Distilled Cultural Essence – Creating a Different Society

From Mike Bourke

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0433

A Brief Word From Johnn

Issues 1-431 Zipped and Ready for Download

A reader requested a new zip file of plain text past issues and it was a snap to make one. So, if you want to download all issues up to #431 feel free: Role Playing Tips Archives.

Thanks for the Terrain Ideas

I appreciate everyone e-mailing in with ideas and tips for building great terrain for miniatures. Based on several gamers’ recommendations, I ordered a few molds from Hirst Arts and can’t wait to try them out. With these molds, you pour Plaster of Paris in, wait till dry, assemble how you please, then paint it all up. Because the molds give you building blocks, you can make an unlimited number of floor plans.

I received excellent service from Hirst Arts too. I ordered six molds to give me a variety of building pieces, mostly with a dungeon theme. Shipping was based on five item lots (i.e. what can fit in their standard packaging) so I paid for shipping for two packages. However, I received an e-mail after payment saying they were able to fit the 6th mold in a single package with the rest, and they refunded part of my shipping.

Now that’s taking care of your customer. Thanks very much Hirst Arts!

In an upcoming issue of the e-zine I’ll post the links and tips I received for terrain. There are a few options out there, which is exciting for the crafty GM.

In the meantime, check out this game master’s setup for his minis. It’s pretty awesome: http://www.roleplayingpro.com/2009/02/04/miniature-madness-super-picture-post/

Have a game-full week!

Distilled Cultural Essence – Creating a Different Society

It’s relatively easy to create a new culture for your game. Creating one that makes sense is more work, but also more worthwhile. Expressing the difference is even more work, and apt to be boring as hell unless you enjoy lecturing your players and they are in love with the sound of your voice. Bringing the culture to life in players’ minds _without droning on or giving your players all the answers from the back of the book is harder still.

Unless you know how to cheat. That’s where this article, re-posted from the first part of a series of blogs at CampaignMastery.com, comes in.

Step 1: Point of Distinction

The first step is to create the new culture. Pick a single point of substantial difference between this culture and the usual one within your game. Write this down at the top of a very long list, which you’ll spend some time adding to. Put a big 1 next to it.

Step 2: Causation

The second step is somewhat trickier: explain _why_ the culture is the way it is, in a new paragraph labelled 2. If the difference is a form of behavior, explain how and when and why this behavior arose. If the difference is philosophical, answer who first articulated the difference in philosophy, what events in his life equipped him to conceive of it, how did this philosophy become dominant in society, what did it replace, are there those who still follow the old ways, and so on and so forth.

Step 3: Consequence

The third step is more difficult still: with one numbered sentence each (from 3 to whatever) to explain the difference, identify as many areas of everyday life as you can in which the difference in culture makes a difference to the manner in which the ordinary action is carried out.

What are the ordinary things that happen to ordinary people on an ordinary day? They rise, they bathe, they dress, they eat, they travel, they work, they purchase goods and services, they play games, they come of age, they marry, they bear children, they raise children, they celebrate, they mourn, they show respect, they disrespect, they argue, they are arrested, they are tried, they are convicted, they are punished. One or all of these may be affected by the change in society. Once you’ve finished, you can put a check mark next to 1 and 2.

Step 4: Ramifications

The fourth step is even more arduous: identify the ripple effects. Each of the sentences numbered 3 and higher might itself affect one or more of the others. So for each one, go through this list again, looking for secondary effects. Number these “something-A” “-B” or whatever, where “something” is the original sentence number.

When you’ve finished with a sentence, put a tick next to it (so that you can always tell where you are at). If the ripple effect stems from sentence 4 on your list, the first of the ripple sentences will be 4a, the second one will be 4b, and so on.

*Don’t repeat something that’s already on the list. * You will find there are far less of these than there were original sentences. You’ll also discover that your concept of the new culture is gelling in your mind as you go.

Repeat step 4 until every sentence on your list has a tick next to it. Don’t neglect the original topic, either: one difference in the way the members of this society eat may inspire a different one on the same subject. Don’t be afraid to add to the list either – “they dress” implies laundering of clothes, and clothes for different occasions, and the farming of whatever the clothes are made from, and so on.

You might also discover the need for extraordinary capabilities, or perhaps that was the initial difference you came up with. A society in which guilt or innocence is automatically and infallibly recognized in its members through some form of mental link would be very different from anything else out there.

Step 5: Compilation

Step 5 is to take all these notes and rewrite them, forming a paragraph on each of the ordinary activities (and any extraordinary abilities). By numbering the sentences, the way that you have, you will find all the 3s relate to a single topic, all the 4s naturally group together, etc. In essence, you are using these notes as guides and reminders to help you articulate what you have in your head as briefly and succinctly as possible.

Along the way, you will often find you identify a different “key difference” as the one responsible for everything, or may add further differences to explain and justify it. Make a note of these, highlight them, but don’t start over! These really are the key – starting from these core concepts, you should be able to recreate the society even if all the other notes you have made get lost. Reading these back to yourself should be enough for you to ‘place’ yourself, mentally, within the new society – a handy trick when the time comes to GM them.

Step 6: First Reactions

Step 6 is to append a key paragraph describing how this culture reacts to strangers of different types and reputations. In other words, to the PCs. This has been left to the very end of the process because that’s when the new culture is clearest in your mind.

Step 7: GMs Primer Notes

Finally, step 7 is to take the highlighted sentences and write a one-paragraph introduction/summary of the society that you’ve created. This is your primer, designed to remind you of the ideas behind the society, so that when something comes up that you haven’t translated into the cultural idiom of that society, you will have the tools you need to do so.

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This article is also available online right now. And if you liked the tips in this article, Mike has just posted the second in the series.

Join Mike and I in the discussion. See you there! Further Thoughts On Exotic Creations.

An Adventurers Guide to Information Gathering

From Ripper X

With permission from: Advanced Gaming & Theory

Lots of people who are just starting out in the business of adventuring always ask me the same question. “Tal,” they say, “how do you find so many fabulous adventures?” Well, the answer is a simple one. Before dragons can be slain, princesses can be rescued, or ancient temples explored, before all of these things can begin you have to be open to gathering information.

Going into a tavern and sitting with your back against the wall is not gathering intelligence. If this were the case, then everybody would be an adventurer. Finding the adventure is actually half of the adventure. Forming a network of information is just as important to me as my broad sword. The difference between a successful adventurer and a loser is relying on more than just luck alone to find jobs.

Joining A Guild

Many cities have different guilds that do require membership dues and a percentage of the profits. These are helpful, but you are working for someone else. Adventurers are typically seen only as employees and grunts. They will be given orders they must fulfill to the letter and not be distracted by even bigger riches. The bonus, of course, is you don’t need to finance an expedition with your own coin.

Before you can try your luck at adventuring you must first possess the skills, which typically means you are already a part of a guild! Soldiers were trained by other soldiers, wizards learned from a master, thieves mastered their trade by other professionals. One must be careful never to burn any bridges, as even fellow students can help form this information network. If we want to be an adventurer then we must quit our previous employer who most likely taught us these skills – again, don’t burn the bridge.

Sadly, most adventurers will fail. Adventuring is a business just as coopering or shop-owning is, and there will be times that are slow and we’ll need to return to our previous employer for simple jobs so we can gather money to finance an expedition once it comes our way.

Well, this is how soldiering is. I am sure that simply leaving the dangerous profession of the thief is a different matter entirely. Quitting a thieving guild is the equivalent of committing suicide, and the same can be said about the priesthood. Thankfully, with both professions, one’s presence is not required all of the time, as long as we pay our dues on time.


A wise man once said that all is fair in love and war. Well, he left out adventuring. This is a cutthroat business that we are in, and typically, the biggest dog gets all of the glory. The greatest riches are not stumbled upon; we must find the information from several different sources. Your competitors are not stupid, and they typically don’t tell henchmen the entire story until they are ready to go out themselves, and even then they won’t tell them the whole story.

We could hire spies, and in some cases this is the best option, but under most circumstances it is both cheaper and smarter to just do your own gathering. Thankfully, henchmen aren’t hard to spot, but keep in mind that this includes your own.


People talk, and we want to hear the things they have to say. Thieves are the most skilled at listening in, I have even seen a friend of mine, whom shall remain nameless, gather great intelligence just by reading the lips of two people talking.

Of course, I have spied a bit myself. All you have to do is get close enough to two henchman talking. From there we can figure out what else we can use these people for.


If a henchman has something you want to know, then usually you can follow him into a dark corner and beat him until he tells you what you want to know. Thankfully, as long as we keep it civil and keep to using fisticuffs, then the city guards will leave us alone. After we get what we want to know from these gentlemen, we have to make a judgment call based on the chances of this guy telling your competitor that he talked. If we don’t want that happening, it is sometimes best to just tie up the loose end right then and there.

Pick Pocketing

I personally am no good at this, however I have a friend who comes in handy. Sometimes a henchman will have something we don’t want to risk destroying when we are beating them, like maps and letters. Many times it is just as easy to have a thief pick pocket a guard for a key than it is to fight the entire garrison. Never make light the power of subtlety. Naturally, you’ll want to be able to trust the thief in question, else it is all for not.


Bribery is a handy tool that can’t be underestimated. I always keep a coin-purse full for just this occasion. As a soldier myself, I know how hard it can be to make ends meet on a soldier’s wage. We don’t want to ask a fellow to risk to much, but a bribe can make all the difference in the world!

Bribes can keep people loyal for as long as the money lasts. It can also allow those we depend upon to work just that much harder, tipping an inn keeper a little something can make all the difference if somebody comes to the inn unannounced. It can also loosen the lips of barmaids, guards, and other professionals who disappear into the woodwork.

Doing Favors

A large part of any information network is forming alliances and friendships. If somebody requires your skills, a trade can be made for information. Keeping friendships is just as important as sharpening and oiling one’s weapons. Allies are more powerful than steel when it comes to adventuring. We all have our favorite shops and shopkeepers. Use them! If you take care of a shop, then the shop will take care of you.

Taking care of a shop can be a chore, but think of it as an investment. I recall a rather lengthy favor we did for Old Man Sedrik who supplies us with our foodstuff. His supplier had died and his son had taken over the business and doubled the cost. Investigating the reason, we discovered a band of pirates had taken advantage of the new businessman. Once this was resolved we were able to restore the trade route and get a better deal from the supplier, which made Old Man Sedrik really happy!

Being a Hero

Adventuring is a cutthroat business, and while we need to be cutthroat, we must be professional about it. We need to keep public opinion in our favor. If the public is against us, then they will only hinder our ability to gather work. If the public sees us as heroes then we have them in our pockets!

Sometimes we want to keep ourselves anonymous for as long as possible, especially if we are in the territory of a major competitor, but sometimes we can get more information if those around us know of our fame. A name means something. The most important ally in your quest for riches is making a name for yourself. The more your name is out there, the more it is synonymous with heroic deeds, righteousness and honor, the easier it is for you to gather information that you need to keep in business.

Take my main competitor, Felix the Horrible is what they call him, a title he has earned. He is a highly skilled adventurer, but he doesn’t care what people think of him. He is just as ruthless and underhanded as I am, but he lets it show too much. He has failed at appearing to be a hero, and I can gather more intelligence about a rumor than he can, because people just give it to me. Part of this is because of my friend Shamus, and as we all know, Shamus can smooth talk a troll. I daresay if it weren’t for the charisma of Shamus, I would share an unflattering title with Felix.

What is Good Information?

A successful adventurer needs to know what to look for. Maps are helpful, as is intercepting notes and letters to competitors and other people of interest. Rarely will we find the whole story from one person, but it is a clue as to what jobs are out there. We also must gather enough intelligence together so we can spot true information from what is untrue. When dealing with secrets, one finds many inconsistencies to the story, and if we follow these false leads, it will usually cost us money down the road.

Good intelligence makes our jobs easier. Take man-hunting jobs as an example. If we are looking for a specific person, we want to know as much as we can about him or her well before we actually apprehend them. We want to find out about how they protect themselves, who they know and depend upon, and any objects they might own that can make them more dangerous then what they would normally be. Where they are most vulnerable? Who hates them and who loves them? Get as much info as we can gather!

Gathering information is a skill, and if you can master this then you will be a formidable adventurer indeed.

DM Notes.

Information brokering can be difficult, but, like all things that are time consuming, it can be rewarding as well. We’ll divide up the information that you are willing to give up based on the skills of your adventuring party. There should be at least 3 opportunities per party member. People to help, pockets to pick, rooms to sneak into, villains to beat up, and allies to bribe.

Keep in mind that sometimes a member will fail in his mini- quest, so we shouldn’t have the map in an NPC’s pocket be a necessary part of the adventure. The map should be helpful, and not the adventure itself. Perhaps it is a quick map of a secret entrance to where they want to go? Information found should be extremely helpful to the party, but not always necessary to complete the quest. If the object is a key, there has to be another way to get around not having one.

Often, a Charisma check dictates if an NPC talks or not, especially 0 level NPCs. There is a reaction chart in the DMG which was designed for just this thing. The rules governing the reaction chart are simple. We can only make 1 check per day, thus if a player fails his reaction check, then that NPC will not talk to them that day for whatever reason – usually he is scared or doesn’t trust the PC.

A random chart of information can be made by you during your prep. As an example I’ll use one that came from a fabulous adventure, Night of the Walking Dead. This featured a murder mystery, and the following table was supplied to tell us what an NPC knew or said to the PCs depending upon a d20 roll.

  1. In the past three weeks, the villagers know of nine “sudden” deaths that have occurred. (True. This is Marcel’s work.)
  2. Of the nine who died suddenly, seven were buried in sealed coffins, and two escaped into the night as zombies. (True.)
  3. Six villagers are missing. (True. This is Jean’s doing.)
  4. Red licorice pieces were found along with articles belonging to four of the missing people. (True. This is Jean’s work.)
  5. Lady Grissim, one of the missing, was seen walking in the cemetery. (False.)
  6. Besides licorice, there is always lots of blood at the scene of a murder or disappearance. (True.)
  7. Three weeks ago, Hogarth the field worker fell dead, quickly decayed, and rose as a zombie. (True.)
  8. Just over three weeks ago, Marcel Tarascon died. Some say he was killed by the undead, too. (True.)
  9. If Marcel was given a funeral, none of the villagers attended. (True.)
  10. Jean Tarascon has taken full control of the family business. (True.)
  11. Cultists loyal to the Lord of the Dead are operating in the village. (False.)
  12. The old cemetery is haunted by wraiths. (False.)
  13. The constable’s son was the second to die, simply falling to the ground inexplicably. (True.)
  14. The Vistani told Old Fiora that the night of the dead was fast approaching. (True. The night is night.)
  15. Shaman Brucian worships the Lord of the Dead. (False.)
  16. The night Marcel died, villagers saw Jean carry him to the church. (True.)
  17. Shaman Brucian has gone into the swamp frequently since Marcel died. (True.)
  18. A vampire has been stalking the village streets. (False.)
  19. Many people are missing. (True.)
  20. The Old Cemetery was sealed long ago, and no one has entered it in decades. (True, until Luc and Marcel found the secret entrance.)

This is a very simple tool, but it can be an effective way to giving good information out quickly.

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

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

Use the Written Word to Spice Up Campaigns

From Stephen Hilderbrand

It’s nice to take a break every now and again and reflect upon running role playing games in a way that adds drama and excitement to the experience.

The written word doesn’t tend to take place so much in fantasy worlds, partly due to the historical precedent of illiteracy in Medieval European societies. However, most player characters end up interacting with the upper classes and power mongers of the societies they roll in, so at some point, they will likely encounter the written word.

This can provide a fun game element, especially if many of the characters do not read the official written language. Present your characters with a riddle, cryptogram or a set of hieroglyphs and watch the players try to solve the puzzle. This will likely lead to various competing interpretations, which, if your players are role playing, will play out in their interactions. A cleric may consider it a message from a god and consider it his word and thus up to him to interpret. A rogue may see it as a coded message leading to a treasure. A fighter might see it as a document of surrender. An elf might find it primitive dribble. Hopefully your players will find a more nuanced position, assuming you present the right symbols.

For sources, check out books in the library or have a look online in old books for something that seems right. Or, make one up yourself. It’s easy to sit down and write something up. For instance, in a recent session, I presented my characters with a sheet that was nailed to the door of an abandoned keep. What was written wasn’t as important as the fact it was written in three languages. So, I made up some characters and used them in ways that looked like a fancy, almost magical script, a character-based language, and a hieroglyphics-inspired pictorial representation.

In addition, consider using writs of passage and official documents that travel the land, as well as secret messages sent out during the night. These present opportunities for characters to be sent on missions as couriers, and end up starting or preventing a war upon delivery, involving them directly in the overarching story of the campaign and thus have the players feel agency in the game itself.

These scenarios also allow the party to discuss the ethics of opening mail before it arrives at its intended destination. Some might find this despicable, others might consider it the only way to ensure the right things are done. Still others might be dastardly rogues who just want to meddle in other people’s affairs. All of these are welcome (nay, encouraged) in fantasy role playing games!

This drama is harder to sustain and play out with the common use of message, sending, and other spells. Limit the use of these spells in your campaign if you want the written word to have any use. I recommend it; in my opinion, convenience kills role playing. It is urgency that propels storylines, not convenience.

The same is true for the use of multiple spoken languages. Ways to spice up your game are to have NPCs who do not speak so-called “common,” speak a different common than the PCs, or have strange accents and broken use of the language.

Imagine a Frenchman or German speaking English. Even when they do speak it well, there are regular pronunciation artifacts that tag someone as having a French or German accent. This can be a great way of linking an NPC to a specific region. No blunt, cumbersome in-game “Where are you from?” “I hail from the Kingdom of Blah” dialogue is needed.

Why would this person who doesn’t know you tell you where he’s from, or even more fundamentally, why would this NPC parley with the party in the first place? But if the characters overhear him gloating about killing a giant, they learn much about where he’s from and what’s been doing.

Of course, spells like tongues can completely negate the use of different languages in your game. This is why it might make sense to remove these spells entirely from the game, or have them only be able to be learned after a considerable amount of work or a quest.

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Prop: Give Your Wizard a Wand

From Darryl Hodgson

One of my player plays a warlock and uses a pen or the chopsticks from a Chinese takeout restaurant to do his in-game “cursing of the foe”. I thought for Christmas I’d surprise him with two sets of “realistic wands”. I ordered a bunch from an online place (shipping runs around $7-10) and gave them as gifts to all the players. These are a bit short but look wonderful, and he loves having them for roleplaying.

Prices range from under a dollar to over ten. Many of my choices were under four dollars in the Decorative & Carved Wooden choices, but I saved nicely in the Under a Dollar section and found cool designs in all the areas.

Purchased from Mrs. Lin’s Kitchen.

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Save Web Pages in OneNote

From Chris

I use OneNote to keep 4th Edition Rules I copy and paste from the official D&D website as a subscriber. I do this by saving the page to my hard drive and importing into OneNote.

I also game from my Blackberry Storm nowadays. Documents to Go reads and makes .doc/.xml/.pdf and PowerPoint files with ease. I use Dragon and Dungeon Magazine adventures a lot on my phone by downloading the .pdf files. You can print files into Word format if you want with OneNote, but I have Adobe Acrobat Pro 8.

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Online Tutorial: Sculpting Miniatures with Polymer Clay

A great recipe for crafting your own monster minis: Sculpting Miniatures for D&D with Polymer Clay.