Combat Hazards – II
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0480
- A Brief Word from Johnn
- Combat Hazards II
- Strolen’s Feature Article
A Brief Word from Johnn
Q-Workshop dice are pretty neat
I have a big dice collection. Before I purchased a pound of dice two years ago (for players who forget theirs, to use as counters, to appease my inner self, etc.) I already had several sets. However, Q Workshop’s dice look pretty neat and I was intrigued.
They sent me a few for review, and I’m glad I had a chance to see them in person.
Many of the designs on their site worried me because they appeared unreadable. However, once I had one of the more ornately styled dice on the table, I found I could read the results. Barely. So a word of caution there. If the dice look hard to read in a picture, they are in real life.
However, the coolness of the designs outweighed the usability for me.
For the dice that are easy to read, they offer a double- benefit: usable and cool.
For gamers who just need randomizers, then any old dice will be good for you. For gamers looking to add panache to their results, or perhaps another prop for the GM, I recommend checking Q-Workshop dice out. I find they do make results a little more special. But then again, I’m a sucker for neat dice (and pet dice – I have a collection of favourites I use when GMing).
You can see a pic of the dice Q-Workshop sent me here: http://www.roleplayingtips.com/url/fbphotos
(The d30 is beautiful and my favourite of the batch.)
Visit Q-Workshop’s to see all available sets.
Combat Hazards – II
Following are more great entries from the Combat Hazards contest. Thanks again to everyone who participated. Stay tuned for a new contest in an upcoming issue.
This combat hazard changes the heroes, altering how they interact with the environment. Provided a GM prepares for it properly, this encounter type can be a refreshing change from the usual hack-n-slash.
The transformation could come from a radiant pool, a drifting cloud, an old dolmen, or maybe a potent curse. The effect could be item-based, such as a mysterious roving orb or alien mechanical device – an artifact the adventurers might have to seek out later.
Nothing challenges adventurers like a reduction of size. Normal objects and mundane environmental details become monumental obstacles. A simple rat warren is now a mazy dungeon with mammoth inhabitants, and a walk across a small town or busy harbor becomes a near epic journey. A viewing of Pixar movies such as A Bug’s Life, Ratatouille, and Wall-E should get the creative juices flowing.
Another transformation polymorph our heroes into one or more types of animal or monster. Stock creatures and monsters can be used, or the GM can invent completely new ones. Monster templates become useful here, and adding odd physical traits, quirks and vulnerabilities can also be as fun and challenging as new capabilities for players.
The GM should choose a creature that best fits the character’s abilities and persona and match the power levels as closely as possible. Spellcasters can gain the benefit of having components temporarily suspended or gain new abilities for the duration.
A lesser form of this transmogrification is to give characters one or more monstrous traits and abilities instead of transforming them completely. The GM can potentially leave the adventurers to find a cure later.
The environment can add greatly to the exotic flair of this encounter, one example being aquatic creatures for an undersea melee. The style of encounter is another option, such as using unseemly and visceral mutations for a real taste of horror.
Stone Shingle Slide of Death
PCs are fighting their foes on a steep, slate-roofed building. With each step, cracking noises sound, debris rolls down to the edge and drops a long way down to the earth, and the PCs feel the stone shingles buckle and snap.
There is a 20% chance each round (35% each time a move or move-equivalent action is taken) that the PC will step on, break, or otherwise dislodge a stone shingle. If a shingle breaks free, the PC must be agile or lose his footing.
If a PC loses his footing, his foot shoots out from under him along with the slate, and he begins slipping down the roof toward the edge.
Spells capable of structural damage can also knock slates loose, precipitating slipping. Spellcasting while slipping requires good concentration or a spell might be lost or misfire.
The Pit of Death
Take a 20 foot square (5×4 5-foot squares) area with each square numbered 1-20, and designate it as the Death Pit. Each round, roll 3d20. The numbers that came up are the squares where a trap is set off a spike, a spray of fire, etc.
This also forces PCs to move a little and use the various combat options and strategies that sometimes you tend to forget about when using a game mat.
The Cliff and Kitten
One of the most dangerous situations to put a group of well-armed and skilled adventurers in is a Cliffside track no bigger than two abreast in the dark, and loose a small cat – nay a kitten – into the mix.
The test is to not trip over the cat and take the rest of the team with you. Sound effects, small scratching of claws, and things weaving in and out of the party’s legs will ensure a calamitous experience for at least one PC.
In the darkness, PCs might hit one of their own team when trying to escape the thing passing through their legs.
This is not really intended as a lethal encounter, but for the sheer joy of player squirm, I’ve never seen one better.
It’s worse when the PCs find they killed a kitten at the end of all that, and then momma cat and her pride happen along. Of course, if the group just catches the little kitten instead, momma cat is far more likely to let them pass. Otherwise, it’s another fight, in the darkness, beside a cliff….
First, you will need an ice dungeon. Take your standard “floor trapdoor over spike pit trap” and craft it all out of ice. The trap door is actually a thin piece of ice and is triggered by any increase in temperature, such as an adventurer’s body heat. Once the trap is triggered, the adventurer falls to the ice spikes below and is impaled.
These ice spikes, however, are on a pressure plate that is triggered by the sudden weight of the ill fortunate falling adventurer. This pressure plate causes a piece of the ceiling just above the opening to fall down and seal the impaled adventurer inside of an icy tomb.
Necromantic Focal Points
Somewhere between obstacle and combat environment is something I call necromantic focal points (aka NFPs). NFPs can be created anywhere linked with the dead or where necromantic rituals have taken place.
NFPs are very small but intense in power. Most NFPs are centered around a specific grave, urn, relic or remains. NFPs should have a faint visual effect to warn keen-eyed PCs and act as a way for PCs to avoid the areas once they figure out they are hazardous.
An NFP is 5 to 15 feet in diameter. The size of the point should scale with the size of the room to allow for you to place multiple NFPs in the same room, and allow PCs ample room to maneuver around and between the points. The key is to keep at least 50% of maneuverable space open to PCs. Mechanically, an NFP should grant the following effects to those within its area:
- Undead receive attack and damage bonuses
- Undead receive save bonuses and are tougher to turn
- Undead take less damage from all sources
- Undead heal damage each round
- Undead take only 25% damage from positive energy effects
- All living creatures in the area of effect receive attack and damage penalties
- All living creatures in the area of effect suffer save penalties
- All living creatures in the area of effect receive 25% of normal healing effects
- All living creatures in the area of effect take damage each round spent in the NFP
Constructs and undead can use the NFP to their benefit in combat, while the PCs are best served by avoiding these areas and trying to lure the creatures into more PC-friendly sections of the room. NFP based encounters are usually more fun with multiple undead of mixed types.
There are places in the grasslands where the grasses grow 6′-8′ high in dense thickets, and the ground is very soft, almost swampy. They are often low-lying areas where water collects; there might be a stream or river nearby, but not always. These areas are prime nesting ground for rare and valuable birds, and other native plants and animals.
Travel through one of these areas is difficult, and combat is terrifying. Visibility is limited to 10′, and even a foe 5′ away has partial cover. Noise is also muffled and distorted, so distance penalties for listening are doubled.
The ground is soft, often opening unexpectedly into small mud holes and water-filled pools 2′-3′ deep. Movement is slowed unless the person moving is willing to take damage per round to move normally, slashed and cut by the sharp grass edges. Moving fast or running will thus inflict considerable damage.
You can build a saw mill out of paper props, balsa wood and drawing on the mat. It can be powered by a large windmill or river with a water wheel. This allows players or enemies to pull levers and activate the mechanical devices:
- Large and small circular saw blades
- Wood rails
- Pulling chains
- Stacked wood
- A pile of loose boards
The PCs are in a cave with small glowing rocks all over the walls and ceiling, and a few on the floor. This could be a temple to a lightning god or the tomb of a lightning elemental.
Periodically, the glowing rocks explode. They do damage, but only in a short range. However, the flashing light is so bright it temporarily blinds anyone within a certain range. The first few times this happens the effect is so unexpected that anyone hit by it risks getting disoriented and ends up actually facing a different direction than they thought they were.
To make an encounter more difficult, the foes might know about this risk ahead of time and be prepared. For example, whoever sent the foes might have sent only those with blind fighting ability. Or the foes might be wearing black cloths over their eyes, which diminishes their sight normally, but gives them a better chance to not be blinded by the light bombs.
Decide ahead of time what causes the glowing rocks to detonate. Is it proximity to magic items or spells? Proximity to a living creature? Perhaps nothing is directly setting them off, but they are going off because the cave is collapsing or going through some other transition, and if the PCs don’t stop the effect the whole mountain will blow up.
Even if the rocks detonate due to some other cause, decide whether they have the same effect if physically hit, or if struck by a magic effect. Can they be removed from the wall and carried away?
Give the PCs a chance to figure out what’s causing the rocks to explode, especially if they observe this prior to the battle. They can try to avoid the effect or even deliberately set it off to aid their attack or retreat.
Either just before or during combat, a great sheet of icy water flows across the ground and immediately freezes. The ice sheet could be caused by a trap, an ice-breathing monster, or a high-level magic user.
Anyone standing on the ground when the ice covers it must react fast to avoid having one or both feet frozen into the ice. If they fail, they’re stuck in place, and take cold damage to each foot each round until they can free themselves.
Anybody engaging in melee combat faces attack penalties. The recipient of any melee attack, whether it does damage or not, is pushed backwards at least five feet, sliding on the ice. All opponents must balance carefully every time they hit someone or are hit by someone, or risk falling down. PCs who are trapped in the ice don’t risk sliding around or falling, but face a more serious penalty to attacks and defense.
The magic user whose lair the PCs are exploring was experimenting with strange magical effects, and it seems that something went horribly wrong (which probably led to his disappearance).
Throughout the building are strange effects like odd zappings and humming sounds. Then the PCs are surprised to see a small animal appear in front of them (a cat, or rat maybe), as if teleported. But who would bother to teleport a regular rat?
Soon afterwards a bunch of rats are fleeing as the party enters a room, and the PCs could swear a couple of them just vanished. What the PCs don’t realize until later is that the magic user’s experiments lead to creatures randomly teleporting around the building. The effect doesn’t happen often, but it is more likely in places where the magic user cast more spells, and also more likely if anybody casts more spells now.
The PCs confront their opponents in a room where much magic was done, and where more magic is likely to be used during the combat. This means it’s likely combatants on both sides will disappear.
The first time a PC disappears, the ones left behind will fear the worst. However, the transported PC ends up in a randomly determined spot elsewhere in the building, whether someplace the party hasn’t explored yet (in which case he might not realize he’s in the same building), or in the next room. Remember that the opponents also have the same chance of disappearing.
A steep hill is not a very exotic combat scenario, but this can be an advantage. It’s easy to include in almost any campaign, without requiring any special explanation. It’s also easy for the players to imagine.
It certainly makes combat more difficult, but mistakes and bad luck aren’t necessarily deadly. Finally, it allows for a range of PC strategies.
The GM should decide ahead of time how far down the hill goes before it levels out, and how high up they can climb before it gets too steep or they reach the top (or another path).
For example, the PCs are moving single file up a narrow path on a steep hill when they encounter enemies. This could be an ambush or a surprise on both sides. The path is level, but the areas on either side are steep — say, 30 to 45 degrees. The first opponent can attack the first PC, but it’s difficult for anyone else to get involved unless they leave the path. Even those on the path have reduced lateral movement, making combat more difficult.
When everyone is still lined up, depending on how straight the path is, other opponents might be completely or partially hidden behind the first PC, giving them cover against range attacks. There are a few skinny trees clinging to the hill’s sides that could be used as partial cover, or at least be held onto to keep from falling. Bushes could provide partial cover, and many rocks threaten to trip those who leave the path or injure those who fall down the hill.
PCs may want to scramble upwards, to get an advantage in melee combat or range attacks. They could scramble downwards as well, with the idea of getting far enough below their opponents they can attack their feet (and maybe attempt a trip attack), but the opponents can’t reach down far enough for an effective melee attack. They might try bracing themselves against a tree and pushing or kicking their opponent, hoping to knock them down the hill.
Movement will be slower than usual, and trying to move even at regular speed increases the risk of slipping. Balance and climbing will be important here.
Falling combatants have a chance of stopping themselves on the way down. Combatants that fall far will almost certainly be injured, but probably won’t be killed. However, depending on distance fallen and injuries, they may not be able to get back up to help their comrades in the combat. Note that anyone who does fall has a chance of knocking over anyone else in the downward path.
Monte Cook Gives Advice On Building Dungeons
From Johnn Four
RPT: Monte, congrats on the first anniversary of dungeonaday.com! You have supported the Roleplaying Tips ezine this past year with dungeonaday.com advertising – Roleplaying Tips readers and I thank you for that. I appreciate your time here today in doing this interview, as well.
Let’s dive into some questions.
Now that dungeonaday.com is a year old, and you’ve been releasing a new encounter for it every day plus articles, maps and other info, have you had any new insights into dungeon design? What have you learned, realized or proved to yourself about dungeon crafting from doing a whole year of it, non-stop?
Monte: I guess more than anything, the project has reaffirmed for me that the dungeon is a truly unique adventuring environment, particularly well-suited for RPGs.
A week’s worth of encounters on the site is about perfect for a standard game session (actually, it’s probably a bit more than that when you figure in trips back to town and so on).
The nature of a dungeon gives the players a fair bit of freedom while only requiring the DM to prepare for a finite number of possibilities.
To put it succinctly, the PCs can go left, right, straight ahead or back where they were – or back to town. That’s a manageable number of options, but they are real options, not false ones that all lead to the same place.) It also makes it easy to stop the session in mid-adventure. Seriously… dungeons rock.
RPT: Along the same lines as the previous question, how do you keep things fresh? What advice do you have for DMs who find campaigns getting stale after a while?
Monte: Be aware of your blind spots (the kind of things you never do) and your own clichés (the things you always do).
As a simple example, I seem to always default to ogres. If I need a vaguely humanoid monster, 9 times out of 10, I find myself typing the word “ogre.” So I need to check myself in that regard.
Maybe someone else has all of their evil villains be spellcasters. Or the advisor to the king is always the secret bad guy in their stories. Or they never use bards. Or whatever. That’s why I think it’s always smart for DMs to read adventure material written by others.
Look at an old adventure you have on the shelf. Search the Internet for some DM’s campaign logs. Subscribe to dungeonaday.com. It’s the kind of thing that will give your ideas you won’t have had on your own, and keeps things fresh.
RPT: What is the name of the mega-dungeon that’s the centerpiece of dungeonaday.com? How many encounters have you designed for it so far? Do you use an encounter design template? Not stat block – I mean the micro-story of each encounter, what you do to make the encounter interesting, and how you might flesh it out. Is there a template, checklist or process you could share with us?
Monte: It’s called Dragon’s Delve. I’m currently designing the 245th encounter, but that doesn’t count the many dozens of non-dungeon encounters that are an important part of dungeonaday.com.
Each dungeon encounter (I use “encounter” rather than “room” because sometimes an encounter is many rooms, and sometimes it’s just part on a large room) is usually at its heart a single idea, whether it’s a monster, an item, a trap, some bit of information, or something else. Since I present one encounter a day, I want a subscriber to come away with at least one cool new “thing” each time.
Beyond that, I have to think about the PCs’ senses in each encounter. Is it light or dark? What do the characters hear? Smell? What do they see or hear right away? What do they see if they go in? If they search?
The other big thing that’s true for every encounter is thinking about it in the context of the whole dungeon. Why is it here? How do the creatures that live in the dungeon interact with the trap/monster/weird effect/treasure here? What happens if the PCs make a lot of noise here? (Do inhabitants of nearby rooms come by to check it out?)
One thing I include for many encounters is a Revisit section. This talks about what happens if the PCs come back to the area again later. Has a new monster moved in? Is something feeding on the corpses of the slain creatures? Has someone stolen the treasure? And so on. (This means many encounters are actually two encounters, really.)
RPT: What have been a few recent and unusual sources of dungeon ideas and inspiration for you? Movies, books and TV – yep, Tips readers will be familiar with that advice. But what strange or unexpected sources have you tapped?
Monte: I find architecture books very inspirational. But inspiration can come from literally anywhere. I once read about how authors would challenge themselves by taking the front page of a newspaper and forcing themselves to write a story based on SOMETHING they find on that page.
I do the same thing with dungeon design. I’ll generate 3-4 random pages on Wikipedia and force myself to come up with an encounter idea based on one (or better yet, two or three) of the pages.
For example, I’ll do it now. I get Ring Connection, Bill Emerson (a banjo player), Rowayton (a Conneticut railway station) and United Labor Party (of Ireland).
So how about this: there’s a two chambers in the dungeon connected by a pair of magical rings mounted on the walls. Having been built by a famous bard, they can only be activated by the playing of certain notes on a stringed instrument like a lute or a lyre. Once activated, someone can travel from one room to the other, magically. It was once a part a large transportation network that spanned a large portion of the dungeon, but now only these two rings are left. (I’ll skip the ULP article…for now.)
RPT: You have a March special going on right now to celebrate one year of dungeonaday.com. I think you told me it was $84 for a year membership, and that includes all content from last year too?
So, I don’t imagine you generate all the dungeon rooms, maps, blog posts, player handouts and all the other content as you go. You must keep it in some sort of system. I bet your system would be useful to DMs just looking to organize their own detailed campaigns. Could you tell us how you keep all your content organized?
Monte: Well, I use a free program called Evernote that works really well for organizing material because it can handle notes, lists, pictures, websites, and so forth all together.
But mostly that’s for the undefined future. By that, I mean if I have an idea that I can’t use right away (a room where the players are all shrunk down to the size of mice, maybe), I can jot it in Evernote and tag the note “room idea.” Or if
I’m looking at Wikipedia and there’s a cool article on gemstones that I want to reference later, I can copy it (in whole, in part, or just the url) into Evernote.
As for stuff that’s already published, I use the site itself. I’m proud of how organized the material is. There’s a glossary, for example, with every major character, place, and item defined. There’s a file that has every new magic item and spell. There’s a couple of different history reference documents. I refer to this stuff all the time.
RPT: Your site also offers DM advice. What is your favorite or most compelling advice that you’ve posted to dungeonaday.com in the past 12 months? If the advice is too long to paste here, perhaps you could summarize it.
Monte: That’s really hard. I like to think there’s been a lot of good advice there, even if I do say so myself.
If I have to choose, maybe what I would mention is the importance of what I’ve called the “messy character sheet.”
Part of the essence of a so-called “old school” dungeon campaign is that the players end up with messy character sheets, and that’s good.
The stuff that makes a campaign memorable is the stuff that you don’t find in a rulebook. It’s the weird stuff that dungeons are notoriously filled with (at least the good ones are) that has no neat little place on your character sheet to write it down.
A character might be cursed to have to sing a song every time he goes into battle, or he might have a magic item that lets him talk to anything with more than two eyes. Or because he did something for the god of stone, once per day he can pass through rock as though it’s not there. Or because he fell into an acid pit, he has an aversion for anything that smells acidic. Or whatever.
It’s too weird or specific to be in a book or there are no easy or perfectly balanced rules for it, but it becomes an important part of a character, and thus an important part of the campaign. But it’s unique. Sometimes it bends or ignores the rules. That’s the kind of thing that people will tell game stories about. Not a +1 to attack or AC. Those are nice, but no one really remembers them.
RPT: My 4E game recently wound down and I have just started a Pathfinder campaign. I was excited to note dungeonaday.com now offers PFRPG conversions thanks to Jason Bulmahn!
Regardless of edition or conversion, D&D-type games require some combat tactics planning when crafting encounters. So, let’s say a Tips reader opens his Monster Manual to a random monster. How would you advise planning monster tactics for that critter? What steps should a DM follow to get the most out of a monster in combat?
Monte: Every good monster, like every good dungeon room, is based around some idea. A medusa is built around the gaze attack idea, and secondarily about killing PCs without killing them (because that’s what petrification really is – it’s like being dead, without all the baggage).
So figure out what the idea of the monster is, and focus on that. Another way to look at it is, how will an encounter with this creature potentially be new, interesting, and fun in a way that an encounter with another monster might not.
If a monster doesn’t have that kind of hook, you can give it one by placing it in an interesting environment.
An owlbear isn’t bad, but it’s not the most interesting beast in the world. Put a few in hidden caves on ledges high above the PCs and have them leap down to attack, but not all at once. This is interesting now, because the PCs don’t know how many foes they’re facing, or where the next one will suddenly appear, roaring and screeching from above. (In my experience, things coming from above the PCs is always scarier than if they’re on the same level.) It’s a little thing, but it will make that encounter memorable.
RPT: You offer new monsters with your service, too. What would be your number one tip for creating a new foe for PCs?
Monte: Don’t reinvent the wheel every time. I’d rather see people writing adventures (for publication or their own use) simply take an existing monster and tweak it than create something new every time.
If you need a dog-like companion for a tiefling wizard and a yeth hound or a shadow mastiff won’t do for some reason, you don’t need to make something new. Give a worg some special fiendish ability. Make it an evil blink dog.
That’s why we created templates for 3E D&D, to inspire the idea of tweaking rather than always starting over (2E, in my opinion, got overburdened with literally hundreds of mostly repetitious monsters).
I do this a lot at DungeonaDay Somehow, I think there’s something more interesting about a fire breathing basilisk than creating a new monster that breathes fire and turns you to stone. The former plays upon concepts the players already know, and that’s a powerful tool.
If you do want to create something new, first think of something that will be interesting in an encounter that other monsters won’t provide, and then base your monster around that. Monsters should always be based around the kind of encounter they will provide. Maybe you’ve got an idea for a monster that…I don’t know, slowly turns foes inside out. Whatever. The point is, it really provides something new.
RPT: Of all the encounters you’ve designed so far, what’s been your favorite and why?
Monte: There’s one with this underground river with a wooden shack built on stilts rising up out of it. You might end up getting in a fight with the thing that lives in the shack, and if you do there’s a good chance it collapses and the shack becomes a sort of raft and you unwillingly get forced to ride it down the underground rapids. That’s fun and dynamic in a way that most people don’t think of when they think of dungeons.
But I think my favorite might still be a very early encounter where you run into the ghost of a dog that you can befriend. If you do, the dog shows up every day for the rest of the campaign for a while and helps you out. I like that because it’s weird and yet familiar. It affects the whole campaign from that point on, but it’s very little work for me or the DM.
Thanks for the tips and advice, Monte. I hope DungeonaDay has an awesome second year. Readers, don’t forget about the March sale. More details are available at: A Little History Lesson Of Best Steroids
Strolen’s Feature Article
Adventure and GMing Guidelines
Fools Rush In
Inspiration is a wonderful thing, but nine times out of ten it ruins what could have been a good adventure. Rushing to GM or write down the adventure the second you have a great concept or idea for your campaign may sound like a good idea, but it’s actually an act of sabotage.
Stop and think for a second; does this plot hook/adventure idea actually fit with the story/setting? Does it go with the rest of the campaign? Is it too difficult for the current characters’ experience/power level?
Working out these details before hammering away at the keys can prevent regrets, hang ups and plot holes later on.
The over-enthused GM at times gets ahead of themselves and overlooks details, at times causing plot contradictions or presenting difficulties/rewards that they later realize were outside of the campaign’s usual pacing.
Good adventure planning does not always involve high emotion. It’s usually well thought out, relaxed and totally sober. Anything else, you’ll probably be reworking what you wrote when you come down off the caffeine bender.
GMing Memorable Characters
The particular qualities of a scene or encounter are manifested by the GM or players’ method of expression. From describing how the scene appears from a player characters’ point of view, to specific NPC language, mannerisms and so forth.
By developing a different presentation for each of the key characters in your adventure you allow each to further develop their own personality and significance in the minds of the players.
Perhaps pick a single word or two to describe an NPC, and then build them around these words, perhaps subtly elaborating the aspects of these two words in their personality, appearance and presentation.
Make Every Scene Count
Any adventure is made up of scenes. Any scene should have at least one of three purposes: to advance the story, to add depth to the game, and create background/setting.
If a planned scene accomplishes at least one of these tasks, then it’s worth keeping. If it doesn’t, it’s dead weight and needs to be reworked for the good of the adventure.
Nobody Likes a Word Smith
Ineluctable, somnolence, invidious. The English language is a beautiful lady, but damn, she needs to lose some weight. Some GMs think using long words will make them sound intelligent. You should not fall into this trap, grasshopper.
The best approach is to say what you want to say in the most expressive and comprehensible way possible, and know that good GMing – good communication – has nothing to do with your ego. Also, don’t labor your descriptions with unnecessary adjectives.
If you pre-write descriptions for locations for your adventures, crack open a thesaurus. Take a few seconds to find the right word – not the longest or the most complex – just the best one for the job, and avoid stacking synonymous and adjectives on top of one noun or verb.
As well as being fat, the English language has parts that have long since dried up and died, much like Pokemon. Some examples of cliché include “killing two birds with one stone,” “ugly as sin,” “many hands make light work,” the universally reviled “all Hell broke loose.”
Though the presence of clichés in fiction, and a lesser extend gaming, is recognized as bad, most people are probably not too clear on why. The best definition is: a metaphor characterized by its overuse.
A cliché might be true (“Fat as a pig”), no longer true (“Work like a dog”) or the inscrutable (“Right as rain”), but the defining characteristic is that it has been overused to the point that its sole function is to mark its user as a lazy thinker. In short, try to keep them to a minimum, it’ll make your descriptions/adventure much more memorable.
Writing and GMing Adventures When Tired
During such times, GMs fall into the rut known as repetitive wording. This common ailment involves the shrinking of the vocabulary.
Take the time to read over planned descriptions you have written. If you see the same adjective more than once in a few paragraphs, you should spice it up with a little variety.
Another fault is recurring action – as your vocabulary diminishes, so does the range of actions performed by the NPCs.
In a scene in which characters are left waiting at a guard post, for example, you might expect to use the word “stand” several times. To avoid this, crack open that thesaurus again, find some synonyms, and write them down to the side of your game notes. Then during the adventure use them to make the descriptions more dynamic.
Cadence and Run on Sentences
The run-on sentence is a too-long sentence that encompasses a number of different subjects, and contains a multitude of “and”s, “but”s, “which”s, “that”s, “if”s, and other such conjunctions.
These sentences may have been in vogue in the 19th century, but nowadays they just annoy and distract listeners with breathless waffle. The only way to be free of run-on sentences is with the ruthless application of the period. Short, concise sentences are far better than lengthy, rambling ones.
When writing descriptions for your adventures, decide the point of the sentence, what it needs to express, and trim it down.
Fast-paced action scenes do not require a total lack of punctuation in your description to make them seem fast-paced. The opposite is true. Action is best described in shorter sentences describing single acts or events, thus picking up the feeling of urgency.
Avoid One Dimensional Descriptions
Scene description should include more than what the character sees in front of their face. There are four other senses besides sight, plus an infinity of moods, feelings and mental sensations a person might experience.
Work on describing those. The non-visual senses are far more interesting anyway – they imply rather than immediately reveal what a PC experiences.
Characterization vs. Action Dialogue
Many GMs start out with a difficulty balancing the elements of a story. Some might emphasize the action and dialogue, to the detriment of the characterization of NPCs. The most common case of lack of balance is just the opposite: too much characterization of NPCs.
It is not necessary to describe an NPC’s every movement and piece of clothing. Trust that the players will be able to infer a character’s appearance and movements from their actions at some points, or just rely on their understanding of human nature.
Some GMs seem to delight in providing detailed descriptions of the characters’ appearances, or provide detailed location backgrounds in enormous info-dumps. The problem with this is that excessive description slows down the pace of an adventure.
Few players enjoy wading through a swamp of detail. Trust your players’ imaginations. If something isn’t important to the scene, brush over it briefly or leave it out completely. The players will supply that detail themselves. Though some detail must be supplied or the setting will appear shallow, a balance must be struck between the demands for convincing detail and an engaging pace.
Good action – often the climax and at times core of an adventure – is about entertaining the entire group. But how do you do that without deteriorating the scene into bloodshed and gore?
The feeling of revulsion, or gross-out, is a physiological response designed to keep us away from nasty things – it doesn’t necessarily make us scared in any significant way.
Gross-out in its most common form is the equivalent of a car wreck – you might rubber-neck for thirty seconds to five minutes, depending on what kind of person you are, but soon enough you’ll lose interest and move on.
Take an example from the Call of Cthulhu RPG. One of the more common villains, the Shoggoth, takes the form of a giant, quivering pile of vomit. Sick and disgusting? Absolutely, but it’s not going to give anyone nightmares or be overly memorable.
The Shoggoth represents the epitome of gross-out: at best it’s momentarily disgusting, at worst it’s downright laughable. Paradoxically, some of the most memorable scenes from action involve gross-out imagery – Star Ship Troopers, for example.
So what makes graphic description memorable? What qualifies it as a worthy addition? Continuing with the example of Star Ship Troopers, specifically that almost every combat scene gross-out in this case became memorable because:
a) It was integral to the plot and was not overtly gratuitous (i.e. each graphic event/death is kept short and shocking).
b) It added depth to the combat and drove home the realism and danger of the conflict without becoming repetitive and droll.
Although the example is a film reference, the concept is universally applicable to all memorable combat scenes.
Try to think about the combat encounter you are GMing, and why you find it exciting. Chances are, once you grasp the reason behind the excitement, you can amplify it and expand on it. Comprehend the root of the fight, and use graphic blood’n guts effectively and sparingly to deliver the greater impact to the players.