Company’s Coming! – A Recipe For Great Gaming In 2 Hours Or Less

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0106

A Brief Word From Johnn

Great Guide For Beginning GMs

Here’s a cool “how to GM” type of freebie available online that subscriber Ted O. pointed out to me:

“Uncle Figgy’s Guide to Good GameMastering”
– How to manipulate friends and influence people

Thanks For The Planning Tips

Thanks for all the tips from last week’s request to help me plan a couple of prepared modules for my personal campaign.

The best tip was: plan up to the point where you know the PCs will die. Any planning after that is a waste of time.


Enjoy your week — fit some gaming into it, eh?

Johnn Four
[email protected]

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Company’s Coming! A Recipe For Great Gaming In 2 Hours Or Less

From Jared Hunt

Virtually every person who’s donned the GM hat is familiar with the “game tonight, nothing planned” scenario. Over the years I have fine-tuned a system to deal with this scenario that’ll yield consistent results with minimal prep time. I’ve outlined this below and I hope it helps the next time you’re put to the task of GMing on short notice.

Think Up A Short-But-Sweet Plot

A vital step in the session building process is determining an overall story or adventure concept. This will give focus to your creative energy and avoid wasting valuable time and effort.For inspiration, look to your favourite modules, books and movies. Think of your short notice session as a chapter in a book to help keep you on the right track. You’re not looking for anything epic; at this point your goal is to craft a tight series of events that will enable you and your group to enjoy an evening.

A useful tip is to choose a subject that can be defined in a single phrase, as this will help ensure that you’re not biting off too much to chew.

Some examples of good one line plots:

  • Rescue the princess
  • Explore the tomb
  • Defend the town
  • Find the treasure
  • Steal the data
  • Uncover the spy

Pick A Cool Location

After much experimentation I’ve found that the most successful short-notice sessions are centred around a primary location. Choose a single location to focus your attention more specifically, and to ensure you’re spending time on important details rather than flitting about randomly.Good, primary locations include:

  • The dungeon (of course!)
  • A party
  • An airport
  • On a ship (sailing, steam, cruise, or space)
  • A remote location (scientific research station, secluded mansion, tropical island)

All of these locations offer the advantage of being able to contain an entire session within them. This allows you to control the pacing of things without making the players feel like you’re steam-rolling them.

Create The Opposition

A very effective combination of challenges for a single game session involves:

  1. Two minor challenges
  2. Two moderate challenges
  3. A single major challenge.

Minor Challenges

A minor challenge consists of a situation that does not pose a serious threat to the group but requires dealing with in order for them to progress. The intent behind minor challenges is to allow the characters to show off their abilities.

Some examples of minor challenges:

  • Disarm a trap or security system without setting off alarms
  • Talk or sneak past some guards
  • Defeat a group of low-level thugs sent to rough-up the party

Moderate Challenges

moderate threat should be balanced in favour of the group so that they should definitely be able to overcome it. The key to moderate challenges is to test the stamina of the group.

1st PC: “Well, we made short work of those goons didn’t we!”

2nd PC: “Uh, ya, but I’m down to my last clip and your armour is falling apart.”

1st PC: “DOH!”

Major Challenge

A major threat represents the culmination of the session and should seriously challenge the group. Since short notice sessions don’t allow much time for careful balancing, it is best to use multiple weaker enemies to comprise a major challenge. That way, if the group suffered a little more than you thought on the way in, you can always subtract a few enemies to even things up. It is much easier to remove a few challenges than to try to re-work a powerful enemy’s stats at the last minute.

Though it does pose a danger of stagnation if it is overused, effective session organization involves a minor challenge followed by a moderate challenge, followed by another minor challenge, followed by a moderate challenge and topped off by the major challenge. This pacing allows the characters opportunities to show off, tests their resolve, and ends the session on a tense, high-note.

Five challenges are also usually enough to allow each member of the group at least one chance to shine. Charismatic characters can have a chance to talk their way past some guards, roguish types can disarm a fiendish trap, magic users can do some divining or subterfuge, and everyone can participate in a combat or two.

Fashion Your Hook

Once you’ve crafted your single phrase plot synopsis, determined your primary location, and selected 5 appropriate challenges, it’s time to draw a line connecting the three. The line should include a session kick-start link to the PCs.Classic (if cliche) hooks include:

  • The guy at the bar
  • Public announcement
  • Favour for a friend
  • Summons by government official
[Comment from Johnn: here are some links to more plot hooks & hook tips:
Creepy Plot Hooks
Welcome to The Burning Void

The Instant Plot Hook

Misc. Hooks

How To Create Powerful Plot Hooks, Part I
RPT#31 – How To Create Powerful Plot Hooks, Part I

How To Create Powerful Plot Hooks, Part II
RPT#32 – How To Create Powerful Plot Hooks, Part II ]

Get Some Stats

As a base, you should know the combat stats and skills of any NPCs likely to have conflict with the characters, security measures and traps the PCs are likely to encounter, and the rewards you anticipate the characters receiving via loot, payments, etc.Resist the temptation to roll-up full statistics for every NPC. It’s far better to use generic stats and distinguish NPCs through roleplaying than to spend your valuable time rolling stats and agonizing over weapons and armour for a bunch of goons.

Create A Flowchart

A common roleplaying convention is to have a map with a key or legend as the basis for an adventure session. While there is nothing wrong with that convention, it does require the drawing or otherwise acquiring of a map followed by the creation of, or familiarization with, the key; both of which are time consuming undertakings.An alternative that saves a great deal of time is a flowchart. Assuming you are using the five-challenge system detailed above, take a blank piece of paper and draw eight circles on the page at random.

Each circle represents one of the planned encounters for the session with a few extra circles to represent dead ends. Choose five circles to represent the main encounters and draw three lines from each, connecting them to other random circles. Fill in an appropriate dead-end location or encounter in the remaining three circles. This will provide you with a functional map keyed to your session in just minutes. A few notes along each of the connecting lines to indicate something about the connection (tunnel, corridor, street, etc.) and you are done.

Add Colour

Use any remaining time that you have before your players arrive to go back and fill in extras that will help bring the session to life.An excellent suggestion from Jason L. in issue #103 was to come up with “five senses” information for each encounter. This kind of information can even be noted on the flowchart or map for easy access.
RPT#103 – 8 Ways To Make Your Campaign World Come Alive ]Other useful tips include:

  • Primary motivation for each major NPC
  • List of random names for secondary NPCs who might be encountered
  • Review Issue #96: “Tips To Help You Wing It”
    RPT#96 – 8 Tips To Help You Wing-It ]

Here is a link to a list of resources that might help you with generating concepts/stats/maps/colour for any of your sessions:

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This system is not intended to create earth-shaking, epic tales that will be passed down through generations of gamers. It’s intent is to ensure that, when a group of gamers has the chance to get together, lack of prep time will not ruin what should be an enjoyable time. Life keeps us all busy, but our roleplaying should not suffer for it!



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[Johnn: I’ve emailed Dan DeFigio, owner of The Hero Factory, in the past and he is very quick with the reply button–an excellent quality for an online RPG business to have.

I personally encourage you to check his site out. ]

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

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

Build Great Stories Using A 31 Step Formula From Russian Folk-Tales

From Dr Jerry Everard

Jerry Everard’s Introduction to Vladimir Propp…

Vladimir Propp extended the Russian Formalist approach to narratology (the study of narrative structure). Where, in the Formalist approach, sentence structures had been broken down into analysable elements – morphemes – Propp used this method by analogy to analyse folk tales. By breaking down a large number of Russian folk tales into their smallest narrative units – narratemes – Propp was able to arrive at a typology of narrative structures.

By analysing types of characters and kinds of action, Propp was able to arrive at the conclusion that there were thirty-one generic narratemes in the Russian folk tale. While not all are present, he found that all the tales he analysed displayed the functions in unvarying sequence.

Try applying these to Star Wars or episodes of X-Files or Star Trek – it can be interesting to see how powerful are the narrative structures of folk mythology, and how they are continually reinserted into contemporary popular culture. The functions he described were as follows:

After the initial situation is depicted, the tale takes the following sequence:

  1. A member of a family leaves home (the hero is introduced);
  2. An interdiction is addressed to the hero (‘don’t go there’, ‘go to this place’);
  3. The interdiction is violated (villain enters the tale);
  4. The villain makes an attempt at reconnaissance (either villain tries to find the children/jewels etc; or intended victim questions the villain);
  5. The villain gains information about the victim;
  6. The villain attempts to deceive the victim to take possession of victim or victim’s belongings (trickery; villain disguised, tries to win confidence of victim);
  7. Victim taken in by deception, unwittingly helping the enemy;
  8. Villain causes harm/injury to family member (by abduction, theft of magical agent, spoiling crops, plunders in other forms, causes a disappearance, expels someone, casts spell on someone, substitutes child etc, commits murder, imprisons/detains someone, threatens forced marriage, provides nightly torments);Alternatively, a member of family lacks something or desires something (magical potion etc);
  9. Misfortune or lack is made known, (hero is dispatched, hears call for help etc/ alternative is that victimised hero is sent away, freed from imprisonment);
  10. Seeker agrees to, or decides upon counter-action;
  11. Hero leaves home;
  12. Hero is tested, interrogated, attacked etc, preparing the way for his/her receiving magical agent or helper (donor);
  13. Hero reacts to actions of future donor (withstands/fails the test, frees captive, reconciles disputants, performs service, uses adversary’s powers against them);
  14. Hero acquires use of a magical agent (directly transferred, located, purchased, prepared, spontaneously appears, eaten/drunk, help offered by other characters);
  15. Hero is transferred, delivered or led to whereabouts of an object of the search;
  16. Hero and villain join in direct combat;
  17. Hero is branded (wounded/marked, receives ring or scarf);
  18. Villain is defeated (killed in combat, defeated in contest, killed while asleep, banished);
  19. Initial misfortune or lack is resolved (object of search distributed, spell broken, slain person revived, captive freed);
  20. Hero returns;
  21. Hero is pursued (pursuer tries to kill, eat, undermine the hero);
  22. Hero is rescued from pursuit (obstacles delay pursuer, hero hides or is hidden, hero transforms unrecognisably, hero saved from attempt on his/her life);
  23. Hero unrecognised, arrives home or in another country;
  24. False hero presents unfounded claims;
  25. Difficult task proposed to the hero (trial by ordeal, riddles, test of strength/endurance, other tasks);
  26. Task is resolved;
  27. Hero is recognised (by mark, brand, or thing given to him/her);
  28. False hero or villain is exposed;
  29. Hero is given a new appearance (is made whole, handsome, new garments etc);
  30. Villain is punished;
  31. Hero marries and ascends the throne (is rewarded/promoted).

Copyright Dr Jerry Everard, Australian National University
Email: [email protected]

For further information, look for:
Vladimir Propp Morphology of the Folktale
University of Texas Press:Austin and London (1968)
or Jerry Everard’s intro to Russian Formalism ]

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Where Did They Get Those Wonderful Toys? Creating Asset Backgrounds For New PCs

From Erich

Where did they get those wonderful toys?

Only Jack Nicholson could have said that better as the Joker in Batman. When creating an asset list for new PCs (starting equipment, money, assets, magic items, or even their skills or character class) ask your self the 5 w’s:

  • Who
  • What
  • When
  • Where
  • Why

Creating an asset background at the beginning of a game for your PCs, I think, is one of the most important things you should do as a GM. After all, the dice have been rolled and skills chosen–that’s the freedom of the player–yet you can help choose the character’s “past fate” on how they received every thing they have.

Lets talk MONEY!

In life there are about 8 ways to get money:

  1. Earn It
  2. Save It
  3. Steal It
  4. Inherit It
  5. Investments
  6. Find It
  7. A Gift
  8. Win It

So, now it’s up to you to choose or roll 1d8 for the things the PCs have and decide how these things and skills got in to their possession.

Next create a story with the result.

For Example: A Sword

  1. He saved a blind man from a gang of thugs and received this sword.
  2. Worked on a pig farm and SAVED to buy it. Good alignment, nice guy.
  3. One day the PC saw a fighter bathing in a river and snatched his sword…
  4. The grandfather on his deathbed gave him the sword. Don’t tell your father.
  5. Won it in a bet

As a DM you can use these as sub plots and campaign ideas.

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Training PCs For Plot Hooks

From Dan H.

Does anybody besides me use the training rules [for D&D]?

The 2nd Edition training rules are pretty lenient but the 1st Edition are brutal. But, somehow, I’ve made the 1st Edition rules work for my campaign.

In 1st Edition AD&D, it costs 1,500 gold pieces to advance to 2nd level, if you’ve been a great player. Otherwise, it can cost 3,000 or 4,500 or 6,000 (if you’ve been really bad). Whew!

But wait, to advance to 3rd level it costs 3,000 gold pieces or 6,000 or 9,000 or 12,000. Yikes!

That’s right: the formula is 1,500 g.p. x current level x (a rating between 1 and 4).

So, here’s how I handle it. First off, the rule is optional so the player can decide whether or not he wants to pay. Secondly, I assume that the players played perfectly; they usually get rating=1 unless there is a major problem.

Curiously, about half the players actually decide to pay. When players first see the rule, they definitely get “sticker shock” and I do hear some moans and groans. But, in the end, about half the players decide to pay.

Now, once a player decides that he wants to use the training rules, he usually doesn’t have the cash (although I do remember one or two actually paying outright). So, before the next game, I e-mail (mine is an all-Internet OpenRPG game) him a list of training deals that he finds around wherever he is.

My promise to the players is that no matter how poor or isolated that they are, I will think of three plausible ways that they can get trained before the next session.

One deal is usually an outright loan (which is fast becoming standard as 1500 g.p. + 500 g.p./6 mos. up to 3 year maximum).

The other deals have been:

  • The local bishop provides training for free for a very devoted cleric;
  • A mysterious hermit trains in exchange for the PC visiting a city and giving 1,000 g.p. to his sister;
  • A magically imprisoned elf trains in exchange for the PC trying to break the curse;
  • The ex-squire of a famous paladin trains in exchange for a vague promise to return in 5 years and perform an unspecified deed during a single night;
  • A rich but dubious merchant offers to pay in exchange for introduction to society in another country and an allied NPC cleric offers to train for a reduced price in exchange for simple goodwill of the party.

I write these offers in very brief but story form.

Usually, the player e-mails me back and chooses one of the three options.

At that point, I write a second e-mail that details how the training went, usually very descriptive. I give a hint about what the PC learned, what his teacher is like, how strenuous the training was (always!) and what all that money went for.

Usually, about 1/3 of the money goes to equipment: wooden practice swords, renting or building a training ground and medieval exercise equipment. The other 2/3 is usually payment for the master’s time but also for other people who may have been hired as sparring partners and such. For clerics and mages, precious gems, incense and rare spell components all justify the training price. For warriors, competent practice partners (who suffer many bruises, breaks and sprains) are expensive. For thieves, the cost of locks and the mere greed of their masters justifies their cost.

Usually, at the end, the teacher speaks some wise words and gives a little present as a send-off. In the past, I’ve given:

  • A little ornate knife with skulls on it;
  • A non-magical sword from a famous paladin;
  • A religious ritual which may or may not actually do anything;
  • A tattoo;
  • A necklace.

In one case, the teacher said that, by returning the necklace in the future, the PC could ask one favor of her and she would do her best to complete it.

In the final paragraph, I write that the PC has completed training and to adjust his experience points appropriately.

The players seem to really like this training scheme, in spite of the costs. Despite the fact that the presents were nowhere near the amount that they had spent, it seems to make them feel special.

Also, the PCs would sometimes bump into NPC teachers in other contexts and it was fun for one PC to say to another: “I already know this NPC. He’s a good/bad guy.” The PCs would also like to casually pull out their presents in the hope that other PCs would ask, “Where did you get that?”

All in all, I am surprised that it works. In exchange for a little description, I can reward and dispose of large amounts of treasure without anger by the players. It also binds NPCs and PCs closer together, building mutual trust.

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Secrets & Rumours

From Jonathan E.

I just wanted to add a comment to Julia Pope’s game world tips from #104. Like her, I like to give out handouts with general world knowledge. I also hand out player/character specific information. This is split into 2 parts, known info and rumors.

This additional info can be based on many factors: Skills, race, religion, nationality, class, etc. The rumours can be used to help start side missions, pass misinformation, or whatever.

Often I supply players with conflicting rumors. I ask the players to keep this additional info secret until it becomes relevant, and they decide to share. Many players like the fact they know things others don’t.

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Planting Roots

From Steve K.

I just wanted to mention something from my experience with putting down roots. In a previous campaign – one of the best I have ever played in – our party reached the stage of settling down (2nd edition D&D, around 9th level). So we were all interested in building a keep or towers, etc.

The world was at war, so stone was incredibly expensive as no one was running the quarries. The result was that most of our village, which we decided to establish, was made of wooden houses. You can imagine our dismay when, time and again, the Baatezu servants of our enemy came along and proceeded to burn down our town. But, because we’d designed and built most of the town, we’d rush back to try and dowse the flames, rather than just abandoning the town for a bad job.

I guess the main thing in this tip is, if your characters don’t have roots existing somewhere, perhaps they can get roots by settling down somewhere new.