Best Game Master Tips of 2010 – Part 2

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0510

A Brief Word from Johnn

Newsletter Tip Request: Alternate Formats

One of my goals this year is to investigate bringing this newsletter to alternate formats, preferably HTML and PDF.

HTML would make the newsletter readable on mobile devices because I would not need to put in all the hard line breaks that screw up formatting on small screens.

HTML would also allow graphics, helpful layout such as linked table of contents, and better typography with headers, bold and italics.

PDF I’m not so sure about, but it would make issues more readable on mobile devices like the iPad and usable by killer apps like GoodReader.

Problems are twofold: time and time. So I am putting it out there to see if anyone has any ideas on how I can make this happen.

Plain text, HTML and PDF each have their own formatting. It would be a perfect world if I could create and edit the newsletter in one format and then just have it flow to the other two formats with a button click or two.

Before I try tangling with MS Word (which, in theory, could get me to plain text, HTML and PDF, though worry about Word’s HTML export and all the hidden styles stuff Word puts into files) does anybody know of software that handles export to HTML, PDF and plain text nicely?

If your job involves this kind of content conversion, then any work flow tips you might have would be awesome too. If I can keep this extra step down to an hour for all new versions, then I think that is sustainable.

Best Game Master Tips of 2010 – Part 2

Last issue covered the tips from 2010 that I found the most useful or interesting.

Now we conclude with the final batch. I might do this again next December – let me know if you liked or did not like this pair of Best Of editions.

Deadly Situations

From James Edward Raggi IV

Every adventure must have situations that directly and truly threaten the lives of the characters participating. If there is no true threat, it is not an adventure, it’s a tour.

I’ll go so far as to say there should be situations designed specifically to kill characters. A monster that’s way too tough. A trap that’s going to claim a victim. Save or die. These sorts of things. Every. Single. Time. The key is to put these “expected death” situations in places where it isn’t necessary to encounter them. The players must choose to engage in these areas and situations.

Teach them that the game world isn’t scaled so they can kill everything.

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Keep A Checklist of Your Session

From Ronny

Checklists are an amazing way to keep track of your night’s session. Write down all the important plot points, new NPCs you need to introduce, and encounters the players should have, and check them off as the session progresses.

Always leave extra space towards the bottom to write campaign notes on unexpected actions the players took. This checklist gives you a quick look back on what happened or didn’t happen during that session.

After the session ends, review your checklist and add anything that didn’t happen and is still relevant onto your next session’s checklist.

I keep old checklists in my campaign binder. They are an amazing resource to use in long-term campaigns.

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Get Player Agreement On Law Enforcement Up Front

From Johnn

Before the campaign begins and characters are made, have a discussion with your group. Decide how law enforcement will work in the setting and how it will affect gameplay. Let the players help you create this aspect of the game. Hopefully this produces a result the group can live by and play by when the campaign starts.

  • What kind of adventures do you want to DM?
  • What kind of adventures do they want to play?
  • What kind of adventurers do they want to play?

Be sure to represent the world-building point of view, that the players are unlikely to have, where the setting will be full of people who need to live by the decisions the group makes.

Sure, it is fun and easy to want to play heroes who can do what they want without any consequences. But what has stopped others from doing the same in the past, causing strife, misery and tragedy? Surely a society would take actions to prevent this from happening again.

By having this discussion at the beginning of the campaign you can formulate a world around the desires of the group.

For example, the players remain adamant they want to be unhindered by law enforcement. Two options of many come to mind:

  • Option #1: Create a warlord environment with an unsophisticated legal system. There are no guards, just agents of the warlord, and the warlord decides punishments. The PCs are safe unless they commit some major crime.
  • Option #2: Give the character’s law enforcement powers. This solves many small game issues handily, and gives you a handy campaign platform as a bonus.

As you can see, both options have a profound impact on a campaign.

In addition, deciding this up front helps inform players what kind of characters they should create. I think this is where most campaigns fall down in terms of handling guards. The group creates PCs near the beginning of the process, which is like putting the cart before the horse. Or worse, players create characters outside the process, and they just show up to the first session with no idea of your plan, and everyone hopes things magically gel together. Either way, characters will be at odds with the setting, campaign and adventurers the game master has planned.

The solution is to discuss law enforcement before characters are created, as part of campaign planning from the beginning.

If you are mid-campaign, there is still hope. If guards are a current headache for you, have a group chat immediately. Discuss the situation to get the group’s preferences. Once everyone agrees on the law enforcement style they would like, you need to make some changes.

Start with the characters. Continuing the discussion, ask the players how their characters will adapt to the group decision. This might require character personality tweaking, background changes, and motive changes. Players might need to reframe their character’s point of view a bit so they are in sync with what everyone decided they wanted gameplay to be like.

Next, tackle the setting. Make necessary changes so the law enforcement style and presence matches what everyone’s new expectations are. With character and setting changes planned out, you will need to update your adventure.

Make quick and seamless changes right away. Make bigger changes that can be done without requiring retroactive gameplay. Players will not care if you change game world history that they have not learned yet, for example, though you might need to update NPC backgrounds and motives as a result.

For changes that are big and visible I suggest running encounters to play them out. For example, the PCs stumble into a deadly fight between guards and the villain’s minions. If the PCs help the minions, then the guards who had a grudge, proof, or pending charges against the PCs are slain. Assuming no witnesses, problem solved. If the PCs help the guards, then out of gratitude the guards become friendly to them, drop the charges, and tend to look the other way in the future.

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Require A Background

From Kate Manchester

Require all characters to have a background story. It can be long or short (preferably long) and in any format they choose. For my own campaigns, I require players to justify some or all of their PC’s advantages or flaws in their background. If the PC has a 3-point Enemy, I want to know how they managed to piss someone off that badly.

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From James Edward Raggi IV

There are two standards that adventure rewards must meet: they must be enough, and they must be not enough.

Enough that everyone involved doesn’t think that they’ve completely wasted their time… and not enough to leave anybody really satisfied with what they have. They need more! Where next to plunder?

Note that concealing the rewards well may wind with the players not finding it. Tough. As a referee, just make sure it’s there. Don’t help the players to actually find it.

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You’re Done

From Hannah Lipsky

Never cancel a game for lack of prep. Sure, prep can make your game better. Prep usually does make your game better. Players appreciate well put together sessions and elaborate props. I’m certainly not discouraging you from pouring hours of prep into your game; if you have the time and it makes you happy, go for it.

But your players would rather you wing a session with bottle caps and scraps than have to miss a game because you were afraid it would be less than perfect.

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Give City Encounters a Backstory

From Johnn Four

To make an encounter compelling it needs a backstory. Create a layer behind what the players see, which they can peel back and discover if they so choose. This adds depth, exploration and player control to your urban games, while keeping things manageable behind the screen.

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Make Histories Dynamic

From Kate Manchester

Realize that a character’s history is dynamic. It can evolve and become more fleshed out over time as the player spends more time with the PC.

For example, I’ve had a character history that started out with the vague reasoning of her transfer away from her native Chicago due to a family dispute. I elaborated on it by deciding the dispute was with her mother and sisters over breaking her engagement (she and her fiancee had different ideas about her working outside the home).

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Low-Level Encounter Ideas

From JShurin

Hi Johnn, I’ve been reading your newsletter for about a year now, and am really enjoying it. I just finished up a campaign, and thought there might be a few useful encounter seeds in it for others.

The party was powerful (some good dice rolling in character creation), so I wound up racking my mind for ways to make standard encounters into challenges. Here are some of the situations I put my (now slightly twitchy!) party through:

  • Trapped in the second-story of a burning inn at night, surrounded by goblin shamans and rogues – firing at party members as they scrambled out the windows.
  • On their hands and knees, fighting a zombie hound in the crawl space underneath an abandoned hut.
  • Swimming underwater through a sunken room, being grappled by angry zombies. Unarmored, and wearing extremely fragile water-breathing gear, there was a sense of paranoia about sustaining even a single hit.
  • Rowing a small boat down a jungle river, whilst goblins leapt from overhanging trees and vines in ambush. Hungry alligators snapped up anyone foolish enough to fall over into the water.
  • Hunting down a goblin shaman in mist-shrouded ruins (no dark vision need apply, naturally) while wolves darted in and out from all sides.
  • Carrying a fragile glass jar with a rare spell component (to save a girl’s life) across a series of slick logs – while angry goblins pelted them with stones.
  • Battling an enemy monk on top of a massive dam – a ten- foot-wide, smooth, water-slick stone surface. Naturally, without guard rails or walls -against a nimble enemy with no armor check penalty. As this was the climactic battle, I actually built this set ahead of time (two sheets of Styrofoam and some PDF dungeon tiles) to reinforce the tension that came from the height. (Un)Fortunately, no party members fell off – but many wound up prone, clinging on for dear life!

For all of these, relatively low CR beasties suddenly become much more difficult encounters.

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Four Core Approaches

From Swordgleam

Some players think it is entirely the DM’s job to introduce the party to each other and give them a viable reason to stay together. Some DMs think this is entirely the players’ job. Players and DMs who feel one way generally feel similarly about who is responsible for creating/finding/following/figuring out the plot.

I’ve run a few campaigns of varying lengths, starting on either end of the “whose job is this” spectrum. The smoothest startups either way have all involved clear expectations on both sides. Based on what I’ve experienced, it seems like the core approaches, in rough order of how well they’ve worked for me, are:

  1. Players work together to create characters with interweaving backstories, then present this to the DM.
  2. The DM designs a campaign predicated on the PCs cooperating.
  3. DM creates a situation that forces the PCs together, and the PCs must go from there.
  4. The PCs put their characters in proximity, and the DM gives them a reason to stick together.
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How Do You Use Dice in Ways Beyond System Rules

From cra2

1) I’ve got weather dice I roll at the beginning of every in-game day to remind me to set the scene and describe the sights, sounds, smells (and weather) the PCs experience. I even roll a d8 directional die at the same time so I can say what direction the wind’s blowing.

2) I have a set of mood dice that show a smiley face, sad face, surprised face, etc. I LOVE to use these to help me improve what random mood the NPC might be in when the PCs walk in.

  • What the PCs say and do will alter that mood, but having a handful of mood dice helps me instantly create a visual atmosphere. “As you enter, the Mayor seems to be chastising one of his underlings who appears ashamed. Nearby, the sheriff looks scared – an emotion you thought he didn’t possess, until now. What do you guys do?”

3) I use dice as mooks in combat. If the party is surrounded by minions with 8 hit points each, I’ll put out a swarm of d8s with “8” showing. As the minions take damage, I just flip the die to show the remaining hit points. Instant, visual, paperless tracking the whole table benefits from.

4) I use a variety of dice for in-character gambling games. I always have dice games (of chance) going on in the back of the tavern. And even in the middle of a dungeon, if a couple of players are separated from the party and have to wait while a scene resolves, they might pick up some dice and gamble coppers with each other to kill time.

5) Believe it or not, often I use dice instead of my dry- erase markers on the battle mat. Most combat environments just need a general indication of where the boundaries are. So, if the PCs enter a large, rectangular room, I’ll just put four d6’s (of the same color) about where the corners of the room are.

Then I’ll put a different colored d6 wherever the exit(s) are, and maybe even a third color indicating where the pillars are.

90% of the time, that’s all the scene requires and it’s 90% faster than drawing/erasing every wall and door on the mat. Even in an irregular environment, like a circular grassy clearing, I just throw some d6’s out to indicate the general borders of the clearing and let the players’ minds fill in the lines between.

6) I don’t know anyone who doesn’t keep a couple of d20’s set aside as turn counters for spell duration and such. Will the bomb go off in 14 rounds? Set a d20 out in view with the 14 showing. Every turn, flip the die over to the appropriate number. A visual countdown makes things tense for the players.

7) I use some d6’s as height indicators for most indoors (and some outdoors) situations. For example, if a PC climbs 20′ up the wall, I’ll put a large d6 under the miniature, with the ‘2’ facing up. When the PC climbs another 10′, we turn the d6 so the 3 is facing up.

My friend has dice that stack well, and he just puts a number of d6’s under the mini equal to the height of the PC (divided by 10). So if you’re 40′ up the wall, he puts you atop four d6’s.

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Create A Conflict

From Johnn Four

Some GMs might associate romance in RPGs with roleplaying the interactions and awkward dialogue. Not so. Focus on the conflict. That is where the great encounter and plot opportunities lie.

We have already seen one example above of interesting conflict where a society imposes restrictions, standards and behaviors on relationships. This gives player’s gameplay opportunities as they try to work within the system, and depending on the relationship, try to work outside the system.

Instead of making the relationship the focus of the gameplay, look at conflicts surrounding it. Focus on those who try to break up the romance versus those who gain by seeing the romance bloom. Then involve the PCs in the faction interplay.

Another awesome source of conflict comes from the background of an NPC involved in a relationship. Keep this background a secret and reveal it in bits and pieces as the game progresses. Then have each revelation change the NPC from sympathetic to pathetic to villain to sympathetic again, back and forth, over and over.

For example, say the PC is in love with the daughter of someone who is far down the line as heir to the throne. Aside from all the courtly political plots you might hatch, you can create a twisted background that keeps the PC guessing whether the love of their life is a wonderful person or jaded pawn of the court.

In one encounter the group learns the daughter, Mariele, saved an orphanage by convincing her father to donate funds to keep it running. But then the PCs discover the orphanage is a cover for a gang of thugs who bully the orphans. They also learn Mariele knew about this the whole time!

When confronted, she tells them she has nothing to do with the thugs and she raised the money truly help the children. Suspicious, the PCs eventually uncover proof that she is telling the truth. But in the course of that investigation, they learn she is secretly betrothed to one of the thugs. When asked to choose, she chooses the thug!

But then the party learns she only chose the thug because the King threatened to call the PCs criminals and throw them in his dungeon.

And on and on it goes, with the group thinking Mariele is a victim one moment, then villain the next.

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Heist What and Why?

From Joel Fox

The ‘what’ and ‘why’ of a heist are tied together, for often the risks and costs associated getting the loot match or outweigh the reward. The risks associated with a bank robbery, for example, are nearly too many to list: risk of injury, death, imprisonment, betrayal, and so forth, not to mention further pursuit by law enforcement, paranoia, and having to leave the country. Therefore, the why of a heist is often more important than the what, even though the what is the goal of the players.

The what is generally easy enough, such as:

  • A pile of diamonds
  • Money
  • Bearer bonds
  • Paintings
  • The Declaration of Independence

It might not be intrinsically valuable like currency, but rather something of a more personal value:

  • Documents showing the heritage of party members (granting them a crown at a later date)
  • Blueprints to create an exotic device
  • An imprisoned person the party cares about

You might come up with the what somewhere later in the heist creation process, or leave the what a mystery: the party knows something valuable is in a vault, but not exactly what it is.

The why, however, is more of what makes a heist a heist, and not just people stealing stuff. The why is what makes the benefits outweigh the risks, so it has to be pretty big: a party rarely says, “Hey let’s steal the Hope Diamond today.”

The why is:

  • Some advantage or edge the party has over the loot’s defenses
  • To protect themselves from an even more dire fate
  • To prevent a disaster
  • To keep the loot safe
  • To save a loved one

Here are some specific examples:

  • A party member helped design or install one of the more potent security measures guarding a treasure; they know of a bypass.
  • A friend, relative, ex-lover, etc. that guards the loot is a friend of the party, and will supply the party with useful information in exchange for a cut.
  • The money gained from a heist will be used to pay off a dangerous criminal organization that wants the party’s blood.
  • The loot is a powerful item or will provide funds that will aid the party considerably in their current quest, whatever that might be.
  • The loot is a cure or antidote for a rare and otherwise incurable affliction that one or more party members suffer from; without it, they’ll die.
  • Similarly, someone has afflicted the party and will exchange the antidote for the loot.
  • The loot’s owner recently acquired the item themselves, and don’t have the full security system installed yet.
  • The loot’s owner has recently acquired the loot themselves; an object of great power, it spells considerable doom if the party doesn’t recover it.
  • The loot is dangerous or in danger, and the loot’s owner doesn’t listen to the party’s pleas; it must be stolen to protect it or others.

Making the why a personal and specific element of the heist helps tie elements together. It also keeps party interest high. A party that decides one day to rob a local complex might lose interest or get discouraged during the planning stages, whereas a party that knows a local complex has valuable items the party can use and several exploitable security holes will stay on task until the job is done.

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How to Run a Campaign with 8th Level NPCs

RPT reader James sent me this request about my Riddleport campaign. Below are the tips I sent him, and I thought you might find them useful as well.

Johnn, one thing you could help on, and I’ve been trying to get my head round, is the fact that your NPCs are on average 8th level. How, in the early sessions, did you provide winnable combats for your players? I really like the concept, as I’m trying to re-instill some fear of death in my players, but I also want to give them combat.


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Good question! Here is what I did:

—Communicated the situation to players before the campaign started.

  • Warned them that everyone else is tougher.
  • Warned them I would be fine with a TPK.
  • Explained how new PCs would be brought into the campaign. The campaign offered an easy way to immediately bring in new PCs (the PCs own an inn).

This relieved pressure to play perfectly because introducing new PCs is easy, however it created tension because life was clearly cheap.

—Established how resurrection would work. We covered how beloved PCs could be raised or resurrected, and how much that would cost.

This offered players an option, and gave me an out in case I did end up whacking a much-prized character. Yet, the cost of coming back is enough to deter careless play.

—Campaign does not hinge on any particular PC. Any PC can die, and the campaign lives on. A TPK could occur, and the campaign could still live on if the players wanted to resume.

I do not have a pre-planned, required central plot, so it becomes easy for the campaign to stay free of character dependency. Yet, each PC has their own side plot, so a lot of story is emerging, and PC actions have great impact on the game world and future choices.

—The first encounter proved it. One PC died. I purposefully put the PCs up against NPCs who could have delivered a TPK. However, I structured the encounter so the NPCs were not motivated to kill. I also warned the PCs during the encounter, by way of description, how tough the NPCs were.

The solution to the encounter was to say yes. If the PCs agreed to terms the NPCs laid out, the encounter would end. There was opportunity for cunning PCs to eke out a small advantage in the terms as well.

Unfortunately, a player decided their PC had a big ego and made him attack an NPC. His character avoided the counter- attack, but that placed another PC in jeopardy, and that PC died instead, before the PCs fled with the NPCs laughing and hollering after them.

My group is mature, so the player of the dead PC was angry at the other player who started the fight, but the group sorted things out amongst themselves to prevent such a situation from occurring again. I was prepared to intervene if tempers or emotions escalated, but I did not need to.

The NPCs would have TPK’d the group if they had not fled. However, they were under orders not to kill the PCs, so they would have switched to non-lethal damage the next round.

Regardless, message sent in the first encounter – play by the world’s rules and the cards dealt you, or suffer the consequences; plus, clever thinking will be rewarded, careless will not.

—Offered powerful allies. One ally offered a free Raise Dead to any PC who signed their soul over to him. My players are excellent. They each carefully considered whether their character would actually give up their soul for a one-time security blanket. Some signed, most did not. It was a great encounter.

—Gave XP for roleplaying and solutions. Provide a way for PCs to slowly gain power, and give them hope of one day being on par with most other NPCs, by means other than combat.

—The average NPC is powerful, but not all are. The PCs live in a poor area of town. Lots of people down on their luck skulk around looking for any opportunity to commit a petty crime for the day’s meal.

The PCs, all bright and shiny, looked as new and naive as they truly were. So weak NPCs decided to attack. These combats were manageable by weak PCs.

Also, not all foes in the city are NPCs. Animals, spirits and hazards provided lots of physical challenges.

In addition, a three-tiered pit fighting league also opportunity for parity in combat. PCs could opt to fight and were matched against lightweights and the skinny NPCs. 🙂 Audiences want long, close matches, so the system rewarded low-level NPCs getting matched against the PCs.

—Issued warnings instead of assassinations. In Riddleport the dead earn no profits. Crime lords need minions out there hustling and working for a living. Better to send a warning than issue a hit. When PCs step out of line, they get beaten, humiliated or mutilated, but not killed.

—Districts system. Riddleport has 10 or so districts. The PCs’ home district is tough, but as long as the PCs are humble and careful, they avoid fights. That is because they are working for a crime lord, and most will think twice about harming the crime lord’s property.

The PCs were warned, and they learned the hard way, that stepping out of their district and outside the shadow of their boss’s protection could prove deadly.

This meant the PCs could adventure in their own district safely, though many plot threads required them to sneak around in other districts – tense moments.

—Social skills win. Many encounters were settled – with XP – by good use of diplomacy, bluff and intimidate.

—Players are smarter than me. I’ll finish these tips with a chilling secret. My players use and abuse the rules a lot better than me. NPCs who should’ve smacked the PCs around ended up in the dead cart. Bad ass monsters who should’ve sent the group screaming into the night ended up stuffed and mounted on the inn wall.

In 2011 I plan to up my game and be a craftier, more bastardly GM for this particular campaign.

Hope this helps!