8 Tips To Help You Wing-It

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0096

A Brief Word From Johnn

Request For Personal Campaign Web Site Tips

I’m writing an article for Dragon on tips for making and maintaining web sites for personal roleplaying campaign use. Do you have any tips on the subject?

Once the article is published, I’ll take your tips and links and summarize them here for everyone to enjoy. So, if you have any thoughts on what makes campaign sites useful as a player aid, GM aid, or campaign aid, please drop me a note. Links are welcome as well. Thanks!

[email protected]

D&D Web Enhancements

Thanks to a reader’s tip, I discovered this page of enhancements to the various D&D 3E products produced by WoTC. I thought I’d pass the link along for all the D&D 3E GMs out there, as it took me a little while to find it:


My Favourite Gaming Time Of Year

This is my favourite time of year for gaming, and I hope you’re taking advantage of it too. The weather is turning and makes roleplaying inside, where it’s warm and dry, very comfortable and cozy feeling.

Also, for students the reality of another year of school has set in, and for everyone the days are getting shorter and Winter is just around the corner. Perfect reasons to seek escape through roleplaying!

Finally, it’s Halloween. Not only does cheap candy abound, but costumes also fill the stores. And that means cheap gaming props! So, be sure to cruise through your local department store and pick up a few plastic swords, a mask or two, and a wig. And then save it all for your campaign’s next villain appearance!

Have a great week.

Johnn Four
[email protected]

Roleplaying Games Articles & Reviews

Check out my other Roleplaying Games web site: http://www.roleplaygames.about.com

New This Week:

8 Tips To Help You Wing-It

From Patrice L.

Consider Two Approaches: Direct Or Indirect

What is “winging-it”, and how do you approach it?Winging-it is also known as improvising, and if you’re a GM chances are that you have already improvised something. Battles are an excellent example of winging-it. Except for a few notes in the module or your own pre-planned adventure, you don’t know how things will turn out. It’s left to the dice and the players’ ingenuity. Every move can have an unexpected consequence, and the GM has to deal with it and weave it into a encounter.This is what winging-it is, but at different levels:

  • Perhaps it’s a single encounter that is suddenly needed to relieve the tension or to build some suspense.
  • It might be a whole section of the session that you hadn’t had time to plan.
  • Or, it might be the whole adventure itself.

People have a great ability to improvise. In fact, living in this world should be practice enough, since you never know what’s going to happen from day to day. To apply it to roleplaying however might be a little more difficult. I wrote these tips based on my own experience, hoping it will help others.

Now, how do you approach winging-it? It might seem scary or a big task. I’ve had experience with two approaches: the direct and indirect approach (sometimes known as the hard and soft approach).

The Direct Approach

The direct approach is the first one I tried many, many years ago. It probably worked because I had only one player at the time. It was easy to react to the player and adapt to him.

This approach consists of bluntly saying “The next adventure will not be planned. It will be completely improvised.” It will probably work best for you if you choose one of your players and ask him if he wants to try an improvised adventure that is not connected to your current campaign.

The Indirect Approach

The indirect approach is generally more effective for groups and involves a gradual move towards improvisation. It’s the second method that I tried after a few years of gaming and after many planned sessions that weren’t always as good as “the good old days”.

I didn’t know back then about “winging-it” or “improvising”. But I started thinking about it and what I could do to regain the glory of the past. So, I started planning less and less. Instead of a whole page for each section, encounter, etc, I began writing only paragraphs. Only the important points. I would use this info to build the adventure during the game.

Then I wrote less and less, until I wrote only just a sentence or two for each section, plus some detailed info for places, characters, etc. This worked well and my players enjoyed themselves – so much, in fact, that they started demanding improvised adventures rather than planned ones.

Once you’re comfortable with the indirect method of secretly planning less for each adventure, you can warn your players that you’ll use the direct method. As long as they agree you can go ahead.

The important thing, regardless of which method you start with, is to not be afraid. As I said, improvising is something we do every day. Unless your players are really insensitive, they’ll understand if you make mistakes. They’ll even help you, tell you what they would have liked, why it went wrong, etc. They’re your best allies.

These tips are based solely on my experiences. I’ve rarely been a player and I haven’t met a lot of GMs, but they’ll hopefully be of use to you and your campaign.

Be Prepared

This sounds like a contradiction to winging-it, but you should be prepared in a couple of ways.First, it helps to have a clear campaign goal in mind. How you get to it during play is irrelevant as long as it’s fun. And if you don’t get to it, well, at least you’re not railroading your players and they’ll feel more free.Be prepared for that situation too – if the PCs don’t kill the super-villain before he invokes the demon that destroys half the world, well, let half of the world be destroyed then.

But also let the player characters live (or some of them, mwahahha) and in the next session they can try to find a way to fight that demon and stop him from destroying the other half.And, most importantly, be prepared for your players. Make sure that you’ll be accommodating their different needs during a game. They’re your audience and your main characters.

Planning Is Sometimes Irrelevant

One law of the universe I have observed over my last 10 years of gaming states the following:”The GM thinks of everything, plans for every contingency, except for what the players think about.”No matter what you prepare, your players will find a way around it, or just completely ignore it. Don’t worry, simply go along with them and see where this new route will take the game. There’s no real need to bring them back into the main plot hook. Read tip #4 for more.

Listen To Your Players

2 heads are better than 1? says the old proverb. Now imagine *four* players trying to find clues about something you thought of on-the-fly. They’re bound to come up with multiple solutions, and they might not even come up with the one(s) you thought of.So, listen to them. If they’re really involved in the game, they might think up better ideas than you had, and if you incorporate these ideas into your game, they’ll enjoy it even more.

If you changed the clue based on what a player said, he’ll be overjoyed because he “figured out the GM’s plan!”I used to have a player who understood that, and he also understood that I improvised a lot. He said everything that crossed his mind during a session to give me ideas. In a sense, he was co-GM, but also a player. :)But, you’re not forced to use your players’ ideas exactly as they thought of them… Adding some twists helps.Players are also good at coming up with little details.

In our last adventure (sci-fi), one of the PCs was a bomb expert. At a research base on the moon IO, he had a vault full of explosives. Near the end of the session, when that vault was becoming important, he added the detail that there was an auto-destruct sequence that activated if someone tried to open the vault – someone other than him. This hadn’t been discussed before, but that was OK. I instantly seized the opportunity to make a much cooler ending for the adventure than the one I thought of.

Players, of course, view the game-world from the perspective of their characters. They’ll always see some little details about their PC’s life that you don’t notice or think about. Implement these details. The world will become more real for your players, and more enjoyable for everyone.

Don’t Worry If You Run Out Of Ideas

Take a break, talk to your players. This goes hand in hand with tip #3. At least one player will always have an opinion of how things will go from here. They’ll appreciate that you asked for their opinions, and that you actually incorporated their ideas into your game.Remember, this is their game too. It’s not like a movie where the audience pays to see it and only plays a passive role. Your players are a well of ideas that’s waiting to be tapped. Never underestimate their creativity or their opinions.

In fact, encourage them to have ideas about how things will evolve. Talk to them between sessions about how their character feels, what they feel is to come. This is a gold mine of information that will keep you winging-it for a long time.For example, in one of my games (that I wasn’t completely improvising), a centaur army was about to crush all six characters because they had given them a false statue of great importance to them. One of the mages in the group decided to teleport himself and the other mage to a great city, leaving the other four behind without any magic.

This wasn’t what I had planned. Since it was almost supper time, I called for a break, which was ok because this was a really tense moment.As the break began I talked to the players and asked them “so, how could this go on from here? You all know I hadn’t planned for this…” We discussed this for a few minutes and some very good ideas came up. When we returned after supper things went well and I incorporated many of their ideas successfully.

React To Your Players

One great thing about winging-it is that if you notice your players are bored with what’s happening, you can just throw your current idea out the window and start anew. No long hours of planning gone to waste. You can even prepare, in your head, a few alternate plot lines in case this happens.During the middle of one session, where I had a whole plot line that I had planned for almost a year and that night was to be the climax of the story, I decided to throw the whole plot out.

I knew my players were tired of this kind of plot and it showed. They knew they were going to meet the bad guy, have a fight, and prevent him from doing whatever he was doing (they didn’t know yet what it was).That’s when I threw out my plot and used an alternate one I thought of the night before. The bad guy cast a powerful spell and they all went back in time to relive the last moments of the city that now lay in ruins.

But there was a reason for this, one that explained many events of the last three thousand years, and once they came back the players/characters had a different view of the world. Suddenly the bad guy wasn’t so bad after all. They even helped him, and only at the end did they realize they had destroyed magic (even though they were told it could return, one day). They thoroughly enjoyed it and they even called this game a “legend” (we call games that we still remember after 5 or 10 years “legends” because we had so much fun).

Reacting to your players also ties in with the above tips. You have to know what they like and try to incorporate that into your sessions. They will generally react favorably and will like it. They’ll also notice that if they’re more involved, if they give ideas, things will be more fun.

Be The World

This might be the hardest tip of all, but I think it’s what kept me afloat in the winging-it game over the last many years. I “was” the world. Let your game universe be alive inside of you. You are the creator and the people living in the world are your creations. Live in that world. Meet the people, visit the places. Put yourself in the shoes of these people.

I found I’ve had much more success as a GM, winging-it or not, when I was in that mind frame – and not only during gaming sessions. The world is constantly alive. Feed it with your imagination, let your subconscious be the canvas where the world comes alive. Think about what could happen next when you’re on the bus coming from work, before you sleep (this is actually one of the reasons it usually takes me quite a while to start sleeping ;), etc.No need to write down every idea.

As long as the world is alive within you, you’ll have an almost infinite resource to draw on new ideas while you improvise. I can’t really explain it in more concrete terms; it’s just something that I’ve done for as long as I can remember GMing. And I’ve always had this notion that the world I created was alive inside me, and that we ourselves are NPCs in a super-GM’s world.

Winging-It Is Like Being A Player

Whenever I read a definition of roleplaying games, there’s often mention of “interactive fiction” or similar terms. Along similar lines, I think that being a GM should be like being a player.Think about how your players play for a moment. They certainly don’t plan ahead what they’ll do, who they’ll encounter, what monster they’ll kill, etc. When I GM, it’s similar. I don’t know who the players will meet, where they’ll go, etc.

I react to them just like they react to my descriptions of events, battles, places, etc. Now it really becomes interactive fiction.Of course, nothing precludes that the GM might have a plan, an objective. But don’t force players into it. As I said, it doesn’t matter how you get there, as long as you do. Regardless of whether you throw a ball or if you throw a brick at the window, it still gets broken.

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

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

Rewards For Roleplaying

From Ted O.

People talk about rewarding roleplaying with this or that.

Two key points are:

  1. The reward has to be something the player values. If the player values experience points or story points (and who doesn’t?!) then roleplaying has to be worth more XP to them than combat (or a combination). If they value items, spotlight-time, a sidebar in the newsletter… whatever it is, that should be the reward.
  2. The reward for “desired” behaviour has to be better than the reward for “undesired” behaviour. If my DM gives me 800XP for totally disrupting the game (and the campaign) by completely wiping out an entire inn and all the NPCs, including the plot-hooks and the guy who hired us, but only gives the player next to me 50XP for a nice chat with the tavern-owner, afterwards… see the message there?
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Fast Combat & Reducing Table Talk Tip

From Alex J.

How often have you had this happen? “You stay with the Caravan for four days. One night, as you’re standing sentry, an arrow whizzes past your ear. Make a spot check, roll initiative, and tell me what you do.” The player makes his spot and initiative checks and then starts discussing tactics with the other players.

Ambushes, sudden brawls, and heavy combat are not intended to afford their victims with the chance to make a rational plan that will take the best tactical advantage of a situation. Too many players will take an initiative check as a cue to discuss strategy and tactical positions with other players before doing anything.

I have instituted a rule that, when a player’s turn comes up, they have six seconds to declare what their character does (six seconds was chosen because it is the length of one round in D&D 3e, which we play). Nor are players permitted to speak to each other, except whatever they can say in their six seconds (usually, “Go there!” “Fight him!” etc.).

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Adding Zeppelins To Fantasy Worlds

From Johnn F.

I know, you’re saying to yourself “that Johnn Four has got a lot of nerve posting a tip of his own in this section of the newsletter”, but I thought that this email, which I recently sent in response to a roleplaying question, might be of interest to you too. Even if you’re not thinking of adding zeppelins to your campaign, you might find the questions below applicable to any technology you’d like to introduce.

— In a message dated October 24th, Johnn Four wrote: —

Hi Sean,

Here are some things to consider when thinking about adding zeppelins to a medieval style fantasy campaign:

  • How can they be used as a weapon (by good and evil)?
  • How can they be used as a defense (by good and evil)?
  • How do they work?
  • Who has the technology (mechanical or magical) to build them?
  • If they become important to the game world’s powers, what kind of struggles/conflicts would ensue?
    • i.e. sabotage, create a manufacturing monopoly, guarding their construction secrets and spying, etc.
  • How would they affect communication?
  • Are there competing methods of communication that are better?
  • If not, then they’d become quite valuable
    • note: anything that speeds up communication makes your game world more complex, and therefore makes GMing a little tougher
  • What are the zeppelins’ major weaknesses?
  • Who knows this?
  • Who would want to take advantage of this?
  • What are the zeppelins’ strengths and capabilities?
  • Who would want to take advantage of this?
    • i.e. merchants (business opportunity), nobles (privilege of the wealthy), military (weapon, defense, information gathering), fanatics, villains
  • What do the clergy/world’s religions think of this?
    • i.e. heresy, competition
  • Most power groups (at least those currently experiencing good times) dislike change and always seek the status quo.
  • Would there be a potential shift in influence or power?
  • If so, how would the power groups react?
    • i.e. destroy, absorb or control?
  • For example, dragons may control the airspace over cities in your world. Would they relinquish that to zeppelin pilots?
  • What natural threats to zeppelins would there be?
    • i.e. monsters, weather, magical
  • How would the builders compensate?

Hope this helps.


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Dry Erase Boards & Battlemats Don’t Mix

From Ted O.

I used to swear by dry erase boards — I still love them for everything except gaming. Can’t you just guess why I hate them for gaming? Because I ruined my brand new battle mat with dry erase markers. It’s just too easy to grab the closest marker, or the one you’re fiddling with, and start drawing.

On the plus side, I ruined the “squares” side of my mat, and really-really liked switching to hexes (even though all the D&D 3e rules are in squares, I prefer the way hexes handle diagonal movement — I just like them).

Then unfortunately, 3 sessions later, I drew 4 long lines — a full-mat-length T-intersection — on the hex-side with *dry erase markers*!

Now I have a new mat, and dry erase is not allowed in the gaming room on gaming days. Like I said, I still love the dry erase board for everything else, but it’s not allowed near my battlemat.

By the way, does anyone know how to get dry erase off a mat? So far, everything that dissolves dry erase also wipes the lines off the mat — not very helpful.

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Make Success-Focused Players The Centre Of Attention

From Rob E.

This tip applies both to increasing character ‘heroism’ and to making a difficult player work better in the game.

To have fun while playing is naturally the most important. But I have a player that doesn’t necessarily think so. Most important for him is success and to be better than the other players. This is really annoying, especially since he has quit playing one or two times when his character wasn’t the best. He did have his splendid moments though, so I still want him in my group.

So, what I did was put him in the center of the play. His character in the current game is the King. Even though his kingdom is occupied by an evil villain, still, he is the King. That his character is far from the best now is suddenly not so important to the player any more.