How to Add Atmosphere (Without LARPing or Bank Loans)?

From Danny East

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0409

A Brief Word From Hannah

Worldwide Adventure Writing Month

Better late than never, a shoutout to WoAdWriMo. What is it? A challenge to write a complete adventure – for any system, or none – in the month of July. Even though the month’s halfway gone, it’s not too late to start, as the “deadline” for the challenge is just as flexible as everything else about it.

The first year produced seven finished adventures, and this year looks on track to end up with considerably more. If the rest of your July is looking busy, then maybe it’s not too early to start planning your WoAdWriMo adventure for next year.

I’m working on a one-shot adventure for tri-stat dX tentatively titled ZOMG! (Zombies, Oh My God!) There’s quite a few other interesting adventures being talked about on the forum, and I hope to see at least some of you there with adventure ideas of your own. If not this summer, then next.
[email protected]

How to Add Atmosphere (Without LARPing or Bank Loans)?

Remember in “The Never-Ending Story” when the store owner Mr. Koreander asked young Bastion, “Listen. Have you ever been Captain Nemo, trapped inside your submarine while the giant squid is attacking you?” and then “Weren’t you afraid you couldn’t escape?” That’s the feeling we’re looking for in our table top games.

To actually fear for our character, or to feel the disappointment when a favored guild loses its power. The elation and pride felt when we discover a new planet, or when the orphanage is saved from a troupe of scurvy-ridden flaming zombie mimes.

Yes, these are all real emotions, felt by us for our creations. That’s why we enjoy the game. That’s also why we’re not writing Choose Your Own Adventure novels about our real lives:

“You enter the kitchen. There’s a cat sleeping on the counter, plastic dishes in the sink, and half a pack of crackers in the cabinet. It’s early in the morning and you don’t want to wake your family. Do you:

Nuke some instant coffee; turn to page 28.

Risk making a little noise and percolate some decent brew; turn to page 46.

Pet the kitty and go to work without caffeine; turn to page 72.”

Pretty boring, isn’t it? Now, what if the purpose of the story was to put insomniacs to sleep? If that were the case, this little tale would fulfill its function.

Unless, of course, you were reading it by starlight while scouting out an orc camp, trying to ignore the mesmerizing sounds of your faithful wizard attempting to memorize a few fire spells. Kind of throws off the whole boring thing. Some worlds shouldn’t meet.

That is why we should do what we can to minimize THIS world when we’re in THAT world: dress codes, no television, no Pac-Man, no fire-breathing jugglers on unicycles.

But aside from removing our world from the gaming world, how can we bring the gaming world into this one? Here are a few simple tricks to keep things real. Or not real, actually.


Seriously, who doesn’t love store brand Mountain Stream Soda, buffalo wings, and pizza? Elvish bards, that’s who!

Instead of getting takeout, make your own gaming foods. Use a few ingredients and utensils. Let the eating part of game night add to the atmosphere instead of becoming a distraction.

Remember tenth grade health class? Wholesome, healthy fare will keep you going longer and stronger than the convenient packages of salty oil normally brought to the table. So make your own.

Jazz it up with some fancy names and make it during the first part of every session when everyone’s just getting in the mood and catching up on girlfriends and families and cars and jobs.


Dice? What the crap? That’s a tool for the game. It’s necessary. What do you want me to do, make my own? Nope. But it would be nice to make them a little more interesting.

Try having each player bring their own set of dice that is obviously different from those of everyone else that is playing. Red, White, Blue, Yellow, Speckled, Clear, and Green are all obvious differences. If you do enough looking you’ll be able to find a plethora of options that all meet the same criteria. Start with this, and include black or some other neutral color dice for the DM.

For a fantasy game, put a wooden bowl in the center of the table and have everyone roll into that. With the different dice, it’ll be quickly obvious who rolled what and it’ll help bring a sense of community and trust to every combat or skill check.

Running a post-apocalyptic military campaign? Visit the local Army-Navy store and look for an empty tin, helmet or explosive shell. Speaking of shells, try a small conch shell for a naval adventure. Is everyone in the campaign a high school lunch lady? A 2 quart sauce pan is perfect.

The options here are boundless. You will have much more game cohesion when the centerpiece of the table exemplifies the mood of the campaign.


Lately there has been a lot of discussion about what music to play during what times for each NPC, PC, town, or Blade of Grass +2. Unless you’ve got a level 12 Bard spinning out classics of Middle Earth, then the job of the DM will become the job of the DJ. You’ll lose whatever campaign atmosphere you were vying for when everyone wants to check out your MP3 player and trade the latest hits.

Try this: pick and stick to a genre. Classic rock is good for modern zombie adventures, heavy classical (Ghustav Holst) for a fantasy game, or techno for a space campaign. Put the CD or playlist on repeat, and leave it in an adjacent room! Do not allow that thing at the table. It’s a distraction. That is, unless you’re all playing college students in 2010.

To further improve the quality of these background sounds, and to keep them in the background, look for either pieces without lyrics or lyrics in a foreign language. Keep it louder than traffic or crickets, but it’s too loud if you have to raise your voice above softly speaking.

Maps and Scrolls

There are a few schools of thought on how detailed a map should be, and whether or not computer generated is acceptable or is the norm, or if maps are even necessary. If maps are used, however, it’s appropriate to jazz them up a little. Follow these steps:

Print your map.

Mash it up into a ball. Un-mash. Keep repeating this step until the paper is too soft to be folded.

Lay out flat, and soak in the remaining coffee you made in the morning. If you turned to pages 28 or 72, go back and try again.

While still wet, slowly and carefully tear the edges of the paper off. It should have no square edges when finished with this step.

If appropriate, use this time to rub the paper with your thumb or a sponge in certain spots to hide rooms. This makes for a very exciting map when your players can’t see a few rooms, or if a name in a scroll is missing.

Dry. If you have a glass top stove, put one of the burners on the lowest setting and just lay the paper across. If not, you can try placing it over a toaster on the lowest setting, or even inside an oven. No microwaving or ironing. No matter what you do, remember to be very wary of safety.

Roll. When it’s dry but still damp you can roll the paper into a scroll, tying off with a bit of hemp or stained string. It may be difficult to get that shape right, so try using a candle or fat marker to roll in.

Completely dry, and then add the finishing touches of sealing wax, magic glitter, bloody fingerprints, or chocolate sprinkles.

The first time you try this, it might take you ten or fifteen minutes of actual work, not including the soaking or drying time. It gets easier each time you do it, and eventually your players will come to expect them and be disappointed when they are not received.

This can make for a great plot device. Just leave it out on plain sight and watch your players try their hardest to advance the plot to the point where they can see what’s in that scroll!

Players: Perfect Your Miniature

How can something so small become such a large part of the game? If used well, miniatures draw us further into the story and give a sense of legitimacy to the plot. If done poorly, it stands as a reminder that they are just little dolls on the table that we have to keep away from small children and dogs.

If, for instance, you are playing a space pirate mechanic with cyborg eyes and +1 wrench, and your miniature is of a space pirate mechanic with cyborg eyes and a +1 wrench, then that’s fantastic.

If, however, your miniature is of a space pirate mechanic with cyborg eyes and a +1 umbrella, then it’s it going to feel out of place on the table. You wouldn’t show your friends a picture of a girl who looks mostly like your girlfriend.

There are two ways to properly handle miniatures in a game. One way is to overdo it; the other, the opposite.

A good way to get using miniatures is to dedicate yourself to one. Not only do they do their job in the game, but a good quality miniature looks really nice on a bookshelf, too.

Dedicate yourself to a campaign, and go shopping for a miniature that you like a lot and will fit the mode of the campaign. Design your character (with GM’s approval) after your miniature. When your character dies or retires, set up a place of honor on the mantle, dashboard, or fish tank.

The opposite of the perfect miniature also works. Try using Lego men or chess pieces for your miniatures. They are vague enough for the imagination to fill in the blanks, and they are of an appropriate size and shape to perform their function of providing a visual aid for where things are and who’s doing what.

If you are a GM, consider giving XP to players who have appropriate miniatures. You should also consider buying a blister pack of goblins or elves or robots to supplement enemies on the board, or try using the chess pieces as enemies.

If you’re a GM using miniatures, try jazzing it up a bit by making a visit to your local internet or hobby/toy shop to see if you can find any cheap model railroad scenery.

A few fake little trees or rocks will add even further depth to the atmosphere, and engage the players’ attention enough to crank out some great stories. Also check out the bargain bin at the pet store for aquarium scenery.

Quick Tips

Drink from campaign appropriate vessels. Fancy goblets, wooden cups, army metal tins, skulls, and coconut shells all look better at the table than a can of Mountain Stream.

If appropriate to the campaign, a set of walkie-talkies will have a fabulous impact on the role play and interaction between players.

If you’re running a military or other sort of organized Men In Black type of campaign, consider buying and using matching government-style notepads and pens for the players. This will only cost a few dollars, and look a lot better than Jenn’s unicorn Trapper Keeper.

The DM screen should be your very own work of art. Keep all the valid and useful information on the inside, but decorate the outside appropriately.

Techno campaign? Glue a bunch of old computer hardware to the outside. For fantasy campaigns, try making a pseudo diorama backdrop with pebbles or hay on the bottom and cotton ball clouds.

Sure, it might seem corny; but imagine how it will look at one in the morning from the other side of the table together with miniatures. Awesome, that’s how it will look. Awesome.

Johnn Recommends GM Aid: 1″ Square Easel Pads

Do you use minis? My groups have been playing with 1″ square giant graph pads for years, and they make exploration, dungeon crawling, and minis-based gaming fun and easy.

The graph paper we use has 1″ squares – a perfect size for miniatures. The paper is also 27″ x 34″. Big enough to map out large sections of dungeons or big encounter areas.

Some tips we’ve gleaned from using these:

  • Draw maps in crayon. Colour adds a lot to the look and feel, and can also communicate more if needed (i.e. grey = stone, blue = water).
  • Let creative players have at it. Let them doodle, colour in, make notes, and so on. Let your giant maps become living session journals!
  • Draw your maps ahead of time to save time. Feel free to cut your maps up, and lay portions down as the PCs explore. The 1″ squares mean you end up with pieces big enough to handle and organize without tiny bits of paper everywhere.
  • Get a tube. Old Christmas wrapping paper tubes work well. You’ll want to keep some maps for future campaign reference or as keepsakes, and tubes make great containers.
  • Label maps clearly. Write the map name, location, or section in a corner or on the back of the paper, plus any other info that’ll let you find the map you’re looking for quickly.

Here’s some product / manufacturer info:

3M Post-It Self-Stick 2 Pack

Self-Stick Easel Pads with 1″ Grid Style

Avery Conference Room Easel Pads

Ampad Evidence Flip Chart Pads

Quad ruled 1″ square perforated easel pads

What’s Your Favorite RPG? My Life with Master

From Markus Günther

I have a favourite game that I think too few people know about. It’s “My Life With Master” published by Half Meme Press.

It’s a game about a Master / Mistress (played by the GM), who rules over a village or a rural area in 18th century Europe – not by nobility or wealth, but by fear. To keep his reign up, he uses his minions: partly human creatures who fear the Master just as much as the villagers do, bound to do whatever he tells them to.

As these commands will mostly be cruel in nature, fulfilling them will make the Minions drift further and further away from their ultimate goal: becoming (or at least feeling) truly human. To reach this, they need to build relationships with the villagers – most of whom either fear or despise them

So, you see, this seems like a very limited setting. I’ve heard MLWM being referred to as a “single purpose RPG.” But as much as this fits, I have never seen another game delivering as diverse characters, stories and most of all, no other game has given me such reliable drama.

I’ve used this game as a “no prep needed” game on Cons for about two years now, and every time I play it, it feels all new again, and I guess this is mainly because of one reason.

You probably know the phrase, “form follows function.”

Well, with most RPGs it seems to be the other way round: hundreds of pages detailing intricate conflict resolution rules that might be able to simulate a wide variety of things (more or less at the expense of the game’s flow) and colorful, interesting to read, yet often hardly playable setting.

Rarely you will find a game, where a certain theme is so persistently laid out, that the look and feel of a rulebook can really be translated into a gaming experience.

MLWM on the other hand starts at the very heart of the matter: conflict and drama. The whole setting puts the characters in the middle of a conflict, which they will eventually bring to an end.

Not delivering specific information about the setting, but practical guidelines on creating a master, a village, a mansion and outsiders on your own and as you like. The rules are not intended to simulate everything, but only the psychological mechanisms behind this very conflict.

There are two stats describing the setting – “Fear” as the Master’s power, and “Reason” as its counterpart – three stats for each character – suitably named “Weariness”, “Self-Loathing” and “Love” (which is the measure of (self-) respect the character has accumulated and may use against the Master) – and two non-numerical characteristics – “more than human” and “less than human” – which describe situations of automatic success and failure for the characters.

Of course, that’s not all there is to this game – but I’m sure it’s enough to show that MLWM is truly a game like no other.

And so far, I yet have to find the person who didn’t love it instantly. With all its drama, dark mood, and twisted psychology, it delivers what everybody hopes for, when they gather around a table: an incredible lot of fun.

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

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

Painting Without Primer?

From Darren Blair

I remember reading a few different guides on how to paint gaming miniatures, and noted that each guide started the same way: use a coat of primer on your minis.

After many of my early attempts at painting minis flopped, I wanted to see if following the instructions in regards to the primer might make a difference. Instead, after noting how much a can of gaming mini primer cost, I decided that there had to be a better way.

By sheer luck, I managed to find it.

I’d previously hit upon an interesting technique for painting my minis. If I made my first coat of paint a layer of Testors acrylic, the color of the paint would have an affect on the overall paint scheme.

Specifically, a layer of black acrylic would make the mini look dark, as if shadowed, grimy, or infernal. Conversely, a layer of white acrylic would make the mini look light, as if it glowing in the sunlight, clean, or holy.

Likewise, I’d hit upon using clear-coat to protect the layers of paint on my Micro Machine collection. Some of my vehicles had fragile paint schemes, and the years of play wear had taken its toll on the paint.

As clear-coat is little more than a specialized urethane, I snagged a bottle from the arts & crafts section of my local Wal-Mart to see if it would to do the job; it did.

Given how effective it was on my Micro Machines, I decided to use the clear-coat on my minis. I grabbed a few assorted minis (a couple of Battletech minis produced by Iron Wind Metals) and tested it out. I slapped on my initial layer of black acrylic and left the room so that the paint could dry.

When I returned about an hour later, I made a surprise discovery. As it turned out, the metal used for those minis was so porous that the layer of black acrylic had actually dyed the metal black.

I scanned every square micrometer of those minis, and discovered that not one molded line or detail had been lost; the metal had just absorbed all the paint and that was it. Still wishing to continue the experiment, I went ahead, finished my paint job, and then applied the clear coat.

End result?

My accidental dying of the metal fulfilled part of the same basic effect of primer: it gave the subsequent layers of paint something to adhere to. The clear-coat fulfilled the other half, by helping the paint resist chipping and cracking due to exposure and getting knocked around.

The fact that I used a clear coat with a gloss quality also left me with another surprise benefit: it made the minis look like machines that had just been polished.

Iron Wind Metals isn’t the only company whose minis this technique has worked on; I’ve had the exact same results with miniatures made by Reaper Minis.

Additionally, clear coat is cheaper than gaming miniature primer, meaning you’ve got some extra money in your pocket for later. Just make sure to read all of the directions and warning labels and you’ll be good to go.

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Prop Idea: Tavern Food = Real Food

From Sage Nagai

Don’t forget the classic setup where the RPG starts in a tavern where there’s particular food, and you’ve got similar snacks set out for the players. That’s always nice.

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20 Combat Complications

From Fred Ramsey

  1. As a group of monsters is defeated, a new, more powerful enemy shows up
  2. Common enemy appears
  3. Foe produces powerful magic item and uses it (should probably be charged, like a wand)
  4. Foe dies mysteriously (poison, ages rapidly, etc.) in a way not caused by the party
  5. Foe is revealed to be someone else in disguise
  6. Foe was just a distraction to allow another enemy to accomplish something
  7. Foe turns coward, runs or surrenders
  8. Foe is revealed to be acting under duress (family kidnapped, enslaved, charmed, etc.)
  9. Environment rapidly changes – fire, lava, water, etc.
  10. Party member (or enemy) becomes charmed, enraged, other otherwise controlled
  11. Foe flees, leading party into trap
  12. Foe gets second wind – healing, etc.
  13. Foe was an illusion
  14. Party is double-crossed, abandoned, or sold out by patron
  15. Foe reads minds, is prepared for any plan
  16. Foe exhibits ability to fly, swim, climb, etc. to escape
  17. Foe is unexpectedly a spell caster
  18. Foe is brought back as undead
  19. Foe (or party) drastically changes size
  20. Reinforcements show up

These can be used to spice up a combat situation and many can lead to new plots or adventures.