Start in medias res with one PC being chased by the others.
During the chase, flash back to the events leading up to it.
When I played this it was pretty fun and interesting, but it
also instilled a little bit of distrust between the
These are inspired from Treasure Tables
- As part of character creation, ask for a reason why each
character is at the starting location. Tie the reasons into
the plot as you build the scenarios.
- Have a common threat bind the characters together.
They're all in the same town/tavern, or on the same
wagon/caravan, and they have to help out.
- Borrow from Spirit of the Century, and during the making
of the backstory, have each person hand someone else their
character; that person tells a story that involves both
- Require each person to share a common thread or history with
at least two other members of the group. It need not be the
same thread with both (in Firefly, Zoe fought alongside Mal,
but is married to Wash.), and multiple members can use the
same threads (everyone is part of Mal's crew).
- Start in a jail where each character was somehow
targeted by the same group or are disparate groups involved
in the same caper. The plot then naturally gravitates
towards unraveling that caper.
- And then there's one of my favorites: Crucify Elminster.
Take a well-known fact or central NPC figure and drastically
alter it. This single action clearly states, "This is MY
campaign, and what you think you know from reading all those
books will only serve to confuse you." And it gives a great
mystery to investigate.
- Start the campaign by having the PCs crawl out of a vat
and become conscripts for demons in the Blood War. The last
thing they remember is dying on their first adventure.
- The characters find themselves in a room with about 340
other NPCs. They have no memory of their past lives. All
they know are their class abilities, spells and skills. All
they have is one suit of armor and one weapon.
Suddenly, the room starts filling with water. Four doors
appear and a voice says, "Leave and work together to
survive, or stay and drown." So the PCs join together and
have to overcome whatever problem they find beyond the door
- In one of my most recent campaigns, I ran GURPS
Fantasy/Cliffhangers. The PCs started out bound and gagged
in the back of a horse-drawn carriage. There's no driver and
the carriage is heading straight towards a blind cliff edge.
Each PC could feel a lump on his head where he had been
knocked out. The captors had done a quick search and removed
any obvious items or weapons.
If the player specified at character creation that he had
something hidden, I left it there, as well as any armor he
might have been wearing, as the captors didn't take time to
I didn't tell any of the players what I was planning ahead
of time, just that it was a generic fantasy world. I also
wrote down any gear the captors had removed and had it
placed in a chest on the back of the carriage so that there
was a chance at them salvaging any starting equipment.
- I had an empire-wide contest to become a state-
sanctioned treasure seeker. Every PC had to be a citizen and
a desire to travel and adventure. To qualify for the contest
they had to display some feat. The players roleplayed this
out so they could be introduced to each PC's skill a little
All the people who arrive for the contest are randomly put
into groups of 10. Each group goes gets subjected to certain
tests of skill, endurance and knowledge (all the PCs end up
in the same group, of course).
I made sure to have one NPC in the group everyone was sure
to hate (a snotty aristocrat know-it-all cheater) and one
NPC everyone could laugh at (a club-footed-cleft-palated-
idiot with a good heart).
In the middle of a contest, the audience rioted against the
authorities. This gave the PCs a chance to come to the aid
of the authorities and work together because all of the
other NPCs ran away. They teamed up and demonstrated a
little valor. They all succeed in becoming a state
sanctioned treasure seeker, and for their actions during the
riots they all receive a reward from the authorities at the
I had plenty of options from that point. The PCs could be
hired by the authorities to investigate the cause of the
riot and the riot's instigator could become a common enemy
of the PCs. A new NPC could express interest in the group
after having seen their work at the adventurer contest and
offer to hire them. Or a PC leader could toss out his or her
own adventure hook and invite the others to join in the
- The PCs are summoned to the capitol for a blood, magic
or purity test. No one tells them why the test is necessary,
why they've been chosen or what will happen if they test
- Two competing gods use player characters as pawns in a
"I bet you can't make anyone I choose into your champions,
and use them to start a new era of divine reverence of
"Alright, sister, you're on, but at least one of them has to
believe in me to start with."
Whilst the Chaotic Good god of Time, Hafrin, was up for the
bet, his sister, Besellem, the Chaotic Evil goddess of
Shadows, was more than happy to ensure she won it by
arranging for minions to kill the PCs. This leaves the
characters on the run, in fear of their lives and not sure
why Hafrin was so interested in them in the first place.
Given Hafrin's motto is "Do what you think is right at the
time," divine guidance hasn't been all it could have
A variant could be applied to other settings using powerful
nobility, dragons, world leaders and so on.
- At the start of the campaign, have the players answer
two questions for their characters: What were you doing
between the equivalent ages of 6 to 10, and how did you die?
All the characters begin newly raised from the dead, trying
to find out who brought them back and why.
- For a modern or horror setting:
The light changes and you begin to cross the street
surrounded by a large crowd as is the norm for this part of
town. The same is happening across the street. As you near
the middle of the street, you can see the corner ahead
is clear of people. You glance away for a moment and
when you look at the corner again, you see a few people
running away. No surprise, there's always someone in a rush
to be somewhere, but you also notice a small boy with yellow-
white hair, cream colored t-shirt and white pants. He's
holding something with a red splotch over his little chest.
You notice this for only a split second before you realize
he's staring at you.
As you reach the corner, the boy stretches out both his arms
to you, handing you something - an envelope of heavy cotton
paper. "For you, Mr. Jacobson," he says. You turn the
envelope over to look at the red splotch, a red wax seal.
You look back at the boy to ask him who he is and who sent
the envelope but the boy is nowhere to be seen. He must have
run away into the crowd.
Each of the characters received such an envelope from this
enigmatic boy. The envelope contained an invitation to a
dinner with a somewhat eccentric fellow who had an unnerving
amount of information about each of them (dropped as hints,
inside jokes and innuendo throughout the meal). The
characters were then hired to retrieve an artifact before a
rival group could acquire it. This same messenger boy has
been employed a couple of times since.
When I ran this, two of the players were quite sure the red
splotch was blood, and all of them have expressed different
levels of creepy coming off this innocent little boy.
- Village friends. Something happens in a backwater
village and several friends work to solve the problem,
encounter more interesting things and start to adventure. In
this case, a farmer's wife was taken by ogres. They got her
back, but while out in the woods they discovered more things
they wanted to explore.
Use circle development. At first, set adventures very close
to your starting locale and develop outward, building plot
hooks into the descriptions. You'll be able to develop the
region as you go, right down to the personalities of
important or colorful NPCs.
- A retired adventurer has set up an adventure club in a
remote or dangerous location. In exchange for one share of
the take and a choice among the magic taken, the club offers
a comfortable base, researches possible adventures and
supplies healing and recovery for the party.
- This was for four characters starting at first level who
did not know each other at the beginning of the campaign.
The characters responded to an advertisement looking for
adventurers for hire. Upon arriving at the warehouse
location they were instructed with along with everyone else
to form a single line and lots would be drawn. Each lot
would either be blank or have one of four symbols on it -
drawing a blank would send you home.
I had the players actually pull lots for this at the table,
and as "luck" would have it, they all pulled lots with the
same symbol on it. In addition to the PCs, twelve others
were selected and all sixteen were then seated at four
tables - each table matching the symbol on the lot they
I next had a simple puzzle box challenge for the group to
figure out. The players had to do this with a just little
direction based on some knowledge rolls. They were told that
only three teams would move onto the next challenge and they
just managed to come in third.
After the puzzle box, the remaining teams had to negotiate a
maze. There were four doors that could be used as an exit,
all locked and each needing a different key. It was a
condition that they use a key - no lockpicking! They were
also informed that only two teams would move on from this
challenge. In this case the PCs were first out.
The final challenge was a cross country race to the
potential employer's home - a tower about a day's march.
Along the way, there were two small encounters where the PCs
had to use steel and spells to get through. Once at the
tower the PCs were introduced to their potential employer
and we moved on from there.
What was nice about this was that everyone was able to get
into their characters and interact with each other. There
was some nice role-playing involved, not just between the
PCs but also with the other contestants (more than one enemy
was made during this). It also gave everyone a chance to
showcase a bit of their characters and build team unity
- I once ran a Champions campaign where superpowers had
been declared outlawed by international agreement. This was
following a massive war among super villains that left huge
chunks of civilization in ruins, and most heroes and
Twenty years later, the PCs were high-powered characters,
all hiding their powers and trying to lead normal lives.
They were virtually the only people in the world who
recognized a supernatural uber-threat to all mankind. They
had to continually battle and hide from the UN superpower
police (S.P.U.N.-the players named that group), and battle
the various warlocks and critter-type agents of the uber-
I started it with one of the group members being chased by
SPUN. The PCs were all strangers to each other, and the
others joined the fray at a major intersection. Each PC had
their own reason for being there, but was shocked at seeing
another super, and moved to help him escape. A major fracas
ensued, and only got more chaotic with the release of the
first minor extra-dimensional minions. At the end of the
fight, I let them see a few warlocks escaping, just to let
them know there was an organized threat. They banded
together and the campaign was on.
- In the last campaign I ran, an NPC antagonist was
involved directly or indirectly with the background stories
of all the PCs. He had stolen a holy text from a temple and
the cleric PC was sent to recover it. The ninja PC was sent
to bring back his head, as he was a renegade ninja from the
PC's clan. The Sumo PC had visions of the end of the world
involving this NPC.
The PCs were all on the same ship in hot pursuit of the NPC
when it shipwrecked on an island. That night they discovered
tiny tracks leading into and out of the beach. The PCs had
to work together first to survive, then in search of their
- I started a D&D campaign in a bar where weapons were not
permitted and I would not allow the PCs to talk to each
other. I had the players roll five d20s, write down the
results and give them to me. I then started a fight and got
them involved, using the results of the d20 rolls and a
percentage chance of actually hitting the other PCs. The
fight went five rounds before the city patrol came into the
bar and threw them all in the same jail cell where they
became friends and banded together to fight evil.
- A friend of mine once started an Amber campaign like
Every PC has a secret the GM gives him. "Corwin is my
father, but everyone thinks it is Eric. Never let anyone
find out that Corwin is really my dad." "When you were
little and playing in the corridors of Castle Amber, you saw
Dworkin walk through a secret door. Dworkin made you promise
to never tell anyone of these secret passageways."
All the PCs are told separately they need to keep an eye on
one of the other PCs just in case they are insane.
They are all invited to the Amber Fall Ball in one week.
It set up intrigue from the very beginning. It was a great
- The PCs discover that there is a monster inside one of them,
but don't know which one. Give PCs clues as to who and where
while keeping them on their toes. They need to keep each
other in sight lest the monster burst from one of them. This
works as a great glue especially at low levels.
- We had a London-based Shadowrun game where summoned
spirits were actually demons breaking through, trying to
destroy the world. The PCs were the chosen ones there to
stop them, complete with an old man who was inheritor of
prophecy and by awareness of the future had become immensely
rich and influential to finance our fight against the
As the plot gained speed and steam, we discovered what was
going on (shocked Shadowrunners), learned the prophecy
(incredulous Shadowrunners), found out the demons had three
power centres - Stonehenge, a volcano in Hawaii, and the
Pyramids, all three of which had to be active in order for
them to take over the world - and we had to destroy one
(hysterically incredulous and planning to be drunk
Our mentor asked us, "Which do you want to assault first and
what do you need to do it?"
"What have you got?"
"Well, I have contacts in the British Army, Navy and RAF,
Government and Secret Service - whatever you need
"Okay, well tell you what, launch a cruise missile strike on
Stonehenge and get a destroyer to bombard the pyramids to
dust just to cover our bases. We're going down the pub."
"But that would cause an international incident!"
"It's saving the world. By the way, we quit your employ, Mr
Johnson. Don't call us."
Only slightly bettered by the demolitions expert's proposal
to walk out of the building and say, "Oh, I've left my
briefcase behind....prophecy this." *activate detonator*
which wasn't done in the end because the GM was staring at
him in disbelief.
- Have the characters spend one game session as younger
versions of themselves. They start off as teenagers who all
belong to the same clique. Present them as outsiders who
share common antagonists such as the school bully, the
popular group, abusive authorities, etc. Show how, by
sticking together, they can overcome these obstacles. Then,
flash forward ten years or so, or whenever you want your
campaign to begin. Even if they have lost touch, there is
still that bond.
- In my current game, set in a dark version of my hometown
of Mobile, AL, I was dealing with very diverse socio-
economic characters. Some fabulously wealthy, some living in
trailers, with all the life experiences such backgrounds
entail. Normally, these characters would never hang around
together. What I did was insert a similar tragedy into each
of their backgrounds: the mysterious murder of a loved one.
Then I had them meet each other at a group grief counseling
session. The bonds were formed over a mutual tragedy that
could allow each character to empathize with and like his or
- The characters are all beneficiaries named in the will
of a dead rich adventurer. One of the things he left them
were maps to adventure sites he never visited. Sure, it's a
bit trite, but it worked well.
- Make the PCs all part of the same organization. I had
created the Dragonslayers. All characters were taken from
their homes around 10-15 years old (they were dwarves), to
be taken to the Dragonslayers' home. In that world, I had
decided that the number 5 was important, so all groups were
five people. I had four players, and I teamed them up with a
fifth character who was their teleport specialist.
- The family reunion. All the characters had the same
unknown father and all had decided to look for him. In
following clues, they had ended up in the same place. This
is handy if you have an often-changing group of players, as
new characters can be easily introduced when necessary. We
never did find out what was up with dear ol' dad, but we had
no race restrictions either....
- The game started in the winter season. All the
characters were travelling separately in the same area and
suddenly it began to snow much harder than normal. The snow
came down harder and harder, until the weather conditions
were so bad they had to look for shelter.
The only place were they could shelter was an old crumbled
So all of the characters made a run for the tower, and once
inside they saw other people (the other characters) who were
also taking shelter from the blizzard. And at a point when
all of them were inside and were introduced to each other,
the only entrance collapsed.
The only way to get out was to work together, because they
had to go through a mini-dungeon I worked out, where each
character had a chance to stand in the spotlight and show to
the rest of the party how useful they were.
- Overwhelmed hiring NPC. This idea can work well whether
the PCs know each other or not. If they don't, they get to
learn about each other; if they do, they can sometimes
relive past accomplishments to help convince the NPC.
Have the PCs participate in a group interview. Each has
their own reasons for interviewing for a job: competition,
to be part of a caravan, or whatever the event is.
However, due to overwhelming response, the hiring NPC
decides to conduct group interviews. The characters just
happen to be selected to all interview together. They
quickly realize this has turned into a full group interview,
and if even one of the people in the room with them right
now isn't satisfactory they will all miss out on the
It is always fun to see the party members touting each
others skills and abilities, and even showing off or lying
to get the position they want. Sometimes, they may even find
that what they say is actually something they believe.
- Choose your party. This idea can take a little longer to
get going, but ultimately the players will feel it was their
choice to travel and meet challenges together. It can also
help them to appreciate why each of them is needed.
Present one PC with a challenge. When attempted, the PC
should realize they are going to need help. They then start
searching out the right type of people who can and will help
This start can take a little longer, but it permits an
opportunity for role playing and non-combat teamwork. It
also presents a few places to place plot hooks for future
events (the challenge itself, rumors heard while searching
for other adventurers, and my personal favorite, snubbed
- Bumping into each other. Another strategy I use is that
most player's characters will be traveling at some point,
for some reason. They all happen to be near an area at about
the same time, and an event occurs, such as smoke in the
distance at a burning wayside inn, a young woman traveling
alone is attacked nearby or a farmer's wagon breaks down in
the road. Just come up with an event that you think all of
your players would interrupt their travels for, and place it
smack in the middle of all of them.
- The PCs are all kids from the same small town and same
age going to adventure when a mutual friend disappears.
- The PCs are all in the same mess: they find themselves
in the same ruins with no memory of the past, or traveling
in the same area when a geological or weather-based crisis
strikes and they're forced to take shelter together.
- You're in the army now: There's a large scale war and
the characters have been enrolled. However, their special
abilities mark them for a special investigation unit as evil
cults are growing now that most of the weapon wielders are
away from home.
- The PCs dream of each other, perhaps because each has a
special item that relates. In my campaign, the PCs all found
a odd shaped stone bearing a rune. Those stones provided
special abilities (e.g. fire rune -> protection vs. fire)
and gave dreams showing the possessors or the location of
the other stones. All the stones formed a jigsaw puzzle.
This had a long introduction. It took four sessions to get
- An evil cult in a small Massachusetts town wants to grow
tourism to provide more victims with less hassle. They use
the town council to create a Historical Development
Committee, which is run by the cultists. The PCs are members
of a team from the National Trust for Historic Preservation,
brought in as contractors.
* * *
Jeremy B., Jay P. Hailey, Chris J. Whitcomb, Eric
FitzMedrud, Deformed Rabbit, Jae Walker, Jonac Marcel,
Soylent Green, Garry Stahl, John Gallagher, Reed Ulvestad,
Telas, Bobby Nichols, Gus, Jeffrey G. Strause, Bobby
Nichols, Kate Manchester, Mike "Pika" McLarty, Fred Ramsey,
François Beausoleil, Sandrinnad, Jeroen Aarts, Mike D.,
Joachim de Ravenbel, Tom, Mark of the Pixie, Jeremehovah,
Thanks to Heather Myers for a super editing job on this
Drops of Blood on My Forehead
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Game Master Tips & Tricks
Have some GM advice you'd like to share? E-mail it to firstname.lastname@example.org - thanks!
1. Another Great Obstacle Course Idea
From Jerry Jensen
re: Roleplaying Tips Issue #499
Congratulations on reaching #500! I've been waiting to see
the city encounters and found many of them to be fun and
interesting. I also saw you posted a response to my inquiry
regarding an obstacle course. I really like readers' ideas
and will use them as part of a climatic ending for my
Fighters Guild training course.
I also came up with obstacle cards for 3 different courses,
easy, moderate and hard. Each card has a point value
assigned, which is awarded if the PC completes the obstacle
successfully. More on that below.
To add to the excitement, and to give the course a "rigged"
effect (for entertainment if the obstacle course is used for
a gauntlet type of game) there are also checkboxes at the
bottom of each card to see if a conditional modifier is
added. If so, a modifier card is drawn at random and added
to the obstacle. Some cards say "no additional modifier" and
some have a "special" checkbox.
So, for example, a PC is faced with a knotted swing rope,
the DM uses the special box and adds in a magical invisible
wall half way across. The intent is meant to be funny and
entertaining, rather than humiliating the players.
Last but not least is the point system. Players are awarded
points for each obstacle they complete in the course. If
they fail an obstacle they can retry if stated on the card
or move on to the next obstacle.
If they make it within the top three positions, they are
awarded prizes (usually gold). The DM would determine the
point value of the top three positions based on the overall
length and difficulty of the course.
I made a file for RP readers of my obstacle course cards, if
they are interested.
Obstacle Cards [PDF]
Here are my D&D notes on building the course.
Steps to Building a D&D Obstacle Course:
10(+) cards to represent course (or track)
- each card has 1 obstacle
- cards may be laid out in a sequence or pulled at
random to create the first course.
Obstacles - Assign each a DC (add Skill Check modifiers as
- Trivial DC 10
- Simple DC 15
- Standard DC 20
- Difficult DC 25
- Very difficult DC 30
Reminder: Like building a chase, vary the DCs and skill
checks. Two obstacles from card-to-card should be roughly
within 5 points, not identical.
- Rope wall, rope ladder, rope bridge, tightrope, swing rope
- Rock wall, pole, pole tops, narrow ledge, (add moving to
each of these to increase DC by 5)
- Wood bridge, swinging objects
Targeted Skill Checks:
- Acrobatics (balance, dive, flip, jump, roll)
- Escape Artist (slip out of bonds or restraints, tight spaces, grapples)
- Fortitude (withstand physical punishment - i.e., avoid
- Reflex (dodge area attacks or unexpected situations)
Fees and Winnings:
Beginner (to DC15)
Entry fee - 50 gp
- 1st place - 600 gp
- 2nd place - 400 gp
- 3rd place - 200 gp
Intermediate (to DC25)
Entry fee -100 gp
- 1st place-1,000 gp
- 2nd place-750 gp
- 3rd place - 500 gp
Expert (to DC30+)
Entry fee -200 gp
- 1st place - 2,000 gp
- 2nd place - 1,600 gp
- 3rd place - 1,200 gp
In larger cities, participants may have to complete a
separate qualifier course to determine their skill level.
Courses may be scored by time or point value. When a
participant cannot complete an obstacle they incur the
appropriate penalty and move to the next obstacle.
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2. Good Tile Map Maker
From Ben Scerri
Greetings again Johnn,
I just found this randomly:
Tile System - A Doom Map Editor
It is a Tile Map maker originally designed for use with the
Doom Board Game (designing layouts etc) but it can be used
to make some nifty grid based dungeon maps.
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3. Create PC Dossiers
re: Roleplaying Tips Issue #503
I just read the Design The Party Not The Characters article.
It's fun. One thing my fellow GM and I have done in our
group for the last two or three campaigns is character
The characters have fully fleshed out backgrounds. If they
know each other, that relationship has to be worked out for
both players ahead of time and written down.
The dossiers also include details such as favorite pop
culture and terrible fears so characters don't suddenly
charge at something that reminds them of their worst fear.
It has worked especially well in my current horror campaign
and my friend's espionage campaign. It gave us good ideas of
what would terrify the characters and what a character's
actual identity was.
[Thanks for the tip, Jeremy. Readers, there are a couple of dossier tips in this post Mike and I did at Campaign Mastery
you might find useful, ]
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4. Showing Players A New Game Without Overwhelming Them
This is Clive. I have a question about new people in D&D at
college. How do I, as the DM, show them the system without
overloading them with details and still make it enticing at
P.S. They seem in seem interested in D&D but I really don't
want to scare them.
- Offer them pre-generated encounters.
- Build a strong PC group backstory and reason for sticking
together and acting as a team.
- Have NPCs use various rules and tactics against the PCs.
Even if this sometimes puts the NPCs in weak tactical
positions, it's worth using them as learning devices until
the group is up to speed.
- Use a series of simple encounters to highlight a new rule
or situation each time.
That last one is key, and the best format I've found is a
competition, like a tournament. Run a series of events.
Start first with one based on a simple skill, like
perception. Then a more complex skill, like stealth. Even if
the PCs are poor at these skills, it introduces the mechanic
to them and a safe environment (a tournament).
Once you are ready to do combat, start with an archery
contest. Then do a three-round much (highest damage wins)
one-on-one. Then do group combats. Then do wrestling
(grappling) and special maneuvers events (bull rush,
flanking, etc.). Then do a free-for-all.
Offer a few side competitions for magic.
Introduce interesting NPCs as you go. Then near the end of
the tournament, introduce a small plot, like the Princess
being kidnapped. Allow the PCs downtime (i.e. an evening
between a two-day tournament) to pursue this short plot.
Then on day #2 hold your final event (best if the free-for-
all) and a ceremony at the end for all the event winners
plus a surprise award to the PCs for saving the Princess.
Along with the reward is the next plot hook, such as a
special meeting with the King on the morrow.
I've run this scenario a few times and it always works with
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57 ways to find great local gamers
Are you having trouble finding a new player for your
group? It is hard finding great gamers that are a
That's why I wrote an entire ebook on the topic. It
shows you where to look and what to do to fill the
empty chair at your game table.
Check it out:
Replacing the Empty Chair
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Interesting Game Master Links
Some recent blog posts you might be interested in:
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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:
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
Advice and tips for designing compelling holidays that not
only expand your game world but provide endless natural
encounter, adventure, and campaign hooks.
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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