Roleplaying Tips Weekly E-Zine Issue #***
How do you make the boring stuff fun?
This Week's Tips Summarized
How do you make the boring stuff fun?
Game Master Tips & Tricks
- 2010 GMing Learnings
- Creating Emergent Stories
- Use Maslow's Pyramid of Needs To Create Cultures
- Another Way To Make Plots For Your Game
A Brief Word From Johnn
I Am A Player Now
Taking the advice from past issues, I have switched sides of
the screen. I will still be gaming twice a month, once as GM
and now once as player.
We had our first session two weeks ago. It is a D&D 4E game
and I am playing a wizard. Our characters are members of a
special guard force called the Red Sashes, and we operate in
an eastern setting based on Turkey.
The game opened with us getting sent to the city of Rask and
assigned to an agent there. Upon arriving he greeted us with
hostility, telling us to go back and leave the city alone.
We were steadfast though (it was a cool roleplaying
challenge) and we squeezed an assignment from our reluctant
handler. He told us to investigate reports of tentacled
creatures near a town about two days away. Well played, GM,
as it got us to leave the city anyway. :)
We journey to the town and roleplay some info gathering from
residents. We learn a few things, choose a direction and
head out. Our destination is the crash zone of a Far Realm
At the site we spot a hole in the earth the object made when
it impacted. Cautiously we enter and encounter numerous
chaos creatures. The battle is a good one, with the
creatures using crystal growths to recharge and a deep
stream for physical separation and tactics.
Our new group learned a few ways to work together, and we
finished the session with victory over the warped creatures.
A side quest we picked up along the way was to discover the
fate of an elven lady's father, a merchant who had gone
missing en route to this area. Unfortunately, we discover
his body in the cave, half eaten by the creatures. We give
the body a proper burial and then head back to town.
It was great to be playing again. The one thing I noticed
was how much players are willing to meet a GM halfway (or
more) on details when those details are still uncertain.
As a first session using a game system we haven't played in
a year in a new homebrew setting, the GM did a great job
thinking on his feet. Especially when we did some
investigation. As a player, I was content with meta answers
like, "I do not know, but your character receives a few
facts that are not pertinent to his quest." And at other
times, I was pleased to offer details and have the GM decide
to use some of them.
So GMs, I think we should give our players more credit and
give them honest answers instead of blocking answers. We
should also be good listeners and take what players offer
us, instead of bearing the tough burden of having to create
everything ourselves all the time.
"The trees before you are impenetrable. There's no way you
can travel further in this direction. And to the north is a
tall mountain range - do not even think about going there."
"I do not know, but your character receives a few facts that
are not pertinent to his quest."
"I do not know, but your character receives a few facts that
are not pertinent to his quest. Please write a few ideas for
me on this index card."
I look forward to the next mission of the Red Sashes.
Get a game played this week!
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How To Make The Mundane Tasks In Gaming Fun And Playable
By Josh Sigafus
Before I had a lot of GM experience I would sometimes
encounter game sessions that did not go so well. Sometimes
sessions were spectacular...but there were always those
sessions where it seemed like the players were not as
interested, the adventures were not as fun, and the
challenges just didn't do it. It just wasn't entertaining!
As I got better, I realized a few things about these game
- When I got bored, the players got bored.
- The best sessions were the ones where something memorable
happened. For example, a boss battle, some kind of
confrontation, a mystery developed.
- The sessions where everything seemed to drop out of the
middle were usually the ones in the in-between stages of the
For example, the battle at the castle would go great, but
when it came time for the PCs to travel to the capitol (one
week's travel away), game play would get tedious.
The problem was these in-between sessions usually went too
fast. In an effort to get the players to the next scheduled
confrontation, I would shuffle them from place to place
quickly. This left the game play boring and caused us to
miss out on a lot of detail.
A lot of GMs focus on the intense, big things: the battles,
the clanging of the swords, the fire coming out of the
dragon's nostrils. But these quiet sessions, when there are
not hordes of orcs to fight, are the ones that give you the
opportunity to explore detail in a finer and grittier sense.
In a recent session in our game, the players had just gone
through several roadblocks to find some treasure they
sought. In addition to traveling several days through the
mountains on horseback, they also:
- Fought a horde of goblins.
- Raided the goblin cave, finding an even bigger horde of
- Got stalked and attacked by a pack of large, magical wolves.
- Found the treasure cave, swam through a murky stream to
find a hidden passage, and crawled through the mud into the
cavernous treasure room.
- Upon entering the room, they were greeted by a wall of
spider web...and were attacked by two giant spiders who
could wield moderate-level magic. One of the players got
caught in the web, and the others had to save her from being
spun up and eaten!
- Fell off the cliff they were trying to climb down on their
way home. If it were not for the party druid and her magical
healing spells, they might have had a rough time of it!
Well, the high point was over. The treasure was found (a
magical sword that held the presence of a once powerful
wizard). But now what?
Back when I was an inexperienced GM, I might have asked
"what do you want to do now?" However, having been here
before, and seeing how game play can go downhill fast after
an adventure, I explained some of the following. All of them
were facts, but they were facts the players would probably
not have noticed on their own.
- The PCs had killed a lot of goblins, and the goblin blood
all over their clothes was starting to smell like rotten
- The characters were full of mud, their clothes were in
tatters, and they had worse body odor than an orc in a
- Neither they, nor their horses, had eaten or drank water
in about 24 hours, so they were on the verge of falling over
- I pointed out the party ranger was almost out of arrows,
the druid was almost out of darts, and the entire party
needed new clothing. Theirs was completely ruined.
All of these things were true, but they are sometimes not
the first things we think about while running a campaign.
Well, there was a small trading village about a day's ride
from the PCs' location, and they decided to head that way
for new clothing, weapon upgrades and possibly a bath!
Once the characters entered the city, I again tried to take
a mundane task and turn it into something interesting. When
the ranger went to the general trading post to sell wolf
pelts he had taken from their battle with the wolves, the
shop owner was utterly repulsed and half angry the ranger
even dared to come in! Why? Take your pick:
- The ranger had not bathed in a week.
- He was wearing smelly, dirty, foul smelling leather armor
over tattered, blood stained, muddy clothing.
- He was trading un-tanned pelts. He just skinned the
animals. Therefore, the pelts reeked of dead animal flesh.
The store owner told him "You should pay ME, just to dispose
of these nasty pelts for you!"
Here is another example. When the half-orc barbarian sought
out the inn to try and scrounge up a bath the woman behind
the inn counter was utterly repulsed at the sight of him and
ordered him out of her establishment. He proceeded to buy
clothes and a bar of soap at the trading post, and made his
way to the river to bathe. Well, this was another mundane
task, so I decided to throw something interesting in.
When he rounded the corner, he spotted a female halfling
sitting on a rock, dangling her feet in the water. She did
not even come up to his waist, and she was dressed like a
rogue. She struck up a conversation with him that went
something like this...
Halfling: "So, you taking a bath in the river?"
Halfling: "Why don't you take a bath in the inn?"
Half-orc: "Uh, the inn keeper told me to leave."
Halfling turns up her nose. "You are going to smell like
fish after bathing in this river."
Half-orc: "Well, I smell like death right now...I figure
fish is something to aspire to!"
Halfling: "Well, don't mind me. But since you mentioned you
are headed south, I was wondering if you might be interested
in hiring someone with my talents?"
The players got a good laugh out of this, and after a
meeting, they decided to hire the halfling. They now have an
NPC with them who has talents no-one else in the group
possesses. Something positive came out of it, and it was not
even planned. Just spur of the moment.
To finish off my article, here are some tips to make mundane
tasks memorable and interesting.
* Take your time. Do not rush through the session. Add
realism and detail. Make sure you are completely done with a
task before rushing onto the next thing.
* Take a moment, at least once per session, to point out
some obvious things the group might not notice. For example,
do they smell bad? Are they out of gun powder? Is the
fighter's shield damaged from that troll's club? Do they
need food? Do they need a haircut?
- Introduce a new and interesting NPC at least once per
session. This could be an old guy sitting in the tavern, a
halfling rogue by the river or a mysterious wizard who asks
them if they need any healing potions.
Sometimes they will just nod their head and go their
separate ways, but you never know when you might be able to
use this NPC to great effect. Perhaps the players will
invite the character to join their party or do some sort of
business with him?
- Throw curve balls in there once in awhile. Make them easy
to avoid, but make them tempting. For example, maybe the
elven handmaiden takes a fancy to the group's ranger, or
maybe there is a cute wolf pup for sale outside a local
trading store. The PCs might not even care...but maybe they
- If there are NPCs traveling with the PCs, stir up some
conversation. Perhaps the druid NPC did not approve of the
way the wizard PC used a fireball to take out a helpless
enemy after the battle. Perhaps the druid even begins
insulting the wizard, and cursing his arcane magic, calling
it a "bag of cheap tricks."
- Another provocative tactic is to make NPCs throw racial
slurs at the PCs. Some examples might include an inn keeper
that does not approve of them "half orc folk," or how that
human princess does not trust the "pointy eared ones."
- Explain things that happen in detail. Instead of the
shopkeeper "taking the money and handing over the hardtack,"
you might say, "the shop keeper, eyeing the ranger one more
time, reluctantly took the money and half-tossed the
hardtack back at the PC, murmuring something about how he
needed a bath and a shave..."
- When the party travels long distances by horseback, do not
just fast forward to the next day. Throw some things in
there. Maybe they come across an abandoned cabin, meet a
group of fishermen or get stalked by a pack of wolves. Maybe
a horse steps into a groundhog hole or bandits try to hold
them up. Maybe they find an abandoned wagon beside the road,
only to find a cursed necklace in it that (they learn later)
brings bad luck.
Remember a few simple rules.
- Slow down
- Pay attention to detail
- Enjoy every moment of the session
- Do not miss a single opportunity to make the game
- Find epic gaming in the mundane. Use well-played
normalness to make battles seem all the more intense and
awesome. If the PCs are used to fishing and haggling with
traders (and enjoying it) then having a group of evil
paladins attacking them with katanas will seem intense!
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Idle Hands are the DM's Plaything
By Alex Riggs
With permission from:
Necromancers of the Northwest
Recently at Necromancers Online, I wrote an article about
DMs who don't have enough time to do their DM work, and what
sorts of steps they can take to improve their game.
Today I'll be approaching the opposite problem:
If you're a DM with a lot of extra time, what can you do to
take your game from good to great, and drop your players'
jaws to the floor?
1. Create Unique Mechanical Effects For Your PCs (And
Everyone likes to feel special, and nothing says special
more than having some power or ability that no one else has.
Further, many players have ideas for things they would like
their characters to be able to do, but which don't translate
directly into the rules.
For example, I once had a player who wanted to tweak their
druid PC's normal ability to change his shape into that of
animals. In exchange for having the potential to transform
into slightly better shapes than normally allowed, all his
transformations would be determined randomly - he might be a
woolly mammoth, or he might be a dormouse.
It took a fair amount of work. I scoured sourcebooks for
appropriate monsters to fill out the list; balanced the
distribution of good shapes versus bad ones; and created
some additional fine print to keep the ability from being
too abusable, mostly by also having a random chance he
couldn't change back for a certain duration.
Eventually, I had the whole thing rigged up in an Excel
table, and with the push of a button I could determine
randomly what he changed into and how long he was stuck that
way (if at all).
In a smaller-scale example, another player played a gloura
(a kind of Underdark moth fey) ice mage. He thought that,
between the ice and the moth angle, it'd be cool if she was
afraid of fire, so he wanted to have the cold subtype for
If you have time to put the effort into it, sit down with
each player and talk about their characters from a flavor
perspective. Find out what makes the character tick, and
what sorts of things the player would like to see happen
with that character.
This is a great way to get plot hooks and other adventure
themes based on that player's character. You can also use it
to look into giving special benefits, such as providing
mechanics for the character's existing flavor, or expanding
on that flavor by granting the character some kind of new
power. Perhaps a paladin receives a magical blade that
passes harmlessly through anyone with an innocent heart, or
a wizard receives a custom spell allowing her to do
something that no other spell can do.
Also give a few special and unique powers to your villains
to make them stand out on the battlefield as something to
watch out for, especially if those powers are interesting or
different enough from the sorts of things you already see a
2. Add Embellishments To People, Places And Things
If you have the time, you should consider adding some extra
details and flavor to your existing NPCs, treasure items,
and locations. A +2 flaming sword is basically just a bunch
of numbers. A magic sword carved with mystic runes is cool.
A magic sword with a golden eagle for the crossguard and an
engraving along the blade which reads "Unos Salos Victus"
(which I'm told means "The Last Hope of the Doomed") is even
cooler. That same sword is cooler still if a successful
Knowledge (history) check can identify that such swords
belong to the Brotherhood of Pillars, an ancient and secret
order of knights who are sworn to protect the kingdom from
the shadows, appearing whenever a great crisis threatens the
land, only to disappear again once the dust clears.
By the same token, a fat innkeeper is a placeholder, and the
players will most likely pay him little mind (and be in the
right to do so). A retired adventurer who opened his own inn
is better, especially if he has a few scars and maybe an
unusual monster head mounted on the wall somewhere. But when
he has a few adventuring stories to tell over a round or two
of drinks near closing time, whether simply entertaining
stories about his triumphs or potential plot-hooks about
treasures that got away, he starts to become a more
interesting and well-rounded character. Perhaps he'll even
get the itch to go out and do some more adventuring, and the
tavern will be handed over to his cousin or niece for a few
adventures while he's gone. These sorts of little details
allow your campaign to feel more like a living, breathing,
organic entity than a cardboard backdrop stage for your PCs
to wave prop-swords around on.
3. Create Mini-Adventures That Reward PCs Who Take An
Interest In Them
This is definitely an "above and beyond" sort of DM work, as
there's a good chance that your PCs may never even notice
this happening. Suppose the PCs come across a giant pile of
coins. These coins are ancient, and are minted with strange
symbols the PCs have never seen before. Now, the PCs can use
them just like any other gold pieces, and if they do, that's
the end of that. On the other hand, if they take the trouble
to track down the right collector (not necessarily an easy
task), maybe they can get some more value for them.
Alternatively, perhaps the coins all have strange markings
on the back, and by putting them together like a puzzle, the
PCs can create a treasure map to an even greater hoard. If
the symbol were evocative enough, the PCs might be able to
determine from it that the coins are extraplanar, and may
even be able to use one in place of the "tuning fork"
required to cast plane shift, allowing them to travel
directly to the City of Brass, or wherever strikes your
Similarly, the man staying next door to the PCs in the inn
room might have some secret agenda, which the PCs can get
involved in if it piques their curiosity, or can ignore if
they don't. They might get invitations to dances, balls, and
other social gatherings, where they can have some fun with
Ultimately, the sorts of things that I'm talking about here
are "side-quests" of a very small scale, which simply
provide your players with optional diversions. Not only can
this make for some fun gameplay, and allow for some breaks
from the "main plot" (which, by the way, is important and
helps enhance the plot. That's why so many TV shows these
days will have two separate, unrelated plots in a single
episode), but it also helps to further flesh out your world
and help give it depth, as with Tip #2.
4. Create Fun And Interesting Terrain Features For Each
I don't know about you, but personally, I read about a lot
more interesting terrain feature ideas than I ever see in
play. This has nothing to do with being a game designer--to
the best of my knowledge, Necromancers of the Northwest has
never really done anything with interesting terrain features
(with the possible exception of a couple in The War of the
Goblin King), and my knowledge is pretty extensive when it
comes to NNW--but simply from the fact that I just don't see
terrain features pop up that often in games I play (or, for
that matter, run).
This is a shame, because terrain has a lot of potential to
really spice up an otherwise so-so encounter, and because
there are so many potentially cool ideas. I vividly remember
reading about a suggestion for a battlefield comprised of a
bunch of platforms on chains, which rise and fall in 5-foot
increments each turn, and another involving blasts of steam
in a maze of pipes, etc. You could also go full-on magical
about it, with a chessboard (or similar) where each "square"
(possibly more than 5 feet) has a different magical effect,
or a hall of mirrors where the mirrors reflect spells, or
serve as portals to navigate the maze, or create illusory
The main problem with terrain, I think, is that it usually
requires relatively complex rules, and always feels like a
secondary threat when compared to the opponent, so it mostly
feels like a nuisance. With a good deal of forethought, a DM
can help cut down on the amount of trouble the terrain
causes at the table by being sure he has mastered its
mechanics, and can make sure that it's both fun for players
and a convincing threat for their characters.
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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. 2010 GMing Learnings
Last issue I asked what GMs learned in 2010 about their
craft. Here are a few of the responses. They are good
lessons we can also think about for our games in 2011.
Doing More Prep
From David Millians
Games & Education
I am doing more planning than I have for years. Over the
decades that I've been running games, I've become more
comfortable with improvisation. I know my settings and
stories well, and this has always resulted in fun games.
Two factors have changed my thinking. First and most
important, several other GMs have emerged to run games, so
we now rotate our stories. This pushes me to use my time
well as the storyteller. It also regularly exposes me to
other GMs' stories and techniques, much more than I've ever
had in my gaming experience.
Second, I've prepared some of my game's material for
publication, and this pushes me to be clear, brief and
engaging in my development and writing.
All of this improves my game in countless ways, and I'm
having more fun than ever!
Mistakes Are Not The End Of The World
From Tristan Knight
2010 marked my return to PNP gaming after a 15 year absence
(and several aborted attempts in the interim). Despite
having previously tried to get involved, I'd never managed
to get a campaign up and running, either as a player or GM.
Finally, my girlfriend decided she wanted to learn D&D, and
I took the opportunity to dive into 4th Edition D&D.
I started thinking where I wanted the new game to go. With a
small group (just my girlfriend and me at the outset) I
decided we'd need some more characters, so I create a DMPC
to help increase the party size.
A bit of work laid things out as thoroughly as I felt was
possible, and I threw together a quick encounter to teach my
girlfriend the rules of the game. She picked the rules up
quickly, got a handle on tactical play in a matter of three
rounds of combat, and pulled off a fantastically deft use of
her eladrin ranger's Fey Step power (though she botched the
follow-up attack - the dice were not friendly that evening).
And she was instantly hooked.
The next week brought another session and the creation of a
major NPC. The week after, a second player joined the game.
She had heard about my campaign concepts and I convinced her
I made a few mistakes along the way: bungling rules,
screwing up initiative, misinterpreting the use of powers
and generally making a hash of the game. And yet the players
loved it. They rarely caught my slip-ups without my
mentioning it. They never knew until after the fact how I'd
improvised parts of the game sessions. I'd spent hours
kicking myself for making mistakes when none of it mattered.
So that's the biggest lesson I learned: it's okay to screw
up. As long as the players enjoy themselves (and you don't
make too many mistakes) that's the important thing. Even if
you inadvertently make an encounter a little too tough and a
PC nearly dies, you can turn a corner and make that former
enemy into an interesting ally.
Now I've got about three hours before tonight's session, so
it's time to prepare for our first game in three weeks...and
remind myself that mistakes aren't the end of the game -
sometimes they can be a beginning.
Thanks for all the advice in RPT, and enjoy your games and
the New Year.
The best thing I learned about GMing this year is to go big
and let things happen. I think other GMs in your newsletter
have described it as "don't say no." In other words, I don't
let my initial idea or written chapters of an adventure get
in the way of the real adventure. And I don't let the rules
details get in the way of a great story effect.
To illustrate, I was GMing d6 Star Wars and the climax of
the campaign came down to a retelling of the battle over
Endor. I was pleased to say I fixed the canon of Lucas'
Xwing fighters jumping through hyperspace on their own
without an aircraft carrier (the silliest mistake I ever
saw) and all the players had no problem with the various
fixes I made to the classic storyline.
The characters had duped the Emperor into his own doom over
Korriban, and then set out to impersonate him on the new
Death Star, thus setting up the DS2's own weaknesses, which
led to its destruction (and the saving of many worker
slaves' lives in the process).
Then, to my surprise, they invaded the Executor and
confronted Darth Vader and the recently-fully-turned-Dark
Luke Skywalker, slaying both of them and saving the Republic
for its rebirth.
Grand heroism and great story were the watchwords those
days. "You can't do that" never passed my lips.
Allow heroism to take place and don't let the rules or the
mechanics get in the way of a great storytelling and a great
night of play.
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2. Creating Emergent Stories
From Mark of the Pixie via the GMMastery Yahoo! Group
I tend to set a detailed starting scene, and have a few
rough ideas of possible milestones and a handful of vague
types of endings.
I find this focuses on the PC actions and choices - they
determine the ending - but it helps make it a story worth
telling. (I find some overly PC driven stories end up
getting repetitive, devolving into long and dull shopping
trips. Or they get dominated by the loudest player. But that
might just be due to a minority of my players skewing
The session might start with the kidnapping of the PCs'
secretary by a detailed NPC villain for a well reasoned
purpose (the $500,000 ransom demand is a ruse to cover the
blackmail of her scientist father to provide a military
This is probably done in medias res with the PCs shooting it
out with the hired thugs as the black sedan drives off with
her in the boot. (About a paragraph of notes.)
I will then have a few possible milestones, whether NPCs or
events (about one sentence each). NPCs may include a
criminal snitch who owes the PCs a favour, a cop who is
looking for any reason to arrest them, a PC's ex-lover who
is now an FBI profiler on the case, the victim's oddly
Events might be a ransom call, a ransom drop, confrontation
with the father, a chase scene (with a helicopter), the
gunfight at the R&D testing range.
Endings are vague and range from "money, gun and
secretary gone" to "money, gun and secretary safe" with lots
of options in between (just a few dot points or keywords).
The PCs might work out the villain's plot and foil it. Or
they might not. They might be happy to get the girl back
safe and not find out about the gun till later.
The end of the story is up to them, but having thought about
likely endings, I can quickly and easily tailor the one they
end up with to be more dramatic. If I do get blind sided,
(you put out a contract on the kidnapper?) I can take 5
minutes and work it through.
Having this sort of framework helps me do that faster. (He
might decide it is a bluff and continue with his plan, only
to get a rude surprise in a later session.)
Because I haven't put a lot of emotion into the story going
any one way, it's easier for me to avoid railroading (I
actually find it helps me encourage the PCs to take
different options). By having a rough framework with
multiple endings I can adapt quickly to changes in
I also have a safety net in case the players are having a
brain dead night, as I can suggest the next move, introduce
an NPC or instigate an event. For example, if they flag and
don't know what to do next, rather than leave them bored I
can have the FBI profiler call.
I also have a rough worse case scenario in mind (lose money
and secretary, villain gets money and gun). I know a TPK or
destruction of the world is unlikely, so I can plot future
I can also see the bleeding edges (unresolved things) that
can be used for future plots. Maybe the cop gets some
evidence on one PC and will later pressure them to become an
informant. Perhaps the father sees them work and decides to
recommend them for future jobs. Maybe the embers of the
lovers' relationship rekindle.
These help ensure a continuing game. For example, the next
session starts with the PCs being called to a crime scene
where a presidential candidate has been assassinated, but
the police are stumped because no known gun can possibly
shoot like this....
I do a similar thing for campaigns. Lots of work up front,
then a bit of work in the middle bits, and vague handwavy
bits for the possible endings. The work up front tends to be
collaborative for PC backgrounds. I give them a general
starting position, any limits imposed by setting and
starting position (i.e. no mages, if it is a no magic
world), then incorporate and intertwine their backgrounds
and the setting.
I find it works well.
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3. Use Maslow's Pyramid of Needs To Create Cultures
From Rikard Molander
The Pyramid of Needs has been mentioned in Roleplaying Tips
before as a tool for designing NPCs. In brief, the hierarchy
describes what needs people have, and in what order they
seek to fulfill them. If people are hungry, they won't
bother so much about safety, for instance, because food has
a more important place in the hierarchy.
Since this pyramid describes universal needs, it can be used
for designing cultures and places just as well as it can
people. If anything in the hierarchy is unavailable or hard
to get to the locals, that should have a huge impact on the
culture. For example, a shortage of water should have a huge
impact on how a given culture behaves.
I find it's especially good for designing exotic locations.
Just take something from the hierarchy and consider how to
fulfill that need in some unusual or exotic fashion. Below,
I'll list some considerations each step suggests.
Food and health usually fall on this list. Particularly,
food is interesting. What do people in this culture, or on
this location, eat?
Mundane examples include bread or rice, whereas a twist
towards the exotic or strange might involve pieces of giant
mushroom, or slime molds that grow inside eerie glowing
Health is less applicable, but might bear consideration -
are there hospitals, clerics, wise women?
How do people live and shelter themselves? What kind of
protection do they enjoy? Is there a guard force, a group of
mercenaries, must everyone fend for themselves?
Housing offers a great consideration to add cultural
feeling. It gives a much different impression if locals live
in mud huts, lumber cottages or houses on poles.
You can twist this for an exotic feeling - the most typical
example being the elven city in the trees, where the elves
have solved their need for safety and protection by
elevating themselves above the ground.
What brings the community together? Is it a religion? A love
for music or alcohol? A war-leaders' banner?
Overall, this asks the question, "What do the people of this
culture have in common, that outsiders don't have?"
Turn this into a great plot device by marking PCs as
complete outsiders, or give one PC the spotlight by having
him blend in well (such as a bard in a culture that loves
music) or poorly (such as a teetotaler in a culture proud of
its taverns and fine wines).
To design exotic cultures, have people bond over something
unusual. Perhaps locals are unusually fond of clothes and
fashion, and even street beggars wear dyed clothes of good
make. Or perhaps they are all addicted to a fashionable
drug, and scoff at (or worse) anyone who doesn't take it.
Similar to the belonging category above, but different in
that this doesn't ask what the people flock around, but what
they admire and look up to, as well as what they strive for.
Sometimes, they can be the same. In a country fond of music,
everyone seeks to write the next popular tune.
They can be different things, as well. A culture brought
together by a religion that preaches peace and brotherhood
might still have fondly admired war heroes. A culture of
savage warriors might admire the best poets even more than
they admire the strongest warriors.
For an exotic spin, pick something unusual that people
admire and look up to. Perhaps wizards are viewed as sacred
and worthy of great respect, or people with red hair are
seen as marked by the gods.
This is a tricky category, as it's highly individual and
addresses spiritual satisfaction. It can be seen as a
philosophy or a way of life.
In practice, though, you probably shouldn't involve cultures
who allow for self-actualization on a broad basis. Why?
Because you want your cultures to be sites of adventure,
places with problems that must be solved, ideally based on
one of the previous four categories.
Perhaps the water supply is running out (physiological), the
community is threatened by bandits (safety), there's
ideological or racial conflict (belonging), and so on.
If you find yourself looking at the previous four steps and
not finding any problems there, reconsider involving the
location in your adventure - there's a high risk it won't be
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4. Another Way To Make Plots For Your Game
From Logan Horsford
Grab a pen and 100 3"x5" lined index cards.
Anytime you come across an idea - whether large or small,
write it onto a card. The ideas can vary from part of a plot
to a name or manner of an NPC. The ideas you have can be
more specific to your campaign.
The more time you spend writing these cards, the more ideas
come to you. Don't forget the professional writers saying
"write crap." See:
Once you've gotten a whole bunch (say 100, though it can be
done with less) of cards filled out with these notes,
shuffle well and deal yourself a few.
Let's try five. I am going to use my deck here to see what
we can come up with.
- Advertising - strange dancing pandas.
- Situation - social class disparity.
- Corpse - come across a dead or dying man. He may say
something useful before dying or his pockets may contain
useful stuff. Good foreshadowing.
- Contact/Bad Guy - Mr. Wei (pronounced "way"); stupid bowl
shaped haircut. Maybe he commands tcho-tchos in space!
- Hidden secrets.
Last step: begin to brainstorm how these things can be
connected. Before reading on, try to figure out what you can
make out of these five things.
(I know you didn't pause to think about it - nobody ever
does - but I thought I'd give it a try.)
Perhaps the PCs come across a dead guy in a panda suit.
Doing research on the suit can bring it eventually back
to the commercial. Perhaps the weird pandas are advertising
a new restaurant chain (owned by Mr. Wei) that serves the
tcho-tcho 'other other white meat'. (For those of you that
haven't played Call of Cthulhu, that's human.)
From there, you have to answer several questions. Why was he
killed? Why was he killed wearing the panda suit? Why do the
PCs care if some restaurant is serving up human? Could that
be where a buddy of theirs disappeared to? From whence are
they collecting up the humans? Instead of just rounding up
homeless people (too stringy), maybe there is some other way
in which they get humans. If you want to prod the PCs some
more, maybe they are going for the equivalent of veal.
We have moved from a few random ideas jotted on index cards
to an idea for an entire plot, perhaps even an entire
campaign depending on how big the whole plot is. The quality
of your plot will depend upon the quality of questions you
ask while writing it up.
That was a thirty second think for me to come up with that.
I'm sure I could do better if I began playing with it and
revising it a few times.
Unlike adventure seeds in modules and such the things you
would make notes of were things that struck you as
interesting enough to jot down. Believe me, the more stuff
you write down on the cards (one idea per card!) the more
cards you'll quickly go through.
This idea can also be used (by especially crafty GMs) to GM
on the fly. I don't think I'm that slick myself, but I have
heard of others who can do it.
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