7 More Tips For GMing Weak Characters

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0118

A Brief Word From Johnn

Blocked Emails — A Free Email Account Alternative

As Spam becomes a bigger problem, various email service providers take measures to protect their customers. Unfortunately, this sometimes means legitimate email (such as this ezine) gets blocked along with the Spam.

There are three providers who, historically, have provided Tips subscribers with the greatest amount of blocked, filtered, and missed issues:

  • Yahoo!
  • Hotmail
  • AOL

I’ve found an RPG site that provides free email and doesn’t block my ezine (at least for my account and for the one other subscriber who has reported back to me on it). If you’re having problems with your subscription then I strongly urge you to look for an alternate email provider as a back-up, such as:


I’d also be interested in hearing about free email providers that you currently use who do allow this ezine to get through consistently and without problems.

Have a great week,

Johnn Four
[email protected]

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7 More Tips For GMing Weak Characters

You can find Part I here: RPT#117 – 6 Tips For GMing Weak Characters

Limit The Adventure’s Scope

Scope describes how big your adventure or story is going to be. Heroes tramping all over the continent battling with gods and defeating undead armies is an example of large scope.

A good way to shield beginning PCs without smothering them is to keep your story scope small. Give them free reign and let them get into lots of trouble, but ensure that the troubles are manageable and not overwhelming.

A danger of this technique though, is creating a campaign that appears to revolve around the characters and seems to unrealistically scale up in scope as the PCs scale up in power. For example, why do first level characters always get the easy jobs? Or, why do the toughest monsters always dwell at the end of dungeon crawls?

So, you need to be a little creative when limiting scope so that the players don’t feel like they’re being set-up or lead around by their noses:

  • Establish a small community with lots of hooks and interesting things going on. Communities tend to be stable, provide secure places for convalescence, and give PCs access to helpful NPCs. They also let you create enough ties, relationships, and PC goals to form an invisible boundary to hem the characters in until they’re ready to “see the world”.
    • PCs home village
    • Small walled town, keep, or colony
    • Family farm
    • Non-military spacecraft or vessel
    • School
  • Link the PCs by a common job. Job duties will keep them busy and give you lots of adventure hooks, and the employer can act as a protector in the background. Plus, promotions allow a natural progression of campaign scope without the PCs getting suspicious.
    • Military service, perhaps as a special unit
    • Sports team (believe it or not, an excellent method)
    • Emergency response crew
    • Investigators
    • Law enforcement
  • Shared enslavement–a personal favourite! LOL. Seriously though, as slaves, the PCs concerns can be easily channelled, their confinement keeps them safe from many dangers other than those posed by their insubordination and captors’ temperament, and you have a unifying goal built into the campaign.
    • Slaves
    • Prisoners of the law
    • Prisoners of war
    • Exiles
    • In debt to a loan shark or other villain

Make Other Humans The Bad Guys

Humans, especially in fantasy games, are well-suited as adversaries for weak PCs as they can scale up or down in power in most rules systems.A great technique is to create a rival group of NPCs. They can be evil or merely competitors, and they can grow in power as the PCs do for on-going fun. A tricky twist to this is creating weaker rivals, for it can then become a moral dilemma. Do the PCs knock them off just because they get in the way or they get to the loot before the PCs do?

Use Animals

Animals vary enough in power and ability to be easy pickings for weak PCs or cause them to run for their lives. You can also tweak animals to quickly adjust the encounter difficulty level:

  • Fearful of humans
  • Not fearful of humans (and thus a little more vulnerable)
  • A mother who fights ferociously to protect her young
  • Rabies or some other disease causes surprising behaviour
  • Tame or wild
  • Trained to fight and obey commands

Animals are great encounters for new campaigns and stories because they are “normal”. If your game’s first encounter is with a group of disgusting, rotten, undead zombies, then what will you do next to shock your players?

Instead, build things up slowly, starting with some normal animal encounters, then a rabid or “dire” encounter, then finally, the maggot-ridden rotting demonic reindeer corpse climactic event (Pay-Per-View only ;).

Not-So-Lethal Traps

Traps are a great staple of adventures because they create tension, penalize for mistakes (thus creating a way to “lose” an encounter for players who like to track things that way), are a challenge different from combat, and fun to create.However, not all traps need to be life-and-death for the PCs and for this reason they are a perfect way to challenge weak PCs.

  • Traps intended for other races:
    • A pit only dug deep enough to kill kobolds.
    • Uses poison that’s non-lethal to humans
    • Swinging blades aimed for gnome heads
  • Traps meant to deter:
    • They look scary but do little real damage (i.e. illusions, holograms, complex looking).
    • Purpose is to catch trespassers (i.e. cage drops).
    • Sirens and alarms go off rather than damage done.
  • Traps meant to detect the guilty:
    • Permanent dye canisters that explode.
[For more traps tips, check out:
RPT#85 – 10 Ways To Use Traps To Enhance An Adventure, Part I
RPT#86 – 10 Ways To Use Traps To Enhance An Adventure, Part II ]

One, Big, Scary Monster

Consider making the climax of your story or game session a single powerful foe. This will let the PCs gang up on it, coordinate their offensive, and focus their resources.You can choose to weaken the foe (see Issue #117) or use any of these ideas to ensure the PCs have a chance:

  • Put the foe at a critical disadvantage:
    • A fire elemental with its back to the ocean
    • A troll caught in a forest fire
    • A giant with its foot caught in a dire-gopher hole
  • Give the foe a goal that, when achieved, he’ll leave:
    • Information the characters have
    • Testing the PCs for future use/manipulation
    • To have fun (and once lightly injured he retreats because the fun’s over)
  • Give the PCs a goal that, once achieved, lets them flee and still claim victory (and therefore not feel compelled to fight to the death):
    • Information the foe has
    • Discover a weakness for future use
    • A piece of the foe (i.e. for a spell component)
    • Their job is to distract the foe while allies accomplish the main mission

Pre-Position For Casualties

This tip is definitely a “depends on your campaign style” one. Allow for a high fatality rate among PCs when they’re new and let your players know before the campaign starts that this will be the case. It makes sense that the most PC deaths should occur when they’re inexperienced, and it sends a strong signal about the danger of your world, and/or the PCs’ chosen path.

  • As long as you reward for good play, a policy like this also hits home that smart thinking, caution, and teamwork will win out over chaotic brute force or rash action.
  • The survivors who make it will indeed feel that they are special. If every PC succeeds and ascends to godhood, then a lot of tension can leave the game and make it less entertaining.
  • This is the best time to weed out PCs with a death wish or who have chosen campaign-disruptive personalities (i.e. an overconfident bully).

Many campaigns are structured around a special story, or encourage players to spend a lot of preparation time on their PCs, so this tip isn’t for every GM.

The first time I played Cyberpunk 2020 a friend’s character got knocked off by a sniper in the first second of play. If I recall correctly, the GM asked for a roll, the player did poorly, and it was time for a new PC. We sure got the point about the deadliness of the campaign world then!

Miscellaneous Quick Tips From Subscribers

  • D&D 3rd Edition lets characters start out at maximum hit points/health. This might not suit your campaign’s style or game rules, but it can be a great way to beef up beginning PCs.
  • Accelerated PC growth. A “learning curve” means different rates of growth at different skill levels. So, you might rule that new PCs advance rapidly from all of their new and exciting experiences until they become somewhat skilled at which time their growth slows to normal.
  • Employ the use of NPCs to guide and protect the PCs. I wrote a whole article on this topic and you can find it here: http://roleplaygames.about.com/library/weekly/aa050801.htm
  • Pre-calculate the odds of victory (using hit and damage probability calculations). Determine how tough a time you want your characters to have, then slant things in that direction.
  • One thing to keep in mind is that the bad guys might not know how (un)skilled the PCs are. Once a couple of their buddies drop you can always have the characters’ opponents flee, even if they would have slaughtered the fledgling PCs had they stayed two more rounds.In addition, if the PCs try to bluff, increase the chances that the NPCs fall for it–this will encourage more roleplaying and help the characters compete.
  • Have it happen to someone else. Want to throw an ogre or troll against 1st level characters? Have the monster attack another group of travellers as the PCs approach so that they have options: slink away, wait until the battle is over and then try to finish off the winner, or join the fray and pick a side.
  • If the weak characters are part of a formal organization, the first few sessions could be training sessions. And during this time you can emphasize role-playing. Even though combat will be managed by the trainers, you can create rivalries to make the players care about the mock battles. The PCs won’t lose their lives, but they could be laughed at by their peers. And between the training sessions, you can role-play trips outside, where the PCs have to deal with the locals.
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Credits And Many Thanks Go To The Following Tipsters:

Lord Damian, Karl K, Jenny, Paul, Sean H, Alan, Dave W, Michael M, David U, Gen S, John R, Ted O, Dan, Ron, TGG, AG, John C, Green, MW, Mat-Mat Binks, Tim, Karl W, GMMGameMaster, Kyr, Darkechilde, Mark L C, Noah, Glen M, Jason K, MM, Marc K, Kickbob, Delos, Jeff W

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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!

Keeping Players Well-Behaved In Modern Campaigns

From Johnn Four & Brimmer

Here’s an excerpt from a recent email discussion I had with a subscriber, Brimmer, about preventing the PCs from turning a modern campaign into a dungeon-hack:

“I’ve GM’d and played in a few modern day adventures but never a campaign. Someday I will though. I too found keeping the PCs lawful and ethical more of a challenge than in fantasy games. There’s more people in today’s world, less privacy (to get away with stuff), and fewer “monsters” to hack so that, eventually, the players would lose it and start shooting at the slightest provocation to get their fix (myself included :).

For contemporary games, I think you need to set in-game limits on the PCs to help the campaign stay realistic:

  • Make obeying the law a requirement of the character’s job.
  • Make not being a cold-blooded killer part of a character’s personality.
  • Make it part of the rules (i.e. insanity points for murder).
  • Think about and plan for the consequences of illegal violence before the campaign starts:
    • “What will happen when there’s a public gun battle?”
    • “What will happen if there’s a public killing?”
  • Set an example. Give the players pre-made PCs, play for an hour, let them go rampant, have the police come down on them, and then ask “So, do you want to start over again, or do I bring out GURPS: JAIL?”
  • Set another example. Try the sniper rules on a PC after the group angers a crime boss.
  • Establish the PCs’ lives and their positive integration in society, and make it a rewarding roleplaying experience. Have a “Thanksgiving Over At Bob’s” encounter so all the PCs can meet Bob the PC’s family. Do this in a few different ways so that a cold-blooded murder action will seem very evil by contrast, and hopefully the players will have second thoughts before making their characters perform those actions.”
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Check Out Old Games In The Discount Pile

From Laurence M.

Here’s an odd little tip for the newsletter:

Not too long ago, I found a Milton Bradley “Battle for Naboo” board game on closeout for an insanely cheap price. After building the giant 3D map, we spent about five minutes learning how to play and the rest of the night trying not to destroy the house.

You see, although you move your pieces and roll dice like an ordinary strategy game, there’s also a fancy six-inch-tall plastic catapult that you use to fling a “Power Sphere” (a pearl-white ping pong ball) onto the game board, knocking pieces out of the game. Hopefully, you knock out more of the enemy’s troops than your own. It was a bizarre twist that made it lots of fun, partly because an overeager shot might bonk your opponent on the head.

It got me thinking. It might be worth it to cruise to the local toy store for close-out stuff. I think the game was originally $30, marked down to $4.99, and it was worth it just for one evening of entertainment. Talk about something different on game night!

Besides, who knows what fiendish RPG uses could be had for a bunch of plastic sci-fi figures and a working catapult?


I hope you (and anyone else) can use this tip!

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Do Your Maps Using A Cork Board

From Matt

I started subscribing to Roleplaying Tips Weekly back on issue 75. I love them. I am now catching up on the issues I missed because I have been on a year and a half break from D&D. I noticed that you asked if there were any good ways to do in-game mapping. Here is how I have done it in the past.

I came up with what I call a knowledge map. On a cork board I place my pre-drawn map/maze. Then I cut out small squares and placed them over the map using tacks and push- pins. This did two things:

  1. The players, when first entering the dungeon, city, or wherever, don’t know what it looks like. They have to explore. As they do, more and more pieces of the map are revealed.
  2. You don’t need to worry about a “mapper” in the party who’s map always ends up becoming a complete mess and looking nothing like yours.

I got this idea from the “FOG OF WAR” used in most real- time-strategy games (such as WarCraft, StarCraft, and Kohan).

My players thought this was a great idea and appreciated the approach. It sped the game up and the PCs could not figure out where the treasure was simply by looking at the map.

And for more advanced maps, you can keep encounters on the bottom part of the covering piece of paper for faster play and easy organization.

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Campaign Information As A Form Of Reward

From Archon

There is a category of “treasure” that Spike didn?t mention [Issue #116: RPT#116 – 9 Tips For Enhancing Treasure To Improve Your Campaigns ], but which should certainly be considered amongst the most valuable of non-monetary rewards: information.

I?m not talking about the more standard types of clues, etc. that PCs must normally be discovering in order to advance story lines for adventures. I?m talking about the myriad items of hidden knowledge in a campaign that PCs would probably never otherwise uncover in their short, brutal life spans. Such knowledge might get bestowed via wizened ancients, oracles, fragments of long-lost texts, dream- visits by deities, etc.

Examples of such rewards might include:

  1. An explanation for the cause of a long-standing interracial feud.
  2. The revelation that an undiscovered continent exists beyond the Endless Sea.
  3. The knowledge that a common plant/animal/mineral has unexpected powers when properly prepared.
  4. A true accounting of a long-forgotten or usurped noble lineage.
  5. Directions for contacting a previously undetected sentient/alien race.

As a DM who has invested lots of creativity into building such things into my campaign world, and then has invested an equal amount of deviousness into covering up these things from the PCs, I recommend such rewards as a way to share your campaign world with the players.

I would recommend making such rewards in private to individual players so that the other PCs won’t know for sure if the information is totally accurate (i.e., “straight from the DM’s mouth”). And, of course, such world-shaking knowledge should not be casually bestowed.

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Low Level Adventure Idea

From Patrick D.

An idea I had to make a low level adventure (using kobolds, oh no!) was to give the small group of creatures a motive other than killing the PCs.

In my case, they were just a small gang who were in trouble because a rival kobold gang had stolen their Princess. This particular group came to the PCs offering coins, pocket lint, and garbage so that the characters might help in bullying the rival gang into giving up the Princess.

An added point that increased the fun of the session was that the creatures wanted to dress the PCs as up as kobolds to help deceive the rival gang.