10 Tips For Crafting Adventure-Based Holidays – Part 2

From Johnn Four

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0337

A Brief Word From Johnn

The Combat Pad – Thumb’s Up

When I read Gen Con reports about the magnetic Combat Pad from Open Mind Games, I was keen to check it out. I contacted the company and they kindly sent me a review copy.

You use the Combat Pad for initiative tracking, combat management, and note-taking. It supports dry/wet erase, and uses magnetic pointers and blank, magnetic name tags, on which you write the combatants’ names, for tracking. I found wet erase is best to use on the tags for the PCs, as the instructions suggested (dry erase rubbed off too easily for the frequently handled tags), and dry erase works well for making temporary notes, scribbles, and NPC tag names.

In the campaign I play, the GM doesn’t have a set initiative tracking system, so I brought the Combat Pad and managed it for him, quickly and easily, with the Combat Pad – one less thing for my busy GM to do.

Thanks to Open Mind Games for sending me the review copy – the Combat Pad has found a place at my gaming table and I recommend it to GMs needing a simple initiative tracking tool:


Product info:

If you have a question about the Combat Pad, feel free to e-mail me. I’ve got my pad right here and would be happy to answer.

Was this short review useful to you? Would you like to see more like it? If so, what products would you like a report on?

Holiday Contest Continues

Thanks to everyone who sent in their holiday contest entries last week. The contest closes Dec 17, so there’s still time to send in your entries, or additional ones if inspiration strikes. I’ve put a couple of the entries in the Readers Tips section so you can see good examples of entries.

How To Enter The Contest

Create a holiday and describe it in roughly 1-3 paragraphs. Please use this format:

Holiday Name:
Holiday Description:

Holiday Encounter Ideas: (bullet list of ideas or paragraphs)

E-mail your entries in one e-mail message or several to [email protected]

You can submit as many entries as you like.

Entries will be edited and posted in this e-zine so all GMs will benefit from your creativity.

Contest entry deadline is December 17, 2006. Winners will be selected randomly from the pool of entries, so don’t worry if writing isn’t your strong suit.

Prizes Up For Grabs

From Ronin Arts

From Johnn Four

From Expeditious Retreat Press

  • 1 on 1 Adventures #1: Gambler’s Quest (print)
  • 1 on 1 Adventures #2: Star of Olindor (print)
  • 1 on 1 Adventures #3: Forbidden Hills (PDF)
  • 1 on 1 Adventures #5: Vale of the Sepulcher (PDF)
  • Advanced Adventures #1: The Pod Caverns of the Sinister Shroom (PDF)

You can check out the products at Expeditious Retreat Press’s website: http://www.xrpshop.citymax.com

That makes for quite a few prizes, and great odds for winning! (If you have a prize preference, feel free let me know in your e-mail entries.)


Johnn Four
[email protected]

10 Tips For Crafting Adventure-Based Holidays – Part 2

From the new e-book, GM Mastery: Adventure Essentials: Holidays


Read part 1 of this article online at:


Game World Calendar Method: Spreadsheet

Spreadsheet software, such as Microsoft Excel or OpenOffice, is another great way to make a calendar. Each cell represents a day. Resize and merge cells as desired. Use comments to make notes or type into the cells directly.

Separate months or years with new worksheets. Alternatively, you can put a whole year or several in a single worksheet.

Game World Calendar Method: TiddlyWiki

Another option is to use a web browser and a wiki, such as Tiddly-Wiki. TiddlyWiki is free and doesn’t require a server. You can use it offline and you only need to worry about a single HTML file when transferring between computers.

In your wiki, create a new link or entry for each day for one year. Label the month and day, but not the year. As with the index card system, as each year passes you return to the beginning of the calendar and append new notes, labeled by year. You’ll see previous years’ notes this way for easy reference, and you’ll see holidays as they come up.

Recurring holidays synched to specific dates only need scheduling once, and then they’ll cycle through naturally as years pass. Holidays with unique dates need to be manually entered each year – do this in advance so you’re prepared as campaign time passes during sessions.

Here are some example campaign TiddlyWikis:

And some TiddlyWiki versions:

Graphic of section divider

Create A Holiday Stat Block

Here is a checklist of holiday design elements. Holiday design is free-form and iterative, so feel free to design the following in any order.

Holiday Role

  • Incidental Interaction, Background Flavor, Encounter Foundation, or Adventure Foundation.

Holiday name

  • Also add alternate names the holiday might have for various cultures and sub-cultures.
  • Add any historical names it might have had in the past.

Brief summary

  • From one sentence to three paragraphs.
  • Describe what the holiday is about and note any key points, dependencies, and requirements so you won’t be caught off-guard while GMing in the future.


  • Does the holiday have a positive or negative mood? If the Holiday Role requires it, describe the specific mood.


  • Note what makes the holiday unique and interesting to the players and their PCs.

Who the Holiday is For

  • Who celebrates the holiday?
  • Note which groups, sub-groups, cultures, and sub-cultures honor the holiday.


  • How important is the holiday to society and why?
  • Major, Minor, or Trivial?
  • Why does the holiday exist? Why does it continue to exist? What purpose does it serve?


  • When does the holiday occur?
  • Frequency?
  • How long does the holiday last?
  • Can you still easily change this date? Do the players already know it, or are there established dependencies on the holiday date in other parts of your campaign/ adventure design?

Working Or Non-Working

  • Do some people get away from their labors? Is it everyone in the region, or just certain folk? Does this cause any tension?

Design Events

  • What events are associated or scheduled for the holiday?
  • Stat out each event by noting:
  • Name
  • ParticipantsLocation
  • Activities
  • Quirks

Costume and Dress

  • Do people wear anything special?
  • If so, who, when, and what?

Food and Drink

  • Are special dishes prepared? Are there feasts or food- based events?
  • Are there any special drinks associated with the holiday, its events, and its rituals?


  • Does anything get decorated, such as rooms, homes, or streets?
  • If so, what are the decorations?


  • Does the holiday involve or require travel?
  • Who must do the traveling?
  • Where do they go?


  • How did the holiday come into being?
  • Are there any noteworthy past instances of the holiday?
  • What effect has the holiday had on the game world?


  • What encounters and encounter ideas are possible because of the holiday?
Graphic of section divider

Types Of Holiday Encounters

There are different types of holiday encounters based on the level of holiday interaction and holiday importance for the situation. Knowing the type can guide you to craft better encounters.

Showcase Encounters

This type of encounter exists specifically to highlight a certain aspect of your holiday. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to show off your designs. Holidays set a wonderful stage on which to game. This type also imparts details about your holiday in the oft advised, “show, don’t tell” fashion.

For example, you could narrate how the village holds a short but colorful parade through the paths from Village Hall to the lake. It wouldn’t take long to narrate, and it would be interesting to learn about.

Alternatively, you could have the village elders ask the PCs to lead the parade as reward for taking care of those pesky bandits two days ago. If the PCs agree, they must dress in colorful outfits — arms and armor is permissible. After the players decide how to decorate their PCs and start the parade rolling, you stage a retribution ambush by a few bandits who escaped the PC slaughter. In this Showcase Encounter, the players strongly picture the scene because of the thought they had to put into their PCs’ costumes and from leading the parade – a better result than simply describing a parade.

Event Encounters

If you have holiday events crafted, they could become encounters either by purposeful design or from emergent gameplay. An Event Encounter is linked to a scheduled holiday event, such as a holy firewalk going awry due to sabotage. It could also be the event itself, such as a three-legged race or support rally with speeches.

For example, in the cold, pre-dawn hours, clan elders join their shaman atop Red Ogre Hill and sacrifice a pregnant cow. The health of the rescued calf in the coming weeks will inform the shaman of the gods’ will. During the ceremony, the PCs traveling through the area stumble upon a stream of blood crossing their trail. No doubt they’ll draw weapons and investigate. They soon track the stream to the source and learn about the gruesome ceremony. If the clan is to be allies or neutral to the party, you’ve just shown a vivid, primitive aspect of their culture. If they’re enemies, you’ve set up a great combat scene.

Consequence Encounters

Holidays involve events, politics, and people. Many things happen during a holiday, and some will have interesting consequences that could spill into an encounter involving the PCs.

For example, during an eclipse at a time when people crowd the streets and watch the celestial battle between the moon god and the sun god, the PCs suddenly decide to use the temporary darkness to their advantage and break into an enemy’s house to gather information. Taking advantage of this turn of events, you decide the PCs’ rivals had the same plan and they bump into each other for an interesting encounter.

Use the following categories of consequences to help inspire or organize your holiday encounter thoughts:

  • Conflict. A direct competition, struggle, or challenge.
  • Complication. A puzzle that needs solving emerges as something goes awry, or two elements brought together don’t mix well.
  • Opportunity. Potential reward exists if the PCs take a certain action, react quickly, or make the correct choice.
  • Hindrance. An aspect of the holiday element creates penalties, negative modifiers, restrictions, or an undesired situation.
  • Incidental. The encounter does not depend on the holiday for any reason, and the holiday makes an incidental appearance in the encounter.
Graphic of section divider

Crafting Holiday Encounters

Here are a few general tips to help you craft an entertaining holiday encounter:

  • Make it interactive. Avoid encounters that are based solely on dice rolls. Contests and skill events succumb to this trap often. Look for creative ways to allow for player tactics and choices.
  • Use an interesting location – think 3D. The classic dungeon encounter error uses the 10’x10′ empty room. Similarly, the typical holiday encounter error places the PCs in a flat, empty area, such as an open field, an empty alley, or a wide street.

Holidays can involve a number of different, unusual, and special decorations, locations, and furnishings. Holidays let you break the rules as far as believable situations occur due to the inherent unusualness and temporary timeline of the event.

For example, it’s tricky placing the PCs’ backs against a cliff to add delicious drama to a tough battle. Unless the

PCs go there by themselves, most other solutions feel contrived. However, it would be simple to declare the PC-attended holiday offering to the sea god takes place at a special location on a cliff edge. On that spot, fifty years ago, the high priest of the god dove into the water, never to be seen again, in an effort to commune with his deity to save the region from evil sahuagin.

Add NPCs

NPCs are an awesome exposition tool to help reveal information about your holiday. They help heed the traditional writer’s advice to “show, not tell.” Add NPCs to encounters and have them:

  • Preparing for the upcoming holiday
  • Traveling for the holiday
  • Wearing the costumes you’ve picked for the holiday
  • Eating the special food and drink you’ve selected
  • Engaging in the events, ceremonies, and traditions you’ve designed

Pick any holiday design element and have NPCs somehow displaying, demonstrating, or roleplaying it.

Add conflict

Be sure your encounter involves a challenge of some sort, or yawns might travel ’round the table. It could be combat, but doesn’t have to be. A great method is to pick the two best and worst skills for each character and then think of how you might combine one of each into an interesting holiday-based challenge. For example, Glimnor the bard has a high Perform skill, but a poor Balance skill. You decide to create a ritual where celebrants’ hands and feet are shackled together. They must boldly recite the holy passages as they make their way through a gauntlet of pushing priests to the high priest, who will ceremoniously cut away the bonds to symbolize the religion’s founder escaping slavery. Glimnor is asked to participate, and if he doesn’t fall then the high priest will answer the bard’s questions later about the nearby ruins.

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

Holiday Contest Entry: The Bride’s Fair

From Lea Hall

Open to all commoners, females of marriageable age but not currently married from the local lord’s lands are being given a Bride’s Fair. All unmarried male Journeymen and Masters of their craft may attend. During the week long fair, there will be tournaments and trials so the girls can see the guys as they are competing. There are picnics and dances, and of course, a market where the journeymen and masters can display their wares. Similar to a county fair, there are also displays of food, animals and handicrafts. This is as much about the quality of the lord’s holding as it is for the brides-to-be to chose husbands.

On the last day of the fair, the females are all given lottery numbers to decide who shall choose their groom first. A priest presides over the lottery and the girls are lined up in lot order to choose their men. Since only those men who wanted to be considered will be available to be chosen, it is supposed that the choosing is fair. Before the girls choose, they are blessed and a prayer is said to the Goddess of Motherhood to aid them in choosing rightly.

The fair concludes with the marriage vows said en-mass over the entire group, then there is a feast and a dance.

The lord of the land will have set aside an area for the new couples to farm and settle, each bride receiving a plot of land for her dower cottage and garden, and the men get a plot of land to farm or a building to work their trade. This settles a new area as a village.

Holiday Encounter Ideas:

  • If there is someone who should not be there, such as someone who has no vocation, (and many of the PCs may not be Journeymen, and how do you consider a rogue?) in an acceptable trade, they will cause disruption in the Bride’s Fair, possibly gaining a posse to follow the miscreants to beat them senseless. This is a special holy time for these women and they expect to be examining eligible men. PCs may think it only a fair not a Bride’s Fair, and compete for prizes in the tourneys. They may decide they are not the marrying kind (cold feet) when they find out. Weddings at sword point might be possible too.
  • This is also a way to destroy a lord’s surplus population by an assassin poisoning the water or food. So this could become a political destruction of a noble house’s tenants.
  • Monsters could become aware of the delectable food assembled at the Bride’s Fair, especially  intelligent monsters. Demons could easily fit this profile and might be able to slip into the grounds to hunt those luscious brides. Orcs or gnolls could attack, especially if the area the lord will be opening up for the new couples happens to be the monsters’ hunting grounds.
Graphic of section divider

Holiday Contest Entry: Harbor Day

From bhunter117

A very remote island is visited only once a year by a merchant, bringing with it various foreign fruits, vegetables, spices, and meats that cannot be produced on the island due to its climate and population/resource limitations. This visitation is called Harbor Day by the local inhabitants. The inhabitants spend most of the day purchasing or trading goods with the merchant ship. Afterwards, they enjoy a grand feast with some of what they purchased.

Holiday Encounter Ideas:

  • Many people get sick after the great feast. It appears as though the food purchased by the island inhabitants was poisoned.
  • Harbor Day should have happened by now…. Is the ship lost? Was it attacked by pirates (or something worse)? The island leader asks the PCs to seek word of the merchant.
  • Unseasonably inclement weather strikes the island, leading many to fear that some evil force is at work. Can the PCs find out what’s happening before storm forces the merchant away?
  • The PCs are the merchants and must brave the dangers of the sea to bring the inhabitants their goods.
  • A falling-out occurs between the island inhabitants and their regular merchant. The PCs are given the task to secure another merchant who is willing to travel to the island once every year (ensuring a Harbor Day for future generations).
Graphic of section divider

What’s In A Name? How About An Anagram?

From Scot Newbury

No matter what role-playing system you end up playing there’s always a need to come up with names for people and places. Instead of using the old standbys (like baby books or the name of a character from your favorite book) why not try something different – an anagram.

For those not familiar with the term, an anagram is a word or phrase that’s created by rearranging the letters of another word or phrase such as:

  • Leaping Lory – a thief who makes their escape by jumping from rooftop to rooftop
  • Gale Olin Pry – that kindly admin behind the desk at the library who’s been helpful with the group’s research
  • Pale Gin Rory – the drunk at the local bar, pale because he never sees the sun, and gin because that’s his drink of choice

As you can see not only can you get a name from an anagram but also something of the personality and background as well.

Now I’ll admit it’s fun to come up with various anagrams, but it can be a bit time consuming. There is a shortcut you can take, however. The Internet Anagram Server is a free online anagram engine and it works great. I used it to create the three examples above. For those interested, the root word was roleplaying.

Graphic of section divider

Tips For GMs From A GM’s Perspective

From Paul Robertson

These tips are for GMs of all games and genres. They come from personal experience and all have been successful to some degree.

Always Be Fair

Play by the same rules you expect your players to play by. Don’t fudge rolls or go out of the way to make things too easy, or too difficult. If you make things too easy intentionally, the players will think one of two things:

  • You are treating them like children who can’t figure things out for themselves.
  • They don’t realize you are being easy, and when they game somewhere else, or you try to make things normal, they won’t like it because of the seemingly unfairness of how things go.

Same thing for making it too difficult. If the game is too difficult then players get frustrated and stop enjoying themselves, and if they ever play with someone else, you have a good chance of losing your players.

Be Flexible

You have spent the last week planning an adventure, including detailed NPC histories, monster clan structure and societies, treasure hoards with things specifically for the group, traps, maps, and a climactic ending with a mysterious cliffhanger.

You start the adventure with your players and the first things they do is kill the messenger, ignore the rumors, and decide not to do take your hook. Crap. All your planning down the drain. But wait, you can still do the adventure. You have a God/Messenger from a god/Dragon show up and coerce/force the players to do the adventure; and if they don’t….

Yeah we’ve all been here at some point, but no matter what, plans can always go awry. Just like what the great Scottish Poet, Robbie Burns, said: “The best laid plans o’ mice and men gang aft aglee.” The only answer to this is go with it. If the players kill the messenger/ignore/etc., then let them. Their loss, not yours.

If you don’t have another adventure planned, throw in something, like an old enemy shows up to take over. If you have introduced an enemy before to your players, then they will most likely want to deal with him for revenge or honour. If you don’t have an enemy yet, introduce one.

A good practice is to always have a light, back-up adventure ready, just in case.

Maintain The Game’s Overall Feel

If you are playing a hack and slash campaign, then don’t start throwing in political intrigue all over the place. If your game is political in nature, don’t start having combat every session.

Keep with the overall feel, but also remember it is important to mix it up once and awhile. Take a breather and do the opposite for a session or two; it will keep your adventure from getting stagnant.

If you don’t have a feel to your game yet, find one. The feel will breed adventures and ideas for your game, and keep things moving when you encounter low spots.

Have A Group Enemy

A group enemy will always be a source of anguish for the players. An enemy will also serve up new adventure ideas and add unexpected twists.

There are a couple types of enemies that work best. The first is the powerful enemy, who is much more powerful than the group. This can be a single enemy, or another group of people, and they will actively work to hamper the group (openly, most of the time), attack the group, or turn others against the group – and usually in a way the players will know that their enemy was responsible.

Another type of enemy is the one who works behind the scenes, also known as the weak enemy. This enemy is usually weaker than the group, but still capable of being a nuisance none the less. They will often be manipulative and cowardly, working in such a way the group might not realize they have an enemy. The weak enemy bribes, tricks others into doing their dirty work, lays traps, and tries to frame the PCs. Remember, though, that this enemy can eventually become the powerful enemy over time.

NPCs Played By Other Players

Get your players involved in taking on the roles of NPCs. This works best by having one or two players not part of the regular gaming group to take on the role of NPCs. By doing this you can get some unexpected results. Background NPCs, who were just there for filler, will take on a whole new feel to the game when played by another player. Suddenly that dwarf, sitting at the table taking taxes, becomes a dwarf by the name of Grumpy who hassles the players and pokes fun at them, gives them odds of survival in the local ruins, and warns them of an upcoming monster they might have to face.

If you have players take on the roles of NPCs, you need to make sure you give them enough info to play the temporary role, otherwise don’t get mad if they accidentally reveal something you are planning, or if they fail to do something you wanted the NPC to do.

Mix It Up

Mix up what you do. Spend a week or two playing board games, or have an alternate game running with another player as the GM. What this does is enable players and GMs the opportunity to plan a bit more or take a break. If you end up having the same GM and players always playing the same game or campaign, you will find everyone will start to face GM/Player burnout. Believe me when I say this: groups have hung up their dice, sometimes for years, after a group burnout. Just think about all those missed sessions and character building. Think of the missed opportunities to confuse the other players or GM.

Avoid burnout by staying fresh, trying different things, and experimenting with new things.