Connecting Everyday Life Encounters to Your Campaign
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0666
- A Brief Word From Johnn
- Connecting Everyday Life Encounters to Your Campaign
- 7 Ways to Build Rising Action
- Noble Plot Generator
A Brief Word From Johnn
Number of the Beast
Today’s edition represents a 666-issue beast of a project meant to help you and I have more fun at every game. I think its evolution matches the evolution of our game mastering. It started with tentative steps and wondering what kind of thing we’ve got on our hands here. Then we got more comfortable and realized there’s a whole bunch of stuff we can learn to master our craft. Then we became intimidated by that.
But every issue, every session, we gained a little XP. We developed certain ways of doing things that helped, and flew by the seat of our pants the rest of the time. We wondered what was going to happen next and if things would be even more exciting or if it was about to be a TPK.
Then we thought we knew more than we did. It turns out this is normal and part of the Dunning–Kruger effect, but it blinded us for awhile. We did not know what we did not know. Yet, we rolled on.
And today we stand together, humble of the rear view mirror and the amazing things we’ve done, and thrilled by the prospects of the future. There is still so much to learn and improve at. More tips and more GMing. We can never stop playing and learning.
I’m reading Master The Game by Gary Gygax right now. (Did you know he contributed to Roleplaying Tips at one point? Yup, and I’m still amazed about it, but that’s a story for another day.) In the first chapter he describes a progression of our craft.
With practice, study, and experimentation we go from Game Master to Master GM. Then with more study, creating, designing, and experience, we go from Master GM to Grand Master GM.
What a lofty goal to become a Grand Master GM! Yet that’s what Roleplaying Tips is all about. We have more fun when we’re confident. And we’re confident when our ability can meet the challenge. I enjoy producing RPT and learn something from every issue. I hope you do too. It’s a pleasure to be with you on our journey to Grand Mastery. Thanks for your companionship fellow adventurer! Let’s see what’s around the corner for the next 666 issues, shall we?
GM Resource Review: How I Organize My Minis
I took a quick video of my simple and effective system for wrangling my hundreds of figs and minis. Whether I need a vampire, beholder, town guard, or summoned animal, all my minis are within hand’s reach.
Here’s how I organize my minis: GM Resource Review: Minis and Figs Organizers
Ok, on to today’s tips. Get some gaming done this week.
Connecting Everyday Life Encounters to Your Campaign
How to design engaging everyday encounters connected to your campaign story and setting
From Tony Medeiros
Tired of predictable encounters that have nothing to do with the campaign? Mortal combat, brushes with the gods, and natural disasters again? Have you thought about digging into the everyday life of the PCs and NPCs for inspiration?
Even everyday life-inspired encounters can have campaign connections, echoing the unique features and great story of your campaign. Today, you’ll learn how to design more engaging encounters out of everyday life that connect to the heart and soul of your game.
Step 1: Identify Campaign Milieu & Stakes
In RPT#657 How to Create Great Non-Combat Encounters, we learned about Story Seeds to create adventures that resonate with your campaign, an idea inspired by Campaign Seeds by Robert Ferency-Viars and Johnn Four. The book explains there are four key ingredients to creating a memorable, immersive campaign.
Let’s focus on two of them:
- Milieu: Interesting milieu with cool name, a great setting concept for adventure, and 2-3 notable NPCs who will stir the plot.
- Stakes: What are the PCs supposed to do and what happens if they fail? Make it personal.
We’ve gone over these in detail before, so let’s switch things up with a brief list of campaign milieu and stakes questions to ask yourself. This quick brainstorming activity helps you in two ways:
- Summarizes milieu and stakes considerations
- Helps get you in the right frame of mind for the steps ahead.
Campaign Milieu & Stakes
- What types of stories will you tell?
- What is the iconic theme, flavor, or feel of your campaign?
- What are the most common types of adventures?
- What are the stakes in your campaign’s overarching story?
- What matters most and what’s most at risk in your campaign?
Now that your ever-expanding GM mind is primed, why don’t you tell me about your day? Actually, that’s not quite what we’re about to talk about – but it’s close!
Step 2: Identify Everyday Life Tasks and Actions
Everyday life in your campaign world is about details. What’s a typical day like for most people? What actions, tasks, and events do most people identify with? The mundane adds a level of realism and depth to your world, subtly bringing it life.
These common actions and events are the building blocks for engaging everyday life encounters. Build up your world from life’s details.
Ask yourself: just what does every person in your world really do every day? Here’s a list of the some of the most common everyday actions and events:
- Wash Up / Hygiene
- Get Dressed
- Commute / Walk / Drive / Ride / Travel
- Work / School
- Chat / Small Talk
- Meetings / Negotiations / Discussions / Conversations
- Send Messages / Mail
- Pay Bills / Think About Money
- Buy / Trade / Spend Money
- Medical Visits, Treatment or Infirmary
- Home: Clean / Maintenance
- Take Care of Pets / Children / Mate / Family
- Entertainment at Home: Games, Hobbies, Family Projects
- Entertainment Out: Dates, Trips, Vacations, Meals/Drinks Out, Shows, Concerts, The Arts, Events
- Study / Homework / Prep for Next Day
Step 3: Connect Everyday Life Encounters to Milieu and Stakes
Now it’s time to intersect the mundane actions, tasks, or elements of life with the milieu and stakes of your campaign’s setting and story. “Just another day” no more! Start by brainstorming how the themes of a setting and what’s at risk in the campaign might ruin an otherwise ordinary day.
For example, in a campaign I’m currently playing in, it began with the PCs being ripped from home – and not just their normal home, but their home world! Our characters are trapped in the fantasy horror-themed world (milieu). We are battling our way through horrible undead, bizarre mysteries, strange peoples, and deep corruption in the village and realm of the same name. We’re doing everything we can to survive and figure out a way to escape, to return home – or stay trapped there forever (stakes).
Combat, gods-related, and natural disaster encounters are a given – they’re a staple of most campaigns. In our horror campaign, it’s easy to imagine fighting a host of undead at every turn, calling out in desperation to gods of light and life for protection, and a plague sweeping across the land.
But what you’re learning how to do here, right now, is to take the milieu and stakes and ruin everyone’s day – from commoner to adventurer – one simple, everyday task at a time.
Continuing the Ravenloft campaign example, we know we’re in a world of horror. Tragedy, mystery, and fear abound. The world is dark, unwelcoming, and filled with despair.
Take the themes and features of the milieu and embed them in everyday tasks and events. Attach details – people, places or things – to these tasks and events.
For example, sleep is filled with nightmares. When washing up in the morning, preparing for a long day serving customers at the tavern – or slaying undead – some dark stains such as blood, burns, soot, black ink simply won’t wash out. When dressing, newer clothes and armor have faded, and look drab, worn and tattered.
Continue this exercise of matching milieu themes for as many everyday tasks as you like. Refer to the list above. Then fill in the details to develop each “story” and create an intriguing campaign-connected idea.
Do the same themed matching for the stakes of the campaign to everyday tasks. For example, sleep brings nightmares where people are running or careening down a path in a carriage, but every PC, barmaid, and tavern keeper runs or rides into a dead end. An alleyway ends or a pit of spiders swallows them up. There is no way out, no escape!
Everyday Life Encounter Generator
Now how do we create encounters from milieu and stakes, and match everyday tasks and their details?
Ask yourself how each of the milieu and stake’s effects on everyday tasks might go one step further. How does the task, situation, or story evolve or devolve, improve or worsen? For each task affected by the milieu or stakes, add “and then this happens” similar to classic storytelling and improvisation techniques.
Now that you’ve laid the ground work and made several connections to your world, story and details of everyday life, you add another action or event to this set of thematic world elements. You create a relevant story. “And then this happens” is your new, campaign-connected encounter.
Want a whole adventure instead? Add to “and then this happens” element if you want to grow your encounter into a full-fledged adventure. You’ll see some examples of this in the last column of the generator below.
Campaign-connected everyday life encounters are limitless. Master Steps 1-3 above and let your imagination fly! Here is a table to get you started.
Roll once and use an entire row across, or for more random results, roll for multiple columns. Adjust any result you don’t like or is too strange or difficult to work with. Remove or add components to the Encounter column’s result as desired to sharpen an encounter’s scope or develop it into a multi-encounter full-fledged adventure.
|d20||Milieu||Stakes||Everyday Task||Detail: Person, Place or Thing||Encounter: And Then This Happens|
|1||Horror||Escape foreign world/return home||Sleep||Nightmares||The PCs are greeted by creatures from their dreams or nightmares later in the day|
|2||Mystery||Avoid discovery/ capture by the law/power group||Wash up||Dreams||Creatures from dreams or nightmares appear and provide counsel to the PCs in difficult situations|
|3||Romance||Find missing Very Important Persons||Get dressed||Minor noble||A noble buys fancy clothing and other increasingly expensive gifts for one or more PCs|
|4||Criminal or Imprisonment||Protect a community from attack||Eat and drink||Kegs of Alcohol||Kegs filled with explosive powder or spells detonate at a noble’s gala attended by the PCs|
|5||Betrayal||Protect a community from natural disaster||Walk, ride or travel||Docks||The PCs witness a handshake deal on the docks – and then a murder|
|6||Revenge||Secure a treaty and avoid war with an enemy / enemies||Work or school||Ocean||A faction considers breaking an unfair a treaty and seeks the PCs’ counsel|
|7||Murder||Replace current ruler or ruler in rival nation with a puppet or spy||Greet or goodbyes||Spy||A black-clad mercenary kills a council noble and escapes during a council hearing|
|8||Thriller||Enforce new, high-penalty laws across the realm||Chat, small talk, or rumors||Ghost or spirit||While apprehending a criminal, the PCs are approached by a ghost who swears the criminal’s innocence|
|9||Dark Fantasy||Expose or ally with evil or corrupt leader or VIP||Meetings or negotiations||Underground or remote community||An underground mushroom-harvested poison with an expensive, rare antidote kills all men, women and children during a feast in the PCs’ name|
|10||Epic Fantasy||Grow the ranks of an army by any means necessary||Send mail or messages||Dragons||Dragons released from imprisonment by the PCs begin to slowly turn on their knightly masters one by one|
|11||High Fantasy||Escape imprisonment or arrest||Pay bills, loans or debt||Knight||The PCs are charged with seizing a once beloved, famous knight’s holdings and wealth and safely escorting him into exile|
|12||Comedy||Cooperate with evil monsters to destroy a greater threat||Buy, shop or trade||Cursed stuffed animal or doll||A stuffed, talking toy embarrasses and insults every PC at the worst possible times|
|13||Survival or Post-Apocalypse||Travel back in time to erase the worst wars in history||Exercise||Magical waterskin or canteen||A sand dune dragon’s hoard includes the only know ever-filling magical canteen – the PCs compete with other tribes to acquire it|
|14||Swashbuckling or High Seas||Conquer rival nations||Doctor or infirmary visits||Draco-kraken||Pirates capture the PCs but then lose much of their crew to the Draco-kraken, prompting the pirates to ‘free the PCs and make them part of the behemoth-fighting crew|
|15||Political Intrigue||Unearth ancient treasure hoards||Home: clean or maintenance||Floating City||The PCs are hired for an odd job: to clean and organize a benefactor’s home – and discover a mighty artifact that distorts time|
|16||Drama||Establish and grow a power group that rivals all others||Care for family, pets, animals or plants||City Infirmary||Sick children the PCs once rescued have been asking for the PCs by name, but in otherworldly voices|
|17||Romance||Solve an ancient riddle or mystery||Entertainment at home: games, hobbies, projects||Spurned lover||One of the PC’s ex-lovers invites the party over for a night of dinner, drinks and gaming|
|18||Espionage||Unearth or destroy a dangerous or powerful artifact||Entertainment outing: meals, drinks, shows, events, trips||Intelligent, telepathic ring of invisibility||The PCs race to acquire or steal the recently unearthed Spy’s Eye, competing with other spy and mercenary networks|
|19||Historical or Historical Fantasy||Seize magical or supernatural power from an otherworldly NPC||Prepare for next day or study||Ancient library, tome or prophecy||An ancient library is being burnt to the ground – once the PCs are locked inside by the library’s keepers|
|20||Gods & Demigods||Achieve immortality or godhood||Sex||Ruler / High noble||A noble makes romantic advances on one or more PCs at a public, charitable event|
Live the Extraordinary Life
You’ve now learned how to create everyday life-inspired encounters that connect to the themes and pillars of your campaign. Develop and deepen your campaign with these methods to make memorable story and setting impressions on your playgroup.
7 Ways to Build Rising Action
From Phil Nicholls
A simple way of structuring an RPG adventure is to divide the story into five steps:
- Introduction or Hook
- Rising Action
The meat of the adventure is found in the second step: the rising action. While it is easy to present PCs with a series of encounters before they reach the climactic confrontation, the tricky part is to make them increasingly dramatic. These encounters should escalate towards the story’s end as the pressure on the PCs increases the closer they come to the final confrontation. Also, the third step, or setback event, makes more sense if it follows on from an escalating series of challenges.
A good GM does not want to railroad players. There may be several routes through the forest before the final confrontation with the bandit chieftain, for example. These encounters need to present the PCs with a rising series of challenges. Yet, how can the GM achieve this if she does not know the order in which the players will meet these encounters?
The trick is to use these techniques to gradually dial up the encounters. Here are seven methods to increase the difficulty of your encounters. Use them to improvise a series of rising action encounters during play.
Dial Up The Numbers
The simplest approach is to progressively dial up the mechanics. Most rules use numbers somewhere in their mechanics, be it hit points, damage, spells. Whatever figures your rules use, slowly increase them through the rising action phase. This method also applies to how many opponents are present in an encounter.
As noted in the Faster Combat lessons, focus on increasing offence to ramp up the danger and drama in the encounter. Where possible, avoid increasing defensive values as this can just lead to longer bouts and a sense of grinding through combat. The aim is to increase the danger not the duration.
Once the story reaches the rising action stage, then you can ramp up numbers on the fly. The first such encounter could add 10% to the chosen numerical component of the opposition, such as 10% more hit points. Add 25% for the next, and then 50% for a couple of encounters. Finally, as the PCs near the climax, you could bump the last encounter by 75%. These increasing mechanical values will produce encounters that create a sense of rising action.
Combat Hazards always spice up a combat. When describing the battlefield, create a sense of rising action by enhancing the terrain on the fly. If the adventure is progressing towards the central lair of the villain, then defences will be stronger the further in the PCs travel. Spiked barricades, pits full of stakes, and defensive banks can channel the PCs and give them more to think about.
These types of prepared defences provide more cover and vary the tactical options. The same effect can be achieved with ruins, or just a cluster of buildings. Fighting a band of goblins in the open is different from fighting them around a farm with assorted outbuildings.
Finally, the hazards can replicate some of the threats highlighted in the first option by damaging the PCs. These can be obvious zones of the battlefield that inflict damage in their own right. Lava, acid pools, patches of razorgrass, and pits of burning oil all pose their own threats. They can also make a fight far more dramatic, and thus a memorable event for the players.
You can even use the nature of these impromptu combat hazards to preview the final villain. Thus, the area surrounding an evil druid is surrounded by malign vegetation and warped nature.
Similar to dialling up the mechanical numbers of the foes, you can give them physical enhancements. Larger, more dangerous weapons will increase the amount of damage they cause, for example.
If you are fighting outside, then providing mounts is a good choice. Thus, the goblins are mounted on wolves, or the skeletons are riding undead horses. Giant dogs, bears, or insects are all possible upgrades. As well as increasing the difficulty of an encounter, the provision of mounts changes the tactics of the encounter.
Alternatively, if adding mounts is not suitable, then simply beef up foes with animal companions. Fighting dogs for example. Or bears, snakes, giant insects, large lizards. Prep these animals in advance, then plug them into encounters to ensure gradual rising action.
This is almost an action movie trope. So many films underline the severity of a scene by dialling up the weather. Heavy rain is a common motif, and provides extra challenges for PCs. Visibility is reduced, bows cannot be used because the strings lose tension, and the ground is slippery.
Gusting wind, thick fog, or a sudden snowstorm are possibilities for wilderness adventures. Or perhaps the sprinklers are triggered in a modern game. Fantasy also has the option of magic to mimic weather in any location.
The topic of Supernatural Weather has been explored previously in Roleplaying Tips:
In a fantasy game, the addition of magical items will always increase the difficulty of an encounter. Likewise, a modern or SF game can replicate these effects with specialist technology. To prevent this leading to a significant increase in the PCs’ capabilities, it is best to limit these upgrades to single-use items.
Clever tactics by the players can result in them capturing one of these objects, but this is not the primary reason for using them in the encounter. Add a couple of these items into the opening round of combat, then watch the players react to the changed level of threat.
Indeed, you might want to add increasing numbers and variety of these items as a way of demonstrating the rising action. For example, roll on the following table of effects for one-use missile weapons:
- Acid Bomb: Attacks items, armour, and weapons as much as the PCs directly
- Blade Venom: Causes increased damage, paralysis, or nausea
- Brittle Dust: Objects and structures in the area become fragile and brittle
- Dark Blessing: Zealot pronounces blessing of evil deity on the opposition
- Lightning Storm: Ball lightning in a bottle, can persist in an area or move
- Plant Growth: Area effect causing all vegetation to grow fast
- Prismatic Fog: Rainbow cloud, area effect damage, homes in on magic
- Smoke Bombs: Standard choking cloud and blocks visibility
- Thundering Arrow: Deafening blast when hits a target
- White Fire: Traditional napalm-effect, clings and burns
These phenomena are static effects that endure for the entire combat. They should make the fight tougher and provide the PCs with a fresh set of tactical challenges. Unlike the previous magic items, it is probably best to use these effects singly.
Note that some zones might require mechanics prepared in advance.
- Blessed: A small shrine provides a combat blessing to the opposition
- Cursed: A bloodstained altar hampers all non-believers
- Displacement Zone: Anyone entering this zone will exit at a random point
- Forced Movement: Anyone within this zone must move in a fixed direction
- Heightened Magic: All arcane magic in the area has a greater effect
- High Gravity: Movement slowed and missile weapons hampered
- Low Gravity: Movement increased and missile weapons aided
- Mirror Magic: All arcane magic reflects back on the caster
- Multi-Magic: Any arcane spell cast brings a duplicate version for caster
- Shimmering Wall: One-way mirror hides foe but no effect on their ranged attacks
Whichever result you roll, be sure to have the opposition make good use of the zone. This is their home turf and they will take advantage of the defensive possibilities of the zone. The PCs will also have the opportunity to take advantage of the effects, but have the zone used against them first.
The final option is to add a non-combatant NPC into the encounter. This NPC will complicate the encounter in the style of a simplified combat mission.
These NPCs make an encounter harder for players in one of two ways. First, the NPC is a neutral third-party and cannot be harmed. This will limit the use of area effect spells that might injure the NPC.
Or second, the NPC is helping the opposition, but not directly attacking the PCs. Should the PCs focus on the strengthened combatants or take out the NPC while taking extra damage in the process? This tactical consideration will complicate the encounter and involve more damage being inflicted on the PCs. As the NPC is providing a mechanical boost to the opposition, remember the caveats noted in item 1 at the top of this article.
- Ally Infiltrator: A scout is hidden in the battlefield and you need her report
- Bard: Boosts combat abilities of foes with his rousing song
- Diplomat: A respected diplomat is present, but cannot be harmed
- Divine Prophecy: Messenger appears and reveals one foe destined to perform an action bringing great good, so cannot be killed or maimed
- Innocent to Rescue: a bound prisoner in the centre of camp
- Merchant: A wealthy trader with political connections is trading here
- Missionary: Priest from an allied cult is here trying to convert the foes
- Preacher: Zealot from an evil cult is whipping the enemy up into a battle frenzy
- Spirit of Location: Unseen by foes, a benign spirit is amongst them
- Traitor in the Ranks: One foe is an ally in disguise, traitor must escape without having their cover blown
Some of these situations might need a little more explanation at the start of the encounter to make it clear to players what complications the NPC brings. Adjust the details where necessary to fit the background to your adventure.
Rising Action Example: The Bandit Forest
The Heroes are on a quest to destroy the self-styled King of Thieves, who hides in the middle of the Greenwood. There are many routes through the forest, so the GM cannot plan out the exact sequence of encounters. Instead, the GM created a series of encounter locations within the forest. During the game, the GM then improvises a sense of rising action as the Players progress through the Greenwood:
- Into the Trees: A patrol of four bandits armed with bows and knives ambush the PCs when they enter the forest.
- At the River: A bandit patrol guards the bridge over the river. The rising action is achieved by making the river a raging torrent, which is hazardous to cross. Player tactics are limited by having to cross the narrow bridge or risk the river.
- On the Forest Road: The patrol guarding the road is spontaneously enhanced with magical arrows. The initial volleys from the bandits include smoking arrows and thunder arrows to confuse and challenge the PCs.
- Fey Glade: A bandit patrol has captured a woodland sprite. Players need to rescue the sprite from the midst of the bandits. To further ramp up the encounter, the GM decides to add a fifth bandit and upgrade the bandit’s knives to swords.
- Thornwood: The final encounter before reaching the bandit lair turns out to be the tangled Thornwood zone of the Greenwood. The GM improvises a low gravity zone that enhances the bandit’s archery. As a final touch, the size of the patrol is doubled to eight bandits.
The central part of an adventure comprises the rising action aspect of the classic story structure. You can improvise a sense of rising action by expanding an encounter with one or more of the seven elements listed above. While some mechanical details may need to be prepared in advance, these encounter upgrades are generic enough to be added at a moment’s notice.
Noble Plot Generator
From Johnn Four
Have you ever needed social and intrigue plot ideas involving nobles? Today’s random tables should help you out.
RPT reader Bryce Whitacre asked me: “I’m the author of Baker Street: Roleplaying in the World of Sherlock Holmes, but I run a game of AD&D Birthright every once in awhile. Your 650 hooks are great. I was wondering if you ever thought of tailoring a pdf of hooks for more encounters geared towards rulers of kingdoms and cities. I’m forever looks for interesting, quick-resolve roleplaying moments to happen to my nobles while they are milling around a city.“
Bryce, I’ve got you covered. The generator below has four parts:
- Noble Involved
- Plot Triggering Action
- Subject of Plot
You can roll on any table individually to get an idea for an encounter seed. Or, you can roll on all four tables to get a noble plot hook.
Use the plot hook for adventure ideas. And if you just want something like Bryce does, a “quick-resolve roleplaying moment,” then all you need to do is generate a noble plot hook and run an encounter in medias res. That is, the noble or victim is already embroiled in the plot and acting accordingly when the PCs encounter them. The subtext will arm you with roleplaying opportunities.
Roll a d20 and a d6 (1-3 Male, 4-6 Female)
- Grand Duke/Grand Duchess
- Grand Prince/Grand Princess
- High Priest
- Grand Wizard
- Son/Daughter of (roll again)
- Grandson/Grand daughter of (roll again)
- Villain disguised as (roll again)
Plot Triggering Action
- Falls in love with
- Becomes indebted to
- Tries to swindle
- Is publicly humiliated by
- Is publicly challenged by
- Is tricked by
- Murders and hides the body of
- Fails to murder and flees from
- Blackmails secrets out of
- Has a horrifying vision about
- Hires a witch to curse
- Hires a rogue to spy on
- Hires an assassin to kill
- Hires a rogue to steal something precious/important from
- Confesses something chilling to
- Witnesses something terrible about
- Cannot protect themselves from the secret attacks of
- Orders/demands the arrest of
- Plots a coup with
Subject of Plot
- Another noble (roll on Noble Table)
- Another noble’s spouse (roll on Noble Table)
- Another noble’s child (roll on Noble Table)
- A noble of a humanoid race/culture (roll on Noble Table)
- A falsely convicted noble (roll on Noble Table)
- A commoner
- A criminal
- A PC
- A member of the guard
- A military officer
- A priest/priestess/nun/monk
- An orphan
- A sailor
- A wizard
- A thieves’ guild member
- An ambassador from another kingdom
- The leader of a group of monsters
- A wealthy widow/widower
- A wealthy or corrupt merchant
- An undead person/creature
- There’s a witness
- They left traceable evidence behind
- Under threat of blackmail
- Under orders from a higher authority
- Because they are under a geas or curse
- Thus triggering an evil prophecy
- To prove their loyalty to (roll on Noble Table)
- To prove their loyalty to (roll on Subject of Plot Table)
- In service to a demon
- In service to a rival kingdom
- Because they’ve gone insane
- Their god alerts other followers
- Because they’ve joined a cult
- To start a war
- As part of an arcane ritual
- And rumours pop up about it, some false, some true
- And they get gravely injured in the process
- Because they are sick and will die soon
- To get revenge against (roll on Noble Table)
- To get revenge against (roll on Subject of Plot Table)