9 Spheres Of Influence My Broad RPG Planning Checklist

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0357

A Brief Word From Johnn

Free RPG Day

The goal of Free RPG Day is to get gamers inspired to play new RPGs. This year it’s taking place in US stores only, but hopefully the program will be successful and branch out in future years. Free RPG Day will be June 23, 2007.

Anyone Using A Digital Projector?

Digital projectors are becoming quite affordable these days, and the idea of beaming your maps onto the game table from your computer is pretty exciting. However, I’m wondering if the dream is better than the reality. If you use a digital projector in your games, maybe you could drop me a line and tell me how it’s going?

Does map preparation take a lot of extra time? Does a projector make games faster or slower? Does it take some of the headaches out of mapping? Does it keep the GM’s head behind a computer screen? Are there pros and cons each GM thinking about digital projection should weigh? Should I spend the money on other RPG products instead?


Johnn Four
[email protected]

9 Spheres Of Influence My Broad RPG Planning Checklist

The following article details a short checklist I use for a lot of things, from planning a new campaign to writing tips to organizing a session. I was using it while writing part two of the Know Your Players tips series when it occurred to me you might find this information useful as well.

Starting with what I think is the top level when considering any RPG activity, whether it’s buying a product, designing, preparing, or GMing, the list describes a rough hierarchy of game elements. Each item on the list is contained inside the one above it, like Russian nested dolls.

Another way to look at it is each item is a circle on a piece of paper. Inside the circle are the circles of the items that follow it on the list.

For example, inside the game system circle is the game world circle, because the game world is dependant on the rules that govern it. Inside the game world circle is one or more campaign circles, because each campaign is informed and restricted by the world and game system.

Each circle I call a sphere of influence because it dictates a lot of parameters to the spheres contained within in.

Confused? Let’s get straight to the list then.

The 9 Spheres Of Influence:

  1. GM preferences
  2. Player preferences
  3. Game system
  4. Game world
  5. Campaign
  6. Character preferences
  7. Adventure
  8. Session
  9. Encounter

Maybe this diagram helps put things in perspective:

GM Preferences

While the game master and players are equal participants in games, I’ve placed GM preferences at the top because I feel GMs are the primary motivators, coordinators, and organizers in most groups.

We GMs buy most of the gaming stuff. We do a lot of the planning and preparation for campaigns and sessions. We do the adventure and world building.

There are many exceptions to this, and if the list doesn’t reflect your group’s structure, then feel free to re-order it. The purpose is to tweak the list accordingly, and then use it to guide your decisions and activities where possible to make things easier and more efficient.

In my model, GMs are the all-encompassing sphere in which the others reside. We are the ones usually to get and keep a gaming activity happening, especially as we get older and all group members have competing real life priorities. As such, we need to ensure our needs and preferences are met first, because if we aren’t motivated to game, then likely no game will happen.

Note this doesn’t mean it’s our way or nothing. We need to be flexible and cater to the needs of the other spheres, but we should, at the beginning, figure out what minimum things we need to stay motivated and interested in gaming and ensure those elements make their way into the other spheres as appropriate.

Another reason I’ve placed GM preferences as the outer sphere is we can figure out what our preferences are before any of the other spheres get involved. We can do this work immediately, and should. We don’t need to wait for game sessions to happen, for example, to figure out what genres we prefer to game.

So, what are your gaming preferences? Do you have any restrictions? Are there any deal breakers that would cause you to quit gaming? Are there any deal makers that would inspire you to run the best game sessions you’ve ever GM’d?

Most of us are pretty flexible on the various aspects of our gaming hobby, but if there are any must haves in your mind, such as game system, session location, player types, or world elements, now is the time to suss those out and take note.

Use these preferences to influence the other spheres to ensure you are happy gaming for a long time to come.

Player Preferences

Player preferences are very important to learn about and serve. Issue #352 started the process for discovering what your players habits, likes, and dislikes are. In addition, past tips on player surveys can help.


Without players, you have no game. It’s critical to make your games fun and entertaining, and to facilitate your players helping each other enjoy game nights.

Therefore, their spheres have top priority after the GM’s.

Note that different players have different preferences. You need to find the prefs that overlap, and cater to those as the group’s strong points. Consider the things your players mutually like to be the core preferences of your group, and make these top priorities to serve. Once that’s done, you can expand out to reach different or unique player desires.

When you are pressed for session planning time, for example, cater to core preferences first. If you have time left over, you can look at individual needs.

Try to also learn what deal makers and deal breakers your players have. For example, if a player refuses to play cyberpunk, or can’t play on weekends, you need to know this before figuring out or adjusting the other spheres.

It is also great if you can learn what would make each player enjoy your sessions to the utmost and clamour for more, and then weave this knowledge into the other spheres.

Game System

Selection of game system should be informed by GM and player tastes. Therefore, it’s the third sphere of influence.

Sometimes you might pick the game system first and then recruit players accordingly. This would point to the GM’s sphere influencing the players’.

At other times, the game system might be pre-determined. Your game club might only possess certain books, your players won’t play anything else, or an existing game group has recruited you as GM for a particular rules set. So be it. You and the players will still have other preferences that supersede the game rules (often in the form of house rules :), so system can remain as sphere #3.

Even if a game system is universal, genreless, rules light, or freeform, rules of any kind will put fences around the various choices you can make in the other spheres, so it’s important to get game system picked after you know what you and your players prefer.

It’s also important once the system is chosen to determine its boundaries and learn what you need to change to ensure GM and core player preferences are met, the outside parameters of your designs, and how far you can push the engines.

Game World

Picking a game world often rivals choice of game system, and it could be this is bumped up to be sphere #3. Most times you are picking a game world for its ideas and gaming potential, though, and these things are bounded by what the rules make possible.

Preferences might dictate setting selection first, which in turn determines the selection of possible game systems. However, after this flip-flop, we are back to the game system influencing the game world, in terms of NPC creation, what types of encounters don’t work well, equipment, reward types, and so on.

In many cases, a game world is explained in terms of the game system. Game constructs and elements are described in terms of stat blocks or rules. This would be my definition of a term you might have heard bandied about: crunch.

Another term gamer use, fluff, I’d define as game world information that isn’t bounded by the rules.

Game world might be a restrictive label. Think game setting, perhaps, as this sphere contains the universe, laws of physics, all the planets, laws of deities and magic (if applicable), and all the planes of existence.

Game world can have great influence on the spheres inside it, such as characters and adventures, so it’s important to have a good grasp of what the world restricts and offers.

It’s also great if you can nail down what makes this world unique, special, and fun to game in. Unless you are running a generic setting, try to capture what makes this world different from the others so you can insert this theme or element into all the sub-spheres.

Game world also needs to be tweaked by the game system, player, and GM preferences.


There are many notions of what a campaign is. Here is my definition for the purposes of the checklist:

A series of adventures with one or more common links that tie them together.

My preference is for the link to be the player characters. I enjoy a style of campaign where PCs begin weak, low level, or as normal people, and then they change (usually for the better) over the course of several adventures. The PCs might conquer fears, earn many friends, gain in level, learn new powers – it all depends on the game system and player styles.

However, other types of common links are possible, such as villain, setting, plot, and character links, such as family or tribe, descendants, pupils, and legacy.

For example, in one of my favourite RPGs, Ars Magica, the players forge a lair together where powerful mage player characters, their friends, and servants dwell. Each player controls and shares multiple PCs, and the campaign is all about the lair, called a covenant, and building that up over dozens or even hundreds of years.

A good campaign tightly reflects the game world, which gives the campaign distinct flavour, boundaries, and interesting adventure and encounter elements. A campaign also is dictated by the game rules and preferences of the whole gaming group.

For example, a cyberpunk campaign should play differently than a fantasy campaign or a sci-fi campaign.

Even campaigns set in identical genres and game systems can be heavily influenced by game world to create a special play-and-feel for better gaming. For example, a campaign in the leather-tough Dark Sun desert world of Athas should feel and play differently than a campaign in the high-magic Forgotten Realms or the film noir, quasi steam punk world of Eberron.

Character Preferences

Character preferences encompasses a range of needs and wants that will be discussed in a future Know Your Characters article. Each character brings to the table certain game elements that GMs should try to cater to so that gameplay pleases the players and takes advantage of what the PCs offer.

Examples of game elements characters provide are:

  • Backstory
  • Abilities
  • Personality, roleplaying

Characters are heavily influenced by game rules. They are often game rule constructs that players bring to life on their own, or even sometimes in spite of the game rules, heh.

However, in good design, characters should be influenced by campaign and game world. An investigator type should seem like a different person when run by different players, in different game systems, on diverse worlds, in various campaigns. The same body of statistics should be brought to life in unique ways when the spheres above it change.

In regards to the sub-spheres of adventure, session, and encounter, the play-and-feel, planning, and design should be impacted by different character selection and preferences. For example, a bandit encounter should run differently with a group of mages versus a group of warriors.


An adventure, by my personal definition, is a series of encounters linked by an overarching plot thread. Numerous side plots and unrelated encounters can feed into an adventure, but what makes players say, what an adventure! after several encounters is they’ve come through the other side of a pursued goal.

That goal might be to take down a villain, save someone or something, or obtain a valuable item or power. The goal, whether handed down by the GM or pushed forward by the group, becomes a plot once in the hands of the GM.

An adventure can take place in several locations or just one. It can survive the death of some party members, but not usually a TPK. It doesn’t change game rules (other than perhaps a rare version upgrade). It can handle a small number of player changes, but almost never survives a GM changeover or large player turnover at one time.

An adventure is a construct of the game rules and a collaboration of player and GM preferences and styles. Game world and campaign should make the adventure relevant to the characters and cast a distinct flavor on the plot.


A game session is a turning point in my RPG spheres of influence model. Everything up to this point can be pre-determined, designed, or planned for well in advance, once.

It pays dividends to iterate spheres 1 through 7, don’t get me wrong. After one session or one hundred, it doesn’t hurt to revisit player preferences or flesh out more of the game world or get a refresher on the rules.

In addition, as players make choices and characters take actions, the game world and campaign should change or react.

The plot of the adventure will need updating as well. With character growth and change will also come revised character preferences.

However, spheres 4 through 7 need only change after certain triggers or tipping points occur. These tend to be infrequent. In addition, the ripples created by sessions and encounters lose momentum through each sphere they travel. Most changes won’t get past the adventure sphere. A large wave is required for unexpected major world changes to occur that stem from encounters and sessions.

This sphere thing I’ve got going here is just a model to help you GM better, if it works for you. It’s not without exceptions. For example, the world should change all the time – seasons pass, NPCs grow older, events happen outside of direct PC influence.

You can anticipate these things, though, and include them in your planning and design stages. You can create a world engine, or sorts, with charts and tables and timelines to automate a lot of these changes to create a setting that feels alive and has a kind of immune system to various types of PC meddling. Not just anyone should be able to take down a king, foil a god, or cause a war.

An adventure plot should be current with PC actions as well, otherwise you put the PCs and players in a straightjacket. However, good design means most changes should occur in the encounter sphere, sphere #9.

Villains, for example, won’t change motives, attributes, and lairs often in reaction to the characters. Instead, armed with good knowledge of a villain’s make-up and resources, you just craft or revise encounters to reflect what happened in the previous game session.

You wouldn’t redesign a community to handle the sudden presence of powerful PCs unless absolutely necessary. Instead, you’d craft encounters designed to mitigate the situation. Perhaps the PCs are summoned to a council meeting where they are pleaded with to control themselves, or the thieves’ guild sets the stage to try to rob the PCs of their newfound wealth and items.

A game session is dynamic. Each session needs organization and planning, especially if you have a group of busy players. Cancelled sessions, absentee players, changes in location, and other factors mean sessions are an ongoing game element that require your attention.

All the outer spheres you can flesh out and firm up before a single second of game session occurs. A game session inherits the decisions and influences of all the other spheres surrounding it. The outer spheres are almost static, in a way, once we’ve reached this point.

Therefore, the big tip here, to make sessions and encounters go as smoothly as possible, is to work through spheres 1 through 7 until you are satisfied and they can stand on their own feet before you enter sphere 8. This frees up your time, once the campaign begins, to focus on session and encounter preparation between game sessions.

Too often we get stuck trying to campaign build, world build, plan the adventure, analyze the players, and learn the game rules while trying to keep regular game sessions happening.

Take care of as much of the outer spheres as possible before you get into the grind of pre-session prep. The more you take care of the other stuff, the more you can focus on what’s going to happen next session and what you can do to make next session awesome.

Ok, back to what the session sphere is. Session involves doing what you can to make game day happen and go smoothly, which includes, for example:

  • Ensuring player attendance
  • Ironing out location
  • Making sure the location is simpatico with gaming
  • Being the host or MC
  • Organizing game materials
  • Organizing your notes and gaming supplies
  • Being a good storyteller
  • Managing pacing
  • Managing limelight time and other player preferences
  • Championing the interests of the adventure, campaign, and game world

The specifics of these and other aspects of game session have been dealt with in previous issues and will be visited in future tips as well.


As mentioned in previous issues, encounters are the building blocks of RPGs. All aspects of all the outer spheres feed into each encounter like a reverse prism.

In the spirit of show, don’t tell, encounters propel the characters through each adventure one conflict at a time. The villain is angry at the PCs? Stage a retribution encounter complete with calling card. The magic orb will save the princess? The next encounter yields a clue about location, the one after that reveals the opposition, and a third encounter tries to guard the orb from everyone.

As with Lego, each piece – encounter – slowly builds the structure, reveals the shape, tells the tale. Encounters are highly reactive to player choices and character decisions. As such, you need to spend time planning each next batch of encounters, or at least thinking about them.

Game sessions are chunked out into a series of encounters. Running an encounter well is a skill all GMs can learn and improve at by GMing. Planning and designing encounters will be covered in future issues.

In an ideal world, you’ve got spheres 1 through 7 dealt with to your satisfaction before you get to the encounter stage to minimize session planning and preparation time.

In addition, hopefully you’ve got systems and processes in place so that game sessions take minimal time to put together.

You are busy. GMing is great, but preparing for it can’t consume too much time else you won’t be able to do it. Long live GMing!

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The spheres of influence checklist is pretty theoretical, and not without exceptions. However, I’ve used it for a long time to help me determine the best order in which to do things, structure my notes and planning documents, prepare for campaigns, and GM game sessions. It lets me wrap my head around the ton of info one can generate for any given campaign, game group, or game world. Hopefully it helps you do the same.

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

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

Running An Adventure In A Laser Game/Paintball Range

From Tiernon

I was listening to the radio and they were advertising this new laser gaming complex (where you run around shooting everyone with laser guns in dark mist-filled multi-level horror houses).

It got me to thinking about when I was 15 and had a membership with Zone 3 (one of the better laser gaming complexes around at the time) and how I did one of their Midnight to Dawn runs: 6 hours of constant gaming. It was one of the most intense, nerve wracking, fun things I think I’ve ever done.

Wouldn’t it be fun to run a sci-fi RPG in one? Yes, it would be hack ‘n slash, but you could incorporate it into most adventures as part of a combat heavy sequence. All you’d need is your group and a few other friends who could play NPCs and have them go against each other for a few hours. The great thing about using your non-RPing friends as NPCs is you could really get them into gaming… a whole new range of recruits.

This would be even better if people in your group are great with tactics. Rather than running around with no direction, have the teams set up bases and think their way through a capture the flag scenario or something like that.

This would work well for modern campaigns as well, both in a laser gaming complex or on a paintball gun range. To make it work properly though, you’d have to talk with the owner so you could hire out the place for a few hours to yourselves and set up specific scenarios.

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Parents: Finding Time To Prep And Game

From Sandy Antunes

Sandy’s Soapbox Column Listing – RPGnet

As a househusband, I gave up writing while with a newborn. After a few months, though, things became feasible. Here’s what works for me:

Keep a notebook and pen with you at all times. Write while laying in bed, while insomniac, while the kid is watching blue’s clues, when the kid has fallen asleep in the swing at the park and you figure it’s a fine place for him/her to nap, while the kids are quietly playing by themselves (for all of 15 minutes, no doubt), while they’re eating, and during all those little 5 and 10 minute pockets of time when you’re in parent mode but the kids don’t actually need your hands-on attention.

When one notebook fills, start another. Rip out pages that you later type into the computer, finish into drafts, or update on a later notebook page – think of it as an organic thing. Don’t worry about submitting the work or having it in final form. For now, it’s a way to ensure your creative stuff keeps flowing and that you have potentially saleable work once you get time to flesh out and edit (even if that’s months away).

Once the kids were past 2 years old, it was feasible to do things like ‘stay up after they sleep’ or ‘work while they watch a movie’.

Finally, work out with your spouse (if applicable) which mornings you can sleep in late, and choose those nights before as ‘deep writing times’. Make sure you do all your idea work, research, and outlining beforehand (hence the notebook idea), so you can just sit down and write a solid draft with a good sense of direction.

Also, prioritize your hobbies. I basically gave up a bunch of hobbies until my kids are older and self-entertaining. I figured I could do 4 things:

  • Family
  • My job
  • One writing project
  • One escapist hobby

Finally, always take time to read, it keeps you sane.

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Remember To Take In-Game Notes Of Loose Threads

From Rick C.

GMs should take little notes during games. They provide a wealth of potential adventures and storylines for the future. It makes it easy to remember to bring back the long- thought-dead NPC villain when the PCs and players least expect it.

If they freak out and get excited when the evil cleric they thought dead comes back for more, then imagine their bewilderment and all the possible adventure fun when the son of a man they killed in an incidental bar fight years ago starts stalking them to take revenge.

I’ve used this to good effect several times. Players seem to enjoy the storyline concept of anyone you encounter and anything you do can come back to haunt you or help you.

For example, one particular NPC was an old merchant saved by the PCs from bandits. A few game years later, the players encountered the old merchant turned mage. He was determined to adventure with the group and they let him. At first he was seen as either a nuisance or comic relief, but as the game went on, he became more competent and actually developed into a half-decent mage that most of the players (if not their characters) loved.

Another example was a low level “normal person” NPC the PCs failed to save. He later came back as a major undead villain bent on revenge.

Don’t forget that every little action could be noticed by someone indirectly. If the PCs pass through a city and do nothing but follow the rules and do things right it might increase their reputation in some quarters but lower, it in others. What might the poor slum dweller who is being oppressed by the nobles think of the great heroes who pass by and never answer his pleas? Nothing good, I might think. This could have an effect on future dealings the PCs may have with those on the lower end of the social scale. The same could be said for PCs who do try to help the oppressed. Nobles may not like them at all.