10 Tips For Running a Riddleport Style Campaign of Intrigue and Peril

From Johnn Four

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0604

A Brief Word From Johnn


I just got back from a couple weeks in Cuba. We had such a fantastic time there. The day we left Edmonton it was -32C, and in Cuba it was +30C. A 62 degree difference. One I could handle more often.

Not much for just sitting around in a sun chair, I read several books…while sitting around in a sun chair. One was the first book in the classic Dragonlance Chronicles.

It’s the third time I’ve read the book, and I gobbled it up pretty fast. It’s such a pleasure to read straightforward, solid writing and an excellent fantasy story. Lots of memories flooded back as I turned the pages. And a few campaign ideas too.

The hotel we stayed at, Blau Varadero, had a freebie used book shelf. So I left the book there to hopefully inspire another soon-to-be gamer.

I also left The Thousand Emperors by Gary Gibson on the shelf. It’s my first Gibson book and it was an excellent sci-fi/detective tale. I’ll be reading more from this author in the future.

And I finished reading Dungeon World. What an excellent game. The Game Mastering game mastering stuff especially is applicable to many RPGs. I thought it takes an excellent approach to introducing new GMs to the hobby, as well.

Here’s a pic of the hotel we stayed at. The used book shelf is in the hut in the bottom left corner.

So now I’m well-read, well-fed and have a tanned head. It’s time for some new game master tips!

This week I’ve got some pointers on how to run an urban fantasy campaign with lots of magic, monsters and mayhem.

10 Tips For Running a Riddleport Style Campaign of Intrigue and Peril

It ran for about two years and is one of my few campaigns that took PCs from first level to a stunning and epic conclusion. Riddleport is my favourite campaign so far in my GMing career.

A reader wrote in asking for tips on how to run a similar campaign.

Here are ten:

Inject Mystery

Stories thrive on open loops. These are unresolved plots that make players want to game things out to see what happens.

I started Riddleport with the end in mind: a mysterious and indestructible magic arch spanning the entire harbour. Origins unknown and steeped in legend, the arch was a large topic of conversation, attention, rumours and intrigue throughout the campaign. And it was a critical part of the story’s end.

So, I recommend creating a big mystery to start your game with, and then see if you can reveal its secrets as part of your campaign climax.

In this way, you create an overall plot arc in a traditional storytelling structure:

  • Campaign Begins
  • Plot A Begins (i.e., Magic Arch)
  • Plot B Begins
  • Plot C Begins
  • Plot C Resolved
  • Plot B Resolved
  • Plot A Resolved
  • Campaign End

Dragon Magazine’s old column, Dungeoncraft, advised adding a secret to every notable campaign element. Secrets make great mysteries.

Also make small mysteries that get introduced and resolved in a single encounter, a single session, a minor plot arc. In this way, your story pacing always changes, making your game even more interesting.

Some examples:

NPC Needs Help

A friend of the PCs is in jeopardy. But the PCs don’t know what kind of danger, why, or who else might be involved. They’ve just received an urgent request from a messenger. You can answer these questions in one encounter, or spread answers out over time.

Magic Treasure Found

The party finds a gleaming crystal lizard skull. It’s magical.

But after many spells and experiments the skull’s properties remain unknown.

Then the group encounters lizardmen. The skull flashes to life. The lizardmen flee in terror. But still, the exact properties of the item remain a mystery.

Your players keep thinking about it, gnawing on the puzzle….

Terrifying Cliffhanger

The party is exploring an old mansion, rumoured to contain information about the campaign’s central mystery. Blood is everywhere. Deep claw marks score the walls. The acrid smell of copper and acid burns the PCs’ noses and throats.

A strange thumping sound starts from the cellar. The characters descend into the dank, dark room slowly, wary from previous dangers that have already pounced.

The rogue slowly approaches a grim door at the rear where the thumping is loudest. The squishy thumping gets louder and faster. Just as the thief touches the door handle a scream erupts from behind the door!

End of session. “See you all next week!”

This is the best cure for player absenteeism. 🙂

Graphic of section divider

Use Lots Of NPCs

Riddleport had more named NPCs than any other campaign I’ve GM’d.

I used MyInfo to organize them all. I had one file that was just NPCs from previous campaigns. I copied those over as needed into my Riddleport file, reskinned them, and added them to the Cast of Characters document, cross-linked to their respective faction document and my Loopy Planning document.

And before campaign start, I had created several name tables so I could name new NPCs on the fly. Each table had just 10 entries to make prep faster, and I had tables for each race and faction.

NPCs fell into four major groups, a new way of organizing and developing for me:

  1. Evil
  2. Good
  3. Trickster
  4. Mystery

Evil NPCs would sacrifice anything to win, to get their way.

Good NPCs had stronger wills than most commoners to sticking to their values, avoiding hurting others and not being selfish. However, they could still be squeezed to do evil things, which happened often by villains.

Trickster NPCs changed sides at whim or out of necessity.

Mystery NPCs could be evil, good or trickster. They were important to the PCs for one reason or another, but they started play with unknown or secret background and motives.

Note that during the campaign brief, players were advised NPCs would mostly fall into gray zones. They didn’t need to slay NPCs just because they were evil or screwed the party over. That would draw unwanted attention or overwhelming response the PCs could not handle.

Instead, players were encouraged to “play the game” of Riddleport, part intrigue, part cover-your-ass, part proactive skullduggery.

Add A Good Dose Of Betrayal

Give NPCs ulterior motives.

The weaponsmith => Spy for a small thieves’ guild, eager to report on the newcomers for extra income

The head of the mage’s guild => Lusts for even more power and has made a pact with a demon likely to backfire

The tavern keeper => Loyal to a rival faction looking for opportunities to sabotage

The barmaid => In love with the wrong guy, an evil guy, and making ever-poorer choices

The evil mercenary => Follows his coin purse not his conscience, except where his young daughter is concerned

Trickster NPCs should switch sides during the campaign. All NPCs should share the burden of being the occasional obstacle to the player characters.

Wield Monstrous Factions

I had eight strong factions questing for the secret to the arch, a weird side plot involving doppelganger innkeepers, and several individuals looking to take over the city government.

Loopy planning came in handy. Between sessions I updated each faction like it was a standalone plot. I updated factions affected by character actions, other faction activities, and time passing.

To make Riddleport unique, most of the Arch Factions were monstrous. Drow, githyanki, dragonkin, devils, demons and more. It was fun making up each faction and then pitting them against each other and the PCs like some sports elimination tournament.

I think the critters made urban play more interesting for my experienced players, too.

The big sport in Riddleport was pit fighting. There was a large arena where weekly battles took place, plus there was an underground pit fighting league. One PC started out as a pit fighter and won a few matches.

This mechanism allowed additional monstrous fights in the campaign without causing chaos in the streets or forcing PCs into unlawful activity.

The arena was used by the PCs a couple times to further the plot as they called foes out on their honour or engaged in some intrigue.

Revisit Interesting Locations

The PCs started out inheriting an inn. Many encounters of all types were had there. Roleplaying, puzzle and combat.

The mage’s guild compound started out as a resource for the wizard PCs. As the campaign wore on it became a place of intrigue once the group learned the demon faction was involved there. Near the end, the compound became a bloody battleground.

The district the PCs lived in became well-known from repeated encounters. The different taverns, merchants, street corners and other places became an extended home base for the party.

As I detail in http://www.roleplayingtips.com/articles/npc-essentials.htm GM Mastery: NPC Essentials, you can turn locations into NPCs, complete with personality and plot implications over time.

Any location visited repeatedly will become a great campaign element.

Wage Power Struggles

I made life easier on myself by deciding every faction hated each other. Some temporary alliances were formed, but otherwise I did not get too complex with relationships. Standalone factions are much simpler to manage.

However, I did give each faction a power structure:

A leader => lieutenants => minions => pawns

And with the lure of power comes inevitable struggles.

In evil factions, I had each tier (leader, lieutenants, minions) wanting to back stab to gain favour and promotion. That made internal power struggles easy to play.

In good factions, traitors and corruption created internal strife. The PCs sought staunch allies and ended up having to save the good factions from themselves as the campaign progressed.

The city government was struggling to maintain control. Each city district had a crime lord who wanted to become the city’s next leader. Some crime lords wanted more than that, but just control for the Mayor position was a standalone power struggle I ran in the background.

Power struggles cause conflicts and change. When loopy planning, I advanced faction agendas through events. Fights in the streets, assassinations, thefts, catastrophes.

By generating events (and back-filling details) instead of crafting plans, faction play became easier to run and remember. Too much planning makes my head spin.

And I focused mostly on the leaders, their struggles, and what they did or instructed minions to do, and avoided the plots of underlings. This was another approach to make things easier to run.

Decide what the 3-5 main sources of power are for your city. Power in Riddleport came down to boots in the streets, money to pay them, territory and powerful champions. You can use these or try other options like magic, divine support, politics, laws, connections, military, equipment or technology.

By having power struggles, the PCs get knee deep into an urban setting that doesn’t seem to hinge on their every move. It makes the world bigger, more dangerous and more exciting to your players.

Have Willing Players

Before campaign start I pitched my group about what I had in mind. I described the setting and the genre and style.

My group has been together 8 years now, so we have a lot of conventions and unspoken agreements. If you are a new GM for your group or have a new player, you should make no assumptions and describe the type of campaign and gameplay you have in mind.

I also asked players to create PCs who:

  • Will own an inn and use it as a home base
  • Have connections to either each other or Riddleport (and will want to stay in the city)
  • Work with me on making connections to the plot from the start
  • Have interesting backstories
  • Will work together as a group – no intra-party conflicts, please

These requests were accepted and we all had fun because everyone was willing to make things work to these wishes. It’s a lot easier to guide a game with these ideas embedded than try to reign in chaotic play styles or wayward PCs.

And everyone seemed to feel like they had freedom with these guidelines without being forced to a certain track.

I also described Riddleport as a city full of jerks. Pirates founded the city after all. And pretty much every citizen was evil, apathetic or pathetic. Knowing this up front helped, I think, because expectations were the game was full of jerks and that made roleplaying less personal to the players and more interesting for the characters.

Whatever ideas and visions you have for your game, debrief your players before PC creation for a smoother campaign.

Use A Messenger System

The Ars Magica RPG has a special guild called Red Caps that delivers messages to the other guilds and factions.

I borrowed this idea for Riddleport because I did not want gameplay to bog down with trivial errands.

The players knew the city was too tough to travel without escort. And coordinating diverse player activities or arranging armed escorts several times a session was not quality gameplay time.

And the campaign needed a lot of communication. The PCs traded messages with various patrons, factions and NPCs. They also used the Red Caps a lot to communicate with each other when the party split up.

Having a fast and reliable scroll-based messenger system sped up gameplay and allowed much more intrigue than if the characters had to physically travel everywhere to just exchange a few words.

Plus, neutral messengers gave PCs access to powerful NPCs much easier and more often. A crime lord would accept a message scroll without a second thought, but he’d likely not entertain a face-to-face visit with strangers unvetted.

Likewise, PCs could communicate safely through the scrolls instead of having to enter dangerous locales or face monstrous, high-level NPCs.

The Red Caps would deliver any message to almost anyone in the city for a copper piece. For secure delivery (a guarantee the message would go unread until delivered) the service was a silver piece.

The Red Caps were a sinister element in the game. The players had suspicions, and they were right.

Every message was first taken to a routing station. A message would get magically read by a senior agent. Notable information was delivered in daily reports to the guild head. Critical information was magically passed on right away. Then the message was delivered to its intended recipient.

Further, pick-up and drop-off locations were noted and relayed. In this way, the Red Caps kept tabs on most of the city’s important inhabitants.

They also got regular visuals on headquarters, floor plans, defenses and other sensitive information as reported by messengers after each delivery.

I kept the Red Cap leader’s identity a secret. But she was a true power broker. She sold and traded information and knew all the terrible secrets NPCs prayed stayed hidden.

At the least, an honest and reliable messenger system will help you add more intrigue and roleplaying to your game. Go the big brother route and you have a delicious new faction.

Make It Dangerous

Riddleport was a tense campaign. The PCs were always out-gunned until the later stages.

This is because I did not scale much to PC abilities. Any encounter might overwhelm them.

For example, in the D&D world a tarrasque is a near immortal creature. The PCs found one chained in a massive cavern. They ran. Wise.

Another example. Commoners in Riddleport came from tough pirate stock. They averaged 7th level. So when the first level PCs saw the beggar across the street, they knew they should be careful because the beggar could have killed them with his grubby hands.

I also gave the PCs easy victories and fights that did match their capabilities. I used dungeons for this mostly. I did not want the campaign to become a burden, I just wanted wariness. I also felt tougher NPCs would mean more roleplaying because the party knew fighting was a dangerous choice.

Even the weather was tough. Supernatural blood rain would fall. Blood puddles would then turn into blood elementals and attack anyone within sight. Not a problem for most Riddleport residents, but scary for weak PCs.

“Dude, I was just killed by rain.”



“Crikey! Johnn, my character goes shopping for a +5 rain coat.”

Put The Campaign On A Sand Timer

Early on, the sandbox had no deadline. But as events unfolded and the clues mounted, the players realized the end of days was on a schedule.

The deadline was imminent, and this added a great new stressor to gameplay.

There were other deadlines as well.

  • Appointments with crime lords you didn’t want to miss, but then you got stuck in a dungeon.
  • Arena events important because you were either a participant or a schemer.
  • Parties and social gatherings you didn’t want to miss out on.
  • Quests. When your boss, who’s a high level vampire crime lord, says ASAP, it means ASAP.

Dungeon World calls a deadline an Impending Doom. Be late and face terrible consequences. Either the PCs suffer directly, or the setting changes in an unfavourable way. A great tip.

Bonus Tip: Add A Secret Chuckle For The GM

Here is something about the campaign I have never told anyone before, not even you.

It started out as an experiment I’ve always wanted to try in a campaign.

When it didn’t trigger, I decided to let it stay a secret. I dropped a few hints throughout the months, but the characters never solved the mystery.

Even after the campaign ended, I kept my secret. And I actually introduced it again in not one but two campaigns afterwards, but those campaigns flamed out early and I only got a chance to trigger the mystery once.

However, after four years, it’s time to reveal this little something that warmed the cockles of my cruel GMing heart for the entire campaign.

In the first session the PCs inherited an inn and a chest. The previous owner felt the party would carry his legacy on, which was to take a role in the conspiracy surrounding the city’s magical arch.

In the chest were a few minor treasures and some mundane items. One of those items was a marble.

A plain, boring marble.

Turns out the marble was an Orb of Dragonkind, a major artifact!

The PCs had a major artifact in their hands from the first session through to the end of the campaign, and they didn’t know it.

Their foes suspected, though, and made several attacks and stealthy attempts to find the marble, but to no avail.

It’s not the players’ fault, really. Artifacts in the setting did not radiate magic, so nothing beeped on the detect magic radar. And the clues I dropped over the months were subtle or obscure – I wasn’t going to make the Orb’s discovery easy, it was an artifact after all.

The weakest faction in Riddleport was the dragonkin. I figured the PCs could use the Orb to control the dragonkin to help them survive the violence and craziness that was building in the city.

However, I thought the most likely case was the PCs would use the Dragon Orb in public, word would spread, and enemies searching for it would investigate, overpower the party and just take it. Who can resist hurling a 10 die fireball, right?

So once the marble was in the PCs’ hands and they ignored it, and enemies failed to find it, it became an ongoing evil chuckle for me during the campaign, giving me great pleasure. Here’s this incredibly powerful tool just lying in the junk pile in a PC’s gear list. If only the PCs knew. If only the campaign’s many factions knew. If only Riddleport’s biggest villain knew!

I thought several times about revealing the item. It would be a great game revelation later in the campaign, some dumb thing found in the first session is actually an artifact. I also thought about having NPCs clue in and make stronger attempts to steal it, putting an obvious spotlight on the thing.

But no, I enjoyed this wild card hiding out there in the campaign, and let it ride.

You do not need something like this in your campaign for a Riddleport type experience. And you can create an obscure secret for any style game. I enjoyed it a lot, but not because I pulled one over on my players – I did make the thing very hard to ascertain – but just as this wild card experiment always out there, lurking and waiting to be unleashed…..