Creating Memorable Enemy Groups

From Danny East

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0404

A Brief Word From Johnn

Iron Man is a Good Movie

If you are on the fence on whether to see the new Iron Man movie, I recommend it. My wife and I both enjoyed it a lot.   It had a fast pace, so-so villains, lots of action, and a neat home base. I recommend coming home after the movie and doing a brain dump of ideas you get from it, regardless of whether you run super hero or other genre games.

I’m looking forward to seeing the new Batman and Hulk movies next. Indiana Jones – now that movie I’m on the fence about. Is it any good?

Production Quality Disappoints

I purchased Keep on the Shadowfell last week from my FLGS. It’s a starter adventure for D&D 4th Edition. The quick rules make it seem like the game has changed in a number of ways, but changes would be minor to experienced D&D gamers.

Looking at the pre-statted characters supplied in the module, the game feels even more complex than previous editions. I’m holding off final judgement until I’ve got a few sessions under my belt and have the rule books.

One huge quibble is the poor production quality. For 34 beans I got flimsy paper (though full colour), ink smudges on your fingers, just 96 pages, staple bound (with no soft or hard cover – it feels like a thick brochure). The module also came with 3 battlemaps that are decent and of thicker paper. I hope this production quality is not a sign of things to come.

I’m still excited about D&D 4E though. I hope it brings hordes of new gamers into the hobby and generates passionate new GMs around the world. Whether these gamers stick with D&D or move on to try the thousands of other RPGs out there, it doesn’t matter to me, as long as the RPG hobby continues to thrive!

14 reviews, avg 3.5 @ Amazon: Keep on the Shadowfell

Have a great week – full of gaming.


Johnn Four
[email protected]

Creating Memorable Enemy Groups

Most campaigns have not one single enemy, like a Tekken or Street Fighter video game, but have a boss enemy at the end. Such boss type games are more akin to fighting King Bowser after jumping on all the Goombas. Here are a few tips to help make fighting the Goombas a little more interesting:

  • Make them collectible, and inspire the group to catch them all. If running a war campaign, have the foot soldiers, squad leaders, platoon leaders, and so on, each have a different, pilferable rank.

Rings, pins, hair beads or necklaces are easy to loot from a corpse. These will act as proof of the party’s victory, and add an element of competitiveness to see who can get how many of what. Having the higher ranks is worth more, and having the entire set would be worth a fortune. Hang them up above the mantelpiece when the character retires.

  • Trying to prevent the mad wizard from rebuilding the Hell Gate? Make the Goombas be the ones carrying the pieces. This is easy to throw into a campaign. Take the item, cut it up, and roll to see if the adventurers find it. If they never find all the pieces, you can always toss the remaining parts on a desk or under a Christmas tree for them to find.
  • Give gangs cool gang names. There are a number of gang name generators online. Use them for inspiration. Also works great for naming your party or an adversarial party. A few ideas to get you started: The Troll Breakers, Churchyard Clerics Council, The Zombie Masters. It’s a lot of fun and really cranks things up when the DM can say “Coming around the corner you see four of the Pistol Whips, and they look pissed.”

Generator Land: Motorcycle Gang Generator

  • How did the players know they were the Pistol Whips? By their matching headbands, of course. Use tattoos, clothing, belt buckles, etc. to identify gangs. Works well if the party needs to infiltrate.
  • Allow word to spread of your party’s conquests. As they gain notoriety, the lesser combatants will be afraid of them and leave them alone. Maybe when they run away they’ll lead the heroes to the secret entrance. Being well known works both ways, too. The greater combatants will want to be the ones who took down your party.
  • Little skeletons, goblins, and cheap droids are all easy to kill. That’s part of the fun, especially if you have Great Cleave, or a hundred shots per round. But give the Goombas power in numbers – so many skeletons you don’t have room to swing, too many goblin corpses to tell the living from the dead (sneak attack), and droid parts acting as a trip hazards are all fun.
  • Make every encounter with the Goombas be fatalistically important to the continuation of the game. If running a war game, give the opposing forces a 1/3 chance to be carrying the morphine that’s allowing your gunner to stay alive and moving. If working underground, Mines of Moria style, have a 1/3 chance that the Goomba is carrying a torch.

Fuel, ammunition, spell components, or gas mask filters make good choices. Playing like this will leave players with a “must go on” feeling. Dramatic, scary, and excellent for role play when there’s not enough for the entire party to continue.

  • Remember the draconians from the Dragonlance Chronicles? They were as dangerous upon death as they were alive. Try making droids with a self-destruct more powerful than their attacks, or a plant monster that emits deadly poison if a limb is severed. Make it so that killing the enemies is worse than keeping them alive. The PCs will have to negotiate or incapacitate. Be sure to give XP for defeating enemies, not just for killing them.
  • Try being creative with some of the enemies. They don’t have to be stronger or smarter or have deeper plot relations, just be different enough to remember. Give kobolds fleas. Or put some neighborhood graffiti on the bunkers, cars, and robots. Zombies are already dead, right? How about a zombie with a bear trap for a jaw, or hypodermic fingers?
  • Make your NPC Goombas have magic items just as random as the ones your PCs have. Try giving a Deck of Illusions to a goblin or a Frost Wand to a beggar. Maybe a rat in your world ate a bunch of armor-modifying rings off of some dead hand.
  • Unless they’ve really got something to die for, let the Goombas run away or beg for their lives when they’re on death’s threshold. If you have any honor-bound characters in your adventuring group you can pose a side-adventure opportunity when the foot soldier or gang member or goblin asks that their dying wish is granted. “Please, Strong Adventurer, find my wife and kids. Tell them I love them and that the family fortune can be found in Spring Canyon, by the Old Oak Tree”. What fun.
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As a final note, remember that killing the general or the emperor is a lot of fun, but smashing Goombas can be a blast, too. Keep it fast-paced and your players will love fighting for much more than XP.

Johnn Recommends GM Aid: Group Dice Tray

Sometimes you want players to make public rolls, but they can be a hassle. They roll off the table, roll where you can’t see the dice, roll into other player’s stuff, or tumble into carefully placed minis and other gaming aids to cause havoc.

Not the worst problem in the world to have, for sure, but one you can easily solve with a communal dice tray. Put a dice tray in the middle of the table where everyone can reach and see the results. The tray will keep (non-wild) throws in check, and you can quickly move on to GMing and telling the player what the dice results mean.

In addition, public rolls in dice trays add a bit of fun drama. Everybody can focus on the dice roll. The rolling player is the centre of attention. All eyes watch as the dice come to rest….

Amazon has a couple of affordable trays. Check ’em out:

Octagonal, felt lined, wood framed: Koplow Dice Tray

Round, felt lined, with wood edge:

Monthly Musing of the Chatty DM: The 10 Word Pitch

I once joked that I was a failed novelist who decided to become a GM because it was easier. It’s not…GMing needs many more skills than writing – you just don’t have to be as good with them to be successful.

What is true, though, is that writing is at the heart of the preparation phase of GMing. Even if you take a published adventure and use it as is, chances are you will jot down a few notes here and there to take into account the peculiarities of your players’ party.

Many GMs actually do the complete opposite and find themselves writing numerous pages (if not whole binders) of background, stories, NPC stats, and large quantities of “what-ifs” when preparing a game.

This often leads to the GM spending more time prepping than actually playing. That’s not bad in itself, especially if you enjoy writing, just don’t forget to leave room for your player decisions and narrative inputs.

Here’s a writing tip I discovered last month that gave me a new perspective in prepping.

The 10 Word Pitch

One way of focusing your idea before writing anything during the planning phase of an RPG session or campaign is to try to fit your whole idea into a single sentence.

A short while ago, I challenged the readers of my blog to come up with an adventure synopsis using exactly 10 words. Why 10 words? It’s long enough to formulate a complex sentence while being short enough to force you to choose your words carefully and focus on what’s important.

Also, it is similar to writing a Haiku, a form of Japanese poetry, that many people worked on during English classes in school.

As I read the hundreds of fascinating responses, I realized this trick could be used in many more aspects of RPG planning. Here are a few:

Campaign Design

Planning a campaign, especially a long term one, can be a daunting task. But what it often boils down to is a core plot in which you’ll build or choose a series of adventures for your players. Writing that core plot in exactly 10 words and referring to it often can help you focus, and helps flex your creative muscles. Alternatively, you can brainstorm for ideas using that trick.


  • Gods cast out rebel godling into PC’s world – stop him!
  • Overlord discovers mind control drug, takes over world: save it.
  • King dies without official heir, PCs all wear same birthmark.

What I really like about this concept is you can share your 10-word campaign pitch with your players so they get what it’s about from the 1st game onward.

Adventure Design

The trick is also useful for planning adventures or short campaign arcs, especially for brainstorming purposes.

You just need to focus the pitch to a narrower premise (like a five room dungeon).

Some examples:

  • Dark elves kidnap children for unholy summoning of Spider Goddess.
  • Disease turns people into flesh eating zombies. Survive the night!
  • Cursed Temple holds legendary treasure. Can PCs get it first?

Have a look here for hundreds of other examples:

NPCs description

One of the challenges I’ve often come up against was to find a way to make an NPC stand out and be memorable without spending too much time on it. The 10-word pitch is perfect to package a unique description and maybe one interesting hook for the NPC. Plus, it fits in just one line in your notes!


  • Shifty, oily-haired friendly used-weapon merchant. Secret demonic cultist.
  • Goddess of love and fertility posing as albino cocktail waitress.
  • Bumbling old wizard is actually legendary Dragon God of Good (with apologies to Weis and Hickman).

Player Character backgrounds

One of the clichés of RPGs is that players hate to actually do any written creative work about the game. While not always true, I’ve been a GM long enough to realize that most players actually don’t have the motivation to invest time to do it.

That’s where the 10-word pitch comes in. Ask your writing- adverse players to create a 10-word description of their PCs. It’s kinda hard to tell your GM that writing a 10-word sentence is too much work. Plus, respecting the word limit is actually harder than it looks (but don’t tell them that) and will force the players to go directly for the character’s essence.


  • Dark, brooding holy warrior, prone to introspection and whimsical sayings.
  • Orphaned child abandoned in Monastery, rejects all forms of authority.
  • Smart Alec rogue prone to let rampant curiosity take over.

Other Uses

As shown, this little trick can be adapted to any aspect of your game. Examples:

  • Organizations (guilds, noble families, Criminal syndicates and so on)
  • Country, region and town descriptions
  • Ancient artifact and legendary items
  • NPC motivations and/or plans
  • Historical events
  • Relationships between two NPCs/organizations
  • Character life paths

Give it a try. You’ll probably end up making all your sentences exactly 10 words long.

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Chatty DM is the ‘Nom de Plume’ of Philippe-Antoine Menard, a 35 year old geek with more than 25 years of experience GMing various Roleplaying games. Chatty runs a GM-focused RPG blog called Musings of the Chatty DM that’s been growing since the Summer of 2007. It focuses on the Craft of Game Mastering (with a focus on D&D), Tropes, Player Advocacy and Campaign Journals (from preparation to execution). It has a rich and varied community, and it is rumoured to house an Evil Overlord obsessed with the Crunchy bits of RPGs.

Story Tips Contest

Help the Chatty DM’s playing group in shoring up their Story/Characterization skills. Submit simple tips to helping create back stories and better party interactions for the chance to win a near-mint copy of the Adv. D&D 2e Planescape Campaign Setting. Contest ends June 7th.

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have some GM advice you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

Removable Adhesive For Token Storage

From Jamie Rivers

I thought you’d be interested in this idea. I used it in my session this last Sunday and it worked beautifully. It goes along with the Sticky Note token idea from David Walters in Issue #402.

  1. Look in the paper craft or scrapbooking section of your local craft shop for a removable adhesive dispenser like this:
  2. Apply to the back of your tokens.
  3. Affix tokens to your map, the back of your creature’s stat block, or wherever else you’d find handy.

The adhesive also works great for putting together pre-cut map sections.

Hope that helps someone out.

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Dictionary Tip

From Paul Cardwell

Regarding Hannah’s tip in Issue #342 about using Greek for names, I have a small collection of translating dictionaries for this purpose. I have found the Serbo-Croatian and Finnish ones particularly useful for place and character names because neither is likely to be recognized by my players.

Used book sources are particularly useful for these. I got my S-C one for ten cents that way, but even at half price, the paperback dictionaries are well worth the cost for this.

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Sound Effects

From Giorgio “PaPeRoTTo” Vezzini

Hi Johnn, I’m a fan of Roleplaying Tips and I’ve read your article in which you asked where you could find sound effects. All right, let’s see….

If you want to do things with great style (and with some money) check out the “Historical Series” of Hollywood Edge. I got it for my job and I assure you that they are fantastic.

The Hollywood Edge

If you are on a budget, you should go, in which you’ll find free lo-fi samples, and if you need, full hi-fi film quality samples. You could just buy 1-2 effects.

Sounddogs: Sound Effects

Another site is Freesound Project, which is free, and all samples are high quality.

I organize all my sounds in folders (Window user) as SFX-Animals/Water/Magic/Footsteps, and so on.

I like to create “layers of sounds,” and I use Nuendo, Goldwave, and Audacity to build complicated sounds. Example: a thunder crack with a tree falling and the beginning of a fire in the woods.

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Military Hardware For Real-World Games

From Darren Blair

Looking for information about real-life military hardware for that real-world campaign you’re looking to run?

Below are some websites you can go to in order to do a little bit of research.

– information on small-arms and large-caliber weaponry, with info on weapons from earlier in the 1900s. The site can be accessed in either English or Russian.

  • Sniper Central – all about sniper rifles and related gear. Perfect for any character who wants to be the next Carlos Hathcock
  • Federation of American Scientists – the website is mostly about science and how it shapes matters, but the Strategic Security part of the site has everything from MREs to heavy bomber aircraft. Note that the two main category divisions are “United States” and “Foreign,” with the Foreign section simply containing a sampling of vehicles and equipment items.
  • Wikipedia – yes, *that* Wikipedia. It might surprise you to discover just how much they have in the way of military equipment, and there are often links to other websites.
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The Big List of RPG Plots

From Sébastien Boily

I recently discovered an interesting list of general plots:

And here is a French translation:

Those are general plot ideas commonly used, but anyone doing one of each type using some recurring baddies would have a long campaign for sure.