7 Tips to Keep the Fear of Death Alive in Any Campaign Plus, new reader contest – magic item hooks
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #438
- 7 Tips to Keep the Fear of Death Alive in Any Campaign
- A Brief Word From Johnn
- For Your Game: 10 Fantasy Beers
- Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters
7 Tips to Keep the Fear of Death Alive in Any Campaign
As GMs, we deal with the double-edged sword of healing and resurrection in virtually every game setting. Be it high- tech cloning vats in a sci-fi game, spells and items in a fantasy game, or the very nature of supernatural creatures, PCs are hard to kill outright.
At low levels, these things are part and parcel of what keeps the players going. It conveniently side-steps long periods of downtime, and gives the party a degree of emergency management in combat. It even gives the GM a backdoor to make up for an unceremonious or anti-climactic death. As characters progress, their resources expand, and so do their abilities to cheat death.
A group of players with no fear of consequences, however, can quickly derail a game. They often become bored, taking wild risks and attempting game-breaking fights secure in the
knowledge they can simply out-heal damage, or revive themselves, no worse for the wear should they fail.
Here are some tips to keep the players on their toes and keep them thinking about their actions. Remember, as the GM you ultimately control how successful or not their recovery can be.
A flesh-eating virus that is resistant to medicine. A mummy’s curse that can’t simply be removed by spells – a specific task must be accomplished to break it. A new kind of energy damage that hasn’t been accounted for in resistance spells and items.
The race-against-the-clock scenario to find a cure for a new, strange affliction is a classic that can be applied even to high level parties. Good thing they have all these resources; they’re going to need them!
You can be as creative as you like, giving clues to the nature of the new form of damage, or making the players work to figure it out in time to save themselves.
The concept of un-healable damage already exists within some systems, such as World of Darkness.
If a werewolf is damaged by silver, they can only heal it through time. This gives even the most powerful lupine pause when facing down a fed-up farmer who has been making his own silver buckshot.
It evens the odds with even the least threatening of beings, and causes the players to consider whether diving headfirst into every fight is really wise. This concept can be ported to other systems.
The key is coming up with something of which the characters have little or no knowledge and making them figure out whether it can be subverted. As GM, this is your call; maybe there is no quick cure for damage caused by dark lightning.
For no foreseen reason, people have stopped returning from the Underworld when summoned. Healing magic simply fizzles and fails. Are the gods cut off from the world altogether?
This sounds like just the sort of problem for intrepid, high level adventurers to solve – very carefully.
Maybe some dire artifact is blocking the material world from the divine. Maybe some foul cult has found a way to disrupt every sort of healing magic but its own – and it charges exorbitantly for it.
Ham-handed? Possibly. Effective? Absolutely.
Temporarily Disrupt Their Abilities
I ran an Exalted game in which we eventually arrived at a point where I was having trouble coming up with foes that would even be able to hit some of my players, so high had they pumped their evasion abilities.
When a bad guy did land a hit, it was another challenge to get any amount of damage through their high soak scores, and what did stick they could heal almost instantly. My players were doing nothing more than using standard abilities and character development – that’s just the nature of the game.
But they were getting bored, and I was getting annoyed. So I came up with an enemy whose only real power to speak of was the ability to create an area of effect that would cut the PCs off from their powers. They had to use their base stats to do anything.
I was then able to harass them with much weaker opponents, and finding out how to defeat this enemy became top priority. The group and I had a lot of fun over a few encounters before they ultimately defeated her, but rumors persisted that she had hidden the secrets of this fell new power all over the world.
Don’t mess with their abilities at all – just let the bad guys have the same thing!
Okay, so you can auto-heal into infinity, and you can just pop back from the dead whenever you see fit. Well, so can your enemies.
Now the PCs have the difficult task of discerning how to defeat their very strength. And if they can find a way around it, so can the bad guys.
Give the party a dose of their own medicine. It may not solve the problem entirely, but it will keep them occupied with an enemy who isn’t any more easily disposed of than they are.
Drawbacks for Healing
If you feel like the mechanics of your game are predisposed to make your player characters broken, go ahead and set some consequences in place – from the start.
Perhaps, as in Iron Kingdoms, clerics have to take a damage roll equal to that which they heal. And let’s not forget that in some versions of D&D, when a character is resurrected, they are supposed to lose a permanent point of Constitution. This causes them to gradually become sickly and weak, and eventually unable to be raised at all.
You could make stim-packs carcinogenic, or viciously addictive. Few things in life are without drawback, and there should be no free ride back from the dead.
Lastly, it could be that the same old healing just isn’t as effective any more. If it works for antibiotics, I don’t see why it couldn’t work for healing potions, spray-skin, and healing spells.
How much or how little you make the efficacy deplete is up to you, but it should probably be mentioned early in the game, since this would be a part of common folklore. It would also allow the players to manage their resources, using healing only when it’s really important.
The important thing to remember is you ultimately have control of the mechanics of the world, and the responsibility is yours to maintain a good flow to the story. Keep in mind the players are just doing their job – trying to survive as effectively as possible.
You should never use rules-bending to push around your group, and they should ultimately be able to overcome any serious impediment to their abilities. Temporary setbacks are the name of the game here.
These tips revolve around dealing with their ability to heal and resurrect, but you can also make characters less lethal to provide extra challenge. Think back to challenging video- game boss fights. Things like temporary invulnerability or rotating elemental weaknesses keep the party on their toes. Things like anti-magic fields are there for a reason, too!
Just make sure to know what tools you have to challenge players, because rest assured, they know what tools they have to stay alive!
A Brief Word From Johnn
Fun New Contest – Hooks and Histories for Common Magic Items
Our latest contest is all about plot hooks and back stories involving common magical items. More specifically, these are iconic items we all take for granted in our games, yet never think too much about.
Where do bags of holding come from? Are healing potions really as ubiquitous as we all assume? And how did that flaming sword manage to get passed down for ten generations without anyone inadvertently burning down the house?
How to enter:
Email your entries to [email protected] – multiple entries are allowed, feel free to put them in single or multiple emails, whatever is easiest for you.
Craft a hook, history, background, or story about a magic item.
Each entry should follow this format:
- Name an iconic or common magical item
- Short, creative plot hook related to it, 3 paragraphs max
- Prize preference (optional)
An ideal entry would show the item in an entirely new light than the way we’re used to seeing it.
Contest ends April 11, 2009. Winners will be drawn at random, so don’t worry about writing or editing skills -it’s the magical fun that counts!
Entries will be edited and made available after the contest for everyone to make use of in their own campaigns.
Two example entries:
Here are two examples using everyone’s favorite cursed item, the Girdle of Masculinity/Femininity:
- In a society where only men can wield weapons, a woman dons the girdle to be accepted as a warrior. After a successful adventuring career, she’s finally ready to settle down with the man of her dreams. Perfect, except she has no way to get the cursed girdle off, and the man has never known her as anything other than a fellow warrior. Can the PCs help her get off the girdle and confess her love before her heart’s desire is married to another?
- A young scion flees his feuding family, and puts on the girdle to seek haven with an all-female order of priestesses. Now word has come the feud has ended with the death of his elder brother, leaving him the last of his noble line. It’s up to the PCs to help him get off the girdle and prove his identity as the vanished heir – while protecting him from the machinations of greedy cousins.
Prizes up for grabs:
DungeonADay.com charter member subscription – get in on the ground floor of Monte Cook’s ever growing dungeon adventure campaign.
Introduction To Irrin – a world for tabletop fantasy campaigns (3 copies).
Third Dawn Campaign Setting by Dreamscarred Press – a world of psionic power and mental might, where the thoughts of its citizens can become reality (PDF, 3 copies).
Obsidian Portal memberships – a great online game master toolkit and campaign management suite (1 x 12 month, 2 x 6 month).
NPC Essentials – the ultimate guide for creating in-depth NPCs and managing them in your campaigns (PDF, 2 copies).
E-mail me your magic item hooks and back stories for a chance to win these great prizes.
Good News for Blue Planet, Earthdawn, Fading Suns Fans
I just received a media release from Mongoose Publishing in my inbox this morning and part of it caught my eye. Many of you commented on Blue Planet during my sci-fi RPG quest a few issues ago. Also, I know some of you play Earthdawn and other games mentioned in the release. So, for the fans that this effects, here is the news:
“Mongoose Publishing is pleased to announce that we have signed contracts with RedBrick Limited to publish new editions of the Earthdawn, Fading Suns, Blue Planet, Age of Legend 4e, and Equinox game lines under our Flaming Cobra imprint, already famous for such popular games as Dragon Warriors and Spycraft 2.0.”
More information is available at:
Have a great gaming week!
For Your Game: 10 Fantasy Beers
From Murometz and Scrasamax
This is the dwarven grand-daddy of dark ales. No other stouts need apply. At least according to Groemdeggers Breweries, a well-known brand throughout the lands. Quips abound among tavern-goers about this thickest of brews. One can stir it with a spoon for example, so rich and yeasty is the beer.
Elves look upon this stuff with revulsion, humans tolerate it, halflings can appreciate it, but only dwarves can truly savor this dark stew. What all dwarves know, however, that many others don’t, is that so rich in nutrients, starches, and proteins is Groemdeggers Stout, that it can offer a starving dwarf the same nutrition as a buttered loaf of rye bread; and indeed, many dwarves quaff it for breakfast.
Ale of the Dales
A common type of beer, the Ale of the Dales is the popular way of asking for the house brew at a tavern or inn, rather than drinking beer that was made by the brewer’s guild. Ale of the Dales runs the gamut from terrible to terribly good, and it is usually inexpensive.
This lager is special in that it is raised from seed to barrel by a civic-minded Loru Valsharris who has adopted the human name Stella. This goddess of the grain maintains a large palatial estate that is overrun with plant life, wild growing grains, and a mill/brewery in the middle.
She has since learned the intricacies of brewing and the value of gold. She has no use for gold other than what it can do for her, but she takes great pride in brewing what is considered the best beer in the kingdom. The only way to get this beer is to travel to her estate and purchase it.
Cowhead double has a special place in having one of the more convoluted and unsavory fermentation processes. Cowhead is taken in a half fermented stage, while it is still a slurry of water and mash, and is fed to ruminant livestock –most commonly cattle.
The brew is allowed to spend only so long in the stomach of the cow. Once this is done, the cow is forced to vomit up the liquid where it is strained and mixed with a larger batch of beer that is almost done.
Fruits O’ Labor, Lambic Ales
Created by capricious gnomes, and fitting their somewhere- between-dwarves-and-halflings niche. These light, cloudy ales are flavored with fruit, adding a refreshing flavor of tart sweetness to the concoctions.
Any and all fruit are used, but particularly popular are gooseberries, quinces, raspberries, and pears. Gnomish Lambic ales are well-known and liked, though beer connoisseurs would never be caught alive drinking the stuff. Fruit in beer? Pshaaww!
The giants of old were known for many things, and chief among them was their fierce and potent beer. This beer was made from the sheaves of grain grown in high and distant places, fermented in dark vales and barreled in wooden barrels the size of a cottage.
The old barrels are long since gone, and the brewers among the giants have since retreated from the world to practice their craft well away from the spears and arrows of upstart humans. Giant’s brew has a full and robust flavor, and no matter how much is drunk, it will not leave a hangover.
While many beers are called Goblin Piss, there is only one that is the real deal. This local brew is indeed made by goblins, but contains no actual urine. It is a pilsner type beer with an almost sweet taste to it.
The goblins who brew it tend to keep the name so they can keep selling their other more appealing and expensive sounding brew to greedy humans and keeping the good stuff to themselves. The goblin taste for this beer has given rise to the expression “Happier than a goblin drinking piss.”
This thick, yeasty beer is one of the strongest of the human made beers, and it is considered semi dehydrated. Drinking the thick concoction is a sure way to get a sour stomach.
The correct method of drinking Caravansary is to mix the thick brew with at least an equal part of water, and then add a crushed wedge of some sort of citrus fruit. Oranges and limes are the most common, but it is in vogue in the southern reaches to use the grapefruit.
Also called, “Possum’s Brew,” “Oekkelstagg’s Juice,” “Cloudspit,” and “Foggymoot,” this rare mixture is brewed by the Tribe-of-Possums dwarves, amidst their fog-shrouded fens.
The recipe is unknown to the outside world, but the cloud- white ale is one of the most sought after and expensive brews in existence! Pity the ghost-face dwarves of the Possum Tribe do not sell it, nor do they barter with the stuff, but simply brew it for themselves.
This beer is unique in that it lasts for a very long time compared to other beers. Once in a keg, a beer’s lifespan in measured in a few weeks in the best of conditions, days in the worst. Dragonhead will oddly enough keep for years in good conditions, and weeks in poor. The secret is that the kobolds who brew this beer have the ill fortune of being around fire breathing dragons. The gouts of flame have the side effect of pasteurizing the beer, provided the beer isn’t boiled off, and the kegs aren’t burned.
Want more? 30 Beers:
Strolen’s Citadel: 30 Beers
Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters
Have some GM advice you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!
Running Dark Games
From David M.
The players should always be out-numbered and out-gunned. Part of the thrill is winning (sometimes) against over-whelming odds. Picture Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli sneaking through Mordor ambushing orcs and trying not to draw the attention of anything really nasty.
To make up for the odds and give players a chance of survival, they should have an edge. A nice weapon that only works under a full moon, a safe and secret haven, a powerful but fickle ally – something they can pull out when they’re in trouble but isn’t useful every day.
Many campaigns have a money or power motivator but, unless you have exceptionally greedy players, the campaign should be a constant fight against inflation. More gold. A +4 sword to replace that old +3 sword. An even bigger castle with more henchmen. Only 20,000 gp? Ho-hum, those mated red dragons were hardly worth ambushing and killing in their sleep.
If done correctly, the motivation for a dark campaign is survival. Every day. Every watch. Every round. Staying alive never gets old. The trick is to keep the players in reactive mode; never let them gather piles of money, henchmen, or magic items.
Drop it Down a Level
From Loz Newman
Ever had one of your players say, “I want my character to be the heir to the Dark Lord, and have awesomely badass powers that he uses for good!” Uh-huh. Doesn’t sound like there’s much role-playing in the near future, does it? Hack-n-slash time, more likely.
Here’s a potential solution: drop it down a level. Make the “Dark Lord” just a local warlord who lied to his family about how far up the hierarchy of evil he was.
This gives you more wiggle room for character progression, and sets up new avenues of role-playing in the form of hidden family lies, rival warlords (and heirs thereof), intrigue between factions, new regions and dark armies, and so forth.
This technique gives a DM a strong hand of handicaps to gently lay on a cringing player’s head.
1) Heir to a Dark Lord?
Big negative reactions from everybody even mildly decent, especially if he demonstrates “awesomely badass powers,” such as evil and dangerous stuff nobody in their right mind wants to be associated with.
“But hey, I’ll hide the fact that I’m his heir!” cries the player. Yeah, right; your rivals are going to let you slide when a few anonymous (and perfectly true) words in the right ears will heap huge troubles on your head without exposing them to the slightest danger?
That “You’re a so-wonderful powerful hero, please save us!” reaction the player was hoping for? Nope. Try “Oh my Gods, an incredibly dangerous evil psychopath / spy / assassin, run for your lives! Call for the Sacred Order of Bad-Guy Mashers, quick!”
2) Guess what?
Awesome Powers come with a price: regular sacrifices or hidden vulnerabilities or worse. You can just bet that the Ultimate Bad Guy holds the secret keys to the Awesome Power and he wants to have fun as well.
Irritate Mr. Ultimate too much – betraying his secrets, allying with the never-sufficiently-cursed good guys, disobeying orders or just displaying too much free- mindedness – and he’ll do that Secret Power Thing that allows him to stay the top dog.
He might be able to:
- Sense his power and its users from way off. Those rivals and enemies just love to be authorized – nay, ordered – to kill enemies of the Dark Lord, don’t they?
- Shut off, diminish, scramble, paralyses or overload all or part of that Awesome Power with a secret wave of his fingers.
- Curse the PC with his true name.
- Send out Elite Skull Hunters of Sudden and Infinitely Painful Death (or whatever they’re called in your campaign). Those guys who are expert with those sneaky combat moves the player drooled over. The ones who taught him everything he knows, but not half of one third of everything they know.
3) And then the good guys start hunting him down.
Refusal of support, denunciations, bounties on his head, being actively hunted by Paladins eager to torture him for all that inside info on the Dark Lord’s power / armies / factions. It just keeps piling up. Why is the party looking at you like that?
Next time one of your players asks “Can my character be the heir to the Dark Lord, and have awesomely badass powers that he uses for good?” his next question should be: “Why are you smiling like that?”
This isn’t a list of excuses designed to help a DM flex his sadism-muscles. But it should help provide a bit of campaign spice and common sense to help keep the hack-n-slash within reasonable limits and furnish more hooks for role-playing.
Re: XP for Roleplaying
In regards to the reader tip in issue #427:
The problems you describe – bored players, for example – are a symptom of a GM problem, not a player problem. Treating the symptom (staring at the wall) is not going to solve the problem.
Why is Joe Player staring at the wall? Why does he have time to? Why isn’t his PC being threatened to within an inch of his life? Or being engaged by an NPC? Or pursuing some goal or background issue he has?
Joe Player won’t be in the kitchen making a sandwich if his PC is being pushed up against the wall by a giant half-orc guard.
When you create scenes for the night’s game, you have to look at all the PC sheets and their bios and backgrounds and goals and unique skills and come up with encounters that really matter to them.
No one wants to roleplay shopping for gear or drinking ale – we can do that in real life. Select scenes for the night that will force the PCs to make tough decisions or take desperate action.
Use Recurring Rivals to Help and Hinder
I liked the article on recurring villains and it reminded me of one character I used long ago.
It was a one-player campaign and the PC received an NPC companion for a smoother first adventure. I wanted to kill the companion off later as a warning about the dangers of the world, but a more natural solution was found – they didn’t get along, so they parted ways.
A few adventures later, the PC has underestimated a dungeon and let herself to be knocked out in a dangerous environment. After some pondering, it was announced that miraculously she wasn’t eaten by anything, but was rescued by her old partner, who followed the same leads. He patched her up, but declared the place was too hot and left suspiciously quickly despite pleas to stay.
Still shaky, the PC carefully explored some more and it started to dawn on her. The huge guardian she didn’t dare to attack was destroyed. In his room was a secret passage. Behind the passage with disabled traps was a small treasury. And the treasury was cleaned out, with a _single_ silver goblet left in the middle of the room.
Boy, was she pissed. 🙂
In the terms of the article, in the first encounter he was actually an ally, but they separated. In the second encounter he helped her, but made clear they weren’t partners anymore…and left with a big treasure, which the PC felt very entitled to have a cut of. Perfect material for later encounters.
So you can use the same ideas not only for recurring villains, but also for recurring rivals to good effect.
GM Screentop Tracker
From: Perry Rogers
Like many people, I am constantly searching for ways to streamline the process of tracking all that is going on during a combat encounter. I also like things to be easily accessible, and visible to everyone at the table. Finally, I hate things that use up valuable table space.
So, I bought some large metal clips from a local office supply store, and glued pictures of my players’ characters to them. At the start of each combat I arrange the clips in initiative order across the top of my GM screen. If someone changes their place in the order, or a new creature joins, I simply rearrange the clips.
The clips are spring steel, so I made a magnetic turn indicator that I move from one character to the next as the turn progresses. I mark conditions on the monsters and NPCs using Litkos base markers on the map, because there are often several to be tracked simultaneously. I mark any conditions affecting the PCs using folded slips of paper on the clips atop my screen.
In the photo below, it is currently the monster leader’s turn. His troops’ initiative clip (color coordinated with the leader’s clip) is at the end of the turn:
View from the player’s side of the screen:
The dwarf has two ongoing effects: Stunned and -2 to Attackrolls:
The turn indicator and a player’s clip. Note the magnet on the turn indicator. The magnet does a great job holding the marker in place atop the screen:
For brainstorming I usually make tables organized by topics on Google Docs. For instance, I’d make a table with 3 columns and 8 rows and head it with Idea, Milestones, and Encounters. Then I’d start filling it with whatever came to mind first. If I got stuck or thought of something that didn’t fit the table then I’d make another table.
Usually, I end up with a dozen tables that are related to one another. Important events, villains and their motivations, magic items and their history etc.
Some end up partially filled, a few are sparse, but at least a couple of them end up taking up the majority of the document. That’s pretty much the best brainstorming method that works for me.
Here’s one that I chopped up into different documents. I took the different tables, combined some, moved some to different docs etc.
Small Details Count
From Friday Jones
Maston, my fantasy setting and world name for a two-year campaign, was meant to be a typical fantasy setting. It had various societies ranging from the feudal to the nomadic in regions of the world as characters travelled. I found players were familiar to greater or lesser extent with the variety and shape of these societies and their consequences, and that this would sometimes lead to misconceptions of how things work.
While I can’t claim fabulously accurate knowledge myself, there are some consequences that can be worked out. Pratchett gives us the example of Ankh-Morpork where, leaving aside the magical consequences, such as the pork future warehouse, he reflects on the influx of food, raw materials and other goods into and out of the city. On any given day, there must be vegetables, meat, eggs and fish shipping into and around the city by the ton to feed the citizenry. There will be grain for beer, cattle for market, and flax for clothes. The industry of the city must be fed every day. Pratchett talks about the candles, manufactured in the city literally by the million from tallow and wax, the raw materials for which must flow into the city by road or river constantly.
The consequence of this is that, for miles of farmland around, there is some sort of industry, the fields and farmland are not empty, and crops change according to climate and season.
Adventurers are in a unique position to see the changes in the land. When my player characters were travelling, I would spend up to half an hour describing their journey when it was uneventful, in terms of what they were seeing in crops, industry and people. I remember that, when crossing into a new country where the land was divided into fiefdoms, and serfs were the order of the day, the shock of the party at my description of the differences in how things worked and what the people were doing. Eddings tells us of a place in which serfs would work naked because they did not have the money or resources for other clothes, and I included this idea in my campaign, along with the idea that serfs would run and hide from mounted and well-armed travelers.
I wanted the players and characters to have a sense that they were moving from society to society, from place to place, without telling them they were simply moving around. It was important that all places were not the same.
The feedback I received was universally positive. They enjoyed the descriptions and the feeling they were moving in genuine way. When they had travelled 100 miles, they understood on a visceral level that the social rules were not the same.
This was very important to me as I don’t generally write stuff down when I’m running games (as a player I’m an avid note-taker). I suggest things to players and tend to store a great deal of the campaign and memories of the campaign in their heads. I build a world by talking about it, and they remember, because so many things are important to them. The most offhand remark can lead the group to whole new adventure.
Yes, it may seem disorganized and unplanned, but I run the world in my head, and things move on outside the purview of the player characters, unless they come across them or ask about them, and the timing of their journey can make all the difference between that village being burned down because of bandits, or being intact and ready to fort up.
Players love the sense that the world is large and things remain to be discovered. This more than anything keeps them interested. They are interested even when the characters themselves are unhappy about their situation, because the players are happy they are getting into interesting situations.
The journey, and the narrative that accompanies it, is the magic, even more than the system or the magic of the setting, and there is nothing more rewarding to me than to see a group of players respond to the description of an eagle hunting rabbits with awe and wonder, rather than the reaction “Oho, hunting practice, let’s kill it!”
That awe and wonder is hard to come by in roleplaying. People are jaded and exposed to so much fiction and film that it takes away their imagination. They don’t have to imagine; it’s done for them. I feel privileged that I have, on a few occasions, brought back that wonder and amazement that we all had as children at the way the world is, and those moments are among my most precious memories.