5 Uses for Heroes

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0453

5 Uses for Heroes

Plenty has been written about villains: how to play them, what motivates them, how they fit into a campaign. Unless your campaign world is a desolate moral wasteland though, there’s probably a favorable hero to villain ratio, and that means you have more do-gooders running around than just the party.

Where do these other heroes come from? Where do they go? And how can you make them a part of your campaign world without overshadowing the hero-y-est heroes of them all, the PCs?

Following are a few ideas for your campaigns.

Patrons and Role-models

There were heroes before the PCs came about, and there will be heroes afterwards.

For at least part of the party’s adventuring career, they will likely be low on the food chain. This means a few of the heroes around will be more powerful than the party.

These heroes can make great role-models for the party, offering a glimpse of what the PCs might one day become. A noble paladin, champion of her god’s followers, showered with accolades wherever she goes. A great and terrible wizard, his mind nearly gone with madness after endless pursuits of powerful spells. A brave and brawny fighter, whom women wish to have and men wish to be.

With heroes like these around, who needs the PCs? Why aren’t these guys solving all the world’s problems?

There are many possible reasons:

  • They are off fighting greater threats. A world-renowned paladin might be too busy slaying liches to help a village with its kobold infestation.
  • It’s not that they’re busy, but more that they’re arrogant; even with no liches to slay, the paladin won’t stoop to clearing out measly vermin.
  • The fighter, champion that he was in his heyday, has hung up his sword and retired. Old age and old wounds have made him too weak to fight the way he once did.
  • Another adventurer might still be in his prime, but have retired for other reasons: a wife and family or lands to govern.
  • Retired for yet other reasons, the wizard has seen too many of his adventuring companions slaughtered. Now he hides from the world in his tower, a shadow of the man he once was.

Just because they aren’t adventuring doesn’t mean they’re out of the game. These NPCs can act as patrons for PCs, dispensing advice on how to fight and live as heroes, or just telling stories of the good old days.

Unfinished Business

Just because the PCs succeed in all their quests doesn’t mean everyone else does. Perhaps the village is infested with kobolds because another group tried to raid the nearby lair and failed, and now the kobolds are out for revenge.

What about that legendary sword, the one that boosts stats and drains life and is on fire and hurls lightning? The legends had to come from somewhere: other groups who tried and failed to retrieve it.

Or the puzzle that has defeated all-comers, the one that guards the tomb of the ancient high king? The party might run into a group of defeated adventurers in a tavern, grumbling about how they knew they should have double-checked their book of runes before trying to reason with the obsidian gargoyles.

Other adventurers might get lost in a maze, or raise an ancient evil they can’t quite manage to put back underground. And what about the Wish spells the players always word so carefully? Not everyone is quite so cautious.

It seems like every merchant caravan around wants some heroes to guard them before they’ll travel from point A to point B; and let’s not even get started on unwed daughters of local nobility. If other adventurers make a mess of something like this, how can the party help sort it out?

It’s not that all the other heroes in the world are incompetent, or even that they’re all of a lower level than the party. It’s just that some of them – much like the party – bite off more than they can chew. But unlike the party, they don’t have the force of the narrative to bail them out.

Not only does this approach provide a lot of non-villain- related plot hooks, but it also provides a reminder to the players of what the world looks like when heroes fail.


Plenty has been written about the party of rival adventurers that steals your quest items, runs away with the princess, and in general is a bunch of conniving wolves in heroes’ clothing. But what if the other party is an alignment other than Obnoxious Greedy?

A group of rival NPCs might be so goody-good they make your teeth hurt. They raid the lair of the evil black dragon, then donate the proceeds to orphans. They rescue the duke’s daughter, then help her get together with the poor farm boy who was her childhood sweetheart. They clear the rats out of the tavern basement, then distribute pamphlets on the evils of alcoholism.

This might be comic relief in one sort of campaign, or inspiration in another. For yet another campaign, it might just be economics – how can you deal with a party that is constantly undercutting your bids, since they’ll do anything for free so long as it helps the greater good?

If your players can’t find a creative way to deal with an entire party of saints, you can always reveal them to be secretly servants of the most evil god of them all, biding their time until their fiendish plan was complete.

And what about a party that isn’t any better or worse than the PCs, but merely different? They might all evangelize for some strange god: not an evil god, just one whose dictates aren’t quite aligned with the deities the PCs serve.

The rival party might not serve a foreign god, but they could be from a foreign culture. They can still be honest and valorous, but perhaps their culture is racist, or sexist, or opposes the current form of government; anything that would be distasteful to the PCs without actually being evil.

The opposite could even be true: the rival party might think the PCs bestow too few rights upon servants or animals, and compete with the party to show their own way is better.

Whatever the reason, an equally heroic party with a different moral compass makes an interesting change from the typical rival group.


One of the major advantages good has over evil is that good generally cooperates. So why can’t a similarly-powered party be allies instead of rivals?

There probably isn’t a huge market for that +2 flaming sword you want to get rid of, now that you have the +3 life-drinking version. It’s not as if peasants can afford it, after all. So why not give it to your friend the NPC fighter, whose party is heading north for some arctic adventuring? She might find something up there that would be more useful to you than to her.

The other party of NPCs can also be a good way to funnel information to your players about whatever larger story arc is happening. If the PCs come back from dealing with ogre unrest in the mountains, only to find that pacifying the desert ogres was the NPCs’ latest mission, they’ll know something much bigger is going on.

Trading items and information can be great for both groups. It also lets you make recurring villains twice as menacing; they must be truly villainous if they can harass both parties at once.

Having a group of allies opens up more adventuring opportunities. Want to throw in a challenge the party isn’t quite ready for yet? They can team up with their friends to tackle it. The friendly party is facing a foe they can’t take down alone? They can call in the PCs to help. This latter choice is especially good for one-off adventures when you need a pause in your main storyline.

An allied party can also fill in the roles of missing background NPCs. The cleric’s player might not have bothered writing up a family history, but if he’s friends with the other party’s paladin, then at least there’s one NPC in whose fate he has an interest.

Underlings and Followers

The PCs might start out on the bottom of the ladder, but odds are, they won’t stay there. One day, they’ll be the shining heroes parading through town to the adulation of the masses – and the imitation of lesser heroes.

Lower-level heroes might seek out the PCs for advice, training, or merely as role-models. They could be accepted into the party as an apprentice, or merely become yet another friendly NPC contact.

Either way, there’s no end to the trouble the fledgling heroes can get into. Anything that could trip up a PC – blackmail, powerful foes, curses – and more. Even if your PCs all took to the adventuring life because they were orphans whose parents were killed by savage raiders, that doesn’t mean all heroes are that way. NPC heroes have families and friends who can get into trouble on their own.

Your PCs might reject this sort of follower, but that doesn’t mean the NPCs will stop trying. A fanatical fan could be a minor nuisance, or a serious threat. A local noble’s son or daughter with adventuring inclinations might demand the party take them along.

If the PCs do take on followers, it could attract the attention of other powerful figures who are jealous of the party’s retinue. And how do you get half a dozen apprentices safely across a crumbling stone bridge over a fiery chasm?

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Johnn Four’s Gold Standard

New Contest: Combat Hazards

It’s time for another community contest. This time it focuses on interesting combat hazards. What would be some cool terrain, trap, environmental, obstacle, and strange hazards that could affect the PCs or their foes during exciting combat action?


  • Ye old pool of lava
  • Strong gusts of wind that push combatants around
  • Teleportation circles combatants use to jump around the field of combat
  • Combat takes place on large disks attached to ceiling with chains – you get swinging motion plus tippy ground (thanks White Plume!)
  • Thin ice over bone-chilling cold pool

How to Enter

Email me [[email protected]] as many combat hazards you can think of. Each entry gives you a chance to win a prize, so send along everything you can think of. Use email, Word, or whatever format works for you. Send entries in batches if that’s easier for you. Everything gets put in a spreadsheet in the end anyway, for random prize selection.

Feel free to let me know your prize preferences as well.


Contest ends July 21. Multiple entries are welcome, but they must be emailed to me by Tuesday, July 21, 2009.

The Prizes

War of the Burning Sky #1: The Scouring of Gate Pass by E.N. Publishing

Your choice of 3.5 or 4E version in PDF

Morru’s Unofficial Table RPG News

Mythic Design presents:

  1. Tribes of Danu: Heart of the Neolith
  2. Adventure Art Issue #1
  3. Adventure Art Issue #2

PDF and print version of each are available


Malevolent and Benign in PDF by Expeditious Retreat Press


Obsidian Portal 6 month memberships

In total, there are 18 prizes up for grabs.

Winners will be selected randomly, so don’t worry about writing skills – it’s the ideas that count.

Entries will be compiled and edited and given back to the RPG community for free, as I’ve done with previous contests. Thanks for helping other game masters with your combat hazards!

Email [email protected] your entries today.

Battle Graph Dry Erase Boards Are Awesome

Last session I had the chance to use Battle Graph Dry Erase Boards by Long Tooth Studios and they are excellent game master aids.

Each board is dry erase and 11″ x 11″ x 1/8″. The boards are sturdy and gridded out. Hex grid boards are apparently in development, too.

A set comes with 4 boards that interlock with each other like jigsaw puzzle pieces.

The boards are versatile, as you can use them singly or linked together. For example, in my last session we used a board to extend a graph paper battlemat out a bit. That saved paper and a lot of shuffling of books and dice on the table.

It’s been two weeks since my last game. I just tried erasing the boards now. The dry erase ink came off no problem. Whew!

Thanks a lot to Brian at Long Tooth Studios for sending me these boards for review. I already consider them an integral part of my GMing kit now. Great product.

Tips readers, you can find out more about Battle Graph Dry Erase Boards at:


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A Couple of Interesting GMing Articles

I list updates to my blog later in this issue, but wanted to call out two articles in particular that you might enjoy.

The first is called “Say Yes, but Get There Quick.” It picks up from a tip that appeared a couple times in past Roleplaying Tips about saying yes more often to achieve excellent game flow.

This article expands on that tip, and discusses different uses and cautions about saying yes to your players all the time.

Say Yes, but Get There Quick

The second is actually a pair of related articles about DM screen hacks and recipes. DM screen tips have been popular in the ezine before, so I thought you might be interested in more tips and ideas for crafting screens that suit your exact GMing needs:

Top 9 Dungeon Master Screen Hacks

11 Homebrew Dungeon Master Screens

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Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

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

Merging two WOD campaigns?

I am currently leading a “Vampire – The Dark Ages” campaign, but soon I will be in charge also for our “Vampire – The Masquerade” sessions.

I would like to know whether you or your readers have suggestions about a campaign merging these two games together. In my opinion, this could be really entertaining, if well planned.

Any suggestions?

Thanks in advance and cheers from Italy. 🙂

Chiara Send advice, ideas and feedback to: [email protected]

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Magic Item Backstories For Your Game

Necklace of Strangling

From Brad Chacos

The party has been living the adventurer’s lifestyle, spending their platinum in a ferocious way – mostly in the areas of negotiable repute at best.

One night, the party’s barbarian is resting on a couch after enjoying the company of a beautiful succubus at the local bordello when she leans forward. She has a unique proposition; there is a lot of wrangling for position (err, career-wise) at this particular establishment, and she has located a wonderful item that would provide her with quite the leg up over the competition – if the strapping young berserker and his party would be willing to retrieve it for her.

The Necklace of Strangling was last seen in the household of Onasdarae, the third daughter of the Head Assassin. If the party got it back to the succubus, she would be able to provide their future services for free, and of course, she would need to play with the Necklace with a willing soul before using it for the happiness of the other customers.

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Potion of House Cat Control

From Beckett Warren

Not so long ago, potions of House Cat Control were plentiful. They were found in goblins’ sacks and dragon’s hordes. However, the last two decades have been turbulent times, with new ruling dynasties, referred to commonly as “Editions,” decreeing what magic was acceptable to be used within the realm. These once very common potions have all but vanished.

The heroes, having recently obtained a bracelet of untold arcane power, have returned to their homestead before embarking on the final leg of their epic quest. Also living in the heroes’ domicile is a colony of kitties.

One of the feline friends has absconded with the bracelet and hidden the artifact somewhere within the house. Due to the anti-scrying wards in place, it is hidden even beyond the eyes of mages. Only Sir Snowbottom, Slayer of Mice, knows the location.

Before the heroes can complete their world saving quest, they must find a now rare Potion of House Cat Control to persuade Sir Snowbottom to retrieve and return the arcane bracelet. Doing so might prove to be as difficult as herding cats.

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Phylacteries of Faithfulness

From Brad Chacos

Benumk is a dashing young Goblin who recently converted to the Light of Pelor after being given a back rub and a copper by a traveling cleric.

He just had the darndest time figuring out what was acceptable to his new god sometimes – who knew that farting in the cathedral or taking a shirt from a clothesline was frowned upon?

The head of the local chapter took pity on Benumk and strapped a small box with some funny lines on paper in it to the goblin’s forehead, and he’s been clear sailing ever since. He even wears pants and has a job dragging trash from the local tavern!

Benumk loves his new life, and wants to get his clan in on this civilized fun. But when he tried to explain the grooviness to the brood, they either laughed and farted at his new Happy Box, tried to take his pants, or both.

Determined to improve the life of his clan, he returns to the cave with a trunk chock full of Phylacteries of Faithfulness, again courtesy of the head cleric. Now, he just needs to convince Tebudm and Soruxg and the rest of his drinking buddies to slap them on and see what they are missing.