6 More Monstrous Tips

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0292

A Brief Word From Johnn

Roleplaying Tips 6th Anniversary

The end of November saw this e-zine enter into its 7th year of assaulting Inboxes around the world. Thanks to everyone for your ongoing support, tips, feedback, and reading! Thanks to my volunteers who keep things going. And thanks to my wife who puts up with my (endearing, right honey?) nerdiness and computer monitor tan.

Mike’s Races Series Resumes Soon

The previous two weeks I’ve featured a great article series about customizing game races to suit your own gaming purposes. That series resumes in Part 3: Tooth & Dagger in the near future.

A Request For RPG Advocacy Resources

I received a tricky help request from a young reader. His parents won’t let him play D&D because they feel it is evil and he wants to know what he can do to convince them otherwise.

First off, I think it’s great that the reader’s parents are taking interest in his life and hobbies, and that they’re setting boundaries they feel are in his best interests. Without having met or chatted with the parents, my best guess is they’re basing their decision on misinformation. There’s a well-known webcomic, for example, that outright says D&D is evil. And there are numerous personal websites and press sites that call RPGs various names.

I’d like to supply our fellow gamer with links to websites and articles he can forward to his parents so they can learn more and make the best-informed decision as possible concerning their son’s request. If you have any good advocacy or informational links, please forward them to me.

Also, if you have any tips or advice for young people whose parents won’t let them game because of possible misconceptions about our hobby, I’d love to hear those as well.


Have a game-full week.


Johnn Four
[email protected]

6 More Monstrous Tips

In July, Roleplaying Tips Weekly ran a contest for monster related tips of all kinds. Subscribers responded with nearly 100 entries, and many prizes were handed out. Below are a handful of entries from the contest. May your critters live long and prosper!

Filling A Niche

From Sparrow

You might want to create creatures just to have in the background. For example, the people of the forest have domesticated an animal for eating just as humans have done with cows. For an easy way to create a background creature, think about its purpose and any similarities with a real creature you know already serves this purpose.

In this case, cows and the forest creature are raised for meat, so they should be large (or as large a creature you want to put in the forest) and pretty stupid. Now, just give the new creature a body and some basic stats if it isn’t going to do much battle.

You can make new mounts, food sources, pets, pests, and so on this way if you know exactly what you want from them.

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Villainous Night Hags (D&D 3.x)

From Aki Halme

[Johnn: for info on the Night Hag, visit d20srd.org: NightHag]

A hag is a fine candidate for a master villain. A healing item is a worthy item that can be required to save the life of a loved one or a friend of a patron to hook the PCs into the tale. Alternatively, it can provide political leverage and be worth a great deal as a well-timed trade. It is, however, not an item easily gained, as a hag has access to two attack forms that are very difficult to stop: dream haunting and a magical disease, and both of those involve slow and permanent ability drain, making them useful for elimination or blackmail.

Etherealness and polymorph self, both at will, and an impressive arsenal of magical detection abilities, make it very hard to ambush a hag, and easy to get ambushed by one. Failing a first encounter can mean nights without much sleep. Cold and fire immunities can mean encounters in freezing sleet or ice-cold water, or in burning buildings where the environment itself causes difficulties to all but the hag itself.

Hags are certainly intelligent enough to send good-aligned creatures on quests against itself. It has what it takes – the means to infect people with a lethal disease for which it has the only available cure. They are also smart enough to disguise who and what they are, and to offer their healing for trade. This could be used to undermine the authority of other healers in the region, including temples, and gradually, civil authority as well. The ability to change one’s appearance at will is likewise a perfect tool for creating turmoil.

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Making Skeletons And Zombies More Dangerous (D&D)

From Aki Halme

The mindless undead creatures are relative inexpensive and durable, and perhaps should not be considered monsters as such; rather than acting with initiative, they follow orders of their masters to the best of their ability, more like items than creatures.

They can attack, which means some ability to sense and react to their surroundings. They also have an impressive set of immunities. How dangerous they are depends mainly on the instructions they were given when created. Under normal conditions their combat ability is dismal, but if given a slight edge, things can be very different.

For example:

  • They can be used as an alarm system or a detection/ triggering mechanism for a trap
  • They can use ranged weapons with specifically prepared ammunition
  • They can fight effortlessly in places where humans can’t see, breathe, or effectively wield large weapons, such as narrow, dark, twisting corridors filled with flammable, poisonous gas
  • They can fall off a cliff and take an adventurer down with them

All those and many more reasons make the animated dead far more dangerous than they normally would be. Further, the living dead can appear in mixed groups, have special enchantments on them, carry or wear gear, be created with some changes to the spell that gives them life, or enjoy the benefits of an environment that gives them more strength.

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Work Backwards

From Isaac Calon

When building a critter, it’s often easier to work backwards from the environment you want to place it in, instead of trying to make a monster from scratch. Consider the following when crafting your monster, keeping in mind the environment it lives in and the critter’s ecological role.

  1. What does it eat? What is available for food?
  2. What special or unusual properties does your environment have? (Enhanced gravity, no sunlight, regular earthquakes.)
  3. Does it have any natural predators? Does it have a way to escape or defend itself from them? (Poison, camouflage, claws, teeth, spines.)
  4. Did the critter evolve here, or was it introduced somehow? (Conventionally, magically, a portal from another plane of existence.)

Keep in mind that a creature from elsewhere will, likely, have difficulty competing for food with native creatures unless it possesses exceptional qualities.

By answering these questions and coming up with your own, you will do much of the creature-creation process before ever trying to map out hit dice or ability scores.

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Creature Concept: Doppelgangers of the Black Jungle

From Juergen Hartmann

Although many variations of doppelgangers exist in the game world, this particular subspecies arose in the dark heart of the Primordial Jungle.

Rather than being born of an egg or developing from a fetus, these beings get their start in the soupy ooze found in isolated swamps. To grow, they require a host to ingest a small quantity of an algae-like substance.

Within a few days, the infected being develops fever and severe headaches, a pale yellow complexion, and a lack of energy to do much of anything save sleep. Inside, the host is being consumed to provide substance for the swiftly growing doppelganger. It absorbs the host body as it also absorbs the host’s mind. The host’s experiences, memories, and feelings form the template for the emerging being.

After a week, the host appears to succumb to the illness ravaging him and dies. Within hours, the host sheds the outer layer of her body like a snake shedding old skin, and the new doppelganger body emerges.

It knows all that its host knew. That form serves as its default disguise when amongst other beings. The host’s personality is its own, save for the overriding desire to preserve its race and its fellow doppelgangers from harm.

Some doppelgangers created in this way have travelled from their jungle homes of origin with preserved containers of the ooze from which they came. They find an isolated village or town and introduce it into the water supply in an attempt to breed.

While they possess telepathy, their proficiency in it is tied to the mental acuity of the host they first infected. The more intelligent the host, the more deeply they can look into the mind of another being.

Doppelgangers are not typically evil, but they are all too aware of the xenophobic regard that other races have towards them, especially in light of their telepathy.

Doppelgangers’ greatest weakness lies in the personality of the host they absorb. The same passions, character traits, and weaknesses are with the doppelganger. If the original host is known, those vulnerabilities can be brought to the surface. It might be possible for the original host mind to take over under certain circumstances, but this is extremely rare as the doppelganger is strong willed and driven by the biological imperatives of his race.

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A Bright Idea For Blue Dragons

From Kane Salzer

[For the specific quote Kane refers to, see: Dragon, True :: d2srd.org]

Blue dragons are an often misused chromatic dragon. Consider this quote: “the mighty blue dragon basking in the sun, its indigo scales being polished to a high sheen by blowing sands.” It is this last detail that I found most interesting. A clever blue dragon could use this to good advantage against enemies by simply blinding its would-be attackers with a devastating broadside flash of the sun off its scales.

For example, the characters approach the yawning cavern that is the dragon’s lair. They are salivating at the thought of the amazing treasure hoard awaiting them within when suddenly the sand dune beside them rumbles, golden glaring sand falling away to reveal mirror finish blue scales reflecting the open, cloudless sky. The intrepid heroes spread out to try and flank the massive beast when he shifts, almost imperceptibly, and then the world turns into a haze of pain and pale blue sunlight too harsh to look at.

In an instant, the elf ranger falls to a savage sweep of claws, never seeing the attack coming in the glare. Dragons in general are misused and underplayed. They are much smarter than the average player or character. They have no doubt sustained assaults on them by more capable beings than the players…why else do they have such awesome treasure? For the sake of good gaming, please respect your dragons. Players should not simply look at a white dragon and say, “Oh well, here we go again, time to pull out the fire spells,” or, “Look at that red dragon, better make sure when we kill it we search for extra treasure.” Dragons are beings of near infinite mystery, subtlety, and power; we should game up to those traits to help fill our campaigns with wonder and beauty.

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

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

Tips On Adventure Writing And Execution

From Dwayne al’ Trawick

This is the hard part for all of us, I think. I have tried hard to find out exactly what makes a good adventure tick and then how to manipulate those gears and cogs for more adventures. Here’s what I’ve learned:

Get the Idea

I get some of my favorite adventure ideas from my dreams. Seriously, I got one adventure and two major stories from my dreams. I had to filter out a lot of the absolutely bizarre elements that my depraved and cracked mind added, but once refined, they were quite powerful adventures.

Not all of my ideas come from dreams though. I guess the best advice I can give here is open your scope to anything, such as books, movies, art, conversations, the news. I’ve gotten ideas from a single image. What’s important is you don’t disregard anything for the possibilities it might have.

Organize Your Ideas

Write them down or type them out.

Use a Hook

I have a new method for writing down rough drafts for adventure ideas. First, I name the adventure or story. This gives it some of its own character and forces me to give it a theme. Even if it sounds funny or goofy, it doesn’t matter–you don’t have to give the title to the players.

For example, I had one adventure where the characters’ caravan would be ambushed, killing the leader. One of the characters would have to come forth and be the leader until the group gets to safety. I named that adventure “A Change in Management.” It worked fine and I always remembered the main goal of the story.

When you write down an adventure, ask yourself how to hook the characters. Include as many possible hooks as you can, and not just general ones either. Have a couple hooks for each character. Then ask yourself what happens if they don’t get hooked. You know it’s going to happen once or twice. The characters will somehow evade every hook you have. Genuinely ask yourself what happens if they don’t take the bait. Sometimes the answer will be surprisingly acceptable. If they don’t take the bait then they don’t get the clue, oh well. Find a way to compensate and move on.

Here’s a real example of one of my adventure ideas:

A Job From The Red Mask

When Marlos and the others return to Skullbridge they’re going to have a lot of explaining to do. Once the Red Mask determines how capable Marlos (and his friends) are, they’ll send him on a new mission. It will make them plenty of money. What will they do? They’ll have Marlos escort something somewhere. But what? I know they’ll have to go east. Where will I send them? Probably to Blood’s End to pick something up. Then take it to someone in Tonguesmoot. It will lead into Loric finding the priest who took the boy from Mad Maerghas.

How to get them hooked: Marlos and maybe Lypilla will probably go for the money. Loric could be sent a dream to go east. Maybe from the boy if he refuses to go. “You will still leave me?” And the boy is crying over the map. Mykal can be brought over because that is near where his parents were killed and their might be a good tournament.

What if they don’t get hooked? Well. The consequences would be that I can’t introduce Loric to the boy. Aside from that, there’s no other great negative impact. So how do I get the boy in Loric’s hands otherwise? The priest can come to Loric. Maybe he’s even being chased and is wounded. No biggie.

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Ask yourself questions like that. If you want to do the adventure, you’re going to have to answer them, so you might as well write them down! This has served me as a good basis for a rough adventure idea. See how you like it.

Make sure all the mundane math and info is down for easy use

That means baddie stats, the asking price for the dingus they have to buy, the time it will take them to get to Poketon, and so on. This might seem worthless, but it saves oodles of time. Time you can spend running your adventure!

Use Pre-Written Descriptions if You Stutter Like Me

I’m not much of a speaker, so I’ve recently begun writing my important descriptions before the adventure. I’m much better at reading out loud than speaking off the cuff.


I know this sounds stupid, but it has helped me define NPCs who I wanted to shine. Do it in your car on your way to work or in the shower.

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The Space Between Adventures

From Ian Winterbottom

This is generally looked on as the bit where the characters “level up.” i.e. Train to learn new techniques or skills, learn spells, heal, replenish the rations, and replace or repair equipment. In short, downtime. What would happen if you could use that “space” to fit in the unexpected – small adventures complete in themselves, sidetrips not necessarily connected to the main storyline or plot?

Perhaps the repairs or whatever themselves could be adventures, with the characters having to do a minor quest or obtain a special service, person, thing, ingredient, or specific information? Perhaps a trip to collect, say, graveyard mould, could be exciting? Or to find the only copy of a rare book or map. The classic example is payment for resurrecting your best buddy, which is, of course, the time when you find out just who your best buddies are!

Perhaps a quill from a cockatrice is needed to write a particular spell in a book? Just how does the party magician go about getting his friends to help him get that all- important feather? It could give rise to a whole cascade of small quests as the players have to work together to pay off “debts” to NPCs and to each other.

A necromancer is usually best steered clear of – but what if he is the only one who can resurrect your buddy, or you need him to Speak With Dead to get important information? With a greedy necromancer, one can pull out a few stops. Maybe he wants a Hand of Glory? Might the PCs need to do a favour to obtain one, such as a delivery? Read Robert E. Vardeman’s War of Powers to find out what can happen to an innocent fighter type who tries to make a simple delivery to a mage.

What might a sage want in return for his help? More knowledge? About what and where? Perhaps only he can read the mysterious document in an unknown, ancient script? And if you want a few of those, try Forgotten Scripts by Dino Manzelli, who has dozens to choose from!

For spell ingredients, a friend of mine, Tony Jerome, came up with the idea of Uses for a Dragon – apart from its treasure hoard, that is. Think along the lines of the Plains Indians of the American West who used literally every part of the buffalo they hunted, sewing with its sinew, carving its bones into artifacts, wearing its skin, even carrying food and water in its intestines. The cowboy had the same general idea. A ranch cook prided himself on using every part of the cow but “the hooves, the horns, and the holler.”

Applying the same idea to a flying, fire-breathing, magical lizard, you can come up with some interesting ideas. A dragon’s scales are incredibly thick, hard, and tough; they’d make fantastic armour or shields – and the softer under-scales would be harder-wearing than Levis! But everyone’s thought of that one. Its eyes? Farseeing, used for detecting prey from incredible heights, might they not make magical seeing or scrying devices? Its teeth? Again sharp, tough, for weapons; or as in mythology, they hatch into armoured warriors! Its mighty heart, for potions of Heroism or courage? Or any part, to help make the user proof against fire, acid, or whatever.

Speaking of which, a dragon’s digestive system might be a useful factory for the ingredients for flashes, bangs, and explosions, even to providing the wherewithal for a magical cannon? The dragon, of course, is likely to take a dim view of such use of itself, and collecting the same might be a trifle fraught? We all know the front end of a dragon is dangerous, but what about the other end?

Small encounters can become large ones seen from the vantage point of Space Between. What happens after the encounter? Someone came up with a beautiful encounter, the Wedding, in which a number of outcomes were possible depending on the party’s actions. How about a road encounter, a robbery in progress, in which a rich-looking man is being shaken down by roughly dressed outlaws? Only, there is a 50% chance the man is the sheriff’s tax collector or running a protection racket and the outlaws are actually wronged peasants.

Next time the PCs level-up, consider how you can use the Space Between to add some spice and good encounter opportunities to your campaign.

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Excel-lent NPC Tracking

From Loz Newman

Does your game system have a cumbersome attribute-based skills rules set that players have to update every time they gain another attribute point? Losing twenty minutes at the beginning or end of every gaming session?

Nowadays, lots of people have Excel (or similar programs) on their computers. Did you know that this can be one of your most powerful GM aids? I created my own game, and the Excel programs I’ve developed for it are a major aid to its success over the past eight years. Here’s just a few of the ways I use Excel:

Tracking Player Character Information

Advantages: Tracking of XP use/Attribute points gained, easy-to-read PC sheets, group stats summary, quelling PC sheet disputes.

  1. Type up your players’ PC sheets, on one “Input” Excel sheet (PC names as columns across the top, and attributes, skills, etc. as lines down the left-hand side).

    Tip: you may need several columns per PC. Look at the skills systems and the various “adds” possible, and plan on one column per type of “add.” Add in a pair of “calculation columns” to the right of each PC’s info, as this will allow you to cut-and-paste the basic info amongst various folders later.

    For example, my game has 4 columns per PC, plus 2 hidden “calculation” columns to the right. A good spacious layout will save you headaches later on.
  2. Now create a one page “summary” sheet linked to the “Input” sheet. Instant Group Stats sheet!

    Tip: Use a column in the summary sheet for each PC’s initial profile, others for his “adds” or level-ups (don’t forget that some adds may be free and others cost points, so plan on two columns if so), and another for his final scores. This allows you to track his evolution (starting scores, free bonuses and paid for adds, and total scores), which is a killer argument when a player starts to protest…

    Tip: Concatenate three skills per line to save on space, with “/” between each. i.e. “Swimming”, “Tinkering”, “Tracking” can be compressed to Swm/Tnk/Trak in the left hand-column, and noted as 15/18/4 in an individual PC’s summary column.
  3. Create copies of individual PC sheets (1 per PC), in the same Excel file folder, and link into them the info from the “Input” sheet. Want to include an image for your PC? Easy. Print out fresh sheets for every game and avoid forever those “what did I write here?” and “do I have 8 Healing potions or 6?” delays.

    Tip: For this, don’t hesitate to rearrange sheets into “fixed” info on one page of a PC sheet and all “variable” info on another. Print out just the variable sheets each session to cut down on printing time/costs.
  4. If you have enough time and want to create a stock of “available PCs”, you can. They don’t even have to be in the same Excel folder. You can link their “summary” stats together in yet another folder (perhaps called “Available PCs”) with a one-page sheet of one-line presentations (name/age/class/level/xp, etc.) drawn from the summary info sheet.

Another advantage is that, since you input all data, you get the chance to make sure a sly gamer hasn’t slipped in an extra attribute point when you weren’t looking….

Archiving Monster Stats

Advantage: 15 monsters to a page, and you can bind them together into your very own “monster manual.” 32 pages bound together is much easier to handle than 625 index cards…. You can sort them by name or any other column whenever you need.

Create column headings for their physical stats/height/ weight/combat skills (type of attack, # of attacks, action points, or whatever, and their base skill level).

You will need three lines for each monster. The first line should have squares for all the height/weight stats. The following two lines should be fused to allow you to input text (description, particularities, personality, magic objects, etc.).

Tip: Use a smaller font size to cram in more information on the sheet.

Tip: If you include columns on the left for “Category” and “Dungeon room #” keys, and include invisible copies of this info at the beginning of the following two lines (in Excel use “CONCATENATE”(Line1;”2″) and CONCATENATE(Line1;”3”) to keep the lines in the right order, and put the ink colour to white to hide the Concatenated values).

You can even sort this info, link it to summary pages, etc. Need a quick assortment of monsters for your dungeon? Cut and paste into a blank sheet, and off you go. Monster stats are pretty much immutable too, so you won’t need to update them much.

Battle Sheets

Need a quick way to run a battle with 15 Trolls? Paste the troll description at the top of a blank sheet and add 15 numbered (but otherwise blank) lines underneath where you can note hit points and other combat details.

Tip: Sick of cut and paste? Look at your program’s functions for finding data. Define your data as a named table and use the name column to seek out the data in the rest of the line. This allows you to type in a name of a creature into your Battle Sheet and then watch Excel find the rest of the data for you….

Tip: Guess what? This works for NPCs too. NPCs have the pesky habit of gaining XPs, but hey, with an Excel sheet, you don’t need an eraser. I’ve a campaign city with 60 special locations, each with 1-5 NPCs associated with that location. That’s 220 NPCs or Standard NPC profiles. And it all fits into a 15-page booklet.

GM Manual

Here are the names a few of the tables I’ve created to help me, along with the input of each PC. I’ve even hived off this data into separate “GM info” sheets to make a separate GM’s manual!

  • Racial powers (race name, powers, handicaps)
  • Standardized backpacks (objects, weight, cost)
  • Weapons (name, damage, weight, cost, penalty to hide, range, etc.)
  • Skills (attributes it’s based on, base cost, cost of each +1, difficulty, modifiers)
  • Career and cultural packages (name, cost, elements)
  • Armours (weight, cost, protection)

I’ve also regrouped all my tables into three Excel files “Magic”, “Equipment,” and “Rules,” which make a dandy GM’s Manual once bound together. Also in the GM manual, I’ve included a campaign-zone map, a world map, and a “GM’s 7 Cardinal Rules” reminder sheet.

Starter Kits

I’ve also done up “Starter Kits” I can e-mail to players so they can spend their creation budget, test that their latest concept fits together, and fine-tune their PC creation.

I include:

Excel: Limited one-PC version of my “PC folder,” and copies of the Magic, Equipment, and Rules folders (with GM-only information cut out).

Word: Documents on the various cultures of the world and their packages. A timeline of the campaign world. A character creation checklist, Player’s Guide, and FAQ.

General Comments

Tip: Keep backup copies! Always, always, always keep a separate copy, somewhere else. Also, if your computer crashes or your house burns down (both have happened to me), leaving another copy with a friend (i.e. once a month) is a lifesaver. Distinguish each backup by including the date (YY/MM/DD) in the file name.

The backup copies also give you a big, graduated reserve of PC sheets, which, with a few changes, make dandy NPCs….

Disadvantages: the time it takes to create the Excel file(s), and the time it takes to keep it (them) updated. Typing lots of information into Excel took me hours, and I’ve invested many more hours since constantly improving the PC sheets and adding functions. I have never once regretted it or believed that I would have spent less time with pen and paper. My Starmont campaigns have lasted for eight years, and Excel is a big part of the reason why.

Questions or comments? Want to find out what the 7 Cardinal Rules of GMing are? Want to find out what the advanced versions of these sheets are? Contact me at: loz_new[NOSPAM][email protected]

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Crate Maps From Posterboard

From Jack Taylor

Here’s one I’ve used before to good effect. When drawing out scale maps for my dungeon crawls, I make the map in sections that are no bigger than a piece of posterboard. Then, I cut out sections of map from more posterboard to create an overlay that reveals certain sections of the map while concealing others. Finally, I have several different cutouts that are the radius of common light sources, such as a torch. These are placed on the very top when the PCs are exploring a darkened area, revealing only what they could see.