Dark & Gritty Gaming – Part 1

From Hannah L.

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0421

A Brief Word From Johnn

4E In Kobold Quarterly?

If you are a fan of the Kobold Quarterly magazine, or Wolfgang Baur’s Open Design projects, then you might be interested in voting for what game system should be supported: D&D 4E, Pathfinder, D&D 3.5, other?


YMIAT’s First Contest – Can You Scare Us?

The YouMeetInATavern.com staff asked me to pass along news about their Halloween contest. You can win RPGNow gift certificates for designing a horror game adventure, a one to two-page monster, or villain with the system of your choice.

Full details:


Props Contest Ends This Week – Get Your Entries In

This is your last week to send in your props ideas and tips

for a chance to win some great prizes from Witches Closet.

  • Cloak
  • Scroll Case
  • Bag of Holding
  • Healer’s Kit
  • Bracer of Magic
  • Bracer of Strength
  • Message Pouch
  • 3 x $10 Gift Certificates

You can view these cool props online at: http://www.witchesclosetcreations.com/props.htm

E-mail me as many prop ideas or tips as you like – each item counts as one entry into the contest.

Deadline for entry is Saturday, October 25.

Have a game-full week!

Dark & Gritty Gaming – Part 1

A while back, I asked for advice on my upcoming D&D 4E game, which I was hoping to run with a dark and gritty tone. The game has been a great success so far, thanks in no small part to all of the fantastic tips I received.

There was a good deal of overlap, but each tip also presented something new. There were so many good tips that I couldn’t even fit them all in one article! Look for part 2 coming soon.

Zombacalypse-Style Grit

From Gabriel Martin

I run a D20 Modern “Zombacolypse” game that is dark and gritty. Other than viral deathspawn zombies, there is nothing mystical and magical. No powers or anything.

First, do not go too extensive on background – too much work for character creation when the game will be highly fatal. If your character survives long enough, your play will dictate your background.

Have some backup characters ready. The characters started at 4th level and could be equipped with whatever they wanted (within reason). This really got the players’ minds churning.

I found that being reasonably strict on encumbrance rules had a gritty effect. You might have 2000 rounds of rifle ammo, but can you carry 2000 rounds of rifle ammo?

I always need to remember to keep the minutiae out. Things are valued with Trade Units or TUs. This rule is pulled from D20 Apocalypse, modified to my taste. A TU equals one day of use, so one day of gas, three cans of food, or one shotgun shell. The system is crunchy enough to keep things gritty but open enough to add fluff when needed.

Brush up on your starvation, dehydration and exposure rules. Disease is another big one, adding modifiers due to lack of hygiene.

I also played up the fact they are not used to extreme conditions, so maintenance of gear has not reared its ugly head yet. Since only one of these survivors is military trained, it is up to that player to mention it and train the others in basic gear maintenance. No mechanic needed; all I have to do is imply it, and the players will take it seriously.

Treasure will slowly devolve from fresh food; silver and gold; gas and cars and boats; and cases of ammo; to a few shotgun shells, a day of food, and an occasional bottle of soap or some mechanical parts.

So far, we have had five sessions and they are relatively safe in a very friendly Mormon Compound. I plan to shake things up next session by killing some of the better NPCs, and I plan to keep doing this. Have your players establish a relationship and then kill the NPC off. Take your time.

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Alternate Mechanics for Gritty Games

From Patrick Riegert

My personal preference is for darker, grittier games. Even though you’re running 4th edition, you may want to check out The Black Company by Green Ronin. In my opinion, it is one of the best campaign settings for D&D and has some exceptional rules for Grievous Wounds, Infection, Surprise and a great Damage Threshold rule. Here are takeaways you can add to your 4E game to make it tough and gritty:

Grievous Wounds

When a critical is scored, by a player or against one, you roll on a table to see if a grievous wound is inflicted. Simple enough, and has been done before with targeted attacks or called shots house rules, but this is pretty gritty: from temporarily losing mobility in a limb (Dex penalty) to actually losing a limb.


The setting assumes low magic and no divine or healing magic. There are feats for physician and an advanced physician feat that allows hit points to be restored, but unless you’re a wizard with the Healing talent, there’s no magical healing.

So, wounds have a chance to become infected, either halving natural healing times (or halving the value of a healing surge) or actually making the injury worse (sepsis). To adapt this, go with a disease track style mechanic from the 4E DMG.

Damage Threshold

Every character has a personal damage threshold equal to their Constitution plus their level.

Being hit for, or in excess of, this threshold value forces a saving throw. Failing that, the PC goes to 0 health and must either be stabilized with a Heal check or use the “three strikes or you’re out” 4E rule for death saves.

Given some classes’ abilities to easily exceed this, you might want to set 3/4 health as the damage threshold. That would mean a 2nd level Fighter with 34 hp would have a damage threshold of 25. Or use some other system you think is fair.


Whoever has the advantage of surprise can carry the fight. Anyone hit during the surprise round automatically rolls as if their damage threshold has been exceeded. You might want to make this a 5 or better saving throw instead of the standard 10 or better, or PCs can add their Con modifier to their saving throw roll.

Another alternative is to have characters hit during a surprise round become dazed. This is less brutal than the damage threshold variant, but still makes the surprise round important.

I think you could bring in some great house rules from Black Company. Also, check out Iron Heroes to incorporate how they handle shields and armour. They lend a bit more realism to combat, I think, by removing the all or nothing staple of D&D armour class rules.

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Atmospheric And Theme Music

From Fraggle F

I have been GMing various games for a while now, and I have a tendency for creating weird and disturbing plots. I usually have to make a conscious effort to try and inject a bit of comedy or lightheartedness into my sessions, or my party can begin to feel a bit over-oppressed.

One of my tips is to chuck in a bit of swash and buckle, and most certainly a bit of comic relief now and then for fear of your characters, and perhaps even players, becoming depressed with the story.

One technique I have used to great effect is theme tunes. If you have a nasty, recurring bad guy, or a clear villain, in your story, then choose a creepy, unnerving song or soundtrack for him.

In my current campaign I use the monolith choral piece from 2001: A Space Odyssey. The first time my party met their adversary, very early on in their careers, I used this track. It was a frightening encounter created to show them how powerful he is. A guide NPC was killed in a whimsical way, and my characters were warned off their current path in typical villain style.

Since this event, whenever this badguy has been present, or even when events are unfolding that have been influenced by his machinations, I play a refrain or two of the badguy’s theme. Instantly, my players will sit forward as worried grins appear on their faces. They know something nasty is going on, and that the villains’ eyes and ears are nearby.

The BBC Polyphonic Workshop has a number of soundtrack CDs. The majority of the tracks were created for the original Doctor Who series and have a variety of moods. The Dalek’s Control Room on repeat created a very dark and oppressive atmosphere when a party in my sci-fi/fantasy game were investigating a recently abandoned space-station overrun with toothy aliens.

Again, in later sessions when the party came across these alien creatures, I would play a short burst of this track, as though the characters are remembering the horrific experience they had when they were hunted on that space-station.

Plenty of shadows and teeth in your game always helps give it a horror edge to keep things dark!

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Emotion And Environment

From Daan Noordeloos

I would love to share some dark ideas I use in my post-apocalyptic campaign.

In my campaign setting the world literally split into continental masses of earth that sustain life. These enclaves, as they are called, are floating in the atmosphere and are tormented with the principle of shortage. My entire campaign is run on this principle.

Some enclaves have shortages of water, other don’t have food, etc. The campaign is set 500 years after the sundering of the world. The sundering took place after a conflict between man and the gods. Due to these facts suspicion is common.

Whole groups of inhabitants are gathering their complete savings and buying a portal to other enclaves, much like the settlers. My players enjoy this setting because they must be on their toes all the time. I use the following challenges to keep them interested:

  • Environment. The environment is a character in my game, constantly working with or against the party. I use audio files and descriptions, as well as skill checks, to make my players aware of this fact.
  • The element of surprise. The players have joined a group of settlers and are constantly adapting themselves to these new circumstances.
  • Distrust and corruption. Where there is poverty, there is corruption. They can’t trust anyone.
  • Seduction. Where there is corruption, my players are offered the easy way out constantly. But this always has consequences.
  • Emotion. When generating characters my players must give me a 15 question survey on their PC. This survey contains questions like:
  • Who is your dearest friend?
  • Who is your biggest enemy?
  • What is your greatest secret?
  • What is your biggest fear?

This survey creates character depth, gives me the chance to use personal character traits to spice up the drama, and only takes 30 minutes to complete.

  • Contrast. I think there must be contrast. If a hero is only a hero, it gets boring. Sometimes you must kick them down before you let them get up.
  • Conflict. It’s not always about the battle; it’s about the conflict. A good standoff, or a fierce disagreement within the party, is great for RP purposes. I used hunger as a trigger. My group hadn’t eaten for a while and they had to decide how to survive. This could only be done by eating one of the bodies they had, and an enormous conflict took place between the cleric and the rest of the party.
  • Descriptions. You see, hear, smell, etc. I use vivid imagery. Live the nightmare!

I use these concepts to make a great game. A last and important ritual is the pre-game session for each player. My players almost have complete freedom on character development. But they do get some things from the GM, like things that happened to them and people they know. I use this to give the characters an edge. The players need to take these things into consideration, and they always relate to the plot.

Should GMs Charge Money?

re: http://www.roleplayingtips.com/readissue.php?number=408#brief_word

A while ago I posed the question to you – should GMs get paid? If so, under what circumstances. Following were your replies. Thanks for the e-mails!

From Mike Bourke

I have never charged money per se to run a campaign, but have been forced at times into activities that skirt very close to the line, and have had to consider it from time to time.

  1. Gaming club fees: At one point, my players and I were part of an organized gaming club. There were per-session fees to cover hall rental and insurance, which from time to time I simply could not afford given my financial circumstances at the time. My players decided that since there wasn’t a game without the GM, they would share the cost between them when it was necessary. They might have become disgruntled if I abused their generosity, but it was only an occasional issue.
  2. Transport: Similarly, there have been occasions when I simply could not get to the game without the donation of vehicle space and petrol from one of my players. More often these days, this is due to health issues than financial ones, but this is still a regular benefit that I receive from my players.
  3. Food and Snacks: It was tradition in the group a friend of mine was part of that everyone chipped in to purchase food and drink for the GM – not as payment for running the game, but in recompense for the inconvenience the GM incurs to other aspects of their lives due to the need for game prep. He in turn brought the practice into my group, though it does not happen every week. The players justify the practice on the basis of enlightened self-interest: a GM on a sugar low and distracted by hunger pangs was more likely to be in a bad mood and less inclined to be generous when it came to marginal calls.
  4. Game Supplements: Several of my players have bought game supplements, which they then want to use in play (or they have wasted their money). It’s a hard-and-fast rule in my campaigns that nothing from outside source books is permitted until I’ve reviewed it for campaign fit and game balance. To achieve that, they are quite happy to lend me the supplements they want me to look at. Some of these supplements have proven to be far more useful to GMs than players; when that’s the case, they often convert the loan into a gift. They look on this as investing in the campaign and in their own entertainment. The net effect is I can spend my money on other supplements, effectively giving the campaign two expansions for the price of one.
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From Ian Winterbottom

Here is my two pennyworth:

I wouldn’t consider any contribution to a game as “Beyond the Pale”, wouldn’t refuse it, but I wouldn’t ask for it, still less demand it. You have to contribute to the game or forget eet, and you get people who don’t wanna play but think they can contribute by shoving in a few quid. Sometimes they are even right!

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From Bertram

I just thought I’d share my two cents on the topic of paying the GM. In my opinion, it’s a double-edged blade. On one side, everything might work just fine and the question of buying material would be solved elegantly. On the other hand, it might make the game less of a game and more serious business.

I’d never ask my players to pay (even if my expenses were higher than a trip to the paper shop once a month) because I don’t think my GM skills are high and some player might let off something like, “And I’ve payed for this crud?” and I’d probably have to agree. The players would be angry about the loss of money and I’d have performance pressure.

To be fair, I never had to buy anything for the group. Snacks are a group thing, sometimes there’s even homemade cake. We also don’t have much paperwork around. The 2 “real” game books have been on our shelves for 5 years (DrD 1.6) and only get taken out for mindless hack’n’slashing and laughing about futile attempts of the Czech in imitating DnD.

One exception to my group’s Amish-like economy should be mentioned though. One of my players has extraordinary perspiration-related abilities bound to the inner sides of his hands. He rules the fine line between astonishment and disgust. And, at the time of the purchase, I was the only one who had a complete set of dice.

You do the math.

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From RND(axe)

The GM should never charge his players for the game. Period. End of discussion. It’s a social event, not a business venture. If he is putting out his money for game materials, that is his choice, not the responsibility of the players to subsidize.

In our group, we each show up with two bucks to throw in a jar, which covers costs of Coke and the occasional DingDong or other snack that the game host (whoever is putting up the location for the game) will provide. Whoever is hosting the game (be he GM or player) is expected to provide the Coke and snacks, but it is the members of the group who pay the dues for this.

If I was in a group where the GM started an actual charge per session, there would have to be some immediate and obvious benefit to the players (better-quality and more handouts or props for instance, or more in-depth setting backgrounds), otherwise I would immediately object and possibly leave the group.

Thanks for your site and emails.

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From Kate Manchester

If I’m a GM, there is only one situation where I’d charge my players to play. That would be if I were having to pay to rent the space. Since there are lots of free options available (like a 24 hour Starbucks!) I’ve never had to do it. You GM because you love the game you’re running, not because you’re looking to make money.

On the other hand, I’ve paid to play in games. Most of the time these were Live Action Games, where what you’re paying for is the cost of supplies (index cards, printer ink, etc.) or maybe the game site itself, but the amount was never very much. I’ve also attended several gaming conventions, where you’re basically paying to play in a game.

So what are my expectations for a regularly scheduled paid game (as opposed to a convention game)? Not much different than when I don’t pay to play. An impartial GM, for starters. That means they don’t give advantages to people they’re better friends with. I expect to have fun. What’s the point of playing in an RPG if you’re not having a good time?

I also expect the ST to be responsive. That means answering my clarifications/IC requests before the start of the next game – especially if there are two or more weeks between games. Exceptions can be made for extenuating circumstances, of course.


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From Roger Barr

Normally, RPGs are played for fun, but the work of a GM is often labor intensive for working out more detailed and organized games. Sometimes, GMs are needed for gaming groups and not available. In that situation, “hiring” one may be needed. This can get sticky fast, as players who want to play and not run games are often confused as to why they would need to pay to play. This is not an ideal option, as playing a game should never be considered “work”, but can be an acceptable option if the group and the GM can hammer out an agreement in advance. A few commonly asked questions I have encountered are below.

Q. Is this being performed as work for the GM, or in other words, would he not be playing with this group of players otherwise? (i.e. Is he a guest GM for a game club in which he is not a member? Is he coming in as a GM to a convention style event?)

A. Most conventions offer some kind of discount or incentive to encourage GMs to come and run games for people outside the GM’s normal game groups. Usually, this is a reduction in the fees to attend the convention, but rarely is actual cash. A school game club might consider offering a small donation as an incentive for running a game to a visiting GM as a way to say thanks for the work involved. Usually, these are one shot games, not campaigns. Anytime the GM is performing a “professional” service that would not normally be provided otherwise as regular game playing entertainment, then payment for time spent working is perfectly acceptable.

Q. Is the GM having to spend cash out of his own pocket for the game on materials he would otherwise not purchase and would like to be reimbursed?

A. If the group is fine with that, then it enriches the game. I would also say, however, that if the group is buying the book, it should go in the group’s library for future use to benefit that group, unless the group agreed in advance to give it to the GM as a thank you gift.

Q. Is this question being asked by a GM in a regular game group who is running into problems with finding the time to work up good adventures and wants some kind of benefit for performing the work of the GM?

A. If this is the GM’s normal game group, then perhaps cash is not the best idea. The scenario of payment for services can ruin a relationship based on friendship and a desire to game together and replace it with the employer vs. employee mentality. If the GM is overworked or simply not happy, take a break; have someone else run, or play a game that does not demand so much time and effort away from the group. Our game group often takes an evening off and plays a card or board game to give the GMs a rest, and most of our game group members are GMs and take turns running different campaigns. Sometimes you just need a break.

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

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

Tactical Terrain Generation

From Loz Newman

A couple of tips on crafting terrain for interesting combats.

First off, try sidestepping the entire roll-dice-and-check- table paradigm.

Fix in your mind what a good encounter site has:

a) Obstacles to hide behind or hinder line-of-sight.

b) Mobility should be challenged often but not forbidden (avoid the extremes of the sprinting contest and the immobile slugfest/shootout.)

c) Interesting features (fixed or mobile) for players to improvise with.

d) It should be describable in a concise manner that stimulates players’ creative thought processes. Ideally, lay down a map, plan, or sketch to accelerate the description process.

With that in mind, onto the tips:

1) I do a fair amount of LARPing, so copying an interesting LARP site into a game is easy. Instant 3D visualization! You *know* how the site looks sounds, smells. Its heights and depths and textures. (Surfing LARPing sites for their photos of good scenes might help for non-LARPers.)

Build on what you know and don’t be shy about visiting new places to acquire more knowledge.

2) I scan images from magazines and various other sources and use those for inspiration. Ditto for instant visualization (but not quite as good as 1) above). I also rely on the plans, maps, and similar that I have stored up (both paper and image files) over the years.

3) Google Earth is quite good for flat, aerial views of cities and castles. You have to save the entire browser page and then pluck out the images or save a screenshot (there are freeware programs for this around) and crop. 2D only, but a good level of detail.

The rest is down to the art of capsule descriptions and color psychology to help fix the scene in players’ minds.

Maps and plans come in handy if you can find or generate them. Have a look at the Wizards of the Coast map archives for some good (and some dull) ones:


A few links that may come in handy:

(click on “basic” to continue…)

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Campaign Holiday Idea – Temple Race

From Michael Marchant

In my campaign world, this holiday takes place on the 18th of December, and is one of many activities surrounding the Pontiarvo’s Day Festival that runs from December 12th through to the 19th, with Pontiarvo’s Day falling on the 17th.

There are 14 gods in the pantheon, and each god has at least one day in the year where the people of Arboraceum celebrate them and give thanks for their aid during the year. Pontiarvo, as the head of the pantheon, is the most important, and the week-long festival is in some ways akin to our Christmas.

The Temple Race is a spectacular competition between the temples, and will be carried out in the six cities across the country that are large enough to hold the race. In the morning, hordes of priests and novices arrive at the designated starting point, with each temple having a large emblem of their god or goddess. When the race starts (in Ponta, the capital, the King starts the race) the priests race off on a circuit around the city doing their best to win.

Each temple will have spent weeks before the race designing their emblem, and this is taken seriously and done in secrecy. The emblem needs to clearly represent their god, it needs to be as large and impressive as possible, and at the same time it needs to be as light as possible so as to enable the priests to carry it at speed.

A group of priests will be designated to carry the emblem, others will protect the emblem and those carrying it, and others will be designated to try to sabotage the efforts of other temples in the race. This causes something of a free for all, with priests and novices brawling in the streets, falling over, emblems crashing to the ground, to be hastily repaired. The whole city will turn out, lining the streets to watch, and they too will sometimes get involved, either as innocent victims of the brawling, or as supporters of one temple or another. Both men and women compete, and novices begin at the age of twelve, so there will be plenty of youngsters too.

There is no competition between the gods and the temples, normally. The Arboracean populace worship all the gods, although they may favor some gods over others as appropriate to their trade or situation, and there is no competition between them for worshipers, but on this day it’s open warfare, and plenty of grudges and old scores will be settled.

The result of the race is very important, because the order in which the temples finish is the order in which the temple bells will ring each morning for the next year. Each morning at dawn, the winning temple will ring their bells to wake the city, then the second place temple will ring their bells, and so on until the last placed temple rings their bells last of all. So, this is a year long reminder of who came where in the race.

Usually, the Temple of Pontiarvo wins, with Pontiarvo being the god of lordship, war, hunting, and so on. His priests are generally tougher and better trained in martial skills than the others.

There are plenty of plot hooks here:

  • PCs can get involved in the race, helping one temple or another (especially if one of them is a priest).
  • PCs can be involved in spying missions to find out what the Temple of Arbora’s emblem is like this year, or to find out the truth of the rumors that the Temple of Denisaris has a huge and impressive emblem but that’s lighter than any before.
  • There are opportunities for pickpockets, assassins, gambling, and politics. The King and Queen, many of the nobles, and many of the most important people in the Kingdom will be present. Many individual acts of heroism (and cowardice) will be noticed.

There is far more to this than I have been able to describe here, but for brevity’s sake I’ll leave it at that.

Have fun!

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Add Environmental Spice Without More Dice

From Mark of the Pixie

A way to add environmental spice and not double the number of dice you need to roll is to assign raw scores to environmental hazards. If (and only if) they roll one of those specific numbers (say 8 and 13) on their attack roll, then they get hit by the hazard right after their attack.

So, if the PCs are fighting on a bridge in a burning building, you can set “falling off the bridge” as a 3,10 and 17. You then say that being “hit by burning debris” is 6, 9,12 and 15.

The PCs then roll their attacks as normal: a 3, 18 and a 15. After making his attack the first PC then falls off the bridge (I would let him catch hold and give him a reflex save next round to avoid falling all the way). PC two avoids both hazards, and the last PC is hit for d6 fire damage from falling debris.

You can also vary the hazard numbers for different areas (handrail is missing from some parts of the bridge, adding 5 and 15 to the falling off hazard) or to account for PC actions (“I hold my shield over my head while I fight” might negate the burning debris hazard, but also negates your shield bonus for the fight). Keep in mind this should also apply to the bad guys (unless they are immune to fire and/or capable of flight).

You can even mark this up on the map beforehand, or just stick it on with post-its as needed.

This is a simple and quick way to add spice and danger without adding more dice rolls and without slowing things down too much.

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Dice Science

From Creative Mountain Games

Creative Mountain Games.com

Johnn: I scooped this news item from Mark at his Creative Mountain Games website. Very interesting stuff!

“Colonel Lou Zocchi of Game Science announced his retirement from the dice business this year at Gencon. A pair of videos have surfaced on YouTube interviewing Zocchi and allowing him to share a bit of his extensive knowledge on all things dice.”

Part One:

Part Two:

My favorite quote is from Part One: “Casino dice are required by federal law to have sharp, crisp edges so that they will surrender a uniform amount of energy as they gallivant across the tabletop.”